September 26, 2020

’70 New Music Express Interview with Pete Townshend

Pete discusses the upcoming "Live at Leeds" record.

"I’m trying to sophisticate our sound a little, make it a little less ear-rending. If we try and do anything clever-clever it could be a mistake." Not the sort of thing one would expect to hear from Pete Townshend, but obviously a change is in store for the Who.


"The loudest part of the Who is the P.A. these days, we haven’t got any louder. Our P.A. is fifteen hundred watts and it just chucks it all out, that is what’s deafening people."


Pete was talking to me at his home, opposite Eel Pie Island, where a commune is firmly ensconced. As he talked, two dogs chased about the room alternately leaping on one another and investigating my tea.


The main talking point was "The Who Live Leeds," the group’s upcoming "live" album which was recorded in that Northern town at the university.




"I’ve been planning a ‘live’ album for ages," Pete began, "and we recorded all the shows on the last American tour thinking that would be where we would get the best material. When we got back we had eighty hours of tape and, well, we couldn’t sort that lot out, so we booked the Pye mobile studio and took it to Leeds. It turned out to be one of the best and most enjoyable gigs we’ve ever done.


"People always talk about the Who being good on stage. We’re all about visual pop flash and in the past when we’ve recorded shows tapes have sounded very grotty at the best. When I should have been playing guitar I’d have been waving my arms about like a windmill or when Keith should have been playing he’d have been yelling ‘coh-ya ooh-ya’ at the top of his voice like Lennie Hastings.


"So what I want to do is sophisticate the sound a little. One of the troubles is Moon – he’s so deafening. If we do a two-and-a-half hour show he just starts playing like a machine. I’m sure he puts out more watts than the rest of us put together!"


First warning me ‘crackles courtesy of Pye,’ Pete played me some of the album, including Mose Allison’s "Young Man Blues" which can easily be described as dynamic. He then spoke about "Tommy" which has been hailed almost as the Messiah of records by many people.


"It was highly overrated because it was rated where it shouldn’t have been and it wasn’t rated where it should have been," he commented. "It should be rated as a successful attempt to tell a story in rock music. I don’t listen to it…I enjoyed making it very, very much.


"We were going down the drain – we needed challenging after putting out corny singles like ‘Magic Bus’ and ‘Dogs.’ Making ‘Tommy’ really united the group and that was the good thing about it. The problem is that is has elevated the Who to heights they haven’t attained."


Pete speaks about the Who sometimes as though the group hasn’t yet realized its full potential and he obviously believes that he, Moon the Wonder Boy, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle need a pillar to lean on.


"We all need the group and to be in flux," he explained. "It’s been a long partnership and we lean on it a lot. We need people to get at and argue with and work things out with.


"It’s nice to have a set of individuals called the Who to write for. I set myself a problem with ‘Tommy,’ something to get down to. The Who will always respond to a challenge. A group like us always needs as much prestige as it can get and at the moment that’s pop opera. On the Continent, ‘Tommy’ was very successful and it brought a lot of kids who hadn’t seen us."


During the brief spell that I worked for the Who as their publicist I visited Germany with them and learned the rigours of touring. At about that time each member of the group had frequent moans about it and swore to pack up touring. The pledge has been broken.


"It could have been America that changed our mind about touring," Pete considered. "But all of a sudden people’s demand began to get higher. It used to be that if you didn’t you’d only get half full houses. We waited three or four years for the new Beatles but they never came so we said ‘we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got but make it better’.


"We’ve always been influenced very highly by groups like the Stones and the Beatles and have made good use of it. Have you heard the Stones’ ‘live’ album? It’s influenced me a great deal.


"We used to tour and come back broke. We’d drink it away and use it up in broken instruments. We behaved so despicably that promoters though it was only right and just to the public to steal these boys’ money. It was nice to discover that you can make money out of pop music…we couldn’t believe it when we came back from America with money in our pockets.




"Writing is very good for money, that’s why a lot of groups insist on writing their own material. With the Stones you have to wait until they’re going through a good period of songwriting before they bring out a record. Speedy (Keen) is a writer, a very good writer, and that’s what spurred me to form Thunderclap Newman.


"Behind every teenybopper group there’s a person like me who says ‘you, you, you and you will get together and form a group and record this and have a hit.’


"It takes a long time to learn to write songs. I don’t know why I started. I was just always writing thing when we were playing all the pubs and terrible places."


We adjourned to the recording studio along the passage and Pete played me a couple of numbers, one of which is almost destined to become Thunderclap’s next single. So contrary to many rumours, the group will be having more records out. An album awaits release as well.


"They really make a very, very nice recorded sound and the other two that were brought in were just to allow them to appear on stage, but they weren’t in the group proper. Jimmy McCulloch has a group together to play ‘live,’ Speedy is constantly writing – he is the one who has the group most at heart – and Andy is recording his own music, which is eccentric."


Speedy appeared through the door on cue and we discussed which number we all thought most suited for the next single. Then Pete had to go and eat his Cornish pastie before it got cold and I had a nice walk along the embankment in the rain. What an exciting pop world we live in.