Pete talks about the last ten year of music and his plans for the future.
••Peter Townshend is one of rock’s most intellectual superstars. In the following exclusive interview he tells Hit Parader what the last ten years of making music with The Who has been like and what he’s planning for the next ten years.
Townshend: Where’d I see you last? I’ll start questioning you.
HP: Probably in your management office at 888 Eighth Avenue, way back in the 1960’s.
HP: How are you taking the 70’s now that we’re three years into them?
Townshend: Don’t like ’em.
HP: Do you think all the things that are happening in the 70’s — Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, the return to elegance quote unquote — are exciting?
Townshend: Well, it’s not very exciting for them, I don’t think. They’re always ringing up to invite me out. They obviously think that I’m more fun than the jet set, in inverted commas. Alice Cooper invited Keith out for a game of golf the other day, said he’s got no friends. Mick Jagger’s constantly entertaining Ronnie Lane. Ronnie says he’s the most down to earth guy in the world. So there’s obviously a need for sanity somewhere.
HP: It’s like everybody’s beginning to clean up their act after all the things they learned in the 60’s. Have you had any time to contemplate the 60’s and what you learned? Have you had that break?
Townshend: Well, no. I mean yeah. I mean ‘Quadrophenia’ as an album was the culmination of a lot of that kind of thinking. Sort of, really, the fact that it’s about the 60’s and it’s about that ten years of our career, involves us in it and involves us as a device. It was really very conscious because I was doing that, I suppose, quite a lot.
I didn’t sort of look back. I really started to get the feeling that it’s like that ten year cycle. Our first record was made in 64 — ‘I’m The Face’, I think was made in late 64. But we formed really as a band — Keith joined the group in 63 so we’re like getting round to our ten year sort of cycle. And that tends to make one look back. You just start to think: ‘Is it really ten years?’!
HP: Do you think you’ve had your say as far as the 60’s are concerned with ‘Quadrophenia’?
Townshend: Ah, I think in the traditional Who sense yeah. I’m now contemplating never ever writing anything like that again. I felt it was really important that we shouldn’t get lost somehow, not in any rush — I mean I’m as anxious as anybody else for the next explosion to come along — but so we don’t get caught-up in that Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard syndrome. I find that very scary.
HP: Very nightmarish…
Townshend: Yeah, I just don’t want to be standing on the stage playing the old tunes. It’s great but it really is like reliving. And it really is like constantly going over and over and over again and if you are a genuinely nostalgic person yourself and something really did happen to you, and you were young then, and, of course, none of those guys were young then it’s too emotionally important to constantly do it. It hurts. It sometimes hurts to play ‘My Generation’.
HP: That song is funny. It’s like a best selling book that didn’t start out as a best seller.
HP: And now everyone’s got a copy but at no one point was it selling enough to be on the charts.
HP: But now it’s like a badge that everybody wants to wear…
Townshend: We play it twice now onstage. In fact yesterday we played it twice and then at the end there was a very necessary encore cause nobody moved after we went off so we were trying to think of what to play and somebody said, ‘What about ‘My Generation’ again?’! I mean it stands it, it would stand it. We didn’t play it again.
HP: Twice this year is to prevent having to play it at all next year?
Townshend: No, I certainly don’t mind playing it twice.
HP: Do you mind doing things over and over again at all in that sense? Playing the same thing over and over again…
Townshend: I hated it with ‘Tommy’.
HP: Have you forgotten that now… put it out of your mind?
Townshend: Well I can’t because I’ve offered to … in a moment of insanity offered to re-do the music for the Ken Russell movie which starts right after this tour. So as soon as I get back I want to write some additional material. I don’t know, I’ve never ever seen anybody that I really respect ever take a piece off music of their own and re-work it without something going wrong. Fats Domino remakes or … ah…
HP: Chuck Berry on Mercury Records…
Townshend: Yeah. It’s very strange. It’s like it never seems to work. I’m very anxious that what I do should be a reaction to ‘Tommy’ as though from a completely different position. I think it’s long enough ago that it will evolve in a really good and exciting way.
See, the other thing is there never ever was the rumored live album of Tommy’ and so there’s nothing on record which represents the tail end of the Who’s sort of evolving ‘Tommy’.
HP: When Russell starts doing this are you going to try to get your foot in the door with creating the visual for the Rim…
Townshend: Well, we’ve already talked a fantastic amount. He gave me draft scripts and I reacted to them and all that. The incredible thing about him, you see, is that he’s so right that there wasn’t much I really wanted to say. I’ve had lots and lots of scripts from people but this one was right.
HP: ‘Quadrophenia’ is a book in a lot of senses, a lot of information on a lot of levels … a lot of things for people to think about. Have you considered any other way of saying it? (At this point in the-interview there’s a knock at the door and Peter answers. Three young girls are there asking for concert tickets. Peter gives them tickets. They scream and hug and kiss him. He closes the door and comes back into the room grinning.
Townshend: They’re great, those kids. They did that whole thing just now about an hour ago when I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you some tickets.’ So I got it twice. Never ever happened to me when I wanted it to happen.
HP: Does that mean as much now as it did?
Townshend: It never ever happened …very rarely.
HP: Always sitting there waiting and the phone never rang…
Townshend: Yeah, when I was a young man…
HP: How old do you feel now?
Townshend: I suppose I feel about as old as I am. I feel sort of approaching middle age. I’m twenty eight. And a lot of my friends are like — one guy who I used to think about a lot when I was writing ‘Quadrophenia’, a friend of mine who is a very sort of uneducated guy … he’s Irish actually, but probably because he was Irish was always sort of lyrical and could always explain himself incredibly well. It was like he was thirty the other day.
He came to one of our shows in Newcastle before we left to come over. He walked in covered in badges and things that were all collected way way back when we used to play the Goldat Club in Shepherd’s Bush. He had all his membership cards, like framed, there were Union Jacks, and pictures of us that he’d taken on the stage there with like an Instamatic camera or the then equivalent. And it was amazing. He said, ‘I’m thirty’.
Incredible. I couldn’t believe it. I always thought he was younger than me for a start. You always think the audience is younger. And, as … that’s about how old I feel. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as I used to think it would. I mean when I was about nineteen I wasn’t like afraid of old age but I was very angry about it. I was angry that I was going to get old. And I knew also that I was gonna even out a lot. It’s really great to be in a rock band because you get an excuse to behave like an adolescent all the time, and everybody applauds.
HP: Do you have any sense of like, you’re twenty-eight now and there are kids who are fifteen who are running up and down Sunset Strip … some of them are twelve and thirteen…
Townshend: Well, there’s only three of ’em!
HP: Well, that’s because they’re not living as long as they used to. But, you know, any sense that there are at least two generations now who are aware and conscious … and, you know :..aware of you as something that they weren’t old enough to see the first time around? Do you have any sense of them or their needs or desires?
Townshend: I obviously should have but I find it really difficult because I think always in the sense of like, you know in the old clichéd thing, I think in a reflective sense. I like to be a kind of barometer … or at least allow the music to be that. And when I write lyrics it always comes out in a very unconscious sort of way. I write a song and then record it and then sit back and play the journalist and analyse it. And play the rock fanatic and try and work out what makes it tick or where it came from. And I never quite know where it comes from. It just sort of comes out of the top of my head, you know?
HP: Do you make any kind of effort on any level — at least as far as inputs are concerned — to hear what’s happening, to see what’s happening, to feel what’s happening?
Townshend: Ah, it’s a knack I think that you get. I don’t know what it is… I mean I really like to go to sort of ballrooms and things. Whenever I get the opportunity I just go and sort of hang-out in a ballroom and just hear what records are being played and see which ones get people up. And there again I feel completely alienated by other things that are happening in the rock business. The fact that in England, for example, a pop music age group audience is like three years old through to about seventeen.
And another pop music audience is from about fifteen through to about maybe forty. And that’s a bit peculiar because it means if you’re part of one you can’t be part of the other. So it excludes my own kids from ever enjoying what I do. Whereas at four and a half years old they think David Cassidy is amazing. And they like his music and they listen to it and they enjoy it. It annoys me that there is that kind of …I don’t think it’s quite as split in this country … it’s such a-big country that it’s sort of fractured and it dissipates and it’s not as defined…
HP: And also they grow … when they get to like fifteen, sixteen … they graduate from like reading kids’ books into adult books.
Townshend: There definitely seems to be less shame in America in emulating your elder teenagers. In England that’s considered really a sin. You don’t copy your big brother. You do something different. You wear different clothes. And if you haven’t really got anything to say you try best as you can to just disappear completely.
HP: What’s your reaction to what’s happened in England. We all, both here and in England in the 60’s had the feeling of a sense of revolt, a sense of the future, a sense that something was going to change. That the electricness of what we were doing was going to make it change and I think that we’ve all come to — some of us who were there early and are still here — have come to a sense that things don’t really change as much as we might have expected.
Townshend: No, I think that’s the incredible thing. I mean, the other incredible thing is that ah … that the demands are still as ruthless and still as heavy. I mean, just the fact that rock music has its own peculiar brand of journalism surrounding it is a constant sort of indication that, you know, that people still want rock and roll. They still want heavy music. They still want exciting, gritty, down-to-earth street corner stuff. Even if they don’t hang out there anymore.
And it’s not out of nostalgia that they want it. They want it in a sort of reiterative sense. They want the same thing said again because they still feel it’s as important now as it was then. A kind of feeling of, say … ah, that song on Quadrophenia, ‘I Am One’, it’s like that kind of thing. They want to be able to sort of have music which affirms their selves.
I think rock is the only music that is capable of doing that, that I’ve ever come across. You know, in an unpompous way. Most other music is sort of… comes from on high down towards the listener. Certain rock songs you just take and they’re yours. You don’t give two shits who made ’em, or what they’re like, or whatever. You just know that they’re right; you just know that this particular song belongs to you.
HP: What about stars? Do you think stars are more important now? In the classic Marilyn Monroe sense of the star. As someone who is beyond you and you enjoy them being separate and special. You’ve created two characters in the last few years who are special people. They may be ordinary people, but they’re still … you know, places for us to focus.
That whole Bryan Ferry thing in England, for instance. With Roxy at this point he’s not so much a rock and roll musician as a star. (Sniffing noise from Peter, obviously not a big Roxy fan.) Someone who you’re going to see to look at, rather than listen to. Do you see that, now that you’re going to have a movie, that whole sense of the star as having anything to do with you?
Townshend: Not really. No.
HP: Now what about television, video tape, that sort of stuff. Have you any desire to express yourself on that level?
Townshend: Well I’m starting to get ’round to like really wanting to … well I’ll wait, I’ll reserve judgment till we work on ‘Tommy’. I’ve never really been in on the making of a film from start to finish. If Tommy" and my involvement in it does nothing else other than drag me back yet again to the industry charisma that surrounds it.
At least it will teach me a bit about the making of a film. You know, I make films. I’ve got a camera. I know how it’s done. I’ve hired cutting equipment and everything but I — I don’t know, it’s not something that conies naturally to me.
And if it doesn’t come naturally to me I don’t really want to force it. And there has been one very severe aborted attempt at a film which took such a great toll on me that I’m very very nervous to do it again.
That was the ‘Lifehouse’ project which was a script that I wrote, kind of a science-fictiony kind of story, but the script was like a workshop type script. It was a story, a legitimate film script type script about what I hoped would happen when I began an experiment of making a six month rock concert. I think is what it was all about. And I described all the things that would happen.
HP: A six month rock concert?
HP: That went on for six months?
Townshend: Yeah it went on for six months. And the Who were playing all the time!
HP: That sounds more like a perennial nightmare for you than anything else.
Townshend: Anyway, the… what it was is to take it up to its ideological level. Is that I’ve got this feeling, I think it’s shared by most people, is that one of the reasons why so many people go to rock concerts is that usually is — particularly with really good performers — a moment when you just kind of disappear. You just kind of become insignificant.
And you forget yourself, you forget the reason you went. And in that state I suppose it’s really exhilarating. It really is like a meditate state. You’re not there anymore. You’re part of something. And you’re free. And your head is free. It’s like absence of self and absence of worry. The really great and the band as well.
What I wanted to do was to try to get that thing to last for a long, long, long time. Eventually to try to get it to be a state of mind, you see. I didn’t know whether it was possible or not but I became obsessed with it. Universal Pictures said they’d finance it.
And we’ve got this theater called The Young Vie in London which is a bit like the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, it’s a workshop type theater, it’s in the round, very small and very good. We moved in and started to alter the sound, fitted in a quad system, and had billions of toys brought in — videos and recording studios and grand pianos and swings and all kinds of stuff. And we just started to open the doors and play.
The first day about fifty skinheads came in and did a dance which I promptly copied. Which is where two boy’s dance together and they bop one another’s shoulders, you lean forward and the two shoulders bop, I thought that was really amazing. Followed closely by a maniac who ran up to the front of the stage, like a hippy, like some drug crazed hippy, and started to yell ‘Capitalist pigs! Bastards! Get off the stage!’
So I lifted him up onto the stage and beat what shit there was left in him out of him. Whereupon he promptly got up again and got on the drums and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to be in a group!’ And then off again and then came back and started to scream. And I suddenly realized the whole thing about it is you almost need the ritual of starting and finishing.
It’s like the whole magic of the joint is that you roll it and then smoke it and you said, ‘From now on I am going to enjoy life! You know! And It’s very much like that at a rock concert, you’ve got to switch it on and then you’ve gotta switch it off. Otherwise there’s no sense of occasion.
Anyway, it was a flop. And I kept trying and trying and trying and then the band started to lose interest and everybody around started to lose interest. But I wanted the album which was eventually ‘Who’s Next’.
HP: What are you going to do about your children when they grow up and don’t like the look of what their parents’ style of living and…
Townshend: Well, the oldest child is only four and half but she’s quite precocious, naturally, and she occasionally just says things that indicate that we’re in for a fantastic amount of trouble. But I think that by that time I might be even enough to handle it. I like to think of myself as sort of … ah, the liberal father of two daughters and won’t bat an eyelid and just sort of sit there in my library. I don’t know … I hope I’m gonna be alright, I hope we’re gonna be alright.
But our family doesn’t feel like a family, I haven’t been educated in that kind of family thing. My wife came from a big solid integrated family so she kind of balances it up a bit. But I still feel kind of … about like kids for example,… like they’re very much somebody else, so there’s no … I mean I think about her as a kind of possession.
HP: But the kids you feel are just like people…
HP: Until they bring home a musician when they’re sixteen or seventeen!
Townshend: Yeah (laughing).