Damon Wood

Pete’s Lost Art

April 6th, 2009

A long time ago, as a junior in high school and in an enhanced state, I saw The Who’s documentary The Kids Are Alright. It was a midnight showing on a big screen, with good sound and a rowdy crowd, and this segment of the movie changed my life:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TezCPqu55lU

It’s tough to recapture the feeling in the little, squished YouTube transmission of this clip. But that night, Pete Townshend’s “performance” on this song, Young Man Blues (filmed at the colossal London Coliseum in 1969), seared a blueprint of How To Do It into my impressionable skull, ignited by the fluid, dignified chaos of the rest of his band at their peak. You can see it in the un-flashy, get-down-to-business approach they bring it with.

By most modern standards there isn’t much going on here; and even as a high-school guitar nerd I found myself defending Pete to other burgeoning shredders, who’d either settled on Tommy or Jimi or Jimmy, or moved on to Eddie, Yngwie, or whoever was wheedling the wheedliest at the time. (Nothing against any of those guys, of course.) Even then, punk was already punker, rock was rockier, and metal was way more metallic than anything their ancestral figure ever did. Way.

But this clip puts Pete’s uniquely giant stamp of rock godliness out there to see and hear. It exemplifies Pete’s awesomeness in a few ways.

  1. I use the term “performance” loosely because his, and the band’s, posture and attitude through this piece is that of an entity in full-actualization mode. There’s nothing contrived or ironic about it; no ego, no bullshit. Just a handful of English dudes who’ve channeled Noise As Music (and vice versa) earlier than most, presenting the idea of this kind of powerful craziness in its raw and un-marketed form — sans laser-lights, sans over-indulgent attitude; Pete’s wearing a friggin’ jumpsuit. The proof is all in the playing of the music.
  2. Pete’s tone on this cut is, in my mind, just about the gnarliest, scariest guitar sound that I’ve ever heard. It’s dry and crackly, but saturated; like booze and smoke (mostly smoke). I’ve had lots of time to figure out how to ape most classic sounds; given a few basic tools and some technique, you can sound like just about anyone you want. But I have never been able to get the sound that Pete gets out of that SG + Hiwatt (or Sound City) combo. The sad truth is, probably, it’s all based on sheer, unadulterated volume. It sounds like those tubes are being pushed to the point of frying completely. But the sound’s not pooping out or anything… there’s only crisp, razor-sharp edginess.
  3. Pete’s approach purely as a player is well-represented here, especially his unique ability to blur the line between rhythm guitar and soloing. He’d probably be the first to admit he’s miles behind in the notes-per-second rating. But he seamlessly bounces back and forth from power-chord rhythm playing, to single-note rhythm playing, to single-note and power-chord soloing. He’s all over the place, but the dynamics are spot-on, his melodic and rhythmic sensibilities are highly developed, and his sense of drama translates through that SG with an expressiveness that transcends run-of-the-mill technique. It’s gut-wrenching, and punk as all hell, and still musically cool.

I’m pretty out of it these days, but is there anything that compares to this kind of power-trio+, featuring a guitarist who can cover so much ground using such a small selection of tools?

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