September 23, 2020

’74 Disc and Music Echo interview with Pete Townshend

Pete is interviewed in his home while working on the soundtrack for the Tommy movie.

PETE Townshend is at home in Twickenham, and fidgeting; Not only is the Battersea studio without light and power, but half the Who is still asleep, and there is a deadline for the Tommy’ film soundtrack to be finished.


"That’s the trouble," says Peter sadly. "Roger and I are daylight people; we get up when it’s light and start tailing off in the evening. Moon gets up at six, rings us at the studio and says ‘sorry man, I’ll be right over,’ arrives raring to go, and Roger and I are nearly dead. And John keeps Moon’s sort of hours too."


The Townshend household, however, is fully awake and operational. His two daughters are glued to the television watching ‘Kung Fu’, and a man has already called round to see Karen Townshend about a car accident.


Pete’s house is one of the most doggedly lived in houses you’re ever likely to encounter. Very often, music stars have houses that smack of Heals and ‘Home and Garden’, and don’t really succeed at either. The Townshend house is almost exclusively given over to their children. Drawings are pinned to walls and cover the table. Huge paper fish hang from the ceiling, and the first floor is littered with toys and a ‘Wendy’ house.


We retreat to the bedroom to talk, of which one wall is taken up with a painting of a reclining Meher Baba. Halfway through the interview I suddenly notice he only has four fingers and four toes, mean to ask Peter why, and finally forget.


Tommy’ — that old chestnut — is once again foremost in the Townshend mind. Its final deification is to be the Ken Russell film, for which the cameras start rolling on April 1 (which, says Peter, must be a joke). At the moment he’s hard at work on doing the soundtrack music, which is difficult when he doesn’t know who is to star in the film, and what their vocal ranges are.


Names under consideration for parts range from Richard Chamberlain and Ann Margaret, to Tina Turner, Tiny Tim, Elton John, the Beverley Sisters and Kathy Kirby. Ken Russell, says Pete, grasped what ‘Tommy’ was about very quickly.


"There’s no question that he’s not a sensationalistic sort of director (Ken has done ‘The Music Lovers’, The Devils’, ‘Women In Love’, ‘Savage Messiah’) and so things like the Acid Queen, and the murder scene immediately appealed to him."


Pete has had to do a lot of re-writing and patching up on the original ‘Tommy’. He was hardly to have known when he first wrote it that it would have to stand up to such close scrutiny as a film, and a rock opera onstage.


"I suppose ‘Tommy’ does hold water, but there have always been sections that were a bit strange. The opening section is confusing, because you’re not sure if Captain Walker or the lover gets killed, you’re not sure when, or who the lover is, or whether Tommy saw it happen.


"And there’s a kind of emptiness, characterlessness about Tommy. You don’t ever feel the sense of him growing up, and he seems to only emerge as a positive character in the last song. It’s something I’m rather bad at — developing characters and making them convincing, you’ve really got to be somebody to do that.


"The main difference with the film version of ‘Tommy’ will be that the high points are higher and the low points are lower. The dynamics of it are increased. And what I found was that having someone highly creative like Ken Russell going through the script, opened a door in it so I could see something new."


The music hasn’t been so easy to give a new lease of life. The Who have played bits of it onstage ever since it came out, there has been the Lou Reizner album of it, plus two Lou Reizner Christmas concerts.


"We started off by recording Pinball Wizard and I’m Free, but they came out sounding such a cliché, and things were proving to be very slow. I think it’s because it’s very hard for us to get excited about playing something like that without an audience, so we’ve asked along quite a few other musicians to help us to give it a new breath of life.


"Eric Clapton’s coming down, and he’s also been offered a part in the film; and Kenny Jones, Ronnie Wood, and Nicky Hopkins is going to do the piano work."


‘Quadrophenia’ now seems a long way behind Pete, although he devoted over a year of his life to making it. Sadly, it is now sliding rather rapidly down the chart, but he is pleased and pleasantly surprised at the good reception it got, especially from America, where only about one third of the critics were nasty. His main reservations were it being a double album ("I don’t like listening to other people’s double albums, so I don’t see why they should like wading through mine"); and the Mod theme.


Surprisingly, with their notorious thirst for knowledge, a lot of Americans simply didn’t care about the life of Jimmy the Mod, or the bearing that the Mod movement had on the Who, and vice versa.


"I don’t think I’ve ever learnt so much from an album before, and what I mostly learnt was about the band. I think it’s because it’s the only time I’ve ever looked closely at the band. I suppose I’ve always had this blinkered way of getting material together by just looking at the audience very ferociously and excluding all the other stuff. But sometimes your audience can’t tell you anything, and this time I looked at the group and saw a slightly weather-beaten mirror image of myself."


It had been in Pete’s mind to write something about the Mods for some time. After all, it spawned the Who and the Who spawned the Mods, and the whole thing was inextricably bound up. Nobody was in a better position to write the ultimate hymn to them.


"It wound up a lot of mysteries to me, by explaining the sudden disappearance of the Mods in 1967, and also by trying to discover some things, and explain the early strangeness of the Who’s image, and the audience in terms of it. I know it’s very self-conscious as an album, and in America they viewed it much more aggressively.


"But as Roger says onstage before he sings it — whether or not it’s true — ‘Quadrophenia’ is about Mods, but the feelings of Jimmy are what kids still feet today, that hasn’t changed at all.


"The little games with sex, the depression and fashion still go on, because kids have talked to me about it. One guy after a concert told me he’d love to cut his hair and have it short like me, but he couldn’t ‘cos none of his mates would talk to him if he did. I remember going from Art School where it was all long hair and Levis, to advertising where it was short hair, charcoal suits and pink shirts, and being a Mod through both; it’s confusing."


Pete went into the background of the album with his usual meticulousness. For the sea noises they took Ronnie Lane’s mobile unit down to Cornwall and stuck microphones out on a rock. It took him ages to get the right rain noises, and he spent a summer watching birds take off from water so he could get that into his music. He’d spend whole evenings on the river at his country home, further up the Thames from Twickenham, paddling along in a punt behind a flock of coots and then getting them to take off. At one point he dropped tape recorder and mike into the Thames.


Pete didn’t particularly want to print lyrics, photos and the short story in the sleeve — he wanted to leave some things for people to work out for themselves, because he reckons you can keep getting more from an album that way. But they were all included, mainly for America.


"One of the things I enjoy about good albums is that you keep finding new things every time you hear them. With ‘Sergeant Pepper’ I can still get new things out of it, even now. That must be the mark of a good album, and that’s the standard everyone should aim for. You have to be careful and not let all your cards out at once.


"Also, I originally wanted ‘Quadrophenia’ to be one album, because I felt more people would buy it. Not because I thought we’d sell more copies or make more money, but I thought it would find its way into more people’s hands by being a single album and therefore cheaper.


"I’m not really a double album fan, but we’d put so much effort and time into it, that it would have meant cutting two thirds of the material and we’d already hacked a third off to get it onto the double album."


Who addicts have probably noticed the distinct parallel between sides three on ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’. It is the most important side, the liveliest, where everything comes to a climax before the finale. I think the best music of the two works is to be found very largely on side 3.


"I suppose it’s because, like the single, the double album has become a format with its limitations, and when I use it, I start to use it in a similar way each time. It’s like the limitations on operas, and the limits to staging them, although composers wrote in that there should be horses onstage and ships sailing by."


Recently the Who played America for the first time in two years, and Pete was amazed at how much it had changed.


"Suddenly all the audiences seemed very demanding and they wanted much more perfection. I suppose in a way we’d been spoiled, because when we first went there with our big PA and our own lights, people thought it was terrific. Now everybody carries an enormous sound system and light show.


"In fact people came up to us and said, ‘hey, it’s really nice to see things being done in the good old fashioned way’."


The Who’s Christmas gigs at Edmonton were some of the nicest Peter says he’s ever played, he enjoyed them so much.


"I didn’t like the first day much because we’d just come back from the last gig in the States which was Washington and held 28,000. We went straight onto the stage at the Sundown and expected everything to be the same. We’re so daft, we never learn!


"But I’ve never had such a good time in my life, and I think by the end we had a little bit of Christmas in there."


The next gigs the Who do will be in France — "another overdue territory" says, Pete. Both ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ sold gold there, and the band have done very little considering their popularity. Pete reckons they should also do Canada again soon. But in the meantime the ‘Tommy’ film occupies every waking moment, and it should make the Who one of the most universally recognised groups ever.