Keith Altham talks to Pete about The Who’s history and Tommy
To top the American charts with an album is an impressive achievement for a British group but to top the American charts with a double album is the kind of success which one expects of the great god "Beatlestones". However, this is just what the Who managed some few weeks ago with their remarkable album ‘Tommy’ establishing them firmly in the hierarchy of progressive pop music and indicative of just how deep run the musical waters of one Peter Townshend.
Townshend is unquestionably a remarkable young man and as one who has been an unashamed pop journalist now for ten years I am not given to scattering superlatives about with any degree of abandon but there has to be an exception for someone who captures the mood of a generation so superbly. ‘My Generation’ became the national anthem of the ‘Mods’ from which the Who emerged and ‘I Can’t Explain’ was almost its equal while ‘I Can See for Miles’ was the best rock and roll record since Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’.
Townshend has emerged after six years with Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon (no mean achievement as anyone who has known Mr. Moon for any duration will testify) with a finale which has shattered his critics and far from being a curtain is merely a portent of greater things to come.
In view of where his head has arrived at with ‘Tommy’ it might prove interesting to find out where it has been previously and so it was during this interview. We assume that the inscrutable were onto something when it was said that the synopsis of the future is written in the past. One for all you thinkers – yuk yuk! Peter’s earliest musical traumas were concerned primarily with English war-time dance band music which was largely due to his father being a member of the ‘Squadronaires’. His earliest performances were as a banjo player with a trad jazz band when Acker Bilk was the going thing.
"When we felt mildly highbrow we used to go and see Ken Coyler," recalls Peter with a smile. "But the real roots for me came at the time when we began to define rock and roll and its breakaway from established popular music. Derek Jewell says that the first pop record was ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ and to a certain extent I would agree with that. But it’s not rock and roll.
Songs of the times
"The first rock record was probably something of Johnny Ray’s but I lived through that without batting and eyelid and yer Alma Cogans and Shirley Bassey’s just bored me in the same way the present day charts bore my little brothers. I was listening to the Shadows before I heard Chuck Berry but it was Berry who had the profoundest effect upon me!"
The Who’s first record was an infinitely forgettable opus titled ‘I’m the Face’ which Pete Townshend was happily not responsible for. But its failure and the trend which the Beatles were setting for groups to write their own material was what spurred him on to write ‘I Can’t Explain’, and ‘My Generation’.
"Those were simply songs of the times," says Peter. "It was a very exciting time to be in a rock group and they were just feelings that I had. Later American rock critics read all kinds of things into it – drug messages, sex messages, violence messages but ‘Explain’ was just about a funny feeling and ‘Generation’ was a brag!
"I am a commercial pop song writer and then as now I was writing for the Who and at that time we were an aggressively lost band and that’s how the songs came out. I try to write songs that are right for the Who at a particular time. As to the ———-that Townshend himself was an aggressively lost person in those days of shattered guitars and ripped amplifiers…
"…I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was going which is why I am where I am today. The thing about the act on stage was that it was something we lived, although it was put on. It wasn’t just smashing up TV sets – no disrespect to the Move but it wasn’t that sort of trip. The violence thing sprang from the internal unbalance of the group; their instability as personalities. There was a necessity in those days to have an incredibly strong image. You were either a one hit wonder or you were not. Some of the groups who were contemporary with us in those early days are nowhere to be seen today but the consistency of our image sustained us.
"There were weak periods during our career when we could have faded out. Like when we only managed to release one record in a year. You have to make people remember you – people like Keith Moon are very important in this respect. He puts so much energy into any kind of communicative process; TV, radio, stage acts or interviews, and they don’t forget him in a hurry. I try and do it another way with my genuine ambition to produce really good rock.
"I want to cause an effect in people’s heads but not in a crude or direct manner by relating to the lyric in the way that some writers do. For example, if I wanted to make people sad I couldn’t do it by writing a sad song – because that’s Des O’Connor and it’s not rock – it’s not art to me. It’s like saying you want to make someone sad so you get their newborn baby and chop it in half – that’ll make ’em sad! What I try to do is to communicate my sadness to others in an attempt to set exactly the same kind of chemistry working as there is in me. I try and reflect the mood of a time.
"I think ‘Tommy’ is reflective of the mood of a generation. It’s one where the see-saw has been over heavy at one end for too long and youth is now at the point where it has to make the decision – the bulge that is – whether to grow old, whether to swing to an intuitive way of living a genuine way or the way our forefathers did which is like throwing shit around!
"I think it is going the right way and that there is a real mental revolution taking place in the minds of these young people and one step nearer the spiritual revolution which will follow."