Stories Behind Classic Songs, Part 5

Who Are You is about drunk encounter with two members of the Sex Pistols

CSI theme or not, Who Are You is one of The Who’s signature songs and like all of them, it perfectly captures the state of mind the band was in at the time, as well as their ever-powerful message towards the audience. If I Can’t Explain became an anthem for the Mods, My Generation represented the emancipation of the youth counterculture and Baba O’Riley captured the post-Woodstock disillusionment, then Who Are You asks the questions of a rock-star past his prime, doubting his relevance in the game and the worthiness of his replacements.

And it all started with an 11-hour meeting involving Pete Townshend and the band’s management discussing the royalties for the Who songs (“Eleven hours in the Tin Pan/God, there’s got to be another way”). As you know, Townshend has always been the band’s main song-writer so it makes sense that he would care the most for a fair splitting of the money. He eventually received the check that he deserved and quickly went to cash it out and celebrate. This was 1977 and The Who had already been around for no less than 13 years. Gaps between albums became bigger and bigger as the band struggled to remain relevant with each new release. A whole new generation of musicians playing under the Punk and New-Wave tags were making splashes in the musical scene. Pete Townshend had the check in hand, but thoughts of artistic self-doubt and the conflict of passion vs. money occupied his mind. The evening eventually took a “fuck it, I’m gonna get blackout drunk” direction.


All was of course accentuated by the biggest event of the night, his encounter with two members of the Sex Pistols – maybe not the biggest band in the UK at the time, certainly not the most played, but surely a safe bet for the next big thing in terms of originality and influence, as I’m sure most of their contemporary musicians were aware. Steve Jones and Paul Cook were no doubt members of the band riding the wave which was at the time making the biggest splash on UK’s musical and cultural fronts.


Although having admitted in his auto-biography that throughout the evening he was under the impression that one of the punkers he was talking to was front-man Johnny Rotten, Townshend’s encounter is no less interesting. It basically is a real-life representation of the whole idea of an aging artist handing the responsibilities over to the next generation. Townshend told the two that The Who were finished, which came as a shock for Jones and Cook, both big fans. He accentuated the importance of them keeping the rock ‘n’ roll spirit alive. And then, like the most poetic ending this story could have, he got out of the bar and passed out in a random Soho alleyway. And the next morning is where the song picks up – “I woke up in a Soho doorway/A policeman knew my name…”


Who Are You became the lead single of its namesake album released in August 1978, one last glimpse of the original Who before the accidental death of Keith Moon of prescribed medication overdose. Spookily enough, the album cover features Moon sitting in a chair that reads “NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY”. The band would replace him with Kenney Jones and release two more albums under the new lineup, but to these ears they only succeeded in confirming Townshend’s doubts – Who Are You, both the song and the album, was the last time the band truly was relevant. Not quite Sex Pistols-relevant, but relevant.




Categories: Stories Behind Classic Songs

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27 replies

  1. Sad story about Moon’s chair. He was sitting that way to hide his bloated stomach, after years of drinking. RIP!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that video/promo. The band look like they’re really enjoying themselves, and it’s a last glimpse of Moon the Loon before his untimely passing. He was, and still is my favorite drummer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My dad once came home and said “that CSI must be getting really popular – they’re even playing the theme song on the radio now!” He gets real mad when I tell this story so I do it as often as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. I’d never heard about the royalties thing before. And of course that is one of THE great videos of all time. Moon’s faces…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! Loved the story. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really interesting post. I might have mentioned this before, but aside from a handful of tracks I don’t much care for The Who. Dare say I’ve never really listened to them, if I’m completely honest. I like this track, though. And the story and video kinda make me wanna listen to more …

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The Who is one of my favorite bands (if not my absolute favorite) but I didn’t know about this story. So sad that Pete was losing faith in his artistic relevance, as I consider him one of the greatest songwriters/composers of all time (as a teenager, Quadrophenia feels like the most relevant piece of art ever written, to me right now). I have a soft spot for Steve Jones too because he hosts a radio show in my area and I love hearing all of his stories from when he was a teenaged kleptomaniac and stole items from various rockstars (including David Bowie and Keith Richards amongst others). Great story and great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ovidiu I like the various series you have on the go right now, shining light on interesting stories, underappreciated songs, and blogs well worth reading, nicely done!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s so easy for bands to feel irrelevant, especially when a new generation comes up and wants their own stuff. And relatively speaking, it happens fast in the music world. The punk scene was an intentional break with rock music that had come before it. And then it happens to them! Elvis Costello – very much part of that scene- played Woodstock ’99 and got booed. Half the people didn’t know who he was. What goes around comes around.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Years on and I’m still not fond of this particular song – someone needed to hack edit it. But great story!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Almost 40 years later, Townsend is still on the scene and probably full of doubts similar to those he had back then. In any case, he’s a king.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Just picked up Who Are You on CD the other day, after owning it on vinyl for decades. Was listening to The Who Sell Out today, one of my favorite early period Who albums.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Interesting piece, and great song, thanks. A couple months ago I listened to the audio version of Pete Townshend’s autobiography, read by Townshend himself. What a treat. Thanks, btw, for visiting my blog and following.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. That’s very interesting. Wasn’t Rough Boys also about the Sex Pistols in some way? Nice post.


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