Pete talks about Quadrophenia, Tommy, and writing for The Who.
Pete Townshend is the chief composer and lead guitarist for the Who, the British rock group that is at Madison Square Garden this week. Most of the songs that he has written for the band are autobiographical, in one way or another. And so it comes as no great surprise when one meets him that his personality seems to approximate the image suggested both in the Who’s music and by his own stage presence: nervous, intense, full of repressed violence and quick small smiles, and above all capable of a level of analytical speculation rare in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
One of Mr. Townshend’s creative contradictions is his belief in the quiescent teachings of Meher Baba, the late Indian mystic, and his simultaneous propensity for violence. That violence has been stylized in the Who’s stage act, but it also manifests itself in his and the band’s private life: Roger Daltrey, the lead singer, knocked Mr. Townshend cold recently in one of the band’s frequent discussions on artistic matters.
And Mr. Townshend is presently staying in one fashionable midtown hotel while the rest of the band stays in another. "I do enjoy smashing up hotel rooms," he admitted with one of his smiles (he did just that in Montreal on the band’s North American tour last fall). "I thought the only way I could make sure that wouldn’t happen was to keep out of the social whirl."
Mr. Townshend’s principal concern these days – and for the more than 10 years of the Who’s existence – is how he can resolve his creative needs with those of the band. For all the flash and fire of their occasional squabbles, the members of the Who have formed the most stable of all the supergroups of rock.
Now, however, the Who’s stage act has reached something of a small crisis. "It’s ironic – a rather bitter irony, actually," Mr. Townshend said. "I wrote Quadrophenia (the band’s latest rock opera) to replace the old stage act. But it didn’t work and we’re back to playing our old hits.
"Do I enjoy performing any more? Not very much. I’ve enjoyed the physical aspect of it, but I don’t get off musically on the stage. The physical side is very sexual and very male ego, and I suppose I’m getting a little tired of that aspect of it, too.
"For the first 80 times I did ‘Listening to You,’ from ‘Tommy,’ I got a terrific spiritual high. But now it’s a ritual and the last thing in the world I want to get into is a ritual. I hate religions. We still get a high about going onstage and being the center of attention, but that’s not rock ‘n’ roll. Rock is when people are standing up and forget where they are.
"The Who is a bloody wild animal, and it has to be fed chunks of raw meat – raw meat and Southern Comfort. It can’t feed on anything less. But I can feed on a lot less than that. Everything I’ve written so far has been given to the Who for first refusal. What I’m saying is that that’s going to stop, and that I’m going to get first refusal."
Who members are currently working on Ken Russell’s film version of their rock opera "Tommy," from which the New York concert dates constitute a week’s vacation. In August or September, Mr. Townshend said, the group will go into the studio to work on an album of commissioned songs by other composers (Ray Davies, Frank Zappa and Chinn and Chapman are among those being considered).
The "Tommy" movie has given Mr. Townshend a renewed opportunity to work in the film medium. Who history contains a number of abortive film projects. Now Mr. Townshend is talking about trying to make a television version of "Quadrophenia," to make a television special out of the album of songs by non-Who composers ("scenes with the Who and 100 topless lady accordionists, and other Zappaesque things"), and a solo project about which he remains deliberately vague.
"The basic idea is that I have to get my teeth into something that liberates me from the band," he said. "The Who is a difficult band to write for. It is very tied to tradition and to is audiences, and very slow to change. It’s like swimming in your own wake. I’d like to do something crazy, explosive. I want to confront the spiritual issue head on. I don’t even know if it will be rock ‘n’ roll."
Through everything he says, Mr. Townshend makes it clear that the Who remains central to his life, if only as a focus for his diverse creative energies.
"People talk about classical music having limitations. But rock has the greatest limitations of all. The great unwritten rule of rock ‘n’ roll is that you can achieve amazing things by transcending its limitations. But if you allow yourself an open check, you’re in big trouble."