Probably not, because The Who was too Mods and too pop in their first period. However, some situations led to believe this.
The first was a declaration of the group manager Kit Lambert that defined The Who which “Vandals dressed as altar boys” because of their nature. An example was in 1964, when The Who played at Railway Hotel in Harrow. Here, Pete Townshend, rolling his Rickenbacker 360 hit the ceiling so many present laughed others are impressed. Pete understands that this is a real stroke of genius and begins to destroy the instrument. Jerry Lee Lewis had already done it but not with a guitar.
The crowd was delirious and The Who as soon as they were born they had already entered history. Lambert changed his point of view about their because he was looking for an unknown band with strong identity to recording a pop-film. His intention was to tell the ferment of the London music scene. The movie doesn’t be released but the next year, after the dismissal and the subsequent resumption of Roger Daltrey, The Who issued My Generation, one of the most important album of Mod generation. After, the band issued many other masterpieces like Quadrophenia and Tommy, however My Generation is a real milestone.
The first idea was to recorded a collection of northern soul songs played by Townshend and Co. when the band was called Detours and High Numbers. Songs like “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” by Jesse Hill, “Leavin’ Here” by Eddie Holland, “I’m a Man” by Bo Diddley, “Please Please Please” by James Brown, “Daddy Rolling Stone” by Otis Blackwell and others, however Pete Townshend work was so fine that Shel Talmy, the Kinks manager, decided to produce their first album. He convinced himself after hearing “I Can’t Explain” riffs. In five days the record was ready because Townshend said to Talmy that the band had to be ready to get high with riots, amphetamines and dance parties in week end.
Isn’t this a punk request?
My Generation isn’t a punk album but the title-track is looks a lot like. Crackling like dynamite, the song was inspirited by The Kinks indeed is the guitar to play the part of the master. Townshend bounce the strings in an attempt to make a revolution. Like he, a decade after, the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the other punk bands doing the same: an attempt to make a social revolution. While all album keeps a low profile, the song reflects the real band identity, the one that has on stage during the live shows. They destroy the set, the instruments while Keith Moon plays drums and fires firecrackers. “My Generation” – the song – is a representation of all this, of the thought of the Mods and a common thought of all the young people of the working class of the 1960s.
Isn’t it the same as “Anarchy in the UK” or “London Calling”?
In some ways yes for others not.
All in all, the entire album was equilibrating between music and arrangements, however the vocals, like tradition want for the band, are much more accurate. The album songs was elegant and melodic but, in 1965, the hit parade and radio broadcasting was too important for the success or unsuccessful of a band. Talmy, Stamp and Lambert say these things and so had launched “My Generation” as a single. A three-minutes song with an explosive potential, leaving the soul reminiscences, the doo-wop and the passion of Roger Daltrey for James Brown (which in the album appears in two covers) in the background. In my opinion, this is another affinity with punk-rock idea: explosive singles and great support songs.
After the commercial success of My Generation, The Who changed their music into a more sophisticated and complex style, features that will be reflected in songs like: “The Good’s Gone”, “Circles”, “Much Too Much” and “The Ox” first, and after in concept album like Tommy and Quadrophenia. For this reason, I can’t say that The Who was the first punk rock band but I can also say that they came close to being one.