September 26, 2020

’75 Pete Townshend interview in New Music Express

The Punk as Godfather

A key interview from 1975 that nearly split The Who. The dejection and depression of an embittered Townshend (catalysts behind The Who By Numbers) are glaringly apparent in this discussion of the state of ‘rock’ and the future of The Who.

In the U.S. this article was reprinted in Creem Magazine (Sept.-Oct. 1975).

Pete Townshend didn’t die before he got old. Yet death isn’t his problem, it’s the passing of the years and his current position in what he feels is a younger man’s occupation.

"If you’re in a group," he begins, "you can behave like a kid and not only get away with it, but be encouraged."

The name Keith Moon somehow springs to mind.

"If you’re a rock musician," Townshend continues, you don’t have to put on any airs and pretend to be all grown, up … pretend to be ‘normal’ or even be asked to behave like you’re a mature and a highly responsible person. These are just the trappings that society puts on most people, with the result that most kids are burdened down, with responsibilities far too early in their life.

"You know the deal: as soon as you leave school you’ve got to find a secure job and hang onto it. I wrote ‘My Generation’ when I was 22 or 23, yet that song breathes of 17-year-old adolescence. But then I did have a somewhat late adolescence."

So what are you trying to tell us?

"Personally, I feel that the funniest thing and also the saddest thing about the current state of rock ‘n’ roll is that it’s the pretenders that are suffering the most. Those people who, for a number of years, have been pretending to be rock stars and have adopted false poses. It’s the difference between someone who has made rock an integral part of their lifestyle and therefore doesn’t feel like they’re growing old.

"You want to know something? I really hate feeling too old to be doing what I’m doing.

"I recently went to do a BBC-TV interview and when I arrived at the studios there were all these young kids waiting outside for the Bay City Rollers. As I passed them by, one of the kids recognized me and said, ‘Oo look, it’s Pete Townshend’ and a couple of them chirped ‘Ello Pete’. And that was it. Yet the first time the Who appeared at those same studios on Top Of The Pops, a gang of little girls smashed in the plate glass front door on the building.

"Anyway, as I entered the building, the doorman turned to me and smirked. ‘Ere, what’s it feel like to walk past ’em now and have nothin’ happen, eh?’

"I told him that, to be quite honest, it brings a tear to my eye. Look, I don’t want them to mob me because the Who have never been a Rollers-type band, what I’m scared of is hypocrisy."

Hypocrisy? In what way?

"Well, nowadays it’s considered very passé to admit that you’ve got a burning ambition to stand on stage and be screamed at by 15-year-old girls. But when we started out that was something to be very proud of. If it didn’t happen there was something wrong with you.

"Though I haven’t all that much experience as to what is happening contemporarily in music, I do feel that ‘the-world-owes-me-a-living’ attitude still prevails, not only in rock, but in every walk of life. So now everyone’s gotta look like they really mean business and every bloody singer I see on The Old Grey Whistle Test looks a-n-g- r-y." He breaks off the conversation to pull relevant grimaces. "When I see this I go into hysterical fits of laughter.

"Sure, I know that I look angry when I play but usually there’s no reason for it. I suppose it’s an adopted aggressive thing, which is in turn a subconscious layover from those days when I was angry. I don’t quite know what I was angry at, but I was angry, frustrated, bitter, cynical and it came through in the music I wrote."

C’mon, Pete, you’re either evading the moment of truth or approaching it in a very roundabout manner. What’s brought on this manic obsession about being too pooped to pop, too old to stroll?

"It’s just that when I’m standing up there on stage playing rock ‘n’ roll, I often feel that I’m too old for it."

No kidding.

"When Roger speaks out about ‘we’ll all be rockin’ in our wheelchairs’ he might be but you won’t catch me rockin’ in no wheelchair. I don’t think it’s possible. I might be making music in a wheelchair, maybe even with the Who, but I feel that the Who have got to realize that the things we’re gonna be writing and singing about are rapidly changing.

"There’s one very important thing that’s got to be settled." He pauses again. "The group as a whole have got to realize that the Who are not the same group as they used to be. They never ever will be and as such … it’s very easy to knock somebody by saying someone used to be a great runner and can still run, but he’s Not What He Used To Be." Townshend pauses yet again. "Everybody has a hump and you have to admit that you’ve got to go over that hump."

Yes we have … no we haven’t. Townshend won’t commit himself either way as to whether the Who are over the hill, but he intimates in no uncertain manner that the group is beset with acute problems.

"You’ve got to remember that there was a time when suddenly Chuck Berry couldn’t write any more. He just went out and performed his greatest hits and I’ve always wondered what that was all down to?

"Jagger told me at his birthday party that he was having difficulty in writing new material for the Stones, which is unfortunate because nowadays so much importance is placed upon writing songs. To a degree, you could call it front-man paranoia, and even Roger gets it from time to time. Let’s face it, Jagger carries a tremendous amount of responsibility apart from being the Stones front-man.

"Forget about that tired old myth that rock ‘n’ roll is just making records, pullin’ birds, gettin’ pissed and having a good time. That’s not what it’s all about. And I don’t think Roger really believes it either. I think that’s what he’d really like to believe rock ‘n’ roll was all about.

"Steve Marriott has chosen to live it like that and, as far as I can see, he’s having a good time. Fair enough. But in my opinion Marriott’s music falls short of his potential, which is a bloody shame because everyone knows what he’s really capable of … there’s all those old incredible Small Faces records piled up. For me, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake is one of the classic albums of the Sixties and, if it’s the difference between that music and having a good time, I prefer that Steve Marriott suffer, because I want the music.

"Believe me, I don’t want to sound too cruel and vitriolic, but I do think that you have to face up to the undeniable fact that there’s no point in your life when you can stop working. You can’t suddenly turn round and say, we’re on the crest of a wave so now it’s time to sit back and boogie. Deep down inside, everyone wants to do this but it’s tantamount to retiring altogether. And personally, I can’t do it.

"It’s not necessarily to do with standards," Townshend continues before I have time to fire another question. "The Who’s Odds & Sods collection would have been released even if it hadn’t been all that interesting, but it’s all been put down in the past for being substandard."

Apparently the reason for its release was to make null and void the increasing amount of Who bootlegs currently being circulated, and once a second volume has been prepared and issued, there will be no need to backtrack. "If," says Townshend, "The Who were gonna wave their banner for standards, Odds & Sods would still have remained unreleased. Standards have got absolutely nothing to do with it. I feel that it’s the pressure at the front of your mind that … not necessarily your fans… but then, maybe your fans really are the most important people … are actually sitting twiddling their thumbs waiting for your next album.

"Every time they wait, they become more and more impatient. What Jagger said in that interview that he did with CREEM is that between the albums they are eagerly waiting for, he’d like to chuck out an R&B set to keep ’em happy. Fair enough, if he thinks it’ll make any difference. But of course it won’t.

"It’s just like making a ‘live’ album. The fans will say ‘Thank you very much, but what we’re really waiting for is the next studio album, so get on with it.’"

New subject: Townshend was once quoted as stating that the eventual outcome of any Who recording depended entirely upon whether or not he could keep Moon away from the brandy and himself from imbibing whatever it took him to get through a session.

"At the moment, what governs the speed of the Who is the diversification of individual interests. We would have been recording the new album much earlier were it not for the fact that Roger is making another film with Ken Russell. Roger chose to make the film and John wanted to tour with his own band The Ox, so I’ve been working on tracks for my next solo album. Invariably what will happen is that once we all get into the studio, I’ll think ‘Oh fuck it’, and I’ll play Roger, John and Keith the tracks I’ve been keeping for my own album and they’ll pick the best. So as long as the Who exists, I’ll never get the pick of my own material … and that’s what I dream of. But if the Who ever broke up because the material was substandard then I’d really kick myself.

But the way you’re going on, Peter, old Meter, it sounds like the Who is on its last legs?

"However much of a bastard it is to get everyone together in a recording studio, things eventually turn out right., You see, though it has never been important in the past, we do have this problem that everyone has been engaged on their own project, so that the separate social existence that we lead has become even more acute.

"I mean, if I just couldn’t live without Moonie and if I could go over to the States and spend a couple of months with him we’d probably be a lot closer. But as it happens, I haven’t seen Keith since last August. I may have seen a lot more of John but as yet I haven’t seen his new group or listened properly to his album because, apart from working on Tommy, I’ve been putting together new material. And the same thing applies to Roger; as soon as someone decides to do something outside of the area of the Who the pressure suddenly ceases, because they are the people who put the pressures on me.

"Let me make this clear. I don’t put pressures on them. I don’t say ‘we’ve got to get into the studio this very minute because I’ve got these songs that I’ve just gotta get off my chest.’ It’s always the other way around. They always rush up to me and insist that we’ve got to cut a new album and get back on the road."

So it’s quite obvious that the pressures are back on and Townshend is feeling the strain.

"In a sense, rock is an athletic process. I don’t mean running about on stage, but as a communicative process it’s completely exhausting. It’s not necessarily being a part of things," insists Townshend.

"Like I said, when I wrote ‘My Generation’ I was already in my early twenties, so I was by no means a frustrated teenager. And that’s what a lot of people often tend to forget."

But you were an integral part of that generation?

"Right," he retorts, "but we’re also part of the Generation that we play to on stage today. Let me clarify that statement."


"What I don’t feel part of is not the Generation of age, but the Generation of type. I mean, who the hell were all those people at the Tommy premiere? Whoever they were, I’m certainly not in their gang! Yet funnily enough, whatever the age group, I feel much more at ease before a rock audience."

So why this current fixation about being too old to cut le Moutard?

"Because to some extent the Who have become a golden oldies band and that’s the bloody problem. And it’s the problem that faces all successful rock groups at one time or another, the process of growing old.

"A group like the Kinks don’t have that problem because, theoretically, Ray Davies has always been an old man. He writes like an old man who is forever looking back on his life and, thank heavens, old Ray won’t have to contend with such problems. But with a group like the Rolling Stones, there’s this terrible danger … now I could be wrong … but there’s no question in my mind that it’s bound to happen…Mick Jagger will eventually become the Chuck Berry of the Sixties, constantly parodying himself on stage. And this is the inherent danger that the Who are so desperately trying to avoid.

"I can tell you that when we were gigging in this country at the early part of last year I was thoroughly depressed. I honestly felt that the Who were going onstage every night and, for the sake of the die-hard fans, copying what the Who used to be.

"Believe me, there have been times in the Who’s career when I would have gladly relinquished the responsibilities of coming up with our next single or album to another writer. There’re have been a lot of people who said they would have a go but somehow it never quite worked out."


"Like a lot of things connected with the Who, I really dunno. Maybe it’s because we’ve got such an archetypal style that’s geared to the way that I write."

But by his own admission, Pete Townshend has always considered his forte to be writing. The fact that he also happens to be a guitarist is, in his opinion, quite irrelevant. Yet even now, Townshend is astounded when other guitarists compliment him upon his instrumental prowess. He isn’t bowing to false modesty when he insists that, after all these years, he still can’t play guitar as he would really like to.

In his formative years with the Who, he compensated for his acute frustrations by concentrating his energies on the visual aspects of attacking the instrument. Every time he went on stage, Townshend insists he bluffed his way through a set by utilizing noise and sound effects which eventually led to the destruction of many a valuable weapon.

"It’s still true even today," he confesses without embarrassment. "I may be a better guitarist now than I was when the Who first started but I’m far from being as technically proficient as I would really like to be.

"What I like about the way that I play," he explains, "is what I think everyone else likes. I get a particular sound that nobody else quite gets and I play rhythm like nobody else, plays. It’s a very cutting rhythm style. Sorta Captain Powerchords! I do like to have a bash every now and then at a wailing guitar solo but halfway through I usually fall off the end of the fretboard. I might have a go, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I haven’t got what it takes to be a guitar hero.

"Yet funnily enough I don’t really respect that kind of guitar playing. I’ve got no great shakes for Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page. Sure, I love what they do, but it always seems to me that they’re like the Yehudi Menuhins of the rock business. They’re extremely good at what they do, but I’m sure they’d give their right arm to be writers though not necessarily in my shoes.

"I don’t really feel the showmanship side of my contribution to the Who’s stage show is fundamentally a part of my personality. It’s something that automatically happens. Basically, it stems from the very early days when we had to learn to sell ourselves to the public, otherwise nobody would have taken a blind bit of notice of us; and, like many things, it’s been carried on through up until today. Yet I have no doubt that, if we wanted to, we could walk on any stage and stand there without doing all those visual things and still go down well with an audience."

So why this depressing down-in-the-mouth attitude? Could it stem, I ask Townshend, from the fact that a critic once bemoaned that, in his opinion, the Who, once the true essence of rock ‘n’ roll, now just go through the motions?

"Well, that statement was true, but on the other hand if it’s unqualified then it might as well be ditched. But you’ve put the question to me and now I’ve got to try and qualify that other journalist’s statement.

"To me, the success of any truly great rock song is related to the fact that people who couldn’t really communicate in normal ways can quite easily communicate through the mutual enjoyment of rock music. And that was simply because, for them, it was infinitely more charismatic than anything else around at that time.

"For example, you’re aware that there’s this great wall around adolescents and that they can’t talk freely about their problems because it’s far too embarrassing. Personally, I feel that adolescence lasts much longer than most people realize. What happens is, that people find ways of getting round it and putting on a better show in public. And as they get older they become more confident and find their niche.

"Now why I think that journalist said the Who now only play rock ‘n’ roll is because on most levels rock has become a spectator sport. It’s not so important as a method of expression as it once was. Today something else could quite easily replace it."

Townshend goes on to concede that rock doesn’t hold as much genuine mystique as it did with previous generations to the extent that the stigma of the social outlaw has almost been eradicated. Those who have tried to become outlaws have failed miserably, hence the, last ditch shock tactics of Alice Cooper and David Bowie.

"For many kids, rock ‘n’ roll means absolutely nothing." He compares it to switching on a television set, going to the movies or a football match. It’s just another form of entertainment. If what the kids do listen to consists entirely of the Bay City Rollers and the Top 10 then it must mean even less than most other similar forms of mass media entertainment because they’re not really listening.

"The real truth as I see it is that rock music as it was is not really contemporary to these times. It’s really the music of yesteryear. The only things that continue to keep abreast of the times are those songs that stand out due to their simplicity."

An example?

"’My Generation.’ A lot of people don’t understand that there’s a big difference between what kids want on stage in relationship to what they actually go out and buy on record. Perhaps the reason why so many young kids can still get into The Who in concert is simply because it’s a very zesty, athletic performance. However, if we just restricted our gigs to performing songs we’d just written yesterday and ignored all the old material then I’m positive that we’d really narrow down our audience tremendously.

"I dunno what’s happening sometimes," he bemoans. "All I know is that when we last played Madison Square Garden I felt acute shades of nostalgia. All the Who freaks had crowded around the front of the stage and when I gazed out into the audience all I could see were those same sad faces that I’d seen at every New York Who gig. There was about a thousand of ’em and they turned up for every bloody show at the Garden, as if it were some Big Event, the Who triumph over New York. It was like some bicentennial celebration and they were there to share in the glory of it all.

"They, hadn’t come to watch the Who, but to let everyone know that they were the original Who fans. They had followed us from the very beginning of it. It was their night.

"It was dreadful," Townshend recollects in disgust. "They were telling us what to play. Every time I tried to make an announcement they all yelled, out ‘Shhhrrruppp Townshend and let Entwistle play, ‘Boris The Spider,’ and, if that wasn’t bad enough, during the other songs they’d all start chanting , ‘jump … jump … jump … jump … jump.’

"I was so brought down by it all! I mean, is this what it had all degenerated into?

"To be honest, the highest I’ve been on stage last year was when we used to play ‘Drowned.’ That was only because there was some nice guitar work in it. Roger liked singing it and both John and Keith played together so superbly. Really, that was the only time I felt that I could take off and fly."

Pete Townshend may well have some cause to feel sorry for himself; when the final reckoning comes he’s got a lot to answer for, in particular, the Curse Of The Concept Album.

Though concept albums are by no means new to popular music; Gordon Jenkins and Mel Torme were churning them out almost a quarter of a century ago, it was Tommy (as opposed to Sgt. Pepper) which unleashed a deluge of albums built around one specific theme. These ranged from the Fudge’s horrendous The Beat Goes On through to J. Tull’s obscure Passion Play up to and including Rick Wakeman’s Disneyesque King Arthur.

"None of which,." says Townshend, as he bursts into laughter, "work."

Yet as we all know, Townshend himself has had no less than three stabs at the same subject. So how does he view the trilogy in retrospect?

"I don’t. And if you’re going to ask me which one I prefer, I don’t really like any of them very much. I suppose I still like bits of the Who’s original version, but the definitive Tommy album is still in my head."

Perhaps it would he wise to quit this line of questioning and leave Tommy where he is. But Townshend wants the last word.

"I think that everyone in rock shares the same basic urges, and therefore, that it would be very unfair for me to say it’s all right for the ‘Oo ’cause we invented it. I have great doubts about that.

"For instance, when the Big Feedback Controversy was going on in the mid-Sixties, Dave Davies and I used to have hilarious arguments about who was the first to invent feedback. I used to pull Dave’s leg by saying ‘we both supported the Beatles in Blackpool and you weren’t doing it then … I bet you nicked it off me when you saw me doing it’. And Dave would scream that he was doing it long before that. Then one day I read this incredible story about Jeff Beck in which he said" – at this juncture he adopts a retarded Pythonesque android accent – "Yeah, Townshend came down t’see d’Tridents rehearsing and he saw me using the feedback’ …pause…’and copied it’." Returning to his natural voice, Townshend scowls, "I never ever saw the Tridents and the man is pathetic.

"Obviously, Beck may feel deeply enough that he invented feedback – but for Chrissakes who gives a shit? Why even comment on it? It doesn’t really matter, it’s just a funny noise made by a guitar."

Townshend goes on to explain the innovatory part of rock is not necessarily the part that he’s proud of, even though he’s regarded as the Who’s ideas man. "I was trained in graphic design…to be an ideas man… to think up something new and different … like let’s give a lemon away with the next album!"

Thank you.

"In the early days of the Who we ,were tagged with gimmicks and subsequently it made me very gimmick- conscious.

"Now if I might return to Tommy for a moment…"

But only for a moment.

"…What I think is good about Tommy is not that it’s a rock opera or that it’s the first or the last … that’s of course, if you assume that there’s gonna be any more!!"

Don’t worry, there will be. Have a copy of Camel’s Snow Goose.

"What I feel is very important about Tommy is that as a band it was our first conscious departure out of the adolescent area. It was our first attempt at something that wasn’t the same old pilled-up adolescent brand of music. We’d finished with that and we didn’t know which way to go. That’s when we went through that very funny period of ‘Happy Jack’ and ‘Dogs’.

"It was also a very terrifying period for me as the Who’s only ideas man. For instance, though ‘I Can See For Miles’ was just released after ‘Happy Jack’, I’d written it in 1966 but had kept it in the can for ages because it was going to be the Who’s ace-in-the-hole.

"If you want the truth "

And nothin’ but…

"I really got lost after ‘Happy Jack’ and then when ‘I Can See For Miles’ bombed-out in Britain, I thought ‘What the hell am I gonna do now?’ The pressures were really on me and I had to come up with something very quick and that’s how Tommy emerged from a few rough ideas I’d been messing about with."

And whereas the Beatles had cried that it was impossible to perform Pepper in public, the fact that the Who. demonstrated that Tommy was an ideal stage presentation quickly motivated other bands to mobilize their might for the New Aquarian Age.

With more sophisticated electronic weaponry than they knew how to utilize, the likes of Floyd, Yes, and ELP adopted a more "profound" stance as, in a blaze of strobes, they began to bombard audiences with techno-flash wizardry, pseudo-mystical jargon and interchangeable concepts.

Townshend may have had a helping hand in starting the whole schmear rolling (it sure didn’t rock), but he is adamant in his belief than many alleged "profound" music machines are working a clever con-trick on the public.

"All that they’re really doing is getting together and working out the most complex ideas they can handle, packaging it with pretentious marketing appeal and unloading it on their fans. But" – and here comes the get-out clause -"does everything have to hold water? Obviously, it must mean something to the integrity of the band that’s putting it together, but it’s results that count."

Well the result, as Townshend puts it, has turned many a rock theatre into a dormitory.

"It might be difficult to fall asleep at a Who gig, but I can understand why some bands send their audiences into a coma. I don’t like Yes at all. I used to like them when Peter Banks was in the line-up because, apart from being extremely visual, he also played excellent guitar. With so many changes in the line-up, Yes is Jon Anderson’s band and he might be guilty of much of that wishy-washy stuff they churn out because Jon really is a tremendous romantic. Maybe he believes in the old mystical work, and maybe poetry moves him along, but I’m not concerned either way."

Just wait until the letters come pouring in.

"It’s like that line in ‘Punk and The Godfather’…’you paid me to do the dancing.’ The kids pay us for a good time, yet nowadays people don’t really want to get involved. Audiences are very much like the kids in Tommy’s Holiday Camp, they want something without working for it.

"That wasn’t the way it used to be. The enthusiasm that evolved around the Beatles was enthusiasm as opposed to energy generated by the Beatles. You talk to them now about it and they don’t know what happened! It was the kids’ enthusiasm for them. Now when you see it happening again you can see how utterly strange it must have seemed the first time around.

"For instance, take the amount of energy and enthusiasm that’s currently expended on say, Gary Glitter … and Gary’s just as confused as everyone else. All he knows is which curler to put on which side of his head�Gary readily admits this, and is all the better for it.

"Get in the middle of a crowd of screamin’ kids; it doesn’t matter who they’re screamin’ at, and there’s a certain amount of charisma transferred to these people. But then, that’s what fan-mania is really all about.

"When the real charismatic figures like Mick Jagger came along, then I think that rock started to change and then the kids began to create their own trends in fashion. The Mods not only used to design their own clothes but sometimes actually to make them; and the fact that they did humdrum jobs to get money to buy clothes, scooters, records and go to clubs built up this elite. Therefore it wasn’t too long before the artists let that rub off onto them and in that sense, I think the Who were as guilty as anybody else. And I’ll tell you why. Because in the end we wanted the audiences to turn up to see only us as opposed to the audience being the show and struttin’ about like peacocks. We had to be the only reason for them turning up at a Who gig."

With rock and its peripheral interests having been systematically turned into a multi-million dollar consumer industry, Townshend has observed that the customer no longer dictates youth fashion. "That’s all down to some designer employed by a multiple chain store. Everything nowadays is premeditated. Within days the whole country is flooded with what someone thinks the kids want."

Even as far back as 1968, the Who were somewhat trapped by their own image, when Townshend stated that the thing that had impressed him most was the Mod movement. He had been fired by the excitement of witnessing and subsequently taking an active part in what he felt was the first time in history that youth had made a concerted move towards unity of thought and drive and motive. "It was almost surreal" was how he was quoted at the time.

Somewhere at the turn of the Sixties, the youth movement was derailed. Talk of a promised land and the eventual greening of America became suffocated as the consumer industry once again took command, and the Business in show business grabbed the spoils.

When Townshend looks back in time, he can’t help but laugh. "I don’t think they were promises, I think it was just young people promising themselves something … having ambitions to do something … and, if you like, certain rock people were acting as spokesmen. So they are the convenient people to blame. That’s if you want to lay the blame at anyone’s feet.

"Basically, everyone had this mood that something was happening … something was changing. In essence it did, but unfortunately a lot of its impetus was carried off by the drug obsession . Everybody credited everything innovative and exciting to drugs…’yeah man, it’s pot and leapers and LSD, that’s what makes the world great.’

"Then when things turned out to be meaningless and people had missed the bus, they quickly realized that they’d gambled everything on something that had run away. The same thing happened to rock. Rock got very excited and flew off ahead leaving most of its audience behind. The Who went on to do what I feel to be some very brave and courageous things, but in the end the audience was a bit apathetic.

"It was back to what I wrote in ‘Punk And The Godfather’ – you paid me to do the dancing. That’s why when I’m on stage I sometimes feel that I’m too old to be doing what I’m doing."

Then, by way of contrast…

"Track by track, the new album that the Who are making is going to be the best thing we’ve ever done. But if people expect ‘another grandiose epic then they ain’t gonna get it. ‘Cause this time we’re going for a superb single album." Townshend, make your mind up, squire. If the last couple of hours are anything to go by, you’re either – by your own admission – past it, or you’re just after a bit of public feedback.

Ouch. Better not mention that word.