Legendary English guitarist, composer, and musician Pete Townshend is best known for being the founding member and main guitarist of the famed rock group The Who. Rock music’s distinctive sound in the 1960s and beyond was shaped by Townshend’s inventive guitar playing and lyrics. He was renowned for his use of feedback and distortion as well as for his forceful and aggressive playing style.
The impact of Townshend on music cannot be emphasized. He contributed to the development of the power chord and had a profound impact on other musicians via his guitar playing and composition. He was also one of the pioneers of rock music’s usage of synthesizers.
Although skilled in the recording studio or on stage, Pete Townshend has made a lot of predictions during his career. Yet, he is less gifted at foreseeing the future. His most egregiously misguided prediction was the band’s song, which he said would go on to become “the biggest-selling record in music history.”
I Can See For Far, which was released in 1967, was the song in question. The Who had a lot of hits before this time, but unlike their contemporaries The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, they had not yet had a number-one single. But, with “My Generation,” which peaked at number two in 1965, they had come agonizingly close to topping the list.
Pete Townshend believed The Who had solved the code with “I Can See For Miles” and was destined to take their superstardom to a new level. To his astonishment, the song didn’t succeed in reaching the top of the charts. Despite having written several timeless songs, The Who has never had a number-one hit.
Pete remembered and explained to Rolling Stone, “Kit Lambert, who was our manager and my songwriting and composing mentor back then… His godfather was William Walton, the English classical composer. And when he heard ‘I Can See for Miles,’ he wrote Kit a letter thinking that Kit had written the song… he didn’t think any of us goons could have done anything like that, praising him for the adventurous harmonies.”
He added, “Maybe I just got carried away with how clever I thought I was. I was disappointed. It wasn’t just disappointing that we didn’t get a hit. It was that I was worried that I couldn’t do any better. And that I had exhausted my sense of humor, my sense of irony with songs like ‘Pictures of Lily,’ ‘I’m a Boy,’ and ‘Happy Jack.'”
Townshend conceded that the band wouldn’t be able to dominate the charts when “I Can See For Miles” barely cracked the top ten in the US and UK. He told, “We were [once] knocked off the top by some comedian [Joe Dolce] whose song was called ‘Shaddap You Face’… There was another song that was number one coming up to Christmas in the U.K. that I think knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. I can’t remember the exact context… it went, ‘Grandad, we love you…’ I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, this stuff just shouldn’t be in the charts!'”
The disappointment had a silver lining, too, as Townshend used it to inspire The Who’s a subsequent endeavor, the groundbreaking rock opera Tommy. He remembered, “I don’t know, I suppose I was fooling myself. I [had] thought, ‘This is a masterpiece, and it will be treated as such. It will become the biggest-selling record in music history!’ I just wondered, ‘What do I do now?’ And that led to concepts and to Tommy,”
While Townshend had originally intended for “I Can See For Miles” to become The Who’s anthem, it actually gave birth to Tommy, which is more significant. The latter was more important to the band’s legacy than getting number one and became the endeavor that would define their career.