September 26, 2020

’71 New Music Express interview with Pete Townshend

Pete talks about The Who’s image and money

In the mind of the public, outrageousness and The Who are inseparable. Of all the groups in the ’60s – when hotel-wrecking, beer-bathing and being turned off aeroplanes were all part of pop’s hellsapoppin’ attitude to life, and before glamour attained the smudgy connotations it has today – The Who were the unchallenged leaders in the looning league.

It was The Who, largely through the conspiratorial partnership of Pete Townshend and co-manager Kit Lambert, who contributed the lion’s share of what made mid-’60s pop the razzle-dazzle, Pop Art technicolour merry-go-round that it was. Pop stars were pop stars, and those on the outside could only press noses to the window and dream themselves into the never-ending carnival.

At the engine room of The Who’s climb were Townshend and Lambert, pushing the band to its status alongside the giants on the strength of each new venture being that bit more absurd and outrageous than the last.

The ‘Tommy’ album was perhaps their greatest success, pulling The Who through a bleak patch in their career and adding the progressive generation to the pop market that was already theirs. But if it was their greatest triumph, then it was also the beginning of the end of that particular facet of the Lambert-Townshend relationship.

Today, on the surface, little has changed. Lambert remains co-manager but not producer – Glyn Johns does that job on The Who’s next album. More significantly, his influence over The Who’s direction has been curtailed.

‘Tommy’, which Townshend admits was primarily conceived as an image concept, was a catalyst; it was the hailing of that album as a musical masterpiece that knocked the band out of its stride. It’s not quite as simple as the group realising they had better do something quick to bring their music in line with what the public and critics seemed to think they already possessed; more that the acceptance of ‘Tommy’ accelerated an increasing realisation that music should hold sway over image.

"’Tommy’ was definitely a result of image-building," explains Townshend. "I mean, I’d spent two years writing the thing, but it was still more an image idea than a musical idea. And it was the whole thing of it being taken up in the States as a musical masterpiece that threw us. From selling 1,500 copies of ‘Who Sell Out’, we were suddenly selling 20 million or whatever it was of ‘Tommy’. It was the ridiculous from the sublime.

"It had to have repercussions. Christ almighty, we thought, here we are being told we are musical geniuses and all we are is a bunch of scumbags.

"I mean, we’ve always been respected as a group, right, but among ourselves we’ve never felt we were a good musical band. We’ve always been like a gimmicky band.

"It wasn’t directly as a result of ‘Tommy’ being hailed the way it was, but it was like a natural thing that we should be a wee bit turned around by something we didn’t think was that musically good being so strongly approved, when really – and let’s be completely honest about it – it was mainly a brilliant example of the ad man visualising that Kit, in conjunction with myself, was so good at."

He broke off. "Did you know I’m in American Who’s Who now? ‘Pete Townshend, composer of the first rock opera."’

Returning to his theme, feet up on a chair: "Kit still has bigger ambitions for us. But what we want is to be able to justify ourselves to each other as musicians.

"Yet Kit’s still talking about concerts on the moon. That’s image. When we first started, we went out blatantly image-creating. That is undeniable, and we have ended up believing much of it…"

He gazed out of the window, comes back with a smile: "But that is only because it worked.

"Stuff like The Who’s Pop Art…That turned into an explosion and, believe it or not, the whole thing started among a tiny group of 20 people who used to gather at the Scene Club. But each of those 20 was a star in their own area. We just had access to that influence. That is when image is successful – when it reflects life.

"Kit and I…we used to sit and talk about the most absurd thing The Who could do. Like playing at Covent Garden, things like that. But all that is evident by its absence in The Who today."

"I don’t think Kit really understood the fact that the group wanted to improve its sound, as well as other things. So we got slightly frustrated, despite the fact that he is an incredible producer. I think when Kit realised we were unhappy with him he was hurt, and opted out completely rather than take a downward slide. We just generally moved apart. We think completely differently now.

"The way I see it, the last five years of heavy managerial activity has put the group where we are – but where we are is a bit of a problem.

"There’s a grave danger of a group in our position breaking up, because when any group feels that it can’t get any more mileage out of what is happening, it tends to do the obvious – which is to say that the individual can do his own thing. But we know from watching other groups that all that is bull…"

Obviously the group is currently in the throes of a painful period of self-examination. Townshend sees the answer to their debate most emphatically in a group film. It’s a project that has sapped a great deal of his energy during the rust six months of this year. Three of these months have been spent writing the music.

But the plans collapsed, he says, because of a confusion of ideas. Also because he’d spent so much time working on the film that other urgent group matters were being neglected. With two American tours and a British tour to complete before the end of the year, pressing engagements have forced the film’s postponement.

"I still feel that the group should be making the film," Pete says with passion. "There is so much that the whole Who organisation, our whole team, could do in a film.

I don’t think there are very many other groups who have the knowledge of stage rock theatre but at the same time the necessary lack of ego to carry it off.

"At the moment we are leaning heavily on the fact that we are good experienced musicians and can put on a good stage act. But – and I hate to rub it in – what we really need is a film."

All The Who, bar Pete Townshend, have just got themselves new houses (that’s ‘ouses in ’00 terminology). "We ‘ad this business meeting, right," says Townshend. "Someone announced to each of us: ‘You are a dollar millionaire.’

And they all said, ‘Right’ – bang, bang, bang. Next week they’d spent it all. The idea was,

‘Now take good care of your money and when you’ re old and grey…’ I said: ‘I’ve already spent mine.’ Keith spent thousands and thousands of pounds buying his’ ouse, because, someone had said: ‘You are going to be a very rich young man.’ Keith thought: ‘Oh…spend it. Spend, spend, spend.’"

Townshend rocks back in his chair and hoots with laughter through bleary, sleep-starved eyes.