How a Wild Drinking Spree With Sex Pistols Sparked ‘Who Are You’
It sounds like the setup to a joke, but Pete Townshend found himself in London one evening in the late '70s accompanied by two members of Sex Pistols, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Townshend had met up with them after a "13-hour encounter" with Allen Klein, the former Beatles and Rolling Stones manager — "the awesome rock leech godfather," as Townshend later referred to him in the liner notes to a Who Are You reissue.
Townshend had recently learned that Klein had bought a stake in the Who's publishing without telling the band and was upset that someone he thought he could trust would make such an aggressive move. (It wasn't the first time Klein had been accused of taking advantage of his clients.)
The Who guitarist chronicled that evening of frustration and debauchery in Who Are You's title track. From what Townshend can remember, after drowning his sorrows in booze at London’s Speakeasy club, he stumbled into the night and woke up in a Soho doorway, with a policeman who knew his name standing over him, just as the song's opening lines say.
By 1978, punk music was all over the U.K. Sex Pistols had released their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, the previous fall. Townshend connected the lines between the music of the Who and the music being made by punk bands like Sex Pistols and the Clash. He reportedly told Cook and Jones that it was their duty to carry the torch. "Rock 'n' roll's going down the fucking pan!" he said. "You've got to take over where the Who left off, and this time, you've got to finish the fucking job."
"Steve and Paul became real 'mates' of mine in the English sense," Townshend noted in those liner notes. "We socialized a few times. Got drunk (well, I did) and I have to say to their credit, for a couple of figurehead anarchists, they seemed sincerely concerned about my decaying condition at the time."
When Townshend brought "Who Are You" to the rest of the band, singer Roger Daltrey interpreted the lyrics as something more confrontational, but Townshend explained that was not his intention. "In one sense the song is more about the demands of new friendship than blood-letting challenge," he said. "Roger's aggressive reading of my nihilistic lyric redirected its function by the simple act of singing 'Who the fuck are you?' when I had written 'Who, who, who are you.'"
Watch the Who's 'Who Are You' Video
Daltrey had also picked up on the thread tying the Who to the younger bands in England at the time. "We were getting incredible accolades from some of the new punk bands," he recalled to Uncut in 2015. "They were saying how much they loved the Who, that we were the only band they'd leave alive after they'd taken out the rest of the establishment!"
But this admiration occasionally felt threatening to Daltrey. "To me, it was like, 'Well, they think they're fucking tough, but we're fucking tougher,'" he explained. "It unsettled me in my vocals. When I listen back to 'Who Are You' I can hear that it made me incredibly aggressive."
"Who Are You" included backing vocals by Andy Fairweather Low and piano by the Zombies' Rod Argent. "Keith Moon was fabulous," Low told The Guardian in 2023. "I never got involved in the madness, but witnessing Pete Townshend in full flow was magical. I felt the same as when I saw them as a teenager in Porthcawl [Wales]. ... I've never lost that."
"Recording with them was great," Argent recalled to Forbes in 2020. "They weren't long sessions. The song 'Who Are You' was recorded in an afternoon, minus vocals. But there were lots of politics. It wasn't my business to know what they were. Meetings went on upstairs all the time. There were many days where nothing happened. It wasn’t because the guys didn't have material – they had written the whole album. But whatever was happening behind the scenes was very important."
Produced by Glyn Johns and Jon Astley, "Who Are You" was released as a single in July 1978 and became one of their biggest hits, reaching No. 14 in the U.S. and No. 18 in the U.K.
In some ways, "Who Are You" stuck it to the punks, seeing as the Who still had some life left in them. But it was also Townshend's acknowledgment that rock 'n' roll wasn't dead, it was just changing forms and his drinking buddies in Sex Pistols were helping to lead the charge. "What was actually happening at the time was the need for another tidal wave," Townshend reflected in 1995. "I suppose that everybody wanted one band to do it like it happened to the Beatles. It turned out not to be one band but a lot of bands."
Watch the Who Perform 'Who Are You' in 1989