Pete Townshend and World War II

I have three iTunes playlists dedicated to The Who — 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to the present — and I can’t listen through them without being impressed, over and over again, by Pete Townshend’s genius. Record sales aside, his creative accomplishments exceed that of the Beatles, Dylan, or the Rolling Stones throughout the 60s and 70s. Dylan and Morrison were poets, the Stones a great rock and roll band (that incorporated country, soul, blues, funk, and R’n’B into their music), and the Beatles reinvented popular music for everyone, Townshend included.

Townshend was a poet; The Who was a rock and roll band. The Who’s 1970 Who’s Next reinvented music, as did some of his songs on the early concept album The Who Sell Out. But Townshend wrote mini rock operas leading up to his main rock opera, Tommy, which was developed into stage plays and then a 1975 film. He conceived of another rock opera and film, Quadrophenia, about the mod culture of early 1960s’ England. And after 1980, as both a solo artist and for The Who, he continued to produce rock operas and fully developed concept albums.

So I think his writing deserves special attention, and particularly his influences. I think one of his most important statements is found in the rock opera and then film Tommy, which comments on the role of World War II in the creation of 1960s’ counterculture. In Townshend’s opinion, 60s’ counterculture was a direct effect of the aftermath of World War II. His rock opera Tommy explains why.

But I think we need to understand the post world war environment first. The world endured two great shocks following World War II; the first was the shock of the Holocaust. The events of the Holocaust are among the best documented historical events in history. From records kept by the Germans, survivors who served as eyewitnesses, and British, American, and Russian troops who entered the camps when Nazi Germany fell, we know that under Hitler Germany incinerated or otherwise murdered over six million people in concentration camps. The camps were sites of horrifying human experimentation as well, and many died of disease or starvation before being incinerated.

Most of these victims were Jewish, but victims also included the disabled, Romani people, socialists, and communists: anyone perceived as living up to less than Hitler’s Aryan ideal or who were perceived as internal political threats to the Nazi party. Socialists and communists, Hitler’s earliest political opponents, were also Hitler’s first targets, even before he attacked Jewish people. These camps were built in 1931 as detention centers and then turned into extermination camps in 1938. The insanity of Hitler’s genocide is not just in the fact of its existence, or even in its scale, which is unprecedented in human history. Hitler devoted significant resources to the building and maintenance of these camps during wartime, and even when he was losing he didn’t fail to run the camps. Hitler was more committed to murdering Jewish people than he was even to winning the war.

The second great shock was, of course, America’s dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan. These nuclear weapons weren’t more destructive in their initial use than conventional weapons. While estimates of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from nuclear weapons range from 30,000 to 60,000 people, US firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo alone killed over 100,000 people in each city. Some historians believe that Japan’s emperor was ready to surrender, that the US did not need to use these bombs to defeat Japan, and that the US dropped these bombs to send a warning to the Soviet Union not to march across Europe when Germany fell. As it was, the Soviet Union occupied half of Europe for over 40 years. NATO was created five years after the Soviet Union’s occupation of eastern Europe as a defense against Soviet expansion across Europe, and the current conflict in Ukraine is part of a long history of Russian/Soviet aggression in the area, one that includes continual warfare dating back to the sixteenth century.

Many people reasonably believe that the use of nuclear weapons was a terrible chapter in human rights history. Other victims of the Japanese during World War II, such as the Koreans, say they wished the US had dropped ten bombs on Japan because of the brutality of Japanese occupation as the Japanese raped, tortured, and murdered their way across Asia. But more important than the reasons for the use of nuclear weapons is the brute fact of their existence and potential for destruction from a single bomb, and even more important than that was the fact that we had such destructive weapons and were capable, as a human race, of something like a Holocaust in Germany. That’s why the no nukes movements from the 50s to the 80s continually warned about a nuclear holocaust: what the Germans did to their concentration camp victims during World War II we could now do to the entire human race.

That’s what the greatest generation faced following World War II. Those were the parents of baby boomers, but really any children born after 1940 experienced a similar childhood milieu. What they all had in common was an early childhood in a post World War II world. They were raised by the Valium and alcohol generation, an entire generation with PTSD, by a generation desperate to a return to normalcy, by a generation used to martial law. Who were the children of this generation? John Lennon and Ringo Starr were born in 1940, McCartney in 1942, Harrison in 1943. They were 24, 25, and 27 in 1967, the Summer of Love, the apex of the hippie movement and the peak of American counterculture. Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys were born in 1941, 1942, 1944, and 1946 respectively, so ranged in age from 21-26 years old in 1967. The first stable lineup of the Rolling Stones were all born between 1941 and 1943 except for Bill Wyman, born in 1936, but he was still only nine years old when World War II ended in 1945. David Bowie was born in 1947 and reported childhood memories of growing up in bombed out areas of greater London.

So a generation horrified by the Holocaust and nuclear bombs sought stability and conformity and managed worldwide PTSD with alcohol and Valium. Their children resisted their trauma, their conformity, and their religion. They sought enlightenment from gurus and the occult and the Jesus of the Jesus Movement, but not of mainline denominations. They took their cues from alcohol use and other meds to experiment with more powerful drugs: Grace Slick, born in 1939, said of her song “White Rabbit” that it was written in response to parents who read their children books like Alice in Wonderland and then wondered why their kids grew up to use drugs, and that the novel itself taught little girls to act and think for themselves. Drug use at the time was also hoped to expand the mind beyond the current and highly dysfunctional conformist environment.

Pete Townshend, born in 1945, responded to this environment in detail in his rock opera Tommy, drawing a straight line from post World War II trauma to drug use to 60s’ counterculture. Tommy begins with a young couple in love — but then Tommy’s father has to leave for the war. Tommy’s mother gives birth to Tommy after his father leaves, and then his father goes missing and is believed dead. Later, when Tommy is only about four years old, his father unexpectedly returns home, and upon finding his wife with another man, murders him in front of his son Tommy. Both mother and father start singing emphatically, “You didn’t see this, you didn’t hear this, you won’t say anything,” and after that event, Tommy goes deaf, dumb, and blind. The central part of the narrative consists of Tommy’s mother trying everything to get Tommy to recover: he’s taken to a number of doctors as a child, then the Acid Queen as a young man, and during this period beats the Pinball Wizard (performed by Elton John in the film) and becomes the new Pinball Wizard while still deaf, dumb, and blind. One doctor recommends a mirror, and Tommy stands in front of it all day, staring at himself, until his mother has finally had enough and smashes the mirror — which wakes Tommy up. He recovers his senses is transformed into a cult figure, his followers wearing ear, eye, and mouth pieces to simulate Tommy’s former condition and gain enlightenment. In the end, his followers become disillusioned and leave.

It’s tempting to read Lacan’s mirror stage into Townshend’s narrative, but Tommy’s mirror stage wasn’t developmental or even all that early. The mirror became an external symbol of Tommy’s retreat into his own mind, a retreat prompted by the trauma of the aftermath of World War II. Drug use, rock stars, gurus, new religions, and everything that followed were the counterculture’s attempts to deal with the effects of this trauma, and Tommy’s final loss of his cult status points to the end of the 60s and the Summer of Love; the disillusionment that followed from that generation’s attempts to escape the trauma of their forbears. Tommy being deaf, dumb, and blind symbolizes his generation’s numbness, and all aspects of 60s’ counterculture mentioned above were attempts to wake up from this numbness, to escape their pain and isolation.

I’ve published a number of anthologies on rock music and current culture. If you enjoyed this analysis, look them over at the Bookstore and consider ordering them for your local library.


Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at for details.

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