22. Live Song

‘Listening to You’ (Live at Woodstock) – The Who

In the early 90s the NME used to have a running joke with their picture captions. In the Gig Reviews section, whenever the review photograph showed a sweaty man, face contorted, squeezing at the high notes on his electric guitar, the caption would read “Grunt grunt grunt”. Particularly if they were old. “Paul Weller: Grunt grunt grunt”, “Mötörhead: Grunt grunt grunt”. It was pretty funny, but it was also a manifesto item: the days of cock rock, of screwed-up eyes as the kitemark of emotional authenticity, were over. If you wanted that nonsense, you could read Q instead.

Since my taste was pretty much formed in those NME days, it’s hard for me to own up to how much I like this footage of The Who at Woodstock. There’s no question about it: this is grunt grunt grunt music. Its intensity is all about masculine physicality: Moon pounding his tubs, Townsend flailing and windmilling at his guitar, Daltrey bellowing, barechested in his hilarious fringed shirt. (It’s always difficult to take Daltrey seriously, which is why The Who are usually at their best when they’re being arch. But not here.) It’s a performance where the suggestion of sex is slightly embarrassing, comically close to the surface, like Derek Smalls’s foil-wrapped cucumber in Spinal Tap.

But still it gets me. It doesn’t have a subtle bone in its body, but it works on me, gets past my defences anyway. It is hypnotic, it is exhilarating. Maybe it’s because the song’s meaning, its lyric, is in such contrast to the machismo of its performance. The whole thing is odder than it looks, not what it first seems. This is Townsend’s song of submission to his guru, Meher Baba: “Following you, I climb the mountain. / I get excitement at your feet.” I can’t think of another song where the arrangement is so counterintuitive, where the lyric and the music are so out of alignment with each other, a musical oxymoron: muscular devotion.

And maybe it works too because, for everything, it’s not posed. It may be unreconstructed but it’s also earnest, a real attempt to use a song to say something, rather than get something, and that’s uncommon. It makes me want to be earnest too, to shrug off my NME reticence and stand up for it. Listening to you, I get the music. Grunt grunt grunt.

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