Pete talks about Tommy, The Eric Clapton Rainbow concert, and more.
If you turn up at the famous Track office in Soho’s historic Old Compton Street, you’re sure of a big surprise – there’s a glitzy sign saying "Charisma Records". Anyway the real address is somewhere else entirely. And once you sort out this mystery and get to the correct place, it’s but a short delay before Pete Townshend bustles in, accompanied by a large furry object answering to the name of Towser. He leads the way up to a nice Danish wood office on the top floor, and between interventions by carpenters, publicists and Chris Stamp, we sit through the afternoon putting away large scotches (Pete don’t pour no other kind, you dig) and discussing the ‘Tommy’ and Clapton shows, The Who, and other related topics.
Pete Townshend is a nice man. He responds thoughtfully and constructively to any questions put to him, and is consistently charming even in the face of ludicrously impertinent questioning. He’s enormously articulate, totally aware, and possibly the easiest-going living legend you could hope to meet. Here’s the account of our conversation:
CSM: Were you amazed to find the "Tommy’ industry grow up to become
such a mammoth concern?
PT: "Yeah, because it was so belated I’d given up the ghost on that. That’s all there is to say. The main thing about the Rainbow show wasn’t the fact that ‘Tommy’ was used, but that, for the first time ever, artistes that I really respect and like were singing my songs."
There are things like that New Seekers record.
"Well, I think that’s a direct fly-off from ‘Tommy’. The interesting thing about that record is that The New Seekers have never seen The Who on stage, and they do it exactly the same way we do. They do ‘Pinball Wizard’ first, then ‘See Me Feel Me’, then ‘Listening To You I Get The Music’: the same way as we do it live. I like the record, and they’re completely convinced they’re gonna have a big hit. The first time I heard it I thought they were right, but I’m not so sure now. I like it because, again, it’s a sign people are starting to record our material."
How much did you feel identified with Lou Reizner’s ‘Tommy’?
"We weren’t really all that involved. There was a fantastic amount of business involved, and there was a difficult management thing. The reason that I was there was really to push the fact that this was a happening project, rather than a packaging job, so that people like Stevie Winwood and Richie Havens would want to do it.
"It was a Lou Reizner production. I had nothing to do with it except that I wrote it. I agreed to be on it because I felt it would be fun. I didn’t agree to be on it because I felt it was the high point in my career. I feel I made a mistake doing the live gig, I don’t think I should have been there."
I saw the show, and I thought it could have been staged rather more imaginatively.
"Some people liked, it, and some people thought it looked just like a pantomime. I liked the building up to it, but in retrospect I didn’t like it very much. "The whole point of doing it was for charity, and so we couldn’t spend too much. They took £22,000 and the charity ended up with £10,000. I thought that someone was running off with the money, and sure enough, when we looked at the books all the money had been spent on production. Just to build one of those silly mushrooms costs about £500 for two of them, when you need them in a hurry."
The nice thing about the original was that you were using the resources of a three-piece band with a few additional things to play orchestral parts. I think that doing it with an orchestra took away some of the charm of the original.
"Yes, possibly. I haven’t really any strong opinions about it. I just feel it was an exciting project, and I’m glad it happened.
"It’s too easy to look back and find little things wrong with it. It’s very easy to look back on the Who album and find things wrong with it. People often pick holes in that. Now that it’s not such an important and sacred thing to The Who. People are much more free about it in their opinions. Apart from anything else it’s four years old and it was the first thing of its type that was ever tried.
"Actually, I’m bloody fed up with talking about ‘Tommy’."
Let’s change the subject immediately, then. After ‘Tommy’, the next time you really popped up into the public eye was with the Clapton concert. That was something I’d hoped would happen for a long time, and I was amazed that it actually did.
"You’re not the only one. It was Eric’s idea. What happened is a fairly long story, but it’s all very interesting. There were famous rumours in the business that Eric was never ever going to work again, that he was shacked up in a house and wasn’t going to talk to anybody, that he was suffering from the effects of this evil drug or that evil drug, or that he had traumatic events on stage, and all sorts of rumours.
"It’s too easy to say things like that. All that had happened reaIly was that Eric had not done more work than a band like The Who. But you’ve gotta realise that in his case there was much more trauma involved. He’d worked with 20 musicians, all of them psychotic personalities and brilliant musicians: Jack Bruce, Ginger, Duane Allman, Delaney and Bonnie, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, the best drummers in the world, but fantastic personalities.
"You’ve got to reaIise what he went through, and how long Cream were on the road. I remember one year when Cream came back to England for two days, just to retain their British citizenship. They were in America working every single day for a year.
‘Then Eric lost two people that he based his whole life on – Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman – in fairly close succession. So there were a lot of reasons why he wasn’t working.
"What really annoyed me most, I suppose, were the drug rumours. I didn’t know what was happening at all. I originally went to see Eric because I was very interested in seeing his home studio, because he’s got a fine one. Eric expressed an interest in getting his album finished, and I thought, ‘Great! I could go to the studio and help out a bit.’
"There was mention of Stevie Winwood helping out so we went down there, and sure enough, Eric was a bit out of it. He hadn’t worked or played on stage for a long time, but he could play all right. The thing he couldn’t do all that well was sing."
He sang so well on the show, though.
"Yeah, sometimes it’s different when you’re in front of an audience. Anyway, suddenly I got a phone call saying Eric wants to do this gig at the Rainbow, and he’ll do it if you do it with him. And I thought, ‘Blimey! OK, bugger it! We’ll do it!’ I think he wanted to get it done in one fell swoop. What was fantastic about it was that Eric has got this charisma that affects other musicians and draws the best out of them. There was no work, it was just playing.
"The first guy to show interest was Stevie Winwood, but it was a bit difficult for him at the time as he was working in the States with Traffic. The first guy to come up and offer his help was Ronnie Wood. I rang up Ronnie and originally asked him to play bass. I was going to play second rhythm and he was gonna play bass and we were trying to get Keltner on the drums.
"Keltner was booked up solid and I don’t really think he thought it was going to be a good gig, so he was making excuses and all that.
"Ronnie and I went to see Eric, and we talked about it for a bit, and rang up Stevie Winwood. He was keen, so we thought Capaldi could help out. On the day of the first rehearsal we met up with a young guy called Jim Carstine, who was gigging with the Crickets, and he sat in for two days.
"Rick Gretch arrived and sat in on bass, and then I turned round to both of them and said ‘Do you want to do the gig?’ Rick said ‘Sure,’ but Jim Carstine didn’t know what was happening. He said, ‘Hey, what gig? I thought we were jamming.’ That’s how serious the work was! But it was incredibly loose.
"I think Ronnie Wood had a fantastic amount to do with it. The whole thing about it was the enthusiasm. I’m fantastically pleased."
Are you helping to mix the tapes?
"We have live recordings of it, but the vocals will probably need a bit of tightening up, because the level seems to go up and down a lot. That’s due to the fact that we should have had a l6-track but we only had an eight-track. We were using Ronnie Lane’s mobile studio, which would be great for a Faces or Who live gig -but there were so many people doing so many things.
"The two drummers thing finally clinched it. Eric kept saying, ‘Come on, I like the drummers.’ But everyone said, ‘No, that’s so scam, bloody James Brown thing, horrible.’
"The good thing about it was that Capaldi was watching Carstine and he played everything that Carstine played, so it was really just doubling up and making it more forceful. I was only playing rhythm but it was just an honour to work with such incredible people."
What are you working on at the moment? Are you writing stuff towards another Who album?
"Yeah, basically that’s it. Also I’m very keen to pick up the pieces of the Eric gig and go into the studio with some of those people, but I’d like to wait until Stevie gets back from his tour with Traffic, because he’s really fantastically important.
"I think that he and Eric have really got a working relationship from Blind Faith. He’s one of the few people who can still get along with Eric. Most people who Eric has worked with in the past, he seems to have bad relationships with. Can’t think why."
One of the things that people say is that The Who’s love for each other generally shows itself through extreme personal cruelty. So people in the band become the butt of the other three. Is this how it looks from where you are?
"Oh yeah, it’s the best way to get something out of your system. Roger gets talked about behind his back, and I think I get talked about behind my back, but I don’t think Keith or Roger get talked about because Roger and I, if we have a conversation, don’t normally get brought down about things unless we’re talking about money. But conversations with John and Keith are usually humorously scam."
Do they sort of get together and say "What a bastard Pete’s been this week," and things like that?
"It wouldn’t be quite as pointed as that. I think they get far more pleasure out of an odyssey of general humorous complaints. It’s light-hearted."
You’re a very different person from who you were in 1965, and the music of The Who is obviously very different, though there are links. How do you find today’s 14-year-old reacting to you, as opposed to his 1965 equivalent?
"I suppose the nearest gauge is my brothers. They’re both musicians and both fantastically good. Simon, who’s 11, plays guitar and piano. Paul’s 16, and plays bass. The younger one likes heavy stuff, Deep Purple and things like that; the older one likes Yes’s ‘Fragile’ and ELP. They like dexterity, virtuosity and versatility. They like people like Steve Howe and bands that sound Clockwork Orange-esque. They like things like Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. They also like David Bowie.
"I like all those people a lot. I’m not really a big fan of ELP, but I’ve always appreciated and respected them. I appreciated Steve Howe and Yes right from the very beginning, but I can’t admit to actually playing their albums in the car. I wait in trepidation for every Beach Boys album and every Stevie Wonder. And I really like Eric’s live album, and Ry Cooder.
"My tastes change and vary a lot. I don’t really feel that my taste in music is anybody’s barometer to anything at all. Say I make a tape to listen to in my car -it verges from stuff recorded in 1956 to stuff right up to today. It’s just stuff that has interested me. I get all excited listening to it.
"But if you’re with a bunch of musicians and they wanted to listen to something that all of them will get off on, it’s got to be either Gladys Knight & The Pips or Sly & The Family Stone or Stevie Wonder or something of that type, where everything is just right. I can’t listen to too much of that stuff but I like it."
When I was 14 The Who were my main band. Now I’m 21 and I still like The Who. How about people who are 14 now? Do you think they regard The Who as an old men’s band?
"Not necessarily, but I can’t see that they understand. Nobody’s interested when David
Bowie, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Marc Bolan say, ‘I was the archetypal mod.’ I’ve read every one of those people say that.
It’s quite possible they were. The funny thing about The Who is that we weren’t archetypal mods, but we were there and were actually playing to those type of people, which is probably a far better point from which to make observations. I felt part of it very deeply, but I wasn’t a face by any means. Fourteen-year-olds are identifying with those sort of people: Bolan, Elton John. Either that or with minor geniuses like Steve Howe and people who have fantastic dexterity."
Slade are perhaps the ’70s equivalent to The Who in the way they relate to their audiences.
"You can’t really fault Slade, except that Dave Hill sometimes looks a bit too freaky. Slade and Bowie are just so important. If they weren’t here now, in England, Christ Almighty, it would just be so sad. I’m so glad that they’re there. Slade have waited a long time for success; Stewart waited a long time; Bolan waited a long time; even Elton John waited years. We were sort of instant. We made our first record, ‘I Can’t Explain’, and we were on Ready Steady Go with it, and from there on we never looked back."
In the gutter one week and a Rolls Royce the next?
"Oh no, nothing like that at all. We all bought our Rolls Royces at about the time of ‘Tommy’. We spent it all. Keith spends money in other ways. He’s absurdly generous. He’s passionately kind and generous."
I heard that when The Who was first formed Roger was into being a dictator and thumping people, but that the balance of power changed after ‘My Generation’. Is that fair?
"In a nutshell it’s not fair at all, but it’s true, But now the paranoia in the group is reversed because at the moment the paranoia is that Roger’s going to go off and be a superstar, which he could do very easily in the wake of something like ‘Tommy’ .
"He’s working on an album of his own. I think Roger’s always misinterpreted what has happened, and what people have felt about him.
"Maybe one of these days The Who will depart gracefully. I had a very funny thought the other day. I thought, what would Keith’s image be if The Who broke up? Would he still be Keith? Would he be the guy who goes on programmes and talks about how many cars he’s got, or would he be the guy who smashes up hotel rooms?
"He’d be a drummer, that’s what he’d be, a drummer first. Now The Who enables him to forget that first and foremost he is a drummer. You forget it if you’re watching him on Russell Harty’s show.
"Really, what is a problem is what happens to Roger, John or me outside of the context of The Who. What we all want to get back to is The Who again, so none of us would ever sacrifice the kind of freedom that we’ve now got. We can do anything we like now.
"This subject is about the only one that all of us have actually sat down in a room and talked about, and what we’ve decided is that we’re holding one major ace card, which is The Who, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else says. We can make any amount of mistakes. We can put out bad singles – and we do. We can do anything because we’re still The Who.
"Now if we split up we would really have to own up. I mean John would really have to put together an amazing solo album. I would really have to say, ‘Well, listen about Meher Baba. It really does work. I’ve got these two lovely children, I’m happily married, got this great house.’
"The reason Meher Baba is working for me at the moment is that The Who are still together. My life is being led on the Who street."
Marc Bolan once said, "I’m as good as Townshend and he knows it."
"I think I’ve always dug Marc Bolan and he knows that, and he also knows that I’d let him get away with murder because of what he’s doing for rock’n’roll. I don’t care what he says. I’m not a close friend of his by any means. I’ve only met him about six times in 100 years, and I don’t feel karmically involved with him. Even in the rock structure I feel that he’s on one level and we’re on another."
Why does Bolan try and identify with you?
"Because of the fact that there have been incredible periods of time when The Who have been a put-down for people like Marc, Rod, Elton and David Bowie too, who have been struggling to do certain things and have known that they have the basic equipment, who think, ‘I’m so much better, why can’t it be me that’s doing it? I would get so much of a kick out of it and people would appreciate it more.’
"When you finally make it after all that time, you feel that you want to make people know that you’ve known about them all along, and that kind of message gets through to me.
"Whatever Lennon says, I think he reads what people say, and I think he’s affected by it. It would be stupid of me to say that I’m not affected by what people say about me. I don’t read music papers too much because if anyone says something that is slightly nasty I can’t take it. I enjoy being praised and so naturally if someone puts me down I suffer from it. I’m not that aloof.
"But I don’t mind somebody saying, ‘I’m as good as Townshend and he knows it.’ That’s somebody’s opinion. It’s somebody’s opinion that I know it."