September 26, 2020

’70 New Music Express Interview with Pete Townshend, Part 2

Pete discusses the history of The Who

"We knew we were going to be stars. We entered the business to become stars not to make a day-to-day business out of it. That was what was so exciting about the business about six years ago, everyone wanted to be as big as the Stones or Beatles."


Pete Townshend almost always achieves his ambitions and there is no doubt about the outcome of his bid for stardom. It has been a long, hard slog for the Who with various setbacks cropping up and, as Pete explained last week, various other groups sometimes standing in their way.


One of the most important factors in the Who’s success is the length of time that Pete, Roger, Keith and John have been together. Not just as the Who or the High Numbers but before then as school friends in Acton.


Because they know one another so well, they are able to make allowances for each other’s mistakes and faults and the type of squabble that may have broken up a lesser group has been smoothed over by the Who whenever it has occurred.


To understand the closeness between the four members, one has to travel back in time several years to the days before the Who had even been conceived.


Pete’s parents were both musical, his father playing saxophone in the Squadronaires and his mother singing with the band for a while before Pete was born.


"My father was essentially a pop musician in his day," Pete pointed out. "I dread to think what would have happened if I had been brought up in a classical family."


He recalled the time when he was only thirteen months old and had to pretend to be two so that he could get in to Butlins ballroom at Filey to see his father play and how he met a Texan cowboy there.


"He promised me a harmonica which I never got and in the end I think I had to shoplift one a couple of years later," he admitted.


Pete sang in a church choir in Action, "but I didn’t have enough projection or a posh enough accent to get leads," but he still had no real outlet for his musical talents.




"There was a period when I was terribly negative, I didn’t know what to do," he said. "I was proud of my father but I didn’t like listening to his music on the radio, second hand in a way. One of the things that fashioned the musical frustration for me was that my parents didn’t have a piano or a record player, which is incredible for two musicians.


"They still only have a record player which the kids play old Who records on and jump all over. An auntie on the Isle of Man had a piano but all the time I was searching for an instrument."


Through his father’s connections Pete used to go along to Press previews with his friend Graham Beard and on one such excursion something happened that was to shape Pete’s musical career.


"’Rock Around The Clock’ did it for me," he revealed. "I hadn’t been into rock and roll before that. Beard got into Elvis Presley who I had never liked. He got into the guitar and used to look in the mirror and act up. After a while, I decided the guitar was what I wanted.


"My granny got me my first guitar and it was a very, very, very bad one indeed though it cost her a lot of money. It’s important to get a good instrument for kids. I fought tooth and nail with it for a year and finally gave up because it was too bad."




He got a mandolin banjo from a friend of his father’s, started to play trad jazz of all things and decided eventually that he could play with other musicians. John Entwistle and a chap called Phil Rhodes had a group going and they asked Pete to join.


"I was thirteen at the time and I’d been buggering about for two years on guitar without getting anywhere," Pete recalled with a smile.


"I knew they expected me to play so I rushed out and got a chord book. They were fairly impressed, which I couldn’t work out. Perhaps they thought if you could play three chords you could play the rest."


The group had a variety of names, like the Aristocats, the Scorpions and the Confederates Jazz Band, and they used to go along and see Acker Bilk play a lot.


Pete got a £3 Czechoslovakian guitar from his mother’s antique shop and finally decided that the guitar was the instrument for him. By this time John had made himself an electric bass guitar from a plank of wood and he and Pete formed a group with two boys from Acton County School.




"We played Shadows numbers, which must be the cliché story, but that’s the way it was," Pete told me. "There just weren’t any other groups around. I was terribly happy with it, people quite liked us and it was incredibly exciting when we appeared in front of an audience.


"It gave me a new confidence – I hadn’t made it very well with chicks and at the time when my mates started to get it together with chicks I was getting into the guitar and it became an obsession."


John left the group and joined Daltrey’s Detours and then Pete joined as rhythm guitarist at John’s suggestion.


"It became a good social thing, the drummer’s father ran us about in his Dormobile and we got a lot of seaside gigs. We did an audition at Peckham Paradise Club for £7 a night which we thought was very good. Eventually we chucked out the drummer and his father manager."


Roger dropped the guitar and started singing so Pete switched to lead guitar, "but I couldn’t play properly and I built up a style around chords. My favourite group was Johnny Kidd and the Pirates with Mick Green on guitar. That’s where we first heard r-and-b second-hand."


After a period with a manager who thought of the group as his pets and believed he could make them stars overnight a recording audition with Phillips cropped up.


"Chris Parminter, who ran the audition, didn’t like the drummer so we kicked him out. From the point we found Keith it was a complete turning point. He was so assertive and confident. Before then we had just been fooling about."




Through Peter Meaden and Guy Stevens, Pete got to hear Tamla Motown music and they played "Got To Dance To Keep From Crying" at the Scene Club near Piccadilly Circus. Pete wrote his first song called "It Was You" which the Fourmost put on a ‘B’ side but he still wasn’t doing anything positive, he felt.


Kit Lambert became the group’s manager and taught them about stage make up and dying their hair "slightly tarty at the time," as Pete puts it.


"I’d already got into the arm swinging bit and we were all dressed like Mods," Pete went on. "The product of that era was ‘I’m The Face’ and ‘Zoot Suit’ both lifted from r-and-b records with the words changed. They sold about three copies; Phillips could make a fortune by issuing them in the States today.


"We had a music that other groups hadn’t discovered yet. The Beatles and the Stones impressed us but they had such a defined image that we thought there was a gap there. We were after a slightly more sophisticated sound.


"We did an EMI audition and I was compromised into writing, which was a thing I wasn’t keen to do. I was very much into an image thing – I lived and breathed image. That was the key word in those days.


"Then I heard ‘You Really Got Me’ on the radio and instantly I knew that the Kinks had filled the hole we wanted to fill. That sort of music always came from over the water. I thought that if you want the heavy stuff you could write it yourself.


"I wrote ‘I Can’t Explain’ just for the Who and it remains one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was based on ‘You Really Got Me," it just didn’t have the modulations. I was influenced more by the Kinks than any other group, we weren’t fans of theirs, we just liked them.


"Shel Talmy signed us and it was then I really got into writing. I felt I was intimidating the group by writing for them. I rowed Roger in on ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’ revising the lyrics but that didn’t last, he started believing he’d actually written it.


"The next positive thing was ‘My Generation’ to show what was going on. It was as much a defiance to the group as a public thing. I felt I was the only person in the group that knew about dope. Keith was on pills, but I had heard about pot. I alienated myself from the group and this gave me a pivot point to stand back and write and then join them in playing.




"Lo and behold Lambert started producing our records. He spent incredible amounts of time with us and he changed my life fantastically. He’d listen to my demos and I’d make alterations. When we met, I was the young drop out and Lambert was the complete opposite, an ex-public schoolboy and very respectable – now we’ve complete switched roles.


"A lot of people would think I’m terribly square sitting here in my comfortable suburban house with my wife and a baby. There has got to be a point where Lambert and I come together in our identities again soon."




Returning to his recollections of the build-up of the Who, Pete remarked: "When we had a hit with ‘Happy Jack,’ which was a very different sound for us, it became obvious that the musical direction of the group was going to change. I’d gone back to being influenced by the Stones again. On our second LP, which is still about our best, we really discovered the Who’s music for the first time, that you could be funny on a record.


"Entwistle wrote for the first time. He wrote ‘Whisky Man’ and ‘Boris the Spider.’ My reign set aside as an individual from the rest of the group was over and the group was becoming a group. It was only then we started to work musically together."


Things snowballed until the Who reached the envious position they are in today. The outlook is rosey and everyone concerned with the group is perfectly happy. What then, does Pete see for the future?


"I’d like the Who to continue writing and playing hard rock," he replied. "There’s not another group that is as complete a group as the Who in every respect.


"There’s no question, I think, of the group every being happier doing anything else. If the group stopped I just don’t know what I’d do. I could make a living and be happy, but not so exhilarated."