September 24, 2020

’72 Melody Maker Interview with Pete Townshend

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IN the past decade pop music seems to have gone full circle, beginning with the accent on the simplicity and directness of the three-minute cut, moving through a period of complexity and expanded range associated with albums, and finally returning to the broad notion of the single as pop’s effective form. That’s where we are. This view is supported by the fact that the artists with the most media potency are singles groups, like T. Rex and Slade, or have a firm foot in both single and album camps, such as Alice Cooper and the Stones.


Without exception the most influential and significant artists in the whole pop idiom have attracted the greatest public awareness through their singles. "Like A Rolling Stone " for example, galvanised more immediate attention than anything Dylan had done before. That’s why he still puts out singles. That’s why he did "George Jackson" in that form.


In recognising this, one sees the limitations of pop: that because it’s dominated by a commercial system, which is in turn dictated by the needs of a predominantly youthful audience, its artistic sweep is restricted; and because it’s generally written and played by young men of no great educational background it’s also largely incapable of containing any real intellectual content. In the final analysis pop is expressing direct, uncomplicated emotions.


And yet within this structured framework it can be immensely powerful. It can vividly encapsulate situations. It can capture the mood of a time. And though its emotions be largely simple, pop can make them intensely real. The excitement of sex and being young palpitates at its heart.


NONE of these thoughts might have been set down were it not for Pete Townshend. On    his own admission "a mild intellectual," his work has most appropriately coincided with this cycle I’ve mentioned.


From "My Generation" to "Tommy" and back to a succession of singles, like "Won’t Get Fooled Again" and " Join Together." And currently he’s writing an album around the theme of adolescence, a four-way caricature of the Who from their inception to the present day.


This month he also puts out his first solo album, called "Who Comes First." Its projected cover shows him atop a huge mound of eggs, hence the awful punning title.


It’s dedicated to Meher Baba, the Indian mystic of whom he’s been a devotee for several years.


Thus there is this interesting situation around Townshend, where although his life has moved on from an existential attitude of hard living and barely-concealed violence to a philosophical/ religious outlook, his music is looking backwards for its theme and content.


"I’m not only writing something that’s less of an opera than ‘Tommy’ ever was, but it’s even about adolescence," he laughs self-mockingly.


It would appear, in fact, to be an historical retrospect of the four people involved in the Who: Moon as the insane, Entwistle as the romantic, Daltrey as the bad, Townshend as the good.


"They join together and become one piece of music. With me, I start off with the first sex, arguments with the family, leaving home, work, political frustration, and up to the present." He sat down to write it and found that the songs all sounded like . . . old Who singles. He’s turned the full 360 degrees, in effect.


He explains that the great thing about the Who and the Stones playing together is that their history catches up with them, remains with them and is still currently usable. "My Generation" is the testicles of the Who and still performs the same function.


"There’s a time of day when you feel ‘My Generation’ is the song you wanna sing. At the end of a Who performance it’s the song we wanna sing. And we mean it."


In essence, he’s saying that a rock star doesn’t escape his origins; he wants to use them; that although Chuck Berry is virtually middle-aged he’s still a rock and roller, and his songs about adolescence still achieve the same effects.


We’re sitting discussing pop and its clearly-defined limitations in the elegant austerity of Brown’s Hotel in London. Beneath his jacket Townshend has on bright red braces, and his blue trousers are a little too short. He looks like the last days of Mod. His accent is still twangy West London, with the aitches dropped here and there, although what he says is frequently stimulating.


I put it to him that on the face of it, "Tommy" — a story about a kid who goes deaf, dumb and blind after seeing a murder, and is then raped by his uncle — seems somewhat heavily overstated. But Rock, he counters, doesn’t really want to express things that are delicate, neither the people who get involved in it nor those who listen — although he gets the feeling that the Moody Blues are interested in certain subtleties of emotion.

He concedes that rock has got limitations, but if you take away the limitations you’ve got nothing.


"You can only write about fairly unsubtle emotions, as you say," he agrees. "You normally have to write about adolescent emotions and feelings, about frustration or about unsaid, undiscovered and undone territory.


"It can’t break out of its limitations; it can’t break out of being a mixture of light entertainment, dance music and a bit of thought on the side— it can’t really be much more than that. But it can be a chunk of time, a chunk of history.


"Rock ‘n’ roll is a way of life, meaning acid, Woodstock, the Maharishi, police brutality — it means all kinds of things. It somehow conjures up a period, and music is the main information centre.


"The fantastic thing about the three-minute single is that it stands alone, it’s a simple statement. I mean, art gets away with murder because you can just put something down.


"That’s why I felt, perhaps wrongly, pop art was so close to rock and roll — the fact that you could get a baked bean can, frame it, and it would say something — something about tins, something about the companies that sold it, about advertising, about eating."


But was it possible for rock only to work in terms of black and white? Could it not express the shades of grey in-between? Well, he laughed, he understood what I was saying, but it simply wasn’t in the rules! After all, rock and roll is best when you can dance to it, and how could you dance to all .those in-between greys?


"When you know how to make singles, and the Who can just about remember (ironic smile), one of the things you do pretty early in the day is make sure it’s the right tempo for the dance that happens to be going at the time, otherwise you won’t get a hit. That is, unless it’s a ballad, or Opportunity Knocks is involved."


I SAID I thought the striking aspect about the Who singles before "Tommy" was that they generally, the better ones, anyhow, had clear-cut themes. "Pictures Of Lily" was about pornography and masturbation, for instance. Since "Tommy" this distinction appeared to have got lost.


Funnily enough, he replied, he’s gone back to writing about adolescence to get to the beginning and rediscovered about each song having a theme in itself. He’d forgotten all about it getting involved with yer "Baba O’Reillys" and so on.


I mean, he said, "Baba O’ Reilly" was the biggest waste of a track ever. The words were totally meaningless. "Out in the fields 1 fight for my meals" — it was a line from a film script for a film that never happened. It was absurd.


His mood now was singles again. In fact, he said, looking very earnest, there was one single in the chart at the moment which was good rock and roll, the kind of thing we’re talking about, and that was "School’s Out."


When that had happened he’d suddenly thought, "Christ! It was so easy to forget." He absolutely had to have the blind faith to come up with something like that.


In recent months he’d become more acutely aware of the teenage musical needs. He’d stopped reading the music papers and took himself round to a few pubs in Mile End: the Bird’s Nest and the Winning Post up on Chertsey Road, where there were discos and lots of young kids.


The parents were in the pub and the kids were next door, and he’d spent a bit of time hanging out, watching what the kids were listening to. After all, that’s what he’d used to do. It was dance hall philosophy, but that’s the way he’d always got his vocabulary.


As a sort of corollary to this he and his guitar had entertained a group of 160 kids from Londonderry the other day at the playgroup near his home.


"Part of a liberal, charitable thing to put Twickenham on the map," he grunted.


They were all about ten to 13, and they hadn’t known what the hell he was singing about. Led Zeppelin— nothing, absolutely nothing. All of it complete frustration. They’d clap politely and sit down. So he’d asked for requests, anything an old codger like himself might know, hoping they might insist he play "School’s Out" and he could throw a version together.


"And everybody — horrible snotty little boys and girls — all in their revolting Irish accents — unanimously said " Mother Of Mine"! We want "Mother Of Mine"! "Puppy Love"! He threw his head back and did a convincing imitation of a juvenile Irish howl. "Not one of "em mentioned Marc Bolan!


"All those little teenage girls that go and see Marc Bolan are middle-aged women. But of course these — kids didn’t know about rock and roll, did not care about it, and probably never will. It was incredible. Every line went out plonk on the floor, like a turd."


HE GOT UP from his feet and strode gawkily around the room in a state of some exasperation. These lulls were unbearable, he said impatiently, when the material runs out and the sack is empty. But you had to have a lull so that people could start pinching the old stuff all over again. The thought made him brighten up.


The conversation had been arranged ostensibly to talk about his solo album, but he said it was all right if we didn’t. Of course, it turned out that we did.


He said it was the official version of a limited edition he put out in ’69 called "Happy Birthday." That had sold 1,500 copies just to Baba lovers, but there had been bootlegs circulating in the States for 11 or 12 dollars called the "Pete Townshend Meher Baba" album without any material about Baba or any explanation.


Decca in the States had said what the hell’s going on? Why didn’t he let them take it and they’d give away 15 per cent of the retail to whatever charity was affiliated to Baba. Track Records were doing the same in England.


The money eventually was going to wind up in his pocket in an account earmarked for things which he thinks Baba would have wanted the money spent on.  "’ He didn’t want anybody to buy it particularly because it was a charity album.


The songs, which include Ronnie Lane’s "Evolution," didn’t even mention Baba especially. There was actually a Jim Reeves song, in fact, "Heartache Following Me," which Baba liked. (Townshend does it pretty well, too. I’ve heard it.)


But why shouldn’t the public think of Meher Baba as another trendy Maharishi figure? Because, he replied, he’d got a pile of letters at home from kids going from the floor to the ceiling. They might be interested in the seeming paradox of why a decadent group like the ‘Oo would suddenly become pure with a small p and start to have spiritual aspirations. He wasn’t on a meditation trip; he wasn’t even mildly evangelising as the Beach Boys and the Beatles did with the Maharishi. He wasn’t plugging him in any way, and never has done.


He thinks people find an intriguing paradox in his love for Baba set against the 200 Motel shenanigans that go on around him when he’s on the road.


"I don’t use dope, for instance, but I’m often with people who do…Baba changed my life in that respect. I don’t normally get involved in the usual group road scenes, dirty parties, or any of the kind of thing you see on Faces posters, but it goes on around me.


"I mean, Baba lovers in the States are incredulous. They walk into my room and go "Jah Baba," which means "victory to Baba" (he throws out his arm), and there’s a room full of people … broken guitars on the floor, piles of whisky bottles, television sets out in the street, lemon curd all over the wall — they just can’t equate the two things.


"I’m not saying I’m sitting there aloof, like the bloody lighthouse in the middle of the stormy sea — I’m affected, I’m involved, and part of the time I’m doing it — it’s just that Baba is strong enough to keep hold of you, and it’s possible for you to keep hold of him whatever you’re doing."


He’d become involved with Baba through Mike McKinnerley, who did the artwork for "Tommy." They’d become friends through the old UFO club, and Townshend’s wife, Karen, had made the clothes for the McKinnerley’s wedding in Hyde Park. McKinnerley had heard about Baba and kept referring to "the separate soul" in his conversations with Townshend.


"I went and read this book called "The God Man" and everything fit. It was an intellectual appeal at first. The first thing I read that really impressed me was that many people get to a point in their lives where they start to ask questions about the heart, about spiritual and suicidal desperation — you know, the point you reach where you think is life really worth bloody living?  — and they don’t normally find answers. I wasn’t in that state of mind necessarily, but I knew I could reach it. Baba’s coming was directly coincidental with a lack of available things to turn to."


By now Townshend is pacing around the room in those big, clod-hopping boots of his, thumbs hitched in braces, and going at full spate. When he eventually sits down again he’s talking about a "mythical train adventure" that apparently always permeates his conversations with Mick Jagger and Chip Monck, the Stones’ stage manager.


The Who, the Stones, and whoever else fancies it, will board a rock and roll train that clatters across all the continents, pausing here and there for concerts. It will be on the scale of the Greatest Show on Earth, costing 20 million pounds or something fantastic. A film company will put up the money for it and a movie, naturally, will be made. They’ll start next January and end in December 1973. They have a boat, currently in Peru, so all the 100 coaches can be accommodated when they cross the great waters.


Imagine it: there’ll be a big tent, hot dog stalls, and a big dipper ride. Those who don’t want to see the concert can wander round the train and see all the peripheral events going on. They’ll all go into a town and blitz it until it’s had enough.


Isn’t it somewhat impracticable, I murmur. Impracticable! It’s bloody absurd! He gasps. It’s a bloody stupid idea! Then he smiles slowly. But it would be incredible.


There wouldn’t be anything stopping them in the States. Circuses have only just died in America and the hardware is there. You’d go off on a branch line into a State fairground, which every big State has got — some of them have 20 or 30 — a machine would lay a circle of track, and the trains would drive round this big circle.


"The circus people and Chip Monk will just not accept money as an object," he says, a little bemused. " You say, surely the tracks are different widths." "Oh yeah, we’ll get the wheels altered." "Get the wheels on 100 coaches altered?" "Yeah, we do ’em on the boat over."


"And I said, ‘ Well, it’s all bloody right going off for a bloody year in a train round the world, a great adventure, but what about me family?’ ‘Bring ’em with yer.’ ‘ But what about schools?’ ‘Oh, we got a school. And a hospital. And a cinema.’ "


…Townshend looks levelly at me, and I look back at him, and we’re probably both wondering if this piece of phantasmagoria will ever materialise.


IF it should ever come off . . . hope I don’t die before I get old.