Theater of Destruction:

Chaos, Rage, Frustration and Anarchy in the Rebellious Music and Ferocious Performances of The Early Who

by Dan Dinello

Following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Chicago endured the most deadly and destructive riots in the country. Several days of turmoil left huge areas of the West side in flames, eleven people killed, more than two thousand arrested, and forty-eight wounded by police gunfire. The rubble still smoldered when The Who took the stage on August 1 at the Electric Theater, a smallish club in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. With the specter of urban revolt and angry activists in town for the upcoming Democratic Convention, a charged political atmosphere and rabid anticipation greeted the band whose incendiary live shows approached legendary status. They did not disappoint.


On a hot summer night, The Who assaulted the audience with such fury and volume that spectators reeled back in pain. From the start, they held nothing back as if this were their last show ever. It felt like an earthquake hit with their first song “I Can’t Explain.” Guitarist Pete Townshend kept twisting the knob on his giant amplifier. Then he held the guitar over his head and rammed it once into the amp, getting weird dissonant noises by wrenching it around before pulling it out.         

Visually, The Who looked like a collective of maniacs. Their movements were tight, jerky, and erratic. Drummer Keith Moon rocked in his seat, distended his arms and leered with mouth agape as if he wanted to eat his drums whole. Singer Roger Daltrey stomped around in circles like an imprisoned convict, swinging his microphone like he wanted to hit someone hard. Bassist John Entwistle stood rock still but looked annoyed and mean. Townshend acted like he was fighting. With his “windmill” chord strumming like the propeller of a crashed helicopter, he could be swinging a machete. He leapt and slid on his knees, a strange combination of ecstasy and anger. He banged his guitar against his head, hating and hurting himself, then laughing. At times, he strummed staccato hard and aimed his guitar at the audience, mowing us down with an aural machine gun. The Who set our souls on fire.

Traumatic, exultant, melodramatic and theatrical, the show was raw emotion set to music. Our pent-up feelings of frustration, anger, insecurity and defiance were electrified and transmitted through their amplifiers. Contagiously exciting like a political rally and spiritually communal like a religious ritual, the performance culminated with their anti-old-age anthem “My Generation.” Explosive drum assaults punctuated the song along with screaming feedback and ear-splitting noise. Townshend erupted in a chaotic rage: crashing, smashing and shattering his guitar. With amps smoking and the crowd in shock, they casually walked off the debris-strewn stage. They were vicious, cathartic, hilarious, and unforgettable.

The most stunning and outrageous live act to hit America, The Who aligned with the self-destructive, even nihilistic political violence of the era. They mindlessly destroyed their own expensive equipment. It made no sense, yet it was perfect. Uniting a youth community, The Who were restless, sneering anarchists aiming their dangerous raunchy rock against all that was safe and conventional and causing damage in retaliation for the status quo.


Focusing on the pre-Tommy era of the band (1965-1968), The Who’s music and its auto-destructive performance style reflected the counterculture’s revolutionary fervor and flirtation with violence, while subverting hippie sentimentality and pacifism. The antithesis of peace and love, The Who -- until Tommy -- were never weighed down by a sappy sense of self-importance. They weren’t earnest and didn’t proselytize; rather, they were sharp, sarcastic and cynical.

Further, The Who symbolized the ambiguous relationship between rock and revolution in the 1960s. They weren’t overtly political, but Pete Townsend’s guitar destruction was influenced by the political aesthetic of Austrian artist Gustav Metzger whose auto-destructive art was envisioned as an attack on capitalist values.

Finally, The Who’s brutal performance style exemplified the theatrical aesthetic of surrealist Antonin Artaud. Called “Theater of Cruelty,” Artaud’s vision emphasized spectacle, violence and extreme action.

Cause Chaos, Damn the Consequences

As The Who crashed and smashed across 1968 America in their first headlining tour, madness surged through the country and the world as if in bizarre synchronicity. The agonizing assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam War turned the summer of love into an apocalyptic firestorm: urban riots erupted in more than 100 cities, often leading to occupation by the National Guard; 70,000 peace activists marched in Washington and tried to levitate the Pentagon; students took over Columbia University buildings; an alliance of youth and labor almost toppled the French government; Mexican police massacred hundreds of students; Soviet tanks crushed the Prague spring; U.S. soldiers brutally murdered over 500 women, children and elderly men at My Lai; and, as air strikes increased and ground troops approached half a million in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese and NLF Tet offensive shook America’s faith in its government.

Anti-Vietnam War protests occurred almost daily, with most turning into chaotic street fights that featured trashed windows, barricaded streets, tear gas explosions and confrontations with club wielding cops. Demonstrations became theatrically destructive.  Protest and property damage went hand in hand. Counterculture values fused with radical politics: “The only thing worth doing was to make up your own civilization! Property was the enemy,” wrote sociologist Todd Gitlin, “Burn it, destroy it, give it away. Don’t let them make a machine out of you, get out of the system, do your thing.” [Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, 228]

The War corrupted everything. Armed to the teeth with cluster bombs, napalm, defoliating chemicals, flame-throwers and machine guns, a technological empire slaughtered a relatively defenseless population of a different race. Estimates of the Vietnamese death toll approached one million. The white race is the cancer of human history,” said social critic Susan Sontag. “It is the white race and it alone -- its ideologies and inventions -- which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” [Susan Sontag, “What’s Happening to America?  The problem wasn’t just a wrong-headed policy, but an infected social system -- something evil in the heart of America. While many still insisted on non-violent reforms, others envisioned a bloody fight.

Like feedback from Townshend’s guitar, revolutionary potential crackled through radical activists, prompted by the Black Power and peace movements as well as the worldwide youthquake. Swept up in the fervor that gripped war-hating youth, we exalted in our strength when it seemed that student power forced U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to retire. In the rush of events, profound tensions were obscured between creating a coherent political strategy and causing chaos. Fueled by crowd contagion, the myth of collective transcendence and the mystique of the street, we felt liberated, intoxicated and righteous.

That anger, aggressiveness, alienation and fighting spirit was reflected in The Who’s performances. They provided the live distorted soundtrack to Armageddon while the Holy Trinity of Rock floated above the battle, staying hidden in the studio. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan did not tour in 1968. But all released new music. Vacating his post as angry voice of a generation, Dylan released an album John Wesley Harding that didn’t directly comment on the social ferment, but offered quiet, mysterious, sparse and foreboding morality tales. Though they’d been instrumental in encouraging youthful idealism and inspiring a counter-culture, both The Beatles with “Revolution” and The Stones with “Street Fighting Man” responded to youth revolt with ambiguity.

The Stones reveled in the “sound of marching, charging feet” and the images of “fighting in the street” and “palace revolution.” But, they more subtly sang of “compromise solution” with a chorus that pulled them away from the fray: “What can a poor boy do, ‘cept to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band? Cos this sleepy London town just ain’t no place for a Street Fighting Man.”

The Beatles -- while generally beyond criticism for the liberating joy and sheer happiness that they brought -- made fans uncomfortable with a song critical of the Movement. In the Beatles 1968 song “Revolution,” John Lennon sang, “You say you got a real solution, we’d all love to see the plan.” It’s what establishment critics always demanded. Asking for a plan was reasonable but naïve. This was a youth movement with no serious intention of ruling. “The only affirmative position was negation,” wrote Todd Gitlin. “To put it mildly, this was not the mood to generate ideas about a reconstruction of politics. The best that could be claimed for it was the purity of a scourging -- the aesthetic of apocalypse, not a political vision.” The feverish climate called for incendiary behavior. This is what The Who’s performances seemed to advocate.

In the single version of “Revolution,” John Lennon sang, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.” But when a different version of the song appeared on the White Album, the lyrics had been changed slightly but significantly. After singing, “count me out,” he added, “in.” Lennon’s ambivalence towards violence and The Who’s acting out of violent revolt echoed an endless philosophical debate among leftist activists. Social psychologist Kenneth Keniston wrote in 1967 “the issue of violence is to this generation what the issue of sex was to the Victorian world.”

Even before the death of Martin Luther King, Black Power groups had engaged in the rhetoric of violence. In 1967, H. Rap Brown famously said at a press conference, “Violence is necessary. Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. Americans taught the black people to be violent. We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary. We will be free, by any means necessary.”

The philosophy of violence that radicals found most appealing came from abroad: a prescription for guerrilla warfare enunciated by Afro-French philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon.  Described by The New York Review of Books in 1966 as the “Black Rousseau,” Fanon stridently urged violent revolution as a necessary and justified response to colonization. His most influential work, The Wretched of the Earth (which sold 750,00 copies between 1965 and 1970), helped inspire the strategy of guerrilla warfare that was successful in Algeria’s fight for independence -- methods also employed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba, the NLF in Viet Nam, the IRA in Ireland, South African militants and later Iraqi insurgents.

“Violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude,” wrote Fanon. “It emboldens them and restores their self-confidence. Decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists.” [Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 51]



Black separatists drew heavily on Fanon comparing the situation of police-occupied African-American ghettos with the position of colonized people in the Third World. The Black Panther Party held Fanon in equally high esteem. After Panther leader Huey Newton read Wretched of the Earth, he started speaking of black people as an occupied colony in imperialist America whose only option out of their plight was revolutionary violence. Despite their small numbers, the Black Panthers styled themselves as America’s NLF.

“Killing is a necessity,” agreed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre bluntly, “Eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other man free.” [John-Paul Sartre, “Preface” The Wretched of the Earth, lv]  Fanon argued that freedom is the highest good: it’s what makes us human. Therefore, he encouraged violence as a means to that desirable end when it is socially organized and ideologically directed to achieve the liberation of the colonized.

Philosophical controversy about whether the end ever justifies the means starts as far back as Plato’s Republic. Even Christian missionary St. Paul the Apostle argued that immoral behavior was acceptable as long as it spread Christianity. In opposition to St. Paul, Fanon and Sartre, philosopher Hannah Arendt countered their viewpoints in her 1969 essay “On Violence.” She argued that violent methods often overwhelm and corrupt the positive ends it seeks to achieve. “Since the end of human action can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future than the intended goals.” [Hannah Arendt, On Violence, 19]

Arendt reacted to the escalating violence in the United States during the late 1960s by criticizing advocates of violent revolution. Responding to Mao-inspired rhetoric that asserted, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” she said that violence and power are not the same things. While violence can destroy power, it is incapable of creating it. Power arose from the consent of groups and relied on huge numbers of supporters. Arendt agreed with the 1969 Report on Violence in America: “Force and violence are likely to be successful techniques of social control and persuasion when they have wide public support.”

Revolution in 1960s America did not have wide public support. Despite the hostility of most Americans to militant activists, the Movement’s momentum pointed toward revolution or at least acting as if it were not impossible. Reason was overruled by hate, anger and revolutionary contagion. We were the avenging angels that would destroy the evil empire “Amerika” and end the war, capitalism, sexual repression and bourgeois consciousness.  

All of this exploded at the Chicago Democratic Convention in August. An apparent coalition of counterculture activists -- peaceniks, rockers, hippies, Yippies and freaks -- confronted a vengeful police force that beat the crap out of us on national television as “the whole world watched.” A U.S. senator referred to the government’s “Gestapo Tactics” and an investigating commission called it a “police riot.” The Movement emerged from the battering even more committed to a revolution. The Right emerged with public support. “As unpopular as the war had become, the antiwar movement was detested still more -- the most hated political group in America, disliked even by most of the people who supported immediate withdrawal from Vietnam,” wrote Gitlin. “Were we on our way to The Revolution or to concentration camps? Was it Revolutionary Year Zero or Fascism’s Last Days?”

Clueless Who and the Intentional Fallacy

On the final night of the Chicago Convention, The Who -- with symbolically exquisite timing -- ended their tour of America with a performance in California: they bashed their equipment as Chicago police bashed protestors’ heads. The band’s breakthrough American success occurred when the civil rights movement had escalated into urban revolts, the Vietnam War was peaking with the U.S. Air Force dropping an historical tonnage of bombs, and the peace movement regularly engaged in enraged riots. During this violently confrontational time, a band whose performances featured on-stage mayhem might seem like a contradictory choice of musical entertainment. But it wasn’t. Just as the violent, anti-war, pro-civil rights horror film Night of the Living Dead found an audience in 1968, the explosive Who channeled and inspired their audience’s anti-authoritarian attitudes. Via their performance as artists, The Who lent moral support to the fight against the state.

Yet Who leader and smasher-in-chief Pete Townshend seemed oblivious to any connection between political violence and the band’s staged acts of destruction. During the 1968 tour, Townshend gave dozens of interviews and didn’t mention the political upheaval occurring all around him. He also doesn’t discuss the Vietnam War or the peace movement in his autobiography Who I Am. Never overtly political, The Who -- it might be argued -- had no intention of inciting or even supporting militant protest and couldn’t care less about the Movement.

Still, it’s shocking to discover how politically tone-deaf Townshend was in 1968. He recorded a public service announcement that urged radio listeners to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. After a few bars of their upbeat-sounding song “Happy Jack,” Townshend says, “Hi, this is Pete Townshend of The Who, I just want to say the United States Air Force is a great place to be.” Townshend’s nauseating and utterly clueless encouragement to “fly the skies, touch the moon and reach for the stars” reduced the Vietnam nightmare to a Peter Pan fairytale. It boggles the mind that Townshend reconciled his growing spiritual beliefs with inducing Americans to join an Air Force that was daily dropping bombs, defoliating chemicals and napalm on Vietnamese civilians.

For The Who’s constituency, the War was a major concern. The credibility of rock bands in the 1960s was based on a sense of shared intimacy and values between performers and audience. At the time, Townshend’s War-supporting commercial would have been seen as a disgusting betrayal. But The Who survived the Air Force radio spot because it wasn’t widely heard or even reported until years later when the war was long over and rock fans were politically apathetic.

Townshend’s most famous anti-political act occurred during The Who’s 1969 performance at the Woodstock festival. As The Who began a song, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman crashed the stage. He attempted to deliver a short speech, protesting the imprisonment of Detroit radical John Sinclair on drug charges. An angry Townshend shoved the activist off the stage “kicking his little ass in a proud rage” and later declaring: “I feel the stage is a sacred platform. If you’re taking responsibility for it, you have to be sure it’s used for the right purpose.” [Pete Townshend, Who I Am, 80-81] So, it seems that Townshend thought that the right purpose of the stage did not involve political protest.

As radical activist music fans entertained thoughts of revolution, rock musicians were expected to give lip service to radical politics. But, Townshend went out of his way to humiliate Hoffman, a well-known politico. This collision of counterculture superstars was seen as highly symbolic. It suggested that a coalition among hippies, rock stars and revolutionaries had collapsed or never even existed.

When Townshend addressed political change in 1971, he took a conservative position. In one of The Who’s greatest songs “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Daltrey sang, “There’ll be fighting in the street . . . and the morals that we worshipped, will be gone; I’ll tip my hat to the new revolution . . . Then I’ll get on my knees and pray, ‘We don’t get fooled again.’” In the song, it sounds like The Who are advocating revolution. But, in fact, it’s a refutation of revolution: “The world looks just the same, history ain’t changed.” The song’s written from the point of view of a family man who wants to hide from it all.

The song was even quoted, by mistake, as a rationalization for war. In a 2002 speech explaining his disastrous plan to invade Iraq, President George Bush -- referring to the phantom “weapons of mass destruction” supposedly hidden by Iraq President Saddam Hussein -- said: "There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says, fool me once, shame on you -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

Pete Townshend never intended for his song to be quoted in a justification for war just as it’s unlikely that he intended for his band’s music and performance to inspire militant protest. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what he intended. As music critic Greil Marcus wrote, “Art by definition escapes the control, the intentions, and the techniques of the people who make it.”

“The Intentional Fallacy” is the name given to the idea that the meanings, themes or consequences of an artist’s work might not be consciously intended and should in fact not be considered in judging or interpreting artworks. Philosophers William K. Wimsat Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley argued that the claim of the author’s intention “is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Though they wrote about poetry, their point is applicable to any art: knowing an artist’s design or plan requires knowing what’s in the author’s mind at the moment of creation which is impossible. Even if an author reveals her intended thematic objective, she might be lying or might not be the master of her intentions.  The artwork might fail to fulfill the expressed intention. What an author believes she was doing has no sovereignty over an audience’s interpretation.

This viewpoint has some detractors who argue that the meaning of an artwork must be linked directly to the artist’s intention. This argument suggests that if critics fail to pay attention to relevant intentions, they might fail to understand the production of an artwork, its difference from the artist’s other works and, in some cases, its fictional status. This position seems untenable. Shakespeare didn’t explain his intentions with Hamlet. Artists sometimes give contradictory explanations of their intentions, deny any thematic or moral purpose or even refuse to discuss the meaning of their work. One famous example is film director Alfred Hitchcock who, over the course of many interviews, claimed his only intention was to entertain and thrill audiences. Despite Hitchcock’s denial of moral or thematic objectives, filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut argued that Hitchcock belongs “among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Poe” while critic Robin Wood compares the thematic depth of Hitchcock’s films with “the mature tragedies of Shakespeare.”

The artwork belongs to the public and functions in the world beyond the artist’s power to control it. Therefore, the artwork itself, apart from artistic intention, is the source of its meaning and the artist’s final statement. As D.H. Lawrence famously said, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” [D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 8] Regardless of their intentions, The Who were a revolutionary band whose rebellious music and outrageously destructive performances helped inspire activist fans to protest the War and repression.

Anarchy in the UK

Despite evidence of The Who’s apolitical attitudes, their art is powerfully political. From the working class and art school origins of their career, The Who expressed youthful anger, frustration and fury against adult authority, yet their music also possessed a melodic pop sense that made it hopeful and optimistic.

The Who missed the initial phase of the British Invasion of America launched in 1964 by The Beatles and followed quickly by The Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Zombies among many others. While attaining notoriety and chart success in England, The Who’s singles were hardly played on American radio and not easily available. They were considered an underground, avant-garde band. They had no hits in the United States until “I Can See for Miles” reached number ten on the national charts in 1967, their biggest single ever.

The first song we Americans heard was the fresh blast of  “I Can’t Explain” in 1965. It sent a shockwave through our brains. A sharp, jagged burst of snarling energy, the song expressed youthful insecurity and an inability to express that turmoil. Daltrey’s sneeringly frustrated vocals reflected my own inarticulate anxiety that caused a feeling of being “dizzy in the head” and “going out of my mind.” With a brutal riff stolen from the Kinks, Townshend’s guitar cracked like a whip. The track also stands out for Moon’s galloping demented drum work as a lead instrument and backing vocals that evoke the melodic luster of the sun-kissed Beach Boys.

“I Can’t Explain” was not only a breakthrough record, but a striking expression of writer Townshend’s own social frustration which Daltrey acted out. The song’s success encouraged Townshend to reinvent the band’s music as aligning with the fine arts he was studying at school. “I was hooked on sudden fame and notoriety, being on the TV and radio, having written a hit song,” said Townshend. “But now I knew The Who had a greater mission than just being rich and famous . . . I knew with absolute certainty, that after all what we were doing was going to be Art.”

The Who’s next single Anyway, Anyhow, Anywherewas a sonic assault, marked by the clashing of drumsticks against microphones, cacophonous feedback, bomb-like explosions and the trashing of instruments in a studio reproduction of The Who’s live performance. Aggressive, audacious, arrogant and ground breaking, the use of guitar feedback was so unconventional that the US arm of their British label rejected the master tapes, though the single reached the top 10 in the UK. While not the first recorded guitar feedback in a pop song (see the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine”), it was by far the most extreme. The music was defiant, vicious and cruel yet retained pure pop sensibilities.

The lyrics expressed euphoria, anarchy and energy. Confidence and belligerence replaced the innocent confusion and frustration of  “I Can’t Explain.” Daltrey’s blunt approach emphasized the swaggering, aggressive and irresponsible persona of a guy in conflict: “I can do anything, right or wrong; Don’t care anyway, I never lose; nothing gets in my way not even locked doors, I can live anyhow, win or lose.” While the song’s overt rebellion suggests youthful naivety or wishful thinking, the forcefulness and single-mindedness of the character makes an impact that the musical explosiveness backs up. The Who’s noise-pop manifesto of anarchy and disorder connected directly with the era’s dissident youth consciousness, even suggesting its later outsized ambitions and exaggerated expectations of smashing the state.

After the uncontrolled brutality of “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” the sonic expression of “My Generation” is structured chaos. The music elevates noise to an aesthetic form that supersedes closed definitions of pop and rock though it remains remarkably catchy and accessible. The song not only extols the glory of youth, but also condemns the horror of old age. The lyrics contain one of the most-quoted lines in rock history: "I hope I die before I get old.” While usually taken as a literal wish to die young (which only Keith Moon took literally), it really suggests that dying would be preferable to conforming to the old order.

Inspired by John Lee Hooker’s "Stuttering Blues," Daltrey stuttered the words to emulate a speech-challenged, speed-stoked British mod. The stutter also gave a way to imply an expletive in the lyrics: "Why don't you all fff... fade away!" Referring to an out-of-touch older generation, Daltrey provides a bitter and angry tirade on behalf of a disaffected and put-upon generation. The song expresses the conviction that young “us” and old “them” are stuck in an intractably antagonistic relationship that only ends when one dies or the other fff . . . fades away.

“My Generation” culminates with feedback and controlled electronic bedlam that simulated auto-destruction in purely aural terms while Moon’s drumming reaches a crazed crescendo in the song’s final apocalyptic passage. The Who’s audacious experimentation with noise-as-pop reinforced the idea of their profound rebelliousness.

In a year of amazing songs -- The Beatles “Help,” The Stones’ “Satisfaction,” The Animals’ “It’s My Life,” The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night,” The Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” The Who produced the ultimate statement: a negation of society’s corrupting values, a distillation of youthful rebellion and a communal rallying cry of the nascent counterculture.

Auto-Destruction, Radical Politics

Townshend and The Who were obsessed with sound experimentation for uniqueness, attention and artistic expression. Townshend used startling power chords to give a crashing, dramatic edge to his songs. By striking the strings hard and utilizing over-amplification, he distorted the notes into solid blocks of noise. Entwistle created the bass as a melodic expressive instrument, pushing it beyond its almost perfunctory background role. Like Townshend, he used over-amplification to make a thunderous sound. Called by one writer “A natural psychopathic drummer,” Moon tirelessly attacked the drums, trying to hit nearly every drum at once, sounding like an avalanche. Rather than offering mere support and holding down the beat, Moon filled spaces normally left open with cocky assurance and hammer-like strokes. He crashed to the fore even amidst the incredible racket being made by Townshend and Entwistle. Their respective styles fit together perfectly, but they were also bitter rivals trying to dominate the other so this created tension in their music.

In early 1964, Townshend accidentally put his guitar near a speaker cabinet and produced a screeching feedback noise that guitarists usually avoid. He liked the sound, learning to control, modulate and channel it. A revolutionary development, feedback became an integral part of The Who’s sound palette. Other guitarists harnessed feedback, but usually in a more restrained fashion. For Townshend the sound became the aural equivalent of frustration, aggression and violence.

The most provocative aspect of The Who’s concert act involved the destruction of guitars, amplifiers and drums. It originated when Townshend lost his temper while performing at a small club in 1965. After scraping his guitar across the microphone stand and spraying the audience with sound bullets, he violently launched the howling Rickenbacker upward into the low ceiling. The neck snapped and dangled from the ceiling. In a mad frenzy, he thrust the damaged guitar back into the ceiling over and over again turning the instrument into a splintered mess. He pounced all over the stage throwing bits of it into the crowd.

Although Daltrey and Entwistle admonished him, Townshend did it again at the next performance. Not to be out-crazed, Moon quickly followed suit and smashed his drum kit. The antics captured the attention of the press, and when manager Kit Lambert learned that photographers were showing up for the next gig, he not only approved the destruction, but encouraged it.

After only three weeks, Townshend pronounced his destructive performance as an art form in the philosophic vein encapsulated by his esteemed Ealing College artist lecturer Gustav Metzger. “To me it wasn’t violence, it wasn’t random destruction,” insisted Townshend. “At the time I considered it to be art: The German movement on auto-destructive art. They used to build sculptures that would collapse. They build buildings that would explode. So I used to go out on stage thinking this was high art.”


Metzger was born in 1926 in Nuremberg, Germany. A great Renaissance city, Nuremberg is now remembered for its connections to Hitler and Nazi rallies. Raised by Polish-Jewish parents, Metzger witnessed what he described as "machine-like" Nazi marches that terrified him. In 1939, he and his brother came to Britain, two of about 10,000 children saved by the Kindertransport association. In 1943, the Nazis murdered his parents.

The experience colored his life as a conceptual artist. The idea of auto-destructive art, which he first formulated in 1959, was his response to society’s conformism, violent oppression, nuclear weapons and consumer capitalism. He created works that would destroy themselves, like spraying acid onto nylon sheets. Auto-destructive art re-enacts the government’s obsession with destruction and the conformist pummeling to which people are subjected.

Metzger thought art should be political: auto-destructive art has to do with rejecting power. At the same time, he doubted that art could have a revolutionary effect because it’s often used to entertain, confuse and divert large numbers of people. Despite these misgivings, he idealistically encouraged art used for social change. The destruction of his own work was a radical anti-art approach meant to alter the structures of the conventional art world as well as rejecting the artist’s role as narcissistic creator.         

“I gave a lecture at Ealing College which Pete Townshend attended,” recalled Metzger. “I showed 50 slides, some of them very sensational and all about destruction. One showed a Japanese student breaking through paper. The movement of his hands was similar to the one that Pete made when smashing his guitar.” At the time, Townshend was a member of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and the Young Communist League so he was clearly receptive to an aesthetic philosophy that lashed out at capitalist conventions and nuclear war.

Metzger visited The Who backstage in 1966 and urged a change in course. Townshend recalled the meeting:“It was the first time Gustav had seen my version of auto-destruction in action and, though he was pleased to have been such a powerful influence, he tried to explain that according to his thesis I faced a dilemma; I was supposed to boycott the new commercial pop form itself, attack the very process that allowed me such creative expression, not contribute to it. I agreed. The gimmicks had overtaken me.”

But overwhelming encouragement to keep smashing came from the audience, which perceived this violence as a valid statement. The fans gave the destructive performance meaning by interpreting the trashing of instruments as an authentic artistic means of encapsulating their rage, anger and aggression. More than a gimmick, auto-destruction became a ritual and an iconic image of The Who’s antagonistic and anarchic stance. “We are the mirror for the desperation, bitterness, frustration, and misery of the misunderstood adolescents,” said Townshend. “Of people in the vacuum.”

By 1968, The Who’s politically conscious audience understood the emotive vehemence of their histrionic self-destructive live performances as both a literal and figurative call to fight the authorities. Subversive in its hyper-kinetic fury and repudiation of hippie pacifism and pop sentimentality, The Who’s style suggested a deranged desperation to shake society’s values.

Theater of Cruelty, Theater of Destruction

The Who’s rebellious music and auto-destructive act made them a genuine social force. Who manager Kit Lambert promoted the band’s segment on the British rock show “Ready Steady Go” as based upon “Theater of the Absurd” ideas. This suggestion linked The Who’s brutal performance style to a revolutionary theatrical aesthetic that derived from Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty.” Like the era’s political militants, Gustav Metzger and The Who, Artaud wanted to astonish and jolt people with a loud, maniacal, destructive spectacle that assaulted the senses and provoked an emotionally cathartic and liberating reaction.     

Poet, actor, playwright and visionary, Artaud was born in France in 1896. From a young age, he suffered from severe neuralgia and intense headaches. His extreme stammering brought him ostracism in school and connects him to the stuttering, pill-soaked adolescent of The Who’s “My Generation.” Called a madman and fanatic, Artaud was addicted to opiates and spent nine years in French asylums while enduring electroshock treatments. Like The Who acting out on stage, the young poet worked in a state of permanent tension, moving from joyful ecstasy to intense rage and violent tantrums.


But this never stifled his rebellious, creative spirit. He wrote poetry, essays and theatrical pieces that changed the course of modern theater and still inspire radical thinkers. Artaud's impact was "so profound that the course of all recent theater in Western Europe and the Americas can be said to divide into two periods--before Artaud and after Artaud,” wrote critic Susan Sontag. “No one who works in the theater now is untouched by the impact of Artaud’s ideas.”

In his “Theater of Cruelty,” Artaud proposed "a theater that wakes us up: nerves and heart, disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolt." [Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double, 28] The man who was electro-shocked in mental hospitals, proposed a kind of shock therapy to established culture. He urged a reintroduction of primitive ritual into civilized life as theatrical spectacle. By giving vent to extreme passions and cultural nightmares, theater exorcises them. The "organized anarchy" of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty would inspire spectators to purge the wildness, violence and frustration that society forces them to repress. Cruelty was the “unrelenting agitation” of a life that has become docile, lazy and compliant.

Artaud’s proposed theatrical spectacles required stage effects that included overwhelming sounds, explosions, flashing lights and violent actions in order to stun the audience's senses, erode emotional resistance and completely immerse them in the staged experience. In this way Artaud’s theatrical aesthetic applies to The Who: disorient the audience’s expectations, create a sense of danger, undermine the spectator’s passivity and provoke repressed emotional reactions. Like Artaud, The Who were devoted to the aesthetics of shock and violence. “Sometimes I’d hold my guitar like a machine gun and move it along the audience mowing them down one by one,” said Townshend. “It was a very real, very violent thing, and by the time that I got to the end of the line, they’d be cowering and doubled up and trying to hide.” For Artaud, theater was an intimidating experience, a projected image of the dangerous. He considered it an emotional and moral surgery upon consciousness that must of necessity be frightening. “The spectator knows that his senses and flesh are at stake,” wrote Artaud, “that he will not emerge unscathed, that we can make him scream.”

By rejecting mainstream expectations and confronting the audience with their internal conflicts, the violently ritualistic theater that Artaud proposed would bring liberation and release. “The action of the theater is beneficial for impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, the baseness, and hypocrisy of our world,” wrote Artaud. “In revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.”

For Artaud and The Who, theatrical performance was not directly about political issues, but intrinsically encompassed the political: theater revitalized thinking, beginning as a cultural idea that was “first of all a protest.” Like The Who’s stage act, Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty was political not as agitating for a particular cause, but as a seismic shaking of social and political assumptions. “Committed art in the proper sense is not intended to generate ameliorative measures, legislative acts or practical institutions,” said philosopher Theodor Adorno, “but to work at the level of fundamental attitudes.” Holding a mirror to a society in turmoil and chaos, their art was an assault against the established order, an attempt to wake people from their stupor.

The Who’s music and auto-destructive performance style was subversive in its disregard of pop convention, capitalist commercial forces and adult notions of good taste and acceptability. The Who played a significant role in the de-conditioning process that energized the youth protest movement and the counterculture. Their onstage mayhem resulted from shared feelings of contempt, suspicion and fear of adult society, its institutions and authority. Maybe this attitude wasn’t deliberately political, but its authenticity derived from an intuitive and emotional reaction to the world. As such, they had a political impact. The Who rejected the received wisdom of the older generation, expressed their alienation from the future it defined and celebrated the possibility of collective transcendence, of liberation achieved through music.
            [Thanks to Maureen Musker for her criticism of earlier versions of this chapter]

Chapter 13 in the book The Who and Philosophy, edited by Rocco J. Gennaro and Casey Harrison.



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