September 21, 2020

’71 Circus Interview with Pete Townshend

Pete talks about the current state of Rock music, Woodstock, and Who’s Next

"What’s going down now (in rock) is very stagnant," says Peter Townshend, smashing guitarist, would-be film-maker, and sometime collector of pornographic comic books and other curios. "This was a very nice summer and so on, but nothing very much is happening, and so far as rock is concerned, very, very little is happening." But Peter has got some tricks up his sleeve to get things shaking again. He’s got a technological arsenal, assembled at the cost of thousands of pounds, hours, and false-starts. And it’s already shaken the Who into producing Who’s Next (Decca).


Though he reports that he was born with a plastic spoon in his mouth, Pete is a natural aristocrat. When he grants an audience, it takes place in the corner of a posh hotel restaurant.


There he is. the man who gave us Happy Jack, a pin-ball wizard, an acid queen, and the beauteous Lily, sitting in a dining room chair. It comes as something of a surprise that he takes you as seriously as you take him. He listens carefully, agrees or disagrees with a remarkably quiet intensity, and remembers who you were sitting with at a party the night before, when you didn’t even realize he was there. It occurs to you that he’s not with you to listen to himself talk, but to discuss matters of mutual concern to you both.


Bearded, temperamental and verbal, when Pete talks, you can almost see his ideas on where rock is going bounce off the walls of his brain, like electrons in an atomic reactor. He begins by pointing out the next big obstacles the Who are going to have to overcome.


"I think that we are in a position to do more than most groups," he says in a reflective tone, "because we have gone over the humps that other groups have come to and then either split up or lost the point. But I also think that it doesn’t make it any easier for the Who, because the hump we’ve come to now is not necessarily a hump in the career. We’ve learnt to get over those, but it’s a hump in rock, and that has to do with society changing very slowly. Women’s lib is doing a lot more than rock to change society, and that’s not a very good situation."


Now that the Who have finally achieved international recognition, Pete feels that they’ve got to be careful with each new undertaking. "The most important thing we have to do is to make sure that the Who remain the Who, and if that ceases to happen, then obviously we’ll have a different set of power tools, but right now, we’re a lot better off than the Stones, for instance, since we’ve a much shorter history and a much more open stand."


Pete has a very clear picture of what the Who have been and what they hope to be in the near future. "Where we are today is a little bit different from where we were yesterday. When I’ve been the most outrageous and perhaps even the loosest, was when we were in the middle of the seesaw, like at the Monterey Pop Festival. Nothing I did could have tipped that seesaw the other way—nothing. Whereas today, I think the seesaw is tipping the other way, which puts the Who in a position where I’m not likely to do anything that will jeopardize my requirement for audience feed-back, because I need it more than ever with a new stage-act and a new album. I don’t want to intimidate the audience in any way."


These days, every super-group has to decide, not only what kind of performance they want to give, but where and when they will perform. Grand Funk’s solution was to play Shea Stadium, but Townshend is anxious to avoid such large-scale concerts.


"The thing that closed the Fillmores down," he suggests, "and the thing that makes a group like the Who or Grand Funk, who really have got their finger on the pulse, sell-out so fast is that there’s no place for good up and coming bands to play anymore."


But Townshend thinks the biggest thing holding rock back is the audience. It’s not interested in ripping it up at concerts anymore. It just wants to sit there and watch. "Rock isn’t doing what it did. Its audiences are buying records when they buy tickets to rock concerts. They’re buying the privilege to see a performance, and not to be part of a rock event. For example, someone like Terry Knight will say one of his wonderfully stupid things, such as ‘If Grand Funk says go out and smash the city, the kids will do it.’ But the kids won’t do it—they want Grand Funk to do it. If anybody’s going to do any smashing, it’s gotta be Grand Funk, because that’s what they represent to their fans. And that’s what I feel is wrong with the present scene. If anybody should tear down a city—let’s not be so blatantly revolutionary —I mean if any changes have got to be made, it’s got to be the people themselves that do it, and the music that talks about it, that instigates it, that reflects it and approves it while it’s happening has got to be the product of communication between an entire generation and not just a bunch of musicians."


While Woodstock symbolizes the kind of communication he seems to be talking about. Townshend is notorious for having rejected the festival while it was happening. The Who were caught in the strange circumstances that made Woodstock what it was. By the time they were finally allowed to go on, there was no money left to pay them, although other bands had demanded cash on the line months before. The Who were exhausted, depressed by the working conditions, and annoyed by the thousands of kids who seemed to have no perspective on what they were experiencing.


Pete recollects. "The possibilities of Woodstock were fantastic, but the end result was chaos. I think I was the first to knock it, and I came up with a lot of bad vibes as a result. I was saying it was bullshit, right, and the curly headed kids would come up and say, ‘This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me’ and I felt like screwing their faces in the mud. It was a ‘success’ for all the wrong reasons.


"Woodstock the thing, though, was nearer to what will have to be. You’re going to have to live Woodstock Nation as an ongoing reality, and it’s going to have to be separate, in some ways, from other life-styles. In a similar way, a record is separate: you’re in your room, you close your eyes, you listen to the music—it’s separate in that it takes you out. But with concerts now, you go, you buy time, you watch the ‘movie’ and in the end, you get your physical thing out in the encore. I mean nothing really happens. One of our biggest problems now is that the audience can’t or won’t dance and so they end up doing all of their moving after the show should have ended. We hate encores. It’s very difficult when the audience still has the energy that they should have worked off during the performance, and then you have to go out and build the whole show up again."


Rock has always been an alternative: a chance to twist and shout, instead of fox-trot, to ball it up, rather than cool it. Yet at the age of fourteen or so, it looks like rock is becoming just as unsure of itself as any teenager.


Townshend’s imagination soars, and his ideas become a little garbled when he tried to describe how he intends to get things jumping again. He’s into film as a replacement for concerts, and he has as yet undeveloped plans for happenings, whose effects would be felt by everyone involved with rock.


"What is important," he explains, "is not that people are watching a movie, but that an Event happened. Word of mouth isn’t good enough to explain all the details and all the different perspectives of what happens, so really the movie is just a catalogue, in which obviously the audience is going to be very passive, but what difference does it make, because we’re not real on stage now when we play. I’m like a movie, so I might as well run a movie.


"The film should serve as an illustration of what had actually taken place and would then completely negate anybody’s desire to go see rock in its present form, unless they were going to see specific kinds of acts that require specific types of theatre to work in. There’s nothing wrong with the old sort of Greek theatre, but as applied to rock, you can see its shortcomings. We’d have to work every bloody day of the year in order to meet the people.


"What’s really got to happen now is that we have to be removed. The audience has to be the thing. They have to exist within the pop framework. They have to make the pop song. It has to come from them. It’s very hard to see how that kind of situation can come together without being filmed so that people can understand the implications of the Event. It’s not because film is so good, but because it’s better than records."


But despite Townshend’s theories, the latest Who offering is a record—Who’s Next, a noble album, less wordy and unified than Tommy, but combining the driving virtuosity of the Who’s live performances with the subtly forceful production of the new Townshend/ Glyn Johns team. It took so long, because none of them were really quite sure of what they wanted to do, so hundreds of song ideas were never followed up. "The Song is Over" is typical. It’s the final portion of a song cycle that proved too unwieldy to record in full, "Blue Eyes" is an old track put in as a change of pace from the rockers "Going Mobile" and "Won’t Get Fooled Again" that surround it.


Townshend gives some background on the album and a film that was lost in the shuffle: "We spent eight months battling technology, struggling with quadraphonic tape playback systems, doppler effects in big halls, acoustical problems in small halls, and playing to pre-recorded tapes. We’ve really gone through the mill, and we wound up failing so often because my amusement with technology didn’t wash with the group."


Pete says he thinks he has the electronics under control now. He now uses a synthesizer tape far simpler than the ones he toyed with in the film, and throws it behind the guitar when the Who perform "Won’t Get Fooled Again" live. The effect is incredible. But there are still problems. At one of the first performances with the synthesizer, someone forgot to bring the magnetic tape onstage. "The tape, the tape," Townshend whispered frantically to a roadie, who disappeared off-stage, returned with a roll of wrapping tape, tried to figure out why Townshend looked furious, disappeared off-stage again, and came back with a roll of masking tape.


In the studio, however, Pete is the master of an ever-growing number of new tools and techniques. The story behind the cut "Baba O’Riley" indicates just how much is going on in the grooves. "The words have got very little to do with the music. ‘Baba O’Riley’ was a combination of all the approaches I developed for this new kind of rock event. The concept was to use synthesizers and pre-recorded tapes to get information about an individual, turn it into music, react to that music, and then add to it, turning it into something else.


"The funny noise in the background of ‘Baba O’Riley’ is the first tape I made of that type, I set up my synthesizer to data I’ve got on myself, and I let it blow away for about thirty minutes. I then edited it down to ten minutes and even further to what it is now. Then I wrote some words about the farmer, out in the fields, a fifty-year old man, whose kids have run away. He’s saying that the whole of youth is wasted. Wherever he looks, all he sees is wasted teenagers. Hence, ‘teenage wasteland.’ "


Viola. Sounds simple, huh? All you need is about six hundred hours of free time, a synthesizer, and prodigious talent. As it is, Pete is as satisfied with the album as he ever is with any of his projects, given the reduction process he’s forced to put them through.


Stretching out for the pause that refreshes, he talked about some of the other albums he’s enjoyed recently. Most notable is All Things Must Pass, the record George Harrison used to get out a religious devotion that parallels Pete’s own love of Meher Baba, the Indian saint credited as "avatar" on Tommy. Townshend disagrees with Harrison about setting his beliefs to music. "I wouldn’t venture to do anything of that sort myself. Listening to Harrison’s album I felt that he was really allowing us to hear his personal conversations with his master, his conversations with God. He could say better some of the things he has to say if he allowed himself to be interviewed. There was an Indian musician, for example, who at the peak of his influence decided to stop playing altogether, as evidence of his piety. Anyway, I don’t see why George and the rest don’t do more interviews. They’ve become so cagey, and their attitude strikes me as very false in some ways."


Practicing what he preaches, Pete frequently spends as much as an entire week in interviews, and someone in England told him that he and John Lennon have been saying the same things about politics, women’s lib, and rock. As Pete’s friend Speedy Keene might say, there seems to be something in the air.


Like Lennon, Townshend is a complex personality who has and will continue to express himself in the Who’s music. What the Who’s next will be exactly is a bit uncertain as yet. "I’m trying very hard," Pete concluded, "to sound positive and real. I think the Who will do something that not a lot of other people have ever done to start the wheels turning again. All you really need is the moment, and we are just waiting for that moment. When we get it, we’re gonna do it.


"The Who are the only band that have got so much, but have also got an outwardly humorous stand, which makes it a lot easier to be serious. We’re slow-moving, but then it gives the audience time to adjust."