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Music - Richard Cook on The Who, rock philosophers of the Sixties kitchen sink

The Who seem to have been with us for ever, but in fact their official lifespan was from 1964 to 1983. The subsequent reformations have been sporadic and enigmatic. While other bands have reunited under a recidivistic blend of nostalgia and cashing-in, The Who - whose members have long since gentrified themselves to the point where financial imperatives are largely irrelevant - are a peculiar example of rock's unwillingness to let go. When Peter Townshend wrote the incomparable manifesto of "My Generation" in 1965, he could hardly have thought that it would come back to mock him, literally decades later. Yet Townshend and his gang of middle-aged mods now seem to have come a remarkable full circle. As pop itself has become fat and moneyed, these sour old men have retained at least a sliver of real, hard-won hurt.

They are a last link with the days when mainstream pop still had some authentic bile. It is important to remember that The Who were an immensely popular group which, in the midst of that success, still retained an element of comparatively unaffected outrage, a sting that eluded their grandest contemporaries, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Townshend's writing had an authentic nastiness about it, to go along with the Sixties kitchen-sink philosophising. Neither Jagger and Richards nor Lennon and McCartney would have come up with anything as tough as Townshend's chilling "Substitute", a parable of disenfranchisement as volatile as any slug of Sixties "realism" from the stage or screen. John Lennon might have positioned himself as a "working- class hero, something to be", but he never dared write anything as bold as Townshend's "Pictures of Lily", one of the few works of art concerning masturbation.

It was this almost helpless honesty that made Townshend's work so compelling, and which sowed the seeds of The Who's destruction. In the end, Roger Daltrey, who sang most of Townshend's lyrics, found his position as mouthpiece almost intolerable. When the group released the most hurtful of all Townshend's song cycles, The Who By Numbers, in 1975, Daltrey all but admitted that songs such as "However Much I Booze" were figments of an imagination that he didn't care to own up to.

By that point, the brilliant band of "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" had long since matured into an awkwardly grown-up part of rock's golden age. Townshend eventually revealed himself as a short-story writer who longed for success in the epic-novel form: hence the livid colours of those early singles bled into the operatic-rock folly of Tommy and his magnum opus, Lifehouse, only recently released as an obese and unsatisfactory multi-disc set of Townshend verbiage. That kind of indulgence makes it tempting to dismiss him as a dysfunctional relic, but Townshend's persistence has brought him a crusty dignity. At a show I saw about 18 months ago, Townshend, with a hand-picked band of compatriots, drove through a set of The Who and other favourites with the bloody-minded fervour of a man with nothing to prove, but with a great deal of vinegar to dispose of.

His fellow bandsmen have, perhaps, less to offer. Daltrey, his various careers as actor, TV personality and salmon-farm owner at a somewhat low ebb, has only boredom to keep at bay; John Entwistle, the eternally faceless man of the group, can still play the written-in-stone bass solos on "My Generation" off pat. Kenny Jones joined the band following Keith Moon's death in 1978, and there is very little to say about him other than that. The Who has always been Townshend's vehicle, and his pilgrim's progress from three-minute pop-tune bard to literary eminence is among the more unusual evolutionary products of the rock cycle. The compensating elegance has been Townshend's particular self-awareness. He seems to know that he has the makings of a great writer, but never the wherewithal to turn that gift into something solid and real, beyond the simple confines of a great pop song.

Simple? There must be few explosions of 20th-century culture as profound and enduring as Townshend's greatest Who songs. Maybe he was the first of the rock literati to obsess over the idea that his chosen medium would never be enough; but the rest of us beg to differ. The leap of faith comes in insisting that the best of Townshend's work is as powerful and endemic to its times as that of Mailer and Godard. Not that they had to churn out their best stuff one more time for stadium audiences. And if you want to know more . . . oh, I can't explain.

The Who are at London Docklands Arena (0870 512 1212) on 13 November, and at Wembley Arena (020 8902 0902) on 15 and 16 November

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich