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