September 19, 2020

’75 Sounds interview with Pete Townshend

Pete talks about the future of The Who and about "Tommy".

IF THE Who is the band that played in France and at Madison Square Gardens in New York last year, then the Who might as well be dead, finished and gone. At least, if being in the Who means feeling like he did at those gigs, Pete Townshend is chucking in the towel and hanging up the white boiler suit.


"It really was awful," he says. "I don’t think I’ve ever been so deeply depressed in all my life— it was such a deep depression that in France it didn’t really come to the surface, though at Madison Square Gardens it did. Roger just had to carry the show. I felt like a complete caricature of myself.


"I remember an amazing conversation I had with Tommy Smothers who said he felt that. He said he used to be all right until he went on television, and then he started to watch himself and if ever he did something good, made a facial expression that worked, he’d note it down mentally and whenever he needed to create that effect again he’d use the same expression. In the end, when you’ve been on television enough times, you end up being a sort of carbon copy of your average, effective TV personality. I think we’re in danger of doing the same thing. Very much so.


"The Who has been going for such a long ‘ time, and there’s such a tremendous backlog… but for Christ’s sake we haven’t turned out that many records. If we’d been going for ten years and turned out records at the rate someone like Elton John does we’d have 50 albums to look back on. But it’s still quite difficult to do a concert without having to go through this thing of doing a representational flashback of the last ten years. You know: a quick summing up, and we’re bringing you up to date now with a few oldies but goodies, and a few of the medium…and then there was our Blue Period.


"And now we’re going to do the John Entwistle spot where John plays for you John Entwistle fans a few of your favourite tracks, and now Keith Moon is going to do his comedy routine; and now, as frozen in the ‘Woodstock’ film, Roger is going to put on his fringes as he sings ‘See Me, Feel Me’, followed by everybody stand up please for ‘Listening To You I hear The Music’.


"It brought tears to my eyes, really.


"It was tragic, absolutely fucking tragic, and I was the only one who could see it I mean to be fair there were other people who could see it, but they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t soldier on … show business. I’ve never ever gone on and done that show business thing— that’s why. Roger does, Roger can go on and act; he’s got tremendous presence, which he switches on and off like a light bulb — he walks on that fucking stage and he’s like a magnet. It’s a spine chilling procedure.


But I’m not like that, and I think although – Keith is a funny mixture of the way Roger works and the way I work, he’s not like that either. I think I’m in a unique position in the group, unfortunately, in that I can’t work on stage unless I’m enjoying myself — I think it’s an absolutely crucial, fundamental pre-requisite— not necessarily happy, jolly, Faces sort of enjoying myself, but I have to be digging it. If I’m merely going through the motions of how I used to do it, then it becomes a sort of a superb phoney … thing.


"You become almost a parody — as Chuck Berry is these days. Sure, Chuck Berry’s great on the stage, and luckily a lot of the subjects that he’s written about are fairly universal, but he’s really just acting out his past. And when we go to see him we’re re-living him going through it. I can remember saying that the Who was in danger of becoming the Chuck Berrys of Sixties rock, but I think that uncomfortable job is going to the Stones, and Jagger in particular. They look like they’re tailoring themselves up to it.


"Good luck, because I’m not going to do it."


But staying in the Who need not mean having to become the nostalgia freak’s puppet. If there’s a future for the Who, it will become apparent when they re-group in April in the recording studio to listen to Townshend’s new songs, decide which they want to do, record them, make an album put of them, and take the new material on the road.


April 1975 is probably the most crucial month in the band’s history. In fact, it is debatable whether there is a group called the Who as March 1975 draws to a close.


"It’s very mystifying at the moment. When I went to New York for the ‘Tommy’ premiere, the most enjoyable thing about if was seeing Keith and John and standing in a lousy bar with them getting drunk. We were saying things like ‘these rumours about the group splitting up are getting very boring … so let’s split up.’ See, the thing is that really we have split up. What we should really do is split up officially and then re-form again, and that would finish it, at least for a bit"


The official statement would run something like this: ‘Yes, the pressure’s finally become too much for us. Roger Daltrey is to pursue his career as a pop star; John Entwistle’s new group The Ox has been a financial disaster and he wants to carry on in the same manner. Keith Moon hasn’t been offered any film parts and he wants to go and retire in LA or whatever, and Pete Townshend has decided that he really can’t go on any longer without recording his solo album …’


"I think really that’s where we are. But then again we’re in the studio in April, and we tend to have a habit of turning up.


"I don’t think one of us has ever missed a Who gig, or not turned up for a recording session or a TV show or anything … it seems to be a sort of automatic procedure. All you need is some arbitrary manager to ring up and say there’s a Who gig going on … I’m sure if some promoter rang up and said ‘by the way, the first Who gig this year is going to be at so-and-so on such-and-such a date’ we’d be there. That’s what Rikki Farr used to do to me, he’d ring up and we were doing the Oval or something about a year in advance, and I’d say I wasn’t interested and it was too far ahead. But sure enough we’d bloody well be there.


"I’m sure that happens a lot — not just to us, to lots of groups. We’re creatures of habit.


"But once we’re in the studio, once we’re recording, it’s inevitable that we’ll go out on the road afterwards, and then we shall see just what has happened to the group in the last two years."


AS THE time for recording the new Who album gets closer, Townshend has been trying to set aside time to write some more songs. He’s got about 40 on tape, ready to play to the group, but he feels he needs more. Time has been short recently — quite simply, he’s been Tommied good and hard.


First there was the soundtrack to be recorded, then he was on the set during filming, then there was a lot of work to be done with extra pieces of music where Russell had improvised on the script during filming, then there was dubbing the film, editing the album …and now all the ambassadorial work, flying to America for the premieres and to do interviews, attending screenings and parties and doing interviews in London, spending hours at the cinema getting the sound right ….


Inevitably, the emergence of Ken Russell’s ‘Tommy’ has made the millstone aspect of the work around the Who’s neck heavier, and put Pete Townshend in the position where he has to face interviewers saying ‘could you just sum up the plot?’ all over again. Will the Who ever live it down? Must they ever live it down to survive?


"Inevitably it weighs the group down, but it’s time really isn’t it? It makes it even more important for the Who to stagger on until the time when we feel sufficiently motivated to tackle something as grand again. The film, I think, will freeze it in time, but you see that’s a disadvantage in a way too because anybody who associates the Who with ‘Tommy’ very strongly might feel that when the film is all done then the Who are all done."


Does he see this as the end of ‘Tommy’? The definitive version?


"I don’t mind it being seen as that — it’s really up to people to decide that for themselves. I wrote some sleeve notes for the album which at the last moment I withdrew, and in that I said I thought it was the definitive version, but now I don’t think so. If something is good, if something works, then it’s alive, it’s organic — it lives and dies and lives and dies — and I think that’s really what ‘Tommy’ should be doing."


As well as being a re-interpretation of ‘Tommy’, Russell’s film will also doubtless bring the work to a completely new audience of people who might never have heard the original, leaving the Who and Who fans to get on with rock and roll. Townshend says that’s one of the great things about doing the new version, especially doing the album, was that it wasn’t bound by the disciplines of rock, and in a sense ‘Tommy’ is apart from the Who — a separate project. Perhaps the question "can the Who top ‘Tommy’? in one  sense,  should  never have been imposed on the rock and roll band. Perhaps Russell’s film will help to define that separation.


And yet ‘Tommy’s’ roots are so firmly in rock, and in the Who: "I had such grand aims," says Townshend, "and yet such a deep respect for rock tradition and particularly Who tradition, which was then firmly embedded in singles. But I always wanted to do bigger, grander things, and I felt that rock should too, and I always felt sick that rock was looked upon as a kind of second best to other art forms, that there was some dispute as to whether rock was art. Rock is art and a million other things as well — it’s an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it’s a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes as well. I don’t think there’s anything to match it. So I felt at the time that the only way to get into a position where the whole incredible thing was portrayed truly or what it was was to have something that appeared on the surface to be very grand but which when you got to the root of it, you found was all rock and roll singles strung together."


Perhaps where it misfired, particularly in things like the Lou Reisner version, was that it was misunderstood. The fundamental rock part was smothered by the grandness of the ‘operatic’ scale. Part of the reason Russell’s film is so effective is that he’s stayed very true to the original way of working: the film is built out of short, self-contained scenes juxtaposed to build an impression of the story. His structural alterations to make the story clear were necessary for the medium of film and in clearing up ambiguities which Townshend deliberately left vague to avoid a ‘pretentiousness’ tag, he has actually released more powerful themes.


If you take the actual, literal story line of ‘Tommy’ then it does appear not only pretentious but absurd. "In America I was exposed to a whole area of general Press who didn’t know who the Who were, didn’t know what ‘Tommy’ was — all they knew was that Ann-Margret was a big star in the States and Elton John wore big high heels, and the first question would inevitably be ‘Well Peter, could you start by summing up the story for me?’


"So I’d have to say: ‘Well it’s about this kid who witnesses his mother’s lover’s murder by his father … oh no, sorry, in the film it’s the other way round. Start again. And then he looks in this mirror, see, and it becomes like a symbol, and then he has these experiences with drugs, and then his dirty old Uncle Ernie rapes him, and then …’. To sum it up is just impossible. It sounds so fucking ridiculous, and the story is ridiculous.


"And again to avoid being called pretentious, which I was terrified of being at the time although now I realise it’s the greatest compliment a man can be paid, I made a lot of things comical."


Which again was often misunderstood. The story, as a story, is basically unimportant — one of the things which made it an ideal base for Ken Russell’s way of working. But still, it worries people. Townshend had been asked by one interviewer what they did with the father’s body.


"I suddenly had a vision of this Agatha Christie detective walking behind each scene, peering round corners and taking casts of footprints all the way through the film just to satisfy people that the case is being investigated."


THE THING which makes ‘Tommy’ so strong is that it works, intentionally, on so many levels: "What I was dead keen to do was to make the thing multi-layered, so that it had a story, that there were the musical aspects of it, so that the social aspects were well defined — rock and roll, exploitation, organised religion, drugs, exploitation of drugs, children’s cruelty to children, sex … all those things. I wanted all those things to be there to make the thing real and — what’s the word? Aware, I suppose.


"And the other thing I wanted to do was to make the thing have a spiritual meaning, to make the point that individual experience is what counts, and that Tommy’s experiences had earned him a kind of super-consciousness which everybody else was on the way to having anyway, but because they see and are attracted to this miraculously charismatic figure, they’re sidetracked into believing that this is the way to do it. They lose the sense that their own lives are tailor-made for them. That they mustn’t change is the lesson.


"And at the end, the thing that I really wanted to get across — it’s very ill defined as to what Tommy actually is and I haven’t really adopted a stance on it — but he’s definitely not a messiah as such, he’s not a Meher Baba. He’s … a saint? Maybe just ordinary, ordinary and invigorated by being ordinary after so many years of not being so."


How important to him was it, or is it, that the spiritual aspect was understood?


"Tremendously, because really that was the whole motivation for writing it. I wasn’t necessarily trying to disseminate spiritual ideas or help people or anything like that, but I did by then have a very nice understanding of what communication with rock and roll was all about — you say something and you get back something, and the thing repeats until the oscillation speeds up to the point where there’s an amazingly locked-in sequence. And I wanted spiritual stuff, wanted it, so it was almost like throwing it out to get it back.


"I felt very much at the time that I had to move away from the druggies that surrounded the group, the people who really saw the Who as a heavy psychedelic band, the people who’d put tabs of acid in your coffee before you went on stage … I felt devastated by all that."


Whatever the success of that feedback process in terms of spiritual communication, ‘Tommy’ also fed back dollars and pounds and lire and yen in their thousands. For Townshend, that was less predictable.


"I was very mystified by the fact that ‘Tommy’ was so financially successful because it was the first really good, well-intended thing that I’d ever done —— the first time that I’d really wanted to do something good — and in that way I suppose I was trying to put out spiritual ideas, and it then embarrassed me that it had to make money. This is it, put on your Salvation Army uniform and your Rolls Royce arrives in the post, your place in heaven guaranteed right here on earth."


THE CHARACTER of Tommy has always puzzled me, in that he does seem characterless — a symbol, a kind of blotting paper personality on which to project your own personality at will. Townshend has always denied that he is Tommy, or that it is autobiographical, but today he is less sure.


"Maybe that’s the answer — maybe deep down I do feel that Tommy is me, although I’ve always resisted saying that in the past. People ask whether it’s autobiographical and I’ve never, ever felt it as such: it’s drama to me, theatre, but maybe on thinking about it that’s the only reason … The only other thing is that maybe while I was writing it I imagined him as what he turns out not to be, as a messiah figure, in which case I don’t think I could have put a face on him as such."