Two part Interview with Pete Townshend. Originally printed in the April 1978 and May 1978 editions
Karen Townshend answers the door wearing a puzzled look.
"Hello. I’m here to see Pete. .We’ve got an interview scheduled for ten o’clock." The puzzled look remains. "Pete was supposed to see you at his office."
"Well, you see. . . "
It’s hardly an auspicious way to start a long sought-after interview with Pete Townshend – an interview which became possible only when, after efforts through the normal channels had seemingly failed, a letter from Mr. T. himself arrived at TP’s doorstep, in which he agreed to an interview should we find our way to Britain in the near future. Now I’m standing at the front door of his home in the London suburb of Twickenham trying to explain to his wife how a slight direction mix-up has landed me there instead of at his office in the nearby Meher Baba Oceanic Centre where we’re actually scheduled to meet. It’s a slightly embarrassing introduction, but after a couple of seconds’ pause she decides it’s all right to let me in and asks me to have a seat while she goes upstairs to get Pete.
The house is located on the bank of the Thames directly across from Richmond, the Surrey town which was the center of the entire British R&B scene in the mid-’60s. It is quite modest, certainly not the opulent quarters one might expect from a rock star of Townshend’s stature, although I’m told his weekend home at the seaside town of Goring is a bit more lavish. The downstairs area here consists of a rather normal-sized living room area – filled up, not with the usual furniture, but with synthesizers and other keyboards – and a kitchen. A pedal steel guitar greets you as the door swings open and, as I recall, is the only visible guitar save one hanging on the wall above the keyboards. In all, it is a decidedly unassuming abode, yet owns a kind of warmth and aging charm common to any three-centuries-old English home.
Within a couple of minutes Pete Townshend stumbles downstairs. He obviously has not been awake for very long, but after a quick introduction he explains the real cause of his disheveled appearance: a night out drinking with Keith Moon at the Vortex, the London club which sets aside Monday and Tuesday nights for a continuous stream of punk bands. While Pete fixes a much-needed pot of coffee we chat about the bands he had seen the night before – and he admits to having enjoyed nearly all of them. He also mentions having been asked by members of Generation X to produce their debut album, but obviously hasn’t made a decision about it yet. All in all, he agrees, the scene over here is very healthy indeed, reminiscent perhaps of the bygone era which spawned the Who.
Ever since I started taking Rock seriously, the Who have been my favorite band; or rather, when the Who became my favorite band. I started taking Rock seriously – started thinking about it as more than just another form of entertainment, more than a couple of hours a day spent in the company of a radio or record player (I didn’t have a "stereo" then). Pete Townshend was responsible for that. He approached Rock not only as a musician but as a critic with a finely honed sense of what Rock was, is and could be. Mainly, for me, he made it seem so very important. So in a way Townshend’s vision of Rock has very much helped put me where I am today and, yeah, shaped my life.
"And yet I’ve lived your future out, by pounding stages like a clown." Right. I’d go on more about what it’s been like being a Who freak for the past decade, but I’ve neither the time nor the space (and besides, Ira’s magnificent "Whosade" which first appeared in TP3 and was later reprinted in TPP3 says it all for me anyway). Suffice to say that I had only one hero as an adolescent and that this interview probably means more to me than you’d want to know.
(Whew!) Anyway, when Townshend recently broke his public silence of over two years it seemed a good indication that something was once again astir in the Who camp. Townshend’s last interview (the one that inspired a less than cordial rebuttal by Daltrey in another paper a few weeks later thus leading to the aforementioned long-term snub of the press) had taken place months before the release of Who by Numbers, a record which, more than any other Who album, could have stood an explanation from Townshend. From that time up until Townshend’s Rolling Stone piece and his two recent interviews in connection with the Rough Mix album, there has been no communication at all between the Who and their public.
At long last, though, word started coming out as to the group’s activities: the album they are currently recording, the "Kids Are Alright" film now in its cutting stages, and some possible plans for future film projects. The Rolling Stone piece, if a bit vague and oddly oblique at times, at least let us know that Townshend had made it through his period of desperation and was ready to get down to business once again. In fact, after the interview today, he tells me, he’ll be heading into the studio to do some more work on the album.
As we sit down and prepare to begin the interview, we are both wondering exactly what tack we’re going to take in our discussion. In the letter I received from Townshend in which he agreed to the interview he mentioned his interest in having us do something on his demos, perhaps sitting down and listening to all of them while he commented on each. This seemed like a great idea and we were anxious to pursue it. Unfortunately, Pete says, the tapes are in his other house and unless I’ll be in London for a while longer he won’t be able to do it. As I’m leaving in a couple of days, it’ll have to wait for awhile.
"I just thought it would be a drag if the first thing that Trouser Press actually did with me was just a hard-nosed interview. It would be nicer if it was more something special, something one wouldn’t normally do with any other paper," Townshend offers as he sits down with me at a small wooden table by a window, coffee in hand.
As I look at my notebook, in which over the past week I’ve been scrawling out hundreds of questions and topics, I realize there’s no way we’ll be able to cover it all anyway, so I decide to abandon it entirely and instead ask one straightforward question, letting the discussion proceed from there. I figure the present is the best place to start.
What are the Who up to right now? Townshend, rubbing his still half-asleep blue eyes, and trying to act as awake as one possibly can the morning after a night of boozing, replies: "We’re recording; that’s going very well. We’ve got the Jeff Stein film (‘The Kids Are Alright’) on the board. We’re also planning a revival of the ‘Lifehouse’ film which we’re hoping will get moving in the middle of next year."
‘Lifehouse,’ for those unfamiliar with it, was a film project the Who were involved in back in 1970 which included a series of concerts to a small invited audience at the Young Vic Theater in London. The idea was to create an interaction – through the intimacy of the theater and the familiarity of a returning audience – that would surpass anything that had come before it, creating a situation where not only would the audience feed off the band, but the band would feed off the audience.
Unfortunately the project never shaped up quite right. Especially depressing to the Who were the results of the Young Vic shows, in which the audience refused to accept the all-new songs the Who were playing and called out mercilessly for old favorites. Those new songs, by the way, later went on to constitute most of Who’s Next and Townshend’s Who Came First.
Will this ‘Lifehouse’ stick to the same concept as the original film?
"Roughly. What fell apart with it before was that I actually tried to make this fiction that I’d written happen in reality. That’s where I went wrong, actually trying to make a perfect concept, whereas this time it’ll be done like a film script."
Then he drops the bomb. I ask about the persistent rumors that the Who don’t want to play in America anymore.
"We don’t want to play anywhere anymore."
I ask why. "With the live gig thing I’d just reached a point where I don’t really think – as things stand at the moment – that things are that promising for people who want to see the band because basically we’ve been doing the same live act for such a long time now. We’ve had two albums worth of material which. . . " His sentence trails off. He begins again.
"I’ve always tried to make sure there was material which would work live and it’s never been used. Quadrophenia and Who by Numbers had a lot of raunchy material that never got on the stage. All that seemed to work was a couple of the old singles, the stuff from Tommy, a few rock ‘n’ roll numbers and finish. That was the act we went out and did again and again and again. That was the act that we were acclaimed for. That was the list. And really it wasn’t a list, it wasn’t an act, it wasn’t a group, it wasn’t anything. It was a fuckin’ celebration of our history. I’m fed up of doing it. I’m as much a Who freak as any other Who freak, and I like what the band has done. I don’t think there’s anything as exciting as going into ‘My Generation’ and seeing people go crazy, but after awhile it’s automatic it’s like being the Queen. People wave and shout just because you’re there, they don’t really care what you’re doing. I’ve ceased trying to analyze that. I think that in itself it’s a wonderful thing, but in the end for somebody like myself, when you realize the price you have to pay emotionally – with your family and with everything else – to actually go and hawk your body on the road for six weeks at a stretch twice a year in the USA, I don’t think it really gets the right results anymore. I know it’s going to make a lot of people angry. I’ve already had a lot of letters from kids that maybe haven’t seen the band yet who are really pissed that we’re not touring."
"That’s probably why you’ve had to do the same act for so long," I suggest. "You get a new audience each tour in addition to the regulars."
Townshend looks up. His face seems older, more lined and careworn than I’d imagined it. He continues: "I don’t think by any means that it’s the audience’s fault. I think what I’ve described is something weird that has happened to quite a lot of people. Maybe I’ve appeared to blame the audience, but I don’t think that’s really what it’s all about. I think it’s much more something that we’ve created. We’ve created a straight-jacket of our own making."
Did he think that if the Who had gone on three or four years ago and refused to do the old material it would have gotten them out of it?
"I think it possibly could have, yeah. I think it would’ve stood for what we actually were at the time, as the records did. I mean, the weird thing is that Who by Numbers was an extremely effective record in putting across what was in my head at the time and I think to some extent really what was happening to the band at the time. But despite the fact that the record went out, people listened to it, people enjoyed it musically, and people – some – were disturbed by the lyric content, nonetheless, when it came to going out and doing a gig the Who went out and went" – he raises his arms and imitates a child making loud machine gun-like noises – "nah-nah-nah-nah-nah . Same old stuff. Despite the fact that they’d already sort of done it all before. And in Quadrophenia as well, which we worked on for two years, we then went out and played Tommy."
I remind him that when the Who first performed Quadrophenia on stage they didn’t do any of Tommy except "Pinball Wizard" and "See Me, Feel Me." Could it have just been a question of touring the States too soon after the album had come out, before the audience had a chance to get acquainted with it7
"With Quadrophenia we did tour too soon. Quadrophenia was an extremely slow album. In fact, it still hasn’t sold very well in America to this day. It’s a very good seller in this country because I think people are able to identify with it more, but it did very badly in America for a Who album. I think the answer is that we weren’t prepared to work to gain our audiences’ reactions. We wanted it instant and pat and the way to do that is to go on and play something that they recognize, which whips people up immediately."
I mention how strange it seemed during that first Quadrophenia tour when he and Roger tried introducing the songs, nobody in the crowd seemed willing to pay attention.
Townshend, obviously, was never very happy with the introductions. "I could never work out quite what was going on there. Roger thought that Quadrophenia wouldn’t stand up unless you explained the story – and he’s not the most verbose character. It was done sincerely, but I found it embarrassing and I think it showed, so I was glad when we dropped it. I couldn’t really work out what must be going on in the audience’s mind when they were being told, ‘There’s this kid and he’s just like you and me…’ and then the music began; and then, ‘Then this kid he…’ The whole thing was a disaster. Roger ended up hating Quadrophenia – probably ’cause it had bitten back."
"You must have been very disappointed," I speculate. "Here was this double album you’d worked on for two years that you couldn’t even do on stage."
"Well, I suppose with that album, and with Who’s Next as well, I was disappointed by the lack of good stage material to come out of it. When we went to rehearse Tommy we went to some little rehearsal hall in Southall and ran through the whole album, everything on it; it all felt great, we couldn’t believe it. Quadrophenia didn’t work that way. Neither did Who’s Next; just a couple of tracks came out of it. They were recording studio efforts, whereas the amazing thing about Tommy was that it was very organic, very simple, very pure, and it did work very well on stage."
He pauses. He has finished his coffee, now picks an orange from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table and begins to roll it around in his hands. His mind seems to wander for a few seconds, but he returns to explaining his lack of desire to continue touring.
"It may seem, in a sense, that I’m groping for a reason, but there are a lot of other reasons. As I sit here now my ears are screaming." He puts his hands on his ears and notes sadly, "I’ve really fucked my hearing completely.
"The other thing is that to some extent I’ve fucked a lot of other things for the Who tours and I’m just not going to do it any more. It’s as simple as that. I can’t really give rational reasons. It’s not because I don’t enjoy it, not because I don’t think it’s fantastic, not because I’m bitter, it’s got nothing to do with that. You’ve got to draw a line somehow and I think that what would be awful would be if the Who did just crash on and on and on until they became seedy and plastic. I think the trouble is that we’re in a rut which is just so bloody deep that you couldn’t step out of it easily. I don’t think it’s a nasty rut, a rut like a nine-to-five office job or anything, but I mean as far as stage material goes Keith has actually had his list of numbers printed on one of his drums. That’s the list that we use. It hasn’t been altered for the last two years. I think I’ll miss it terribly. I think I’ll miss playing with the band on the road, I’ll miss live appearances, I’ll miss the contact, but for me it was starting to become very much a non-event anyway. I’d almost prefer to stand with a guitar in the pub up the street."
Has he ever done anything like that?
"No, I haven’t ’cause I wouldn’t."
Why’s that? "I dunno," he smirks. "Perhaps I’m not that desperate yet."
"What about the group?" I wonder. "Let’s say you’ve given up live performances, what’s in store for the future of the Who?"
"Up to a couple of months ago we didn’t even know we had a future," he admits. "I thought the only way I was going to get off the road was to leave the band. I thought what would happen is – We’ll do an album, we’ll go in, Bill Curbishley [the Who’s manager] will book a tour, and I, like a puppy with a Pavlov bell ringing in my head, will get on the airplane and go. So I said to Bill, ‘The only way I’m going to get around it is to quit. I’ll get me demos together, put out an album of my own and leave it at that.’
"Then I spoke to Roger. And it was amazing because he felt the same way I did. I couldn’t really believe it. I was expecting him to be in accord with me to some degree, but I didn’t expect him to be quite so sympathetic. Not only to me as a human being, but also on his account. He felt very similarly to the way I did."
I wondered if this was the incident Townshend described in the Rolling Stone piece.
"No, this happened quite recently; two months ago. We sat down and I said, ‘Listen, I’m not up to doing any more tours, etc., etc.’ Roger said, ‘I feel the same way.’ John’s face fell because John loves touring. And Keith, believe it or not, also was quite pleased. He’d been getting incredibly nervous and that had partially been the cause of his emotional problems that had led him on to drinks and drugs – he was getting so hyped up over concerts.
"Keith’s a funny guy," Townshend says, his voice revealing a great deal of warmth toward the subject. "On the outside he’s all brash and confident, but when he goes on-stage to a Who concert he’s often sick as he climbs up the stairs. Sick with fright."
"How is he doing these days?" I ask, having heard rumors of the aforementioned drinks and drugs.
"I was with him last night and he was still here. He was dressed in a dinner jacket down at the Vortex." He laughs loudly, then returns to explaining how the Who stuck together.
"We ended up with, I suppose, a choice as to whether to let everything slide or to carry on. I felt very, very strongly that I wanted the band to continue if possible as a working unit and to confront head-on what it was really supposed to be doing at this point. We were more now than just a rock ‘n’ roll band, we were – are – probably the only group in the world capable of being both a rock ‘n’ roll band and raising $7 million to make a film by snapping our fingers. And so I felt that we should be making a film. I thought, too, that the Who are really the only band that’s lasted with any kind of integrity whatsoever.
How does he define integrity?
"Well, having a track record, to use hackneyed phrase, which is pretty clean. We haven’t made too many of the obvious mistakes. Nobody has killed themselves off with dope, nobody has done anything wildly dishonest, nobody has killed anybody [he laughs]. We never put out what I feel was a dishonest record, we’ve never deliberately gone out to exploit large numbers of people, we’ve toured and worked hard whenever we could. Perhaps the only thing we’ve done wrong is focusing too much on America and not enough here. Really that’s because America to me is the workplace. I tend to think of Britain as the control room and America as the studio.
"Anyway, I rate the band and its past pretty highly. I feel maybe we should try to prove to people and to new bands – particularly since the new wave bands are so assertive in their attitudes – that it is possible to grow within the rock business; to grow old gracefully and to evolve in a way that doesn’t lose the spirit of things. One constant criticism of successfully established bands by younger up-and-coming groups – especially new wave groups – is that they have not been putting money back into the industry that gave them their enormous takings, that they’ve been content to take the money and run, to become tax exiles." The Who have certainly escaped this kind of criticism, but I wondered what Pete’s feelings were on putting money back into the business.
"I think it’s weird, really, because … well, I don’t want to end up talking about tax, but. . . the only way you can avoid giving your money away to tax people is to pour it back. If you pour it back it’s acknowledged as an investment back into the business. Just as if you were making doorknobs and you went to the tax people at the end of the year and you said, ‘I’ve got $50,000 profit but I don’t want to pay tax, what’d I like to do is put it into an investment program.’ It’s allowed. This is really what prompts us to put the enormous amounts of money that were earned on the ‘Tommy’ film into Shepperton, into new bands, into record labels and things like that. To some extent it’s not necessarily what we really want to do."
What do they really want to do? "I think we really want to work. Record and continue to communicate. There’s part of me that really still wants to go crashing around on the road, but I just don’t think it’s on. I think boardrooms and business meetings are a big part of our life now, like it or not, because that is what the responsibility is all about: not doing what we want, but doing what is necessary. I think when people say that money should be poured back – when a young guy says, ‘When I get rich and famous I’m gonna pour my money back into the industry’ – what they don’t realize is that it’s no good just getting the money and throwing it somewhere; you’ve got to be responsible for it, you’ve got to do something with it. Money on its own doesn’t do anything; you’ve got to make it work."
I suggest that certain things can obviously be done, such as rehearsal halls for young bands who can’t afford them.
"Yeah, I’ve got one. The only trouble is that one rehearsal hall is packed solid all the time. I’m building another one down at Shepperton. Myself, not the group. That’ll probably be snapped up just as fast. We don’t charge the bands that come and work. I don’t know, I don’t think the rehearsal hall is the most important thing. The most important thing is that when a band is ready there should be someone to guide them."
He uses as an example John Otway and Willie Barrett. Four years ago Townshend produced some tracks for Otway, then totally unknown except in his home of Aylesbury. Townshend was even able to talk Track Records, into putting two of the tracks out as a single, but it was not pushed at all and died an immediate death. Last year, Otway (along with Barrett) reemerged via an album that he had pressed himself and was selling mail order from his home. The album got such good reviews and sold so well that Polydor became interested and picked up the rights to distribute it. They then released a single from it, "Cor Baby, That’s Really Free," which made the Top 10 in the British charts. Otway was heralded as a genius by many members of the press here as well.
"Look at the scrubbing and scrapping that they’ve been through," Pete says. "It’s partly the public who didn’t have the sense to see that Otway was a genius and has been a genius for the last few years. He hasn’t changed in my mind since I first met him. I can see. I can look at a man like that and know that he’s good." His voice raises querulously. "Why can’t anybody else?" he chuckles.
"It’s rock ‘n’ roll. Either somebody has got it or they haven’t. It’s not something you debate; if somebody is it, they are it. It’s not whether they’re good or bad, they’re either rock ‘n’ roll or they’re not, and he is. So eventually he’s going to do something marvelous. That’s the way I felt years ago," he smiles, "And I’m still crowing about it to some extent.
"What I’m getting at is that when that moment comes – this is the important part of any band’s career – then what they need is guidance, the kind of guidance we had from Kit Lambert, the kind the Stones had from Andrew Oldham. Behind every band is some sort of mentor figure, some Svengali. This is the thing. That can’t be provided without love, care and full-time attention. At the moment I think John Otway manages himself. He sends out newsletters to all his fans and stuff. He’s got a Polydor deal, but how his career goes from now is in the hands of the gods."
What does he think of the veritable explosion of new bands on the scene right now?
"I think it’s incredibly exciting. I must admit. I feel in perspective again. It’s great. We get letters constantly from kids who say, "I’m in a band and blah, blah, blah.’ I must have a thousand letters from kids in groups sending me tapes and things like that. And a lot of them are really amazing. Their attitudes are amazing, you know: "We’re gonna make it. . . " Of course they never do. But what’s nice now is to see that people are realizing that you don’t have to ‘make it.’ You don’t have to make anything. You either are it or you’re not. You make your own scene. This is what’s happened in this country. A whole scene has developed from in and around. In a sense there’s enough new bands to not only entertain one another, but also to be one another’s audience. Down at the Vortex last night everybody was in a band."
I mention that musically the young bands I’ve seen here in England seem to be developing at an incredible rate. Townshend shrugs, not in disagreement but in a gesture that says he’s not concerned.
"I must admit that I like the basic starting point. It’s where we started exactly. They make exactly the same noise we used to make, and so, for my money, practically every record I put on I love. I love the noise of it. I like the use of the English accent a lot because it’s comical but it’s also ferocious."
"And more honest," I add.
"Yeah, it’s more honest, really. It’s a bit difficult to sing in an English accent, though; sometimes it’s more contrived than you’d think. I suppose it’s because for so many years we’ve lapsed into the American accent to sing that it just feels natural that way."
The discussion moves to the area of Townshend’s own musical evolution, particularly the noticeable movement on Rough Mix away from straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll into more subtle but equally powerful stuff like "Street in the City" (on which Townshend is, for the first time on record, accompanied by a full orchestra). Pete continues playing with his orange as he expounds on the subject.
"I just find it so easy to make the cliched noises. I can do it in my sleep. I just know the Who can play the Who’s type of rock ‘n’ roll better than anybody else. We can do it very easily, and as a result it tends to fall off the end of the guitar without any strain; also without any real care somehow because we’re not really testing ourselves, stretching ourselves. I’ve stopped being afraid of parodying myself, becoming a caricature – these rich clichés I invented five years ago. Actually Tommy Smothers invented that. He said to me, ‘It’s very weird what being on TV every week does to you. When I asked him what he meant he said, ‘Week after week I sit and watch myself. I study my face, I study my actions, I study what I say, and then I edit it mentally, remove everything I don’t like and keep everything I like. In the end I’m an increasingly evolving, edited version of what I think is best about me. I’ve ended up being a copy of myself.’"
But, Pete, isn’t that how any artist evolves?
"I suppose so, but I’m fairly keen to keep away from that. That’s why I like working with Glyn Johns in the studio. He’s got an incredibly open mind and he’s always on the alert to do something new. He knows that the easy way to pep up a particular passage of a song is for Keith to go blam-blam-blam-blam-boom-boom-boom, and for me to go takka-takka-ta, and for Roger to scream his primal scream. If we did that on every track it would be a bit pat."
Suddenly and very humorously, Pete blurts out an admission. "Christ! My breath is on fire! I must’ve drank about four pints of vodka last night." He excuses himself and gets up to brush his teeth, while I use the opportunity to turn my tape over.
During the pause I remember a question I’d been meaning to ask him. "You’ve spoken more about the meaning of rock ‘n’ roll than almost anyone else around," I start. "What does rock ‘n’ roll mean to you now?"
"The theory of rock ‘n’ roll? What it is and whatever? I still think I’m one of the few people who really knows what it is, but I think there’s a lot of people now who are learning. It’s been around long enough in its current form for people to know what it is. When I talk about rock ‘n’ roll, I’m only talking from my vantage point.. I don’t speak as a journalist, I don’t write as a journalist, I don’t write as a composer. When it actually comes to the moment where you sit down and somebody asks you a question like this, you try to answer from feeling like you’ve got some authority on the subject. Rock is not definable, really. Without becoming maudlin, Rock is really very much a reflection on life like anything else.
"Look at everything. If you look at the ocean you can draw a parallel with everything else, with God; if you look at a leaf you can see the whole cosmos in it. I think, funnily enough, rock has now become society. It started off being an alternative, an expression of a new society, and now it is society, it is you and me. I’m in my 30s, I’m not only part of the establishment, I am the establishment. I am this country. People come to me to get money for their charities, people come to me to do this or that. It’s a strange feeling, but that’s what Rock is.
"I’ve always known that Rock would do it. I’m not talking from a money point of view, I’m talking about the fact that it would eventually take over. What we do with it now I don’t know. We’ve demanded the responsibility, we’ve screamed out for it, we’ve accused, we’ve attacked, we’ve criticized, we’ve said, ‘You’ve never done it right, you’re all fuckin’ wrong,’ we could do it better. Now we have the chance.
"I’m not saying we’re politicians, although Roger has said that we will all inevitably become so someday. I think there’s a lot of potential truth to that, actually, but I think we’re definitely part of the establishment and can’t wiggle out of it now."
I mention that Britain seems extremely politicized right now. Everyone over here seems to be talking politics in one way or another, especially the young bands. In many ways, to an American it feels like slipping back 10 years in time.
"I think a lot of the punk bands are a lot more political than I am; because I think politics is trite. I don’t think politics has anything to do with anything. I think it’s a game. It’s like religion, which has nothing to do with God; it’s very, very necessary, unfortunately, to large amounts of the population. How South America would manage without candles, I don’t know. That’s a nasty thing to say; I don’t really mean it in that sense. I mean that Roman Catholicism holds South America together by giving simple people a connection with something grand, rich and beautiful. But does it really deal with spirituality? Does it really help them? Does it improve them or does it just make their week a bit more bearable? In the same breath, do politicians – though they organize to get the roads swept, which somebody has to do – actually improve the country and the way we live?"
Doesn’t he think, then, in that sense, that rock ‘n’ roll has failed?
"No, because now it’s got its chance. The Who are one of the first – we’re probably in the mainstream, aren’t we? — to last enough time to make a lot of money, to have the ability to become part of the establishment. Plus the fact that we’ve still – up to quite recently – been doing road work; we’re in close connection with our fans, have a tremendous amount of direct feedback; we know what’s going on in the streets; and suddenly we’re there. We’re a rock and roll band that’s in the midst of society with the ability to change things. What do we do? Do we do it within the capitalist framework? Do we try to initiate a revolution? Do we have ourselves crucified? What do we do? That’s really what we’re saying now: ‘What do we do? ‘We’ve asked for it, we’ve gotten it, and we’ve got to do something about it.
"This is what I was saying about a lot of the punk bands. They really do care about what the Who do. They don’t necessarily love our music or feel they’d die without it, that they couldn’t carry on without it. They’ve created something which exists within itself, that takes our music and other bands like us as its basic roots. But there the similarity ends because this is’78, not’63."
In 1970, though, you said, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Was that meant to be about yourselves?
"I don’t like to try to explain ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ That song grows old quite gracefully – like ‘My Generation.’ I don’t know. I think that if we can manage another couple of years and still maintain our integrity and honesty, we’ll be over the hump. Then we can all look back and see whether or not rock ‘n’ roll has been properly manifested and, rather than just being words, has become real life.
"It’s easy to sit and write songs. You can write anything, you can say anything, you can do anything. The Who are on stage singing ‘See Me, Feel Me’, then 15 minutes later they’re smashing a hotel room to bits. Not that I care about inanimate objects. I suppose I care about the effect it has on the cleaning lady when she comes in the next day – the deep shock, the abhorrence, the horror, the fear it creates. I certainly don’t attach any importance to a lump of wood known as a guitar, or a piece of plaster known as a lamp; on the other hand I know the effects go much deeper than that.
"When I was talking about the Who’s integrity, I think we’ve come through on a razor’s edge, because we could have made terrible, terrible mistakes. There have been a lot of occasions where any one of us could’ve killed somebody, there were a lot of occasions when we could have easily been killed or easily have been part of a nasty drug scene. But we haven’t and we’ve been very lucky. Very, very lucky. And we’re lucky to be together today, to be the same four blokes we always were. Because when you’ve known and worked with four people for 15 years, in the end you’ve got a power no one else can get unless they wait 15 years."
The dog barks.
"Shaddup," yells Pete Townshend. Then he slaps his leg and Towser the dog comes running over. "Do you want to go out?" Pete asks, getting up to open the door which leads from the kitchen to the yard.
"When I was doing the Rough Mix album with Ronnie Lane," he begins after sitting down once again, "Eric [Clapton] was sitting there one day and he said, ‘You know, Pete, you’re a lucky bastard having a band … just having a band. All I’ve got is me.’ I was startled. ‘You’ve got a great band at the moment,’ I said. But he said ‘They’re a band, they feel like a band; but it’s like me and a band, I’m not part of a band."’ From Townshend’s face, you could tell he understood.
I say that it amazes me that, while the idea of ‘groups’ provides so much of the dynamic of rock ‘n’ roll, so few have been able to survive intact for more than a few years.
Townshend shakes his head. "I don’t think it’s amazing so few have survived, I think it’s amazing that we have. I think it’s the most natural thing in the world these days to separate, for people to do what they want rather than knuckle down, to compromise, to fit in with someone else."
Does he, then, consider himself old-fashioned?
"Yes," he replies without hesitation, ,’very old-fashioned. Yet to me it’s more what Rock is about than smacking cocaine up your nose, playing with whoever happens to be there at the time and ‘fuck everybody else.’
"In a sense, that’s why I place such great weight on the Who," he explains. "It’s because I don’t have much faith in the rest of the fucking music business. I wonder what are they actually up to? Do they live on this planet? Sometimes I wonder if they do. . . "
"For instance," he continues, "I think the Stones’ Love You Live is magnificent, but I’ve got absolutely no faith in the Stones to do anything other than to just produce the occasional magnificent album. I’m really glad they did that album, though I don’t think they’ll get any thanks for it. I don’t think anybody realizes how long they struggled to get that live album together. There was a time in London where every studio you went in was full to the ceiling with live Rolling Stones concert tapes … then Jagger would walk in bleary-eyed and start listening to them. Hundreds of hours of tapes.
"But apart from that – great album, great to hear them doing it – there’s fuckin’ Keith Richards in jail. That’s what’s happened to so many of them, they’ve either gone and been killed off, or it’s soppy brother. . . "
His voice trails off. Has being in a group been important to his own survival, then?
"Oh yeah," he answers with certainty. "I think what a lot of people probably don’t realize about working in a group is that you’ve got a basis for learning all of life’s hardest lessons very rapidly. In other words, you say, ‘I think we should do such and such a thing,’ and everybody says, ‘Nonsense, we’re going to do such and such a thing.’ The first thing you realize is that if you want to do what you want to do you’ve got a choice: Either you’re going to fight like hell to get it done – convince the people you’re working with that it’s right, or demonstrate that it’s right – which is why I always do demos; or, alternatively, you can run away and do it on your own. In a group you learn the art of compromise, you learn the art of diplomacy; I think most of all you learn the art of caring about other people’s opinions. Whether you like it or not, you have to care about other people’s opinions, otherwise you’re not going to get anywhere. In a way, working in a group is like" – he searches for words — "well it’s the way God planned it, isn’t it? You put people together and you get chemistry, you get experience.
"I feel we’ve had a very special and unique experience having been a group of people that hasn’t been a football team, or working in an office, or making doorknobs – I always say doorknobs because our first manager made doorknobs – but we’ve been a successful rock ‘n ‘roll band as a group, so our experiences have been unique. I can’t imagine what kind of person I’d be had I not done all the things I’ve done with the Who. When I look back on the last ten years, the important experiences seem mainly to be Who experiences – the important lessons – despite the fact that I have an amazing and powerful conviction toward Meher Baba. It seems that despite that all my philosophical decisions have been made from experiences with the Who. All I’ve really ever felt for Meher Baba is this over-powering feeling of love, but I’ve never ,actually gotten experience. Experience I’ve gotten on the street with the Who.
"What I’m driving at is a bit gratuitous in a way. I think it’s common knowledge that living with somebody, getting married if you like, is not just a convenient way to live, it’s also a very natural human thing to pledge yourself to another person. Suddenly, when you realize the beauty of marriage – and I’m old-fashioned enough to say this and mean it – I hate the way marriage is played down today. I don’t think marriage is anything where anybody gains anything, I think both people lose equally. Then you get a marriage that works, if both individuals feel they’re doing all the work. In the Who, every one of us feels we’re doing all the work. Every one of us feels we’ve got the weight of the band on our shoulders. So every one of us is putting in 100 percent, or maybe a little bit more than that. That’s how you get an effective unit. This is what’s great about working with a group of people. As you share devastating experiences and exhilarating experiences like standing on a stage in front of 60,000 kids all cheering you, you can look at the other person and know there’s someone else there who knows what it feels like.
"On the other hand, there’s the other thing… like being marooned at Saskatoon Airport in the snow for three days. You know that all you need to do is turn around to one of the guys in the band, say ‘Saskatoon’ and they’ll crack up. You start to develop a quality of intimacy which you can’t get anywhere else outside a family.
Does he feel that the feeling of family and community that seemed to permeate Rock in the ’60s has been all but lost in the ’70s? Has Rock failed in this way?
"All those feelings are transitory anyway," he posits. "I remember at Woodstock people were so appalled when the Who asked for their money – having just traveled 7,000 miles to get there. I said to some guy, ‘Listen, this is the fucking American dream, it’s not my dream. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in fucking mud, smoking fucking marijuana. If that’s the American dream, let us have our fucking money and piss off back to Shepherd’s Bush where people are people.’
"I think that was the big mistake. Rock started celebrating itself too soon. I think this gets back to what I was saying before, that there are very few people in a position to prove that we’re not just a bunch of big-mouthed gits who criticize everything in sight, that we’re now in a position to actually do something about it – that we’re adults. Our generation is now doctors and lawyers, school teachers and psychologists, even politicians. Now is the time people can actually do something to make their words good. When you ask has rock failed, the answer is that its aspirations haven’t yet been reached. But its aspirations have been very fuzzy around the edges to me because they’ve been so negative some of the time. Rock’s been so destructive and continues to be. The punk movement seems to be destructive by nature. It seems to be important that it destroys first in order to build – it’s using that old standard – so that one doesn’t get a compound thing. You don’t get the value of experience, the value of a build-up of social intercourse. There are no textbooks about rock ‘n’ roll, we haven’t got libraries, but they’re starting in a way.
"Music has unified a whole group of people. I still think it’s one of the greatest single things to ever have happened in the world. Really, I do. I think it’s something that’s shared; people that are interested in it, that love it, that listen to it, that play it, that write are a different breed. They just are. There’s just something I immediately have in common with them and I can count on it not just being a common interest musically, but socially. It doesn’t matter whether they come from Czechoslovakia, Japan, Australia, France, Germany or America; if they’re into rock ‘n’ roll their social conscience is going to be similar. That’s all right by me, because if at the moment all the rock social conscience has created is a lot of people that said ‘We failed,’ at least we’re bloody admitting that we failed to do something we set out to do. At least we’re aware of that rather than just sitting there and festering; rather than creating wars and blowing one another’s heads off.
"I’ve always felt that one of the most tragic things about rock is that it isn’t bigger. If you take the world population, then take all the people who buy rock records, I think you come to a modest little clique.
"I don’t think it’s down to the whole clique, though. I don’t think it’s fair to expect kids on the street to be able to change society. They can change themselves, but not society. What I’m driving at is that bands like the Who are now rapidly coming into a position where they’re actually physically able to change society. The responsibility has finally arrived."
.Does he feel a greater responsibility now than ever before?
"I’ve always felt a great deal of responsibility. I feel now it’s just more practical to feel it. If somebody knocked on the door in 1967 and said, ‘We run a boy’s club that’s doing great things in our neighborhood where there have been 14 murders. Since we have been running it the kids have been coming and playing snooker and billiards, but … we need a disco,’ we would have said [in a teasing, snotty and blasé tone], ‘Oh really, how sad.’ Today we can give them one. We decide what we do. That’s just one example.
"I think if we can go on organizing, ourselves so we can stand really close scrutiny; if somebody came in to pick us to pieces and said, ‘OK, you wrote "My Generation," now what are you doing?’ we could take them in and show them every aspect of what we’ve done and hopefully wouldn’t find any flaws. Then we’ve achieved something, if only by example.
"I don’t want to change the world," he says adamantly. "If Britain was a communist country I wouldn’t want to make it capitalist and as it’s a capitalist country, I don’t particularly want to make it communist."
What if it were a dictatorship?
"I don’t know, it depends what kind," he answers.
Let’s say fascist, I counter. People are beginning to think it could happen here.
Townshend dismisses the notion. "Bah. Roger’ s always screaming about how the fascists will take over the country. They won’t take over. They’ll try. Let’s face it, come on, the whole of Britain rose up against fascism. And the weird thing then was that fascism had been quite an acceptable thing in this country under Oswald Mosley. My father was saying that as a 16-year-old kid as school they used to play fascists; they used to goose-step down the street. Then the war broke out and everybody knew it was a thing to fight."
That’s what’s so scary, I remark. Wouldn’t you think that people now know it? The war wasn’t that long ago.
He pauses. "I think people do know it’s a thing to fight. I don’t think there are any wars coming; I don’t think there are any nuclear holocausts coming. I don’t think we’re going to be that lucky. I think it might draw people together. I think if you could have a war without the senseless death it might be good. It would bring people together. The last war gave the country a sense of community, of togetherness; we knew who our friends were. In the last analysis, America came and helped us, We also were able to demonstrate our care and love for our neighbor countries. But I don’t think there will ever be a nuclear war. There will be little brushfire wars as in Vietnam and Israel, but – and maybe not in our lifetimes – I think things will end up peacefully "
Finally he returns to the more mundane subject of rock ‘n’ roll and its place in the grand scheme of things.
"Anyway, I think rock ‘n’ roll is extremely small and I think the Who are a very small part of rock ‘n’ roll. As such we can only do our little bit. But I think it’s important and it’s important to be optimistic.
Has he always been this optimistic? Townshend thinks for a second before answering. "I’ve always been optimistic about life. I’ve not always been optimistic about my role in it."
His voice then takes on a jokingly didactic tone, as if imitating some age-old sage handing down advice.
"You see, I’ve learnt a few very simple lessons in the past couple of years. One is that I would not be able to carry on working in the band or even – I suppose it sounds a bit melodramatic – living without my wife. I’ve always known that I loved her, but what I really didn’t realize was that I needed her so implicitly. Of course, I didn’t realize this until she walked out on me one day. Then I thought ‘Well, this is it. The crunch has come. Victim of a show-business rornance. Divorce number 4,589. ‘" He irnitates a newscaster: ",’Pete Townshend’s second wife said. . .’ flashed through my mind; I thought, ‘Well, fuck that,’ and I just crumbled in a heap. It was a bloody shock, because I thought I’d be able to carry on, thought I was a complete person. I thought my wife needed me, not the other way around.
"That was one simple lesson. That’s a form of ignorance, which leads to evil, which leads to lack of respect for the institution of marriage such as it is which has existed four thousand years longer than I have, yet I chose to fuck around with it.
"I suppose the other simple lesson is that when I thought the only way to change life in the Who was to walk away from it, I actually realized that the guys in the band were very sympathetic to my problems, weren’t overanxious to force a compromise, loved me and were prepared to do whatever was necessary to keep me happy. And that was a fucking shock, because I’ve always regarded the Who as a bit of an enemy – I mean in a business sense, like when it comes to a tour – the way you regard your work as an enemy. Then suddenly it turns around on you and becomes the exact opposite. That’s why the early part of this year I stopped talking about the Who as ‘the Who’ and started to talk about ‘my band,’ stopped talking about Daltrey, Moon and Entwistle and started talking about three people who I really do feel are friends. Quite how they feel about it I don’t know; I think each person in the band oscillates, but I must admit I feel a damn sight closer to them now as people than I ever have."
Did this revelation about the Who come after Who by Numbers?
Were certain songs on that album meant to cry out to the band in any way?
"To some extent. I think it was just me whining about certain things. I’ve never felt it’s wrong for a man to cry, any more than – I was going to say something chauvinistic, but I won’t. You have to double think, don’t you, make sure you’re not sexist: ‘My Baby Gives It Away."
That song, along with "Squeeze Box, " seems so incredibly chauvinist. Did he intend them as jokes?
"No. That’s what I was about to say. I’m not conscious, I don’t sit and work out stances, I just write. This is the thing. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it – that’s why it’s honest."
Does he ever regret writing that way afterwards?
Again he answers negatively. "How can you regret anything when you’ve got no choice in the matter?"
I suggest he has the option not to use material he’s written.
"Often that’s not even my choice, either," he comments, "as regards material with the group, or when one publishes an article like the one I did in Rolling Stone, or things like that. I mean, I regretted that article to a great extent, but I still put it out because the process had been initiated and I thought I might as well do it. In a sense, it was sort of a journalistic Who By Numbers – two years after the event."
But a little more optimistic, I add.
"Yeah, a little more. In the case of ‘Squeeze Box,’ that was supposed to be a funny song. It came from hearing somebody referring to a woman’s tits as a ‘squeeze box.’ A ‘squeeze box’ to me had always been an accordion and I just wrote that little rhyme about it.
"I’m sexist to the extent that I" – he pauses and then bursts out with the end of his sentence – “love tits, and love women practically to the extent of being unstable on the issue – like a lot of men are. I just can’t repress it; I just can’t hold it back. It’s not because I want to put them into a corner, they can do whatever they like. They can mother me or dominate me, or I can mother them and dominate them. I don’t care, just as long as I can get it out of them.
"I dunno. Take ‘My Baby Gives It Away.’ That’s actually a song about my old lady, and she didn’t think it was sexist; she was the first person I played it to. I suppose it was a song about me. About my realizing what idiots men really are for chasing after what they have in their own backyard; chasing after trouble; chasing after wounding relationships; hurting people. Of course, women are half to blame for that as well."
He laughs. "I think maybe you don’t realize until you’re getting to the point where you begin to think you might be past it. You start to think about what is wound up in a casual affair, a quick one-night job with some bird in some hotel room. What is it? What does it mean? The spiritual ramifications are one thing, your own moral values are another. It’s a declaration of mistrust but most of all, most important, is that for the sake of a physical thing you’re going into another human being, becoming enmeshed with them and then tearing yourself away." He demonstrates by clasping his hands together and slowly, painfully, tearing them apart. "It’s just the craziest thing to go around doing – crashing into things, literally. It doesn’t detract from the beauty of the experience or from the joy of sex as God bloody handed it down. It’s just that – well, teenage promiscuity is one thing – experimentation – but when you get to be 22, 23, 24, by that time if you haven’t got your shit together, forget it.
"’My Baby Gives It Away’ is really about that. I suppose it is openly sexist, but it’s not a self-conscious statement. It’s sexist in that it says ‘I am a married man and my old lady loves me enough to let me have it when I want it – which is a bloody lie." He laughs heartily.
I comment that he had written a few songs about women early on in the Who’s career, before there even was a well- organized women’s movement. "Glow Girl" was the original setting of the Tommy theme: "It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl…” "Join My Gang" was about a guy asking a girl into his clique, a move he reckons will "shake the world"; this 1966 song was recorded only by a group called Oscar.
Townshend shrugs, dismissing any hint that he was ahead of his time. "’Join My Gang’ was a self-conscious thing. The reason the Who never did it was because it was very much an exercise. You know who used to rave about that song? David Bowie. He actually heard it in the publishing office before he was a big star – he used to work in an office that had a lot of my stuff then.
"I’ve had great difficulty writing about relationships, period. I still find it difficult to even mention the word ‘love’ in a song. I think it’s a symptom of maturity – I like to talk about maturity as if it were a disease; a symptom of maturity – when you start writing love songs. Rock ‘n’ roll to me has never been about love, it’s been about care. I think the two things are different. I don’t like to see the word ‘love’ bandied about; I think it’s a very misused word."
He digresses. "Love. Adi Irani, who was Meher Baba’s secretary and has been to England a few times and stayed at Oceanic [Townshend’s Meher Baba Center in Twickenham] – he’s a great guy – was asked the difference between the various forms of love. One person thinks love is screwing in the back seat of a car, another thinks it’s divine drops of water from heaven. He said that if you think of love as being like an ocean, a limitless ocean of, let’s say, water; then lust is like water in a gutter, love between man and woman is beer, if you like; love from man to God is like milk; and love from God to man is like wine. There are degrees in everything.
"This is something that I find very hard to express in rock songs. I find that the easiest thing to do is just to get mad. You know what I mean? Because there’s always something to get mad about. I find that the hardest thing for me to do as a writer is to express optimism, general warmth and a feeling of good will to all men in a song. It feels trite and I hate it. That song, ‘I love every minute of the day’ on Who by Numbers is a prime example. Glyn Johns wanted it on the album; I cringed when he picked it. He heard it on a cassette and said, ‘What’s that?’ I said ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘No. Play it.’ I said, ‘Really, it’s nothing. just me playing a ukulele.’ But he insisted on doing it. I said ‘What? That fucking thing. Here’s me, wanting to commit suicide, and you’re going to put that thing on the record."’
Most people’s initial impression of "Blue, Red, and Grey," I tell him, given it’s context, was that he was just being ironic, tongue-in-cheek.
He shrugs. "It’s a bit weird, actually. It definitely doesn’t fit into the Who by Numbers concept as described by Dave Marsh. He said it was the Who’s first concept album. I like Dave Marsh, actually, he’s a good bloke, but he takes rock so seriously."
Isn’t that a symptom of rock journalism?
"I think it’s a problem of a lot of people who buy records, too. Because if it is life – our little chunk of life – well, you should treat life with respect but you shouldn’t be pompously serious about it."
In defense of us scribes, I suggest that we’re probably just a bunch of people who take life too seriously – which is what sparks us to write in the first place.
"On the other hand," Townshend asks, "why the chemistry of putting on a record and going bananas?"
Probably to get out of it, I suggest.
"It’s weird, isn’t it," he says, and then gives the best definition of a rock record I’ve ever heard. "It’s a black plastic thing you buy and you can put it on and it clicks your social conscience – makes you think about the world, makes you think about life – and then makes you dance to forget about it."