Author John Swenson talks to the members of The Who during rehearsals for Quadrophenia tour. Download the pdf here.
On a sultry September evening in Fulham, part of the southwest residential district of London, a hazy egg yoke sun casts a drawling half-light against the facade of a decaying movie theatre. The streets are quiet, the shops closed—the only sign of life oozing from a nearby public house where the Carpenters and Suzie Quatro are playing on the juke box while crusty old men with a few pints under their belts and lazy smiles challenge each other to endless dart games. The atmosphere fairly shimmers with complacency, but inside the crumbling theatre an awesome energy force is slowly gathering momentum. The Who, a classic rock band and the sole remaining intact group from the early ’60s when British rock sparked a dying popular music, were moving again after a prolonged period of dormancy that many interpreted as their demise.
The Who have always been a full-blown enigma in a business normally insane to begin with. Of all the pop groups that surfaced in the British Isles almost a decade ago, they were considered one of the most unlikely to continue for long, as incessant punch-outs and constant mutterings about breaking up from within indicated that they were four totally incompatible individuals seemingly bent on mutual self-destruction. The force that held them in each other’s orbits for ten years is perhaps the best observable example of the rock band gestalt, the strange magic that enables very ordinary people sometimes to form a whole that is not only greater than the sum of its parts but actually supports each one.
The fact that they’ve made their reputation as a live band, and continually laid it on the line throughout their career by touring incessantly, has kept them vital while all of their peers have disbanded totally or radically changed personnel. They established a reputation very early in England on the strength of constant gigging and a string of hit singles, but the mass success and financial security that came with winning over a large scale American audience was denied them through the mid ’60s, until the Tommy juggernaut, while groups like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were being ripped inside out by the pressures of making it too big too quickly. Sparked by the pride in knowing that they were the most dynamic live band around, The Who worked hard to- get the American audience to acknowledge them, and it was during those years in the crucible of live appearances that they matured into the fine all-around band they’ve become today.
The determination that fired them through that time was akin to the notion of team spirit, the need for recognition that drives each member of a ballclub that plays as well as anyone else but always falls short of the big prize. What The Who gained they earned the hard way and they continue to fight just as hard to keep it.
This particular rehearsal is of special note because it’s really one of the first steps in a long, protracted comeback engineered to culminate in the release of what could safely be called Pete Townshend’s master work—a double-album based around the roughly autobiographical concept of a mod named Jimmy who suffers from Quadrophenia (double schizophrenia), with each facet of his personality geared to represent one of the members of The Who—and the simultaneous return of the group to the stage in England and America. As it is, this is the first time they’ve stepped on a stage together in eight months. For the last two months Townshend has been sequestered in his home studio, organizing the unwieldy bulk of recorded material for the album; "enough for five double albums," quips Roger Daltrey.
On hand for the event is just about everyone connected with Who matters, all swilling gobs of the official Who drink – brandy and (not top much) ginger—and watching Townshend act the part of director, hashing out kinks in the sound balance with the band’s technical chief Bob Pridden; dashing across the orchestra pit to check with the film crew whose visuals are being auditioned; grabbing hold of a thoroughly drunk Keith Moon to joke about the band’s resumption of activity: "So I said to "im," Townshend piping up to a punch line, Moon deadpanning long enough to play the straight man, "don’t you realize the amount of time and energy that go into assembling the ‘oo? Why, think of the petrol alone!" Moon grimaces, then stomps the floor with a mock hearty laugh and pushes Townshend just a bit too hard to continue the joke. They look at each other and burst into laughter, returning to the stage arm in arm while sipping brandy and ginger out of small plastic cups.
The pre-taped organ part for "Won’t Get Fooled Again" starts and triple images of each member of the group are juxtaposed slot-machine-style with pictures of cherries, pears, lemons and bananas. Somebody misses a cue, Townshend winces, shouts "It’s not fucking loud enough!" and gestures exasperation as the tape drones on unaccompanied by the band. The technicians realize their error and wind it back. The break gives everyone time to get more brandy, and after a mild looning session Moon vaults his drum kit, begins to rev up with a solo, Townshend crunching a power lock chord behind as the band jams until the tape comes around again. The screens flash shots of Daltrey flinging the microphone, Entwistle puffing on his French horn, Townshend amid a mighty leap and Moon performing insane facial and bodily contortions, all in time with the music and a visual correlative to what is actually happening onstage.
After a few more test runs the audition seems complete, yet nobody is sure, now that they’ve gone through all the trouble to coordinate the films, whether it’s actually a good idea. The visuals could be a powerful adjunct to Townshend’s latest opus when The Who perform it on stage in its entirety, just as they did with Tommy. Quadrophenia is no fairy tale, though, but a look over the shoulder by Townshend at the four personalities in the band as he’s come to stylize them after ten years, set in the framework of a story based on the sociological fact of life that gave impetus to the early Who: the mods.
With the audition finished, The Who returned to being four separate entities until serious rehearsals for the stage act get under way. Townshend submerged himself once again into mixing the album, while the others went their separate ways. Conventional wisdom would have it that Townshend is The Who, providing as he does the strength of his songwriting vision; but without the rest of them he probably wouldn’t have developed his edge. What it is that each member contributes to the whole takes a good long look to figure out, but after a while it becomes clear that the force of each personality is clearly imprinted on the soul of The Who.
* * *
The hour-and-a-half ride by rickety British rail out to Wadhurst, near Roger Daltrey’s country estate, passes by some of the most beautiful landscapes in southern England
—soft, rolling hills of pasture land flecked with meandering livestock, thatched roofs on squat huts of farmhouses and conical peaks of barns offsetting carefully tilled rows of planted fields. The contrast with London is startling and one wonders at the change in Daltrey, the street fighting punk of Shepherd’s Bush turned rural landowner, feet firmly planted in the dark soil that now feeds him. Roger is there to meet us at the station in a battered Range Rover, too big really for the tiny English roads but handled with deft ease by Daltrey, whose every movement bespeaks total self-assurance, the same quality that has made him the classic rock singer he’s become over the years.
"We’re not gonna use those films after all," Roger explained. "It all seemed like too much of a gimmick to me, and I don’t think we need gimmicks to get the ‘oo across anymore. My wife went to see the Stones last week and said they looked like they were trying anything just to get a response. I don’t want the group to get caught up in all that stuff." Strange words from a man who gives most people the impression of being a glittery superstar.
While Daltrey has the look, the voice and the aggro-attitude of an archetypal superstar, he is anything but decadent. Of all the members of the group he alone seems to have made a clean break with his urban background, spending all his free time working the 35-acre farm he bought three years ago. He doesn’t even listen to music at home—throughout his comfortable, tastefully but casually decorated house there wasn’t a trace of music, though ample evidence of a farming influence was present. Propped up against the worn stones of the living room fireplace, where a tiny flame sputtered noiselessly while we talked, was a pair of antique horsecollars Roger was working on. His backyard has several horses wandering in a field like so many casual pets, three dogs lounge easily around the grounds and a fledgling herd of long-haired Highland cattle graze on a hillside beyond the trout-stocked lake Roger made in the back by filling in a swamp and damming it on one end. "I work the place myself when I’m here and I’ve a hand who takes care of it when we go on the road," he mentioned, adding that the hard work kept him in shape for singing with The Who.
There is a standard success story quality to Roger Daltrey’s life, both in and out of The Who. Even though he didn’t write the material for it, his solo album was by far the most successful of all Who solo efforts; during the time when the group was preparing Quadrophenia, Roger had scored with three solo hit singles in England—two from the Daltrey album and a re-released version of "I’m Free" from the Lou Reizner adaptation of Tommy. "I was really pleased with the way the first solo album went," he admitted. "I didn’t want to do a heavy album, I wanted to do some easy-going songs, not saying anything really heavy, but there again with some sort of quality, I think it had that. And it was really nice to sing other people’s material, I’ve only sung Townshend for the last ten years and you start becoming narrow-minded, but experimenting can be very good, it gives me another breath coming back into singing for the ‘oo. I’ll probably do another one. I really like working with orchestras, I’d like to try that out a lot more. There’s no reason why an orchestra can’t come out having as much bollocks as the ‘oo. They’re all musicians playing instruments; it’s just a matter of what they put into it…
"I’ll carry on with the solo thing," Daltrey continued, "as long as it don’t interfere with the ‘oo. Fortunately I can say that I’m really pleased with the way the first one was taken. It hasn’t interfered with the ‘oo, in fact it’s probably helped the group through a very dull period, the fact that someone has been successful outside of the group; although I’d have liked John’s last album to have been more successful, I think that was a fucking good album, it should have done a lot better than it did. There’s some very good stuff on it, very strange, but…"
Daltrey’s reaction to his solo success has to be seen as unusual in a field where groups split up at the first sign of a solo career by one of the members. Inflated egos are probably the largest single casualty factor working to break apart bands, but instead of mapping out a solo career for himself, Roger sticks tenaciously to his role as lead singer with The Who. Quadrophenia was foremost in his mind. "It’s the strongest musical stuff we’ve ever come up with," he said. "Townshend’s writing surpassed anything he’s done in the past with this one, he’s got good lyrics now to go along with incredible music, and . . . it’s not over-indulgent, it’s still simple, it’s ten times more clever than anything we’ve done. And the old ‘oo is still there, that’s what I’m really pleased about, whereas on Who’s Next it started to get a bit linear, you know, flat, although I thought we could afford to do that for one album in order to brush up technically, but the old sort of fire of the ‘oo was lost a bit, except for perhaps ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘Baba O’Riley’ the fire of the ‘oo on that album was pretty low. I mean it didn’t matter, it was good for us in that it was a technical exercise, but on this one, the ‘oo’s really there. Even though Who’s Next was a kind of salvage operation, it was still a technical step forward. It was the best recorded sound we’ve ever had, listening back now I think it stands up better than most groups that do albums of different songs anyway. I just felt like, we’d lost one bollock, but on this one we’ve really got our balls back."
Roger went on to explain the necessity for the long layoff between Who’s Next and Quadrophenia: "We’d been going strong for seven bleedin’ years of constant touring, we really needed a break, especially in England. We just thought we were becoming a bit like the pop furniture two years ago and we felt that in order to carry on the way the ‘oo have been carrying on we needed time off to come up with something. It’s all too easy just to go on making records, go into the studio once every six months and come up with ten songs to make an album. But the ‘oo don’t exist like that, that’s why we need our Tommys, we need albums that say more than just a load of songs. We felt that to get the next one, after Who’s Next, that we needed this time off. We were banging our heads against a wall—we were good at what we were doing, but we weren’t going anywhere. Things are opening up for us now, whereas before we were starting to get closed in.
"I don’t think we’ve lost anything," he asserted. "It seems to my mind that most of the press is looking for the cracks in the ‘oo, start gettin’ those chisels in there mate and away we go. But there ain’t any. Can’t they understand that just because you do a solo album doesn’t mean that it can’t be an extra part of the group as well?" (Some of Britain’s tackier pop writers had begun making comparisons between Daltrey and Rod Stewart.)
"That’s what’s good about the ‘oo!" Roger had thoroughly wound up by this time, throwing his hands in the air in disgust at those who didn’t understand his band. "We can do it, we can fucking do it. Entwistle can go out and do his, Pete can do his, I can do mine, but the fucking group is still number one because we all care so much about it. I don’t understand it, people are so naive. We used to beat each other’s fucking brains out every night of the fucking week years ago, I mean literally, and we’re still here now, I mean that shows you we ain’t any other group. That’s why we’re successful. We’ve got four elements—earth, air, fire and water. D’y’know that? Yeah, really! I’m water, John’s air, Keith’s Leo, or fire, and Pete’s Taurus, earth. It’s really strange, and apparently … I don’t know much about numerology, but there’s quite a few perfect formulas there as well. Weird. We haven’t got anything in common, but together … there again, you let an outsider slag any of us off and you’ll see the first three to come bashing on his head. That’s why we’re so strong, I reckon, cause although we’ve got a collective thing which is like the biggest thing that anybody could really dream of—the ‘oo—it still gives us the freedom to be us as well."
Daltrey continued to explain his impressions of the group in terms of the past. "When we first started I used to make all the bloody guitars. That was about ’60. We used to make our amplifiers as well, used to make these huge boxes. In them days it was all psychological warfare being in a group, so we hit on the idea of having the biggest cabinets you’ve ever seen in your life, typical ‘oo bright idea, yet inside we’d have this little 12-inch speaker in the bottom. People used to come and see us and say gah, they must be good, look at the size of their gear.
"That’s how we really started: Pete played rhythm, I played lead, John played bass and we had various assorted drummers and singers. We had a huge following at the time playing Top 20 stuff for a local band we were doing all right. Then we decided to go into blues which is totally what people didn’t want to hear, we lost all our audience but built up a new one, that’s where the ‘oo really started to develop from. Because so many of the songs sounded more or less exactly the same, we had to use our own imagination to build up from that. It seemed to be okay at the time to mimic some groups, so when The Beatles came along we liked what they were doing so we switched to playing blues.
"That’s when I started singing, also when we picked up Moon. We didn’t pick him up, actually, he just fell in and never fell out. We were looking for a drummer and this geezer came up and said ‘C’mon, let’s have a go!’ and he was as mad as the rest of us so we thought, ‘He’s in,’ and that’s that. We took chances as we saw ’em and they paid off—simple as that. They were big gambles at the time, but that’s the fun of it, innit? I wouldn’t change any of it now."
* * *
When he’s not playing with The Who, John Entwistle spends most of his time working with his own group, Rigor Mortis. On days off from Who rehearsals he’s likely to be found either in his home recording studio working on demos and overdubs or at Nova sound studios, along with his co-producer, John Alcock, and various members of his band.
On this particular occasion, two weeks after the last Who practice session, the Ox (as he’s known) had arrived at Nova with a bottle of brandy under one arm and a few boxes of tapes under the other. Amid much banter and joking, he and Alcock proceeded to listen to the rough mixes for the Who album to follow Quadrophenia—what John describes as "a collection of old stuff we’ve always wanted to release but for various reasons never got on albums." Included on the album is Townshend’s 1967 anti-cigarette smoking commercial, "Little Billy," written for but never used by the American Cancer Society; an Entwistle song, "Postcard," recorded at Townshend’s home studio in 1969; "Join Together," released last year as a single; "Don’t Know Myself," released as the B side of "Won’t Get Fooled Again"; "Pure and Easy" and "Rock is Dead (Long Live Rock)" from Townshend’s Life House script; "Water," "Naked Eye," "Now I’m a Farmer" and "Put Your Money Down," Entwistle had also brought along the demo of his latest song "Lady Killer," with a typically sardonic story line.
As the tape was repeatedly played John began to make fun of his singing, belching punctuations in between sips. "I’ve been trying to get away from the sick stuff," he explained, "but as you can see it’s hard to avoid." The Rigor Mortis drummer, Graham Deakin, dropped in and a plan was devised to get him together with Keith Moon. "Give him a case of brandy and he’ll do anything for you," Entwistle advised with a gleam.
The Ox was obviously enjoying himself with Rigor Mortis, talking with great animation about the projected touring band. "It’s a twelve-piece group: two synthesizers; two guitars, one doubling on bass; drums; three female back-up vocalists and a four-piece horn section. We’re gonna tour with The Who’s PA system and use the Who roadies." Entwistle projected an American tour for 1974.
As the brandy began to take effect, I commented on its value in the studio. "This is nothing compared to what we usually drink," John exclaimed. "I spent a grand on a one-day party here just after we’d recorded the Rigor Mortis Sets In album. We recorded it in less than three weeks and during that time I ran up a $2500 booze bill just at my house." A quick inspection of Entwistle’s suburban home explained why—one of his proudest possessions is a completely stocked bar where all visitors eventually end up, usually prostrate. After retelling a few Keith Moon drinking stories, he mused to Alcock, "Imagine working that close to Moon for ten years." They both convulsed with laughter. "The ultimately redeeming quality about Keith Moon," he elaborated, "is that he can still play drums with a broken leg and a broken collarbone," Entwistle explained that Moon had fallen down a flight of stairs the previous day and was probably in the hospital. "He was on his way to his accountant’s—Keith going to his accountant is like a normal person going to the dentist. Every time we go on the road, the first hotel room he stays in gets completely wrecked – he’s singlehandedly kept The Who neck-deep in debt for years.
"We drink a lot on the road," John revealed. "You have to or you’d go crazy. Townshend drinks much more heavily on tour than he does at home. Moon drinks a lot, but he has to achieve the right balance. If he drinks too much and passes out before we go on, he’ll play extremely sluggish and we have to pull him along. If he doesn’t drink anything he plays even slower. But if he drinks just short of passing out he’ll play great. We never see Daltrey on the road because he doesn’t drink—he goes to bed at eleven o’clock and we’re all up until five in the morning, then he’s up at eight and we don’t get up until the afternoon. That way we never cross paths except when we’re onstage. I’ve never seen him drunk—I don’t know how he can stand it sometimes.
"Once we were on a plane heading from Memphis to Atlanta, waiting to take off for a long time. The pilot had switched on the intercom to announce the delay, then had left it on and you could hear him whistling for 45 minutes. We were really drunk and the whistling was driving us crazy, so all of a sudden Townshend jumps up and shouts ‘All right, all right, I’ll tell you where the bomb is!’ The stewardess overheard him and the plane was delayed, they took us out, searched all our luggage and detained him for questioning. We were scheduled to play in Atlanta at nine o’clock and Townshend didn’t get in until ten-thirty. Moon and I were sitting around in the dressing room getting totally pissed drunk, saying we didn’t care and we’d take it out of his share, but Daltrey was stone sober, fuming off in a corner. I don’t know how he can stand it. At the time we got out of it by saying that Pete had only said ‘We ought to go down a bomb," but for a while things looked pretty bad."
More brandy, another bottle of cognac, an Italian dinner and two stiff bottles of wine later, John Entwistle’s normally glib tongue had loosened completely. He seemed to feel a kind of quiet pride in being part of The Who, but it didn’t keep him from saying the worst. When at one particularly fuzzy period of conversation I asked him what sort of glue held The Who together, he twisted up his mouth and snorted "money!" It’s easy to misinterpret Entwistle’s cynicism, however, for as much as he likes to make jokes at everyone else’s expense, there’s a streak of romanticism to him, and it’s refreshing to hear his version of the truth expressed with the simplicity he masquerades as anti-intellectualism. When pressed with the hypothetical situation of having to make a choice between Rigor Mortis and The Who, John explained himself. "We’re the best live rock band," he stated, "even though we’re nowhere near the best musicians. I’ve never thought our albums were particularly good, and they never sold on their own. It’s always been the same with The Who, you just have to play everywhere to get hit records. We were the first band ever to have big 4X12 stacks; I was the first bass player to have two stacks, the first bass player to have two amps. We were just the first really loud group.
"When Jimi Hendrix formed the Experience, Noel Redding rang me up to ask what kind of equipment I used, so I told him I have two Marshall amps in two 4X12 cabinets, standard precision bass with Rotor Sound strings. He turned up with just about the same equipment set up; jazz bass, Marshall stacks and Rotor Sound Strings. Bruce and Clapton, when they formed Cream just decked themselves out the same as the two bands. Hendrix when he came over to England went to see all the big bands, went to see Townshend, Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. I used to see him in the audience when we played the Marquee. We played with both Hendrix and Cream in the early days in the States but they made it there first because they were prepared to stay there. We had to wait until we’d played there enough before we could make it. We had to do seven really profitless tours, got ourselves ridiculously in debt because we had to wait until something like Tommy came along to pull us out. We’d played everywhere in the States and I think we’d just about sunken in by the time Tommy came out.
* * *
Keith Moon is the closest thing The Who have to a living legend—his well-documented lunacy does more to typify the spirit of the group than any other single factor. The stories about him all seem exaggerated, the way a myth is built by passing through many stages to a tale that buggers belief, but anyone who tries to pin him down will discover it’s all true. No one can keep tabs on Moon—not his wife, his publicists or even sometimes his chauffeur-bodyguard. He disappears for days at a time only to pop up in the most unlikely places in the company of fellow lunatics like Vivian Stanshall and other assorted ex-members of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. I tried to track him down several times while in London, once getting the chance to watch him at work in the group’s Battersea studio, but on the last day of my stay I managed to corner him in a pub off Leicester Square.
Moon has a presence—the closest thing I’ve ever witnessed to a true Star quality—which takes control of everyone present the moment he enters the room, arms flailing out mock royal greetings to friends and strangers alike, teeth flashing through rapidfire dummy smiles. The master of the put-on, Keith is still the nice guy who buys drinks for everyone and enjoys being the life of the party. His nonstop banter only approximates conversation; sequentially his thoughts make little or no sense, with the only ground rule being that every sentence will end in a punch line, all of which leads me to the conclusion that Moon, though a bad interview ("at least you won’t waste batteries"), is a delight to talk to. By the time we finished all I remembered was an incredible story about an alleged run-in earlier in the day with Mick and Bianca Jagger. "I was at the record company and I noticed them coming downstairs," Keith blurted, "and I thought to meself, ‘there’s Bianca, that stuck up bitch, I’ll really shake her up,’ So I pulled down me trousers and went ‘Yaaaaghh’…"
* * *
Pete Townshend could well be called the How of the Who. More than any of the others it is he who drives the band, providing them with the intense direction that enabled The Who to acquire and maintain a standard of excellence. Townshend is one of the few great artists rock has produced—but that’s not an easy thing to be, for rock’s message is basically anti-art. At its most basic the music is merely an affirmation of the moment of existence, pure and easy, or as Pete himself once said about the way to listen to rock: "That’s how you should be all the time: just grooving to something simple, something basically good, something effective and something not too big." Rock is an art form totally dependent on the audience; therefore a song is only as good as the audience it reflects can relate to it.
Which is all obviously very Townshendian. That’s how he started: pick an audience (in this case, the mods of early ’60s England) and feed them. "My Generation" has become a classic hunk of history for its sociological significance as much as for the bittersweet electric drone of a chord pattern. Pete had his creative outlet and he hammered it home, sensing what the audience was like across the footlights and playing his guts out for them. But like all creative people, Townshend longed for transcendence. One song at a time wasn’t enough to satisfy his conceptual fantasies—he began to write mini-operas as early as the second album. The need to create a consummate work of genius led him to Tommy. As great as that record is, from his own point of view it is essentially flawed because it lacks the strength of the live Who.
As a follow-up to Tommy he’d planned a film which would include the audience as a vital part of the creative concept. Unfortunately, after an incredible expenditure of time and energy, the Life House film project blew up, leaving Pete on the verge of a breakdown with a handful of vaguely related songs and no movie to give them meaning. It’s a tribute to the strength of The Who that they could recover from a blow like that, recording the songs as they were and doing a tour. Ironically, Who’s Next turned out to be their most enthusiastically received album.
As Daltrey suggested, the two-year waiting period after Who’s Next was necessary in order for Townshend to pull his ideas back together and come up with something appropriately mind-blowing. Pete set the task for himself and by his own testimony succeeded in finally coming up with a massive work of art that has the sound of the live Who while capturing the audience/performer union. When we spoke between takes at the Fulham rehearsal, Townshend was bubbling about the new project, explaining it in terms of the interaction the band has always felt between themselves and their audience. At that time I still hadn’t heard Quadrophenia, but on the first listening Pete’s cryptic statement about going back to the old Who suddenly made sense.
Quadrophenia is a sociologically valid treatment of the mods from a historical vantage point. The subject of the album, Jimmy, is an archetypal mod: brash, loud, angry and desperately in search of love. He loses his girl, his parents don’t understand him, and he goes to see The Who. The album’s action is simple—Jimmy takes his pills and his bottle of gin out to an island, where he begins hallucinating, hearing fantastic music, and in his dream four characters flesh out, paralleled by four musical themes. Thus a typical Who follower becomes The Who, internalizing the four personalities in a prescient flash that he sees but doesn’t understand. The understanding is left to the audience. As the piece climaxes, the four themes blend together to a mind-curdling finale, capped by a cataclysmic, schreeching feedback snort that resonates into space and time.
Townshend has finally done it, combining what he needs to do with what he wants to do. "In a lot of ways, this is going back to the old Who," Townshend summarized. "We even went so far as to dress up some of our younger relatives as mods, give ’em some pills and send ’em down to Brighton Beach. We take our nostalgia seriously."