An excellent, intelligent, and very lengthy interview with Pete discussing his gear setups over the years, his playing style, Jimi Hendrix, the meanings behind various songs, etc.
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John Entwistle pauses for a moment to wipe down the exceptionally long strings of his bass, and for several disorienting seconds amid the sudden silence, everyone within range fights to regain their stance.
Few people other than myself in this room are transfixed; those who are remain that way simply to avoid being spotted and told to get back to work. It’s seldom this seasonable during early springtime in the idyllic London suburb of Bray, and the gravel-paved lot outside this airplane hangar of a rehearsal space is a convenient location for parts of a large band to sample the soothing British air – and to enjoy brief respite from a decibel-heavy soundcheck.
Just inside the huge corrugated doors, a woman is typing every lyric from the rock opera Tommy into the Autocue, a sort of electronic page turner that feeds to each musician onstage a projection of the score in time with the music as it is performed, leaf by holographic leaf. The band used to be able to perform this thing in their sleep (and at this point in the rehearsals for their mammoth 25th Anniversary tour, it sounds as though they are), but a nudge now and again surely can’t hurt.
Some of these sounds are familiar. As usual, Entwistle provides much of the scrape, but at the hands of three extra vocalists, the Kick Horns (five pieces of brass), and guitarist Steve Bolton, who’s doing merely competent, chorused-out, whammied-up ’80’s-style service to a library of classic crunch, the whole thing jabs and sputters but just doesn’t fly. It’s big, it’s bombastic, and it’s jogging the memory – but this isn’t the Who.
"Maybe you should stand off to a spot where you’re not so conspicuous," a stagehand cautions over the din. "No musician likes to see somebody standing there with his fingers in his ears." Bloody nerve of this guy.
One cable from the Autocue sneaks off the table and under the Ox’s NASA-scale bass amp rig, slithers beneath keyboard, drum, and percussion risers, and finds its way across the hanger to deep stage left. There, not 10 feet away, sprouting wires and cords and lights and Plexiglas and sustained by other life-supportive elements of high holy technology, is a fabricated man-seized vessel constructed expressly for the sole containment of one Pete Townshend, a transfixing presence indeed. He settles in, straps on an acoustic, and prepares to make a noise.
Pete Townshend, 1989, tuning up and rehearsing his band from inside a box (and if a touch of irony were worth five pence, this whole band would have fare back to the States). Pete’s been fighting his way in and out of boxes for more than 20 years. He pounded his head against a stubborn spiritual one with Tommy, issued some more practically applied socio-ethnic lamentations in the same direction through Quadrophenia, and with his seven solo albums – most recently, his delightful musical The Iron Man, which actually breaks the spell – painted himself into and out of them in alternate flourishes of allegory and unabashed confessional psychodrama. Perhaps the box isn’t such a bad idea.
There comes a shout from the booth, the only voice recognizable through the P.A. for its frequent reprimands about stage volumes and microphones’ proximity to speakers. "Can you visually give us the count, then?" From across the room, from two gigantic monitors, come that familiar acoustic electricity and that eminently endearing voice. The introductory chord sequence to "Pinball Wizard," with its accompanying shivers down the spine, speaks volumes: Now it’s the Who.
"What you’re hearing today is not the Who." Pete laments during one of several breaks between slightly distracted run-throughs of tunes, temperamental pick-throwing, and individual "coaching" sessions with several non-Who musicians over the nuances of the material. "It’s a sophisticated bunch of session musicians who, because of the way they’ve been picked and the way they’ve evolved in the relationship to me through my work as a writer, feel very deeply about what they’re doing. But nonetheless, they’re session musicians, who, when this is finished, will go back to Mick Jagger or whoever it is they were with. The Who, if you like, is John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, and Pete Townshend, three kids who met at school when they were 14, and we’re still here."
Townshend’s prospect of piecing together orchestral readings of songs originally composed and arranged for a violent trio assault (and of conducting them from a soundproof enclosure) is only the most apparent of artistic crises he’s confronting today. Rationing parts to a surplus of musicians is a nagging and meticulous task – such difficulty usually lies in trying to do the reverse – but his most sensitive pressure point currently rests between his ears. Tinnitus, the hearing disability he acquired through decades of unwary indulgence in rock’s time-honored excesses, renders him an open nerve in loud signals in a very specific frequency range, one within which happens to fall sounds that to him are now not all that unfamiliar; children’s and women’s voices, speaker feedback, and the brittle whine of the electric guitar. The confines of the booth and a number of remotely amplified acoustic guitars address the latter concerns; the troublesome timeline-of-rock issue, and his own effective place in it, the matter of establishing some kind of legitimate social checkpoint for this reunion, and of addressing it honestly as a function of opposition between circumstance, responsibility, and desire, all have yet to be wrestled with – today.
Little worries, trifles. Hearing problems are the unwelcome mascot for this tour and for Pete Townshend – de facto guitarist for the Who – but his impatient noodlings on the acoustic evince a greater trauma. He scrambles though jazz lines with an aloof mock-eloquence, like someone who learned the language but has been too far and long estranged from its native land to let it tell its story. When it does find voice, it soars – The Iron Man resounds with some of his most adventurous playing in almost seven years – but in serving the demands of his band’s infrastructure and his audience’s myopic infatuation, it was all too often caught somewhere between the poles and squelched into reserve. With all that conflict, who has time to show off?
For every moment of bravado he’s ever enjoyed as a 44-year old hero of rock guitar, Pete Townshend has endured tenfold the sling-and-arrow sufferings of a tragic hero straight out of Shakespeare. As an archetypal rock persona, he played many roles – the idealist, the frustrated idealist, the realist, the hypocrite, the urchin, the saint, the betrayer, the bard himself – and set them all to music quite readily. True, he was a figure to be looked to and learned from, but his struggle generally made a more satisfying connection with those seeking personal lessons in the thoughtful functions of sound rather than in the proper motion of one’s fingers. It was how he played – even in the face of estrangement from his muse, from his family, from his better nature, and often from the very language of his art – and not just simply what he played, that vaulted Pete aloft and kept him there for more than 25 years.
"The Who" is stumbling over the segue vamp to follow "Pinball Wizard." Pete demonstrates the proper changes, but their mistake is repeated each time the song’s powerful resolution comes around, where it spreads over 10 instruments like thoughtfully orchestrated mush. He finally rushes from the box and presents himself physically to correct them, as though the parts they were missing were somehow better represented through sight than sound. "Can everybody hear this chord? This is the starting chord!"
Then he returns to the box and continues conducting.
* * *
Whether Pete Townshend’s stature as a guitarist is aptly acknowledged is a question of perception, as much as is the implicit meaning of anything he’s ever played or written about, even to him. All artists suffer the indignity of having their intentions misperceived, but few have courage enough to bear an even greater burden of measuring what they’ve produced against those intentions and misperceptions, and of being stolid enough to deal with all of this when it inevitably affects the creative process the next time around. The cycle virtually defines Townshend. Most of his artistic and emotional tasks are carried out in a grand battlefield of reconciliation and compromise, pitting the subtle with the exaggerated, the pretentious with the impulsive, the loud with the soft – al in the hopes of sticking together the debris to make some kind of sense. So if he’s not a guitar hero in the specific, (self-) conscious sense the term implies, it’s probably because the cathartic approach he embraced onstage with his band serves as only the most publicly digestible part of what it actually a profound musicality, in this sense, he became and remained the Who’s guitarist, rather that the guitarist with the Who.
And if Pete isn’t the most overtly proficient technician in rock (perhaps he’s subversively proficient), then he’s probably rock’s most consistent, and undoubtedly its most insistent, stylist. The fact is that whether they know it or not, most contemporary rock players were weaned on the deceptive, selective indelicacy of that approach. More than just taking to the dictates of his surroundings, he thrived within them, often undoing the practical link between rock’s heavy doses of expressive energy and the necessary simplicity that walls it in. It cost him a good part of his faculties (and today, half-deaf, he still asks the techs to reposition his monitor closer to the door of the booth so the kick drum can kick him that much harder), but he submerged himself for years in a disorienting abyss of sound to shake off the constraints and come up with something pure. He lusted for new ideas, and developed an instinct for turning periodic artistic frustration into bursts of creativity when nothing else was available. Eventually his perspective had developed to where he exerted the same grace navigating through the opiatic possibilities of a new tuning on an acoustic as he did hurling a squealing SG across a studio at Roger Daltrey. Townshend’s intentions unified on a level to which most art aspired. From the subtly adventurous, to the brazen, to the alchemic wire-crossers – from Joni Mitchell to Sid Vicious to Michael Hedges – musicians in many idioms lean against his legacy.
There has always been a certain grace an assuredness in the way Pete Townshend handles a guitar, almost more so than in the way he handles his musical and spiritual phobias. Many of his lesser-known songs ("Sheraton Gibson," "Empty Glass," "I’m One," "Guitar and Pen," "Now I’m a Farmer," "Pure and Easy," to skim the cream) offer a glimpse inside the unique perspective of the searching guitarist. If not through specific spiritual reference, then through arrangement or production, they characterize the guitar as sacrament of musical liberation (this in keeping with the self-renunciative teachings of his spiritual Master, Meher Baba) but also silently point up the musician’s hermetic existence in a world where countless diversions make a selfless universal connection seem unattainable. A speed-strummed acoustic flourish here, an ear-splitting pick slide there – his gestures lash against the confines of the box, punctuating the stories he sings or the emotional surges of the moment. But the simplicity of the note rises above all else; Townshend’s playing always provided a strong, supportive spiritual backdrop for what could not be resolved intellectually. His acoustic rhythms were always acute, precise, and powerful, even while his philosophies were being reappraised and reshaped. The interchange based itself on a language he learned by speaking freely and often, and even its falterings fueled its evolution. In many of the better-known Who songs, the riffs Pete created involved letting notes ring out if they happened to be hit, allowing the roar of untended strings to seek their own cycle of harmonic ringing; impact was left up to controlled chaos. By consistently avoiding formalization in his art, Pete unwittingly formalized his medium. The language became the sound of rock and roll.
In addition to the band’s own standards, the set on the current tour includes tunes expressly chosen by the individual members of the Who; their warm-ups reveal strains of songs as disparate as The Drifters’ "On Broadway" (strictly warm-up), Jimi Hendrix’ "Hey Joe," and Bo Diddley’s "I’m A Man." To commemorate the early years of the band, Rickenbacker built Pete a limited-edition signature model, but he straps into a standard black Rick 12-string and continues along nostalgically. In a matter of moments, they begin a medley consisting of "I’m A Boy," "I Can See For Miles," and "My Generation." Pete helms the proceedings from the box like a brain center, flexing the joints and getting all the old body parts working again. Through near-opaque panes of glass, a murky, hunching silhouette wrenches the neck of its guitar and bears down intensely. The band picks up on the physical incentive and pumps it home.
Fifteen nostalgic minutes are over. "Once you’re old enough to have a medley," Roger Daltrey confides with a perceptibly uneasy laugh, "you know you’ve ‘ad it."
"Well," I offer, "if you need any help with the lyrics, don’t hesitate to ask."
The singer cups his ear and cocks his head towards me. "Sorry?"
The Iron Man is a decidedly literal fairy tale of a young man (played by Pete himself) confronting the forces of life and love through an encounter with the title character (played by blues legend John Lee Hooker). In every sense, it breaks sharply from his recent solo efforts (the powerfully revealing songs on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes flowed with an atmospheric force, which gathered into the sort of novelistic, three-minute pools he formed with White City; Iron Man re-explodes the form), and in every sense, it’s as introspective an allegory as anything he’s ever recorded. It’s also a perfectly executed pop album. Townshend handled his own production for the first time, leaving himself ample room to stretch within his music like the guitarist few ever knew he was. He should get out more.
Are you actually thinking of touring with the box?
No, at the moment I’m trying to minimize the amount of exposure to loud noise through the rehearsal period. So I did all the rehearsals up to this point in a booth. And what was quite interesting was that my hearing improved. I’ve since discovered that this is not uncommon, that they’re actually using low-volume classical music recordings at a pilot project here at the Institute of Manchester to retrain people’s hearing. This is to help tinnitus sufferers – people who have got roaring or whistles – to listen outside of their heads, as it were, to listen to the externally produced sounds instead of concentrating on the internally produced sounds. And I think that’s what’s been happening; my hearing has actually improved because everything that I’m listening for is so quiet. And it’s such hard work, because I’ve been in a studio for two years, and the answer to any problem there is just simply to turn down.
So this is different for me, and it’s been a challenge, and I’ve actually enjoyed the rehearsals so much more than usual because I don’t feel any sense of exhaustion afterwards. I don’t get that terrible feeling that you normally get after a long stretch, of feeling, that you’ve got to pickle yourself in order to get away from it. Or go and talk crap or something, or go and wreck a room or whatever sort of technique the individual happens to use. I just walk out and I think, "Well, I’ve done my day’s work," and I go home and I’m relaxed. I don’t have to wind down, because I haven’t wound up. Not to say that I don’t get rushes of enthusiasm – I do – but without the sort of destruction that goes with it.
On the stage itself, I’m really hoping that I’m going to be able to just stand out there and work, and we’re trying to build as cosmetic a booth as is possible, so that if I do get noise damage, it will probably be from feedback shrieks. If I get a bad feedback shriek, it disables me for between five and fifteen minutes, so I would then just have to go into the booth. Roger doesn’t really want me in this booth at all. He wants me to wear earplugs, but I haven’t yet found any that I’ve felt comfortable with. There are some wonderful products out there, and there are lots in development – I got a letter yesterday from a free clinic in San Francisco, and they’re doing a project called HEAR, which is trying to raise the consciousness of young people to the fact that loud music does cause damage.
Isn’t there a way you could construct a monitor system with a warm, low-level mix, or isolate yourself in a manner that would allow you to perform as the sole electric guitarist?
I couldn’t do that. I had to work out a series of compromises. Would it be better for me to expose myself to, say, 96 to 100dB for five-minute stretches in order to physically seem to be enjoying myself to the audience, and then go and rest for a while in a booth, where I’d still be visible – and certainly in stadium gigs, it wouldn’t make a hell of a lot of difference, because people get a much better view of me in a stable position with a camera in a well-lit booth than they would out in the sunshine – or would it be better for me to wear earplugs and compromise the whole performance in my own terms? And I have to make those decisions sometime during the next two or three weeks. But I’m so glad that I’m using this booth, because it really does make such a difference. [Pauses.] But it doesn’t work in this place, it really doesn’t. It’s so isolated. I need to get out of it now, and it might be better for me to go through these rehearsals with earplugs in. I’ve got some by Norsonics which are quite good. I can’t use most earplugs because if I move my head, they just literally fly out.
It runs against the ideological grain of your recent writing for you to go on the performance stage in a box – isolated not only from the audience, but to an extent from your bandmates, as well – a shared paradox. There’s something strange in your having to stick your head out to cue the band while trying to maintain the whole.
We’re past that point in rehearsal. It was quite tricky earlier, but a bit more intimate. We’re doing technical rehearsals now, and sort of trying … Actually, we’re not past that point. There will be difficulties, because we still haven’t properly rehearsed my solo songs, and we haven’t yet rehearsed any of the songs from The Iron Man at all. So we’ve got a ways to go. The box is actually quite useful, but it is very much a symbol.
You know, the acoustic guitar is very much a symbol. And I don’t play acoustic on everything now. I’ve found that I can get away with playing what I’ve found to be a very good guitar which Eric championed for Fender, the Eric Clapton Model, which is a wonderful all-around guitar for me. It’s one of those guitars where the actual rhythm sound on it, the undistorted sound, the pickup, and the string balance are very good. I don’t know how they’ve achieved it, but it’s very, very good – it’s almost as good as an acoustic. Also, if you wind it back, it’s got an active distortion pad in it, where it gets distorted without the volume increase, and that enables me to get just the right amount of dirt, but keep the level low.
MESA/Boogie have made a very good front-end tube preamp, and I’m using four of those. It’s the best I’ve ever tried; I’ve tried literally everything on the market, and there are a few things out there that don’t really deserve to be on sale. Tom Scholz’s small rack Rockman, I think he calls it the Sustainor, is absolutely brilliant; I used that on my album a lot. One problem is that the compressor at the front end operates even when it’s not switched on, so if you’ve got a guitar with high output, it tends to compress up anyway. But the Boogie is a real front-end. professional product which I feel happy about onstage. So if worse came to worst, I could plug my guitar into one of those amplifiers, and have a four-speaker stack tucked in some booth at the back of the hall – like the way you would record heavy guitar in the studio. It’s very rare that anyone stands in front of his own stack and plays; you would normally sit in the control room and hear it remote, just like the engineer and the producer. That’s the way I’m operating: studio conditions.
The only problem at the moment is that the booth is so awkward and awful-looking, and it needs more glass and it needs lighting and it needs air-conditioning, and then I think some of the communication problems I’ve got will be solved. But if I’m going to do performances ever again – and I’ve almost given up hope – I think that a purpose-made booth is the answer, one which would see me through the long, long, long hours of rehearsal and technical rehearsal, where you inevitably get terrible feedback shrieks, because people are literally trying to find out where mikes are and it’s all [mimics raucous feedback] and you’re in the middle of that, or how it is at the moment, where Simon Phillips has got my microphone on his fucking mixing panel – if he goes and hits the wrong knob, my mike will shriek, and even if I turn to say "Cut it," it won’t stop. So being in the booth is a way to avoid a lot of the damage and exhaustion. But it is an awful symbol. I mean, Roger felt it very deeply when we went into rehearsal and I was in the booth. For a while he couldn’t function, though he’s gotten used to it now. But he feels he’s got the whole show on his shoulders.
It’s kind of a pragmatic womb, in a sense.
Well, it has to be. What happens when you get disabled in any way, whether it’s physical disablement, mental disablement, or addictive disablement, or whether, as with me, it’s a simple thing like hearing disablement, you actually do become a lot more childlike. The womb-like analogy that you’re using is a brutal one in this context, because it’s one that I hope to dispense with, but I actually do feel like I’m coming out every now and again [smiles].
In a story called "Fish Shop" in your book Horse’s Neck [Faber & Faber], you give an emotional literary treatment to your complex relationship with your guitar teacher, Jacob. Is he a Baba figure?
That’s right, but other things, as well, like my father and my uncle Jack, who was a guitar player who worked for Gibson, for Kalamazoo guitars. He helped them design guitar pickups, and then when the War came, he went into radar – brilliant, brilliant guy. So it was him, and other guitar players who I came across, the main one being John McLaughlin, who was always generous and particular in his recommendations to me when he was a guitar salesman at Selmer. His playing even then was inspirational, and his willingness to listen and appreciate my own basic rhythmic style in 1964 gave me a lot of confidence. But there’s a whole number of figures wrapped up in that. That was the most real story that I had in that book. Most of the stuff was complete fiction. I was trying to write a [Charles] Bukowski kind of thing, actually taking people through a really quite nightmarish thing and then out the other side, and little bits of autobiographical things slipped in. You know, you only have one life and only one set of influences. And, if something slips in which anybody can recognize as being real, they immediately think the rest of it must be real.
That’s what happens when you straddle artistic media.
Well, I feel like I’m playing guitar at the moment rather than anything else, which is interesting for me. I mean, this whole period of rehearsal has been great because I’m playing guitar, and not "making a sound," for which I’ve become well-known. And you see, I actually bring a gate down on pre-’82 Who, because I think that sound and that theatrical dynamic was exhausted by the Who within its own turf, but it’s been inherited by Springsteen and U2 and lots of other bands, as well, who in a sense do it better now – certainly, they’ve given it new life.
What I’m concerned with, when I consider what I really want to be doing and addressing now as a musician, is trying to find some kind of dignity. I keep reading books and hearing stories and analyses of the early years of the Who as being the most exciting, and yet such a lot of turmoil and work and study went into the latter years. And I think it’s unfortunate in a sense that the years were so culturally vapid, the Woodstock years. And also, that it was very, very difficult to deal with the ultimate, triumphant commercial success of Tommy, and it tends to overshadow everything else. It’s a matter of going back as a guitarist and a songwriter and looking not just at the music of the Who from day one forward, but also at the mechanics of the Who – where the material base came from, the influence of people like Pete Meaden, the group’s first stylist, or Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, our managers and the producers of Tommy and other early-period stuff, of people like [producer] Glyn Johns, of my relationship with John and Roger and Keith – examining all those things and trying to see what really put the whole puzzle together and made it work, and honor that. That’s what I want to do. And I really am just a guitarist and songwriter in that, you know. I do an interesting interview, but I am very reflective. I’m very much a journalist in a sense; I see what I see, and I talk about it, and sometimes I see things which, just because of that capacity to observe, and probably just because of the privilege of my position and the freedom that I have to move about, to go to clubs, to have access to intelligent conversation, to be able to travel, and blah blah blah, I tend to see things that are to become trends a little before the average guy would. You, as a journalist, would never dream of writing an article about, say, a band like Television while it was still in the studio. You’d wait till the album could come out and then you’d talk about it, but I’m sure that you would know about their existence or about the possible importance of a guy like Tom Verlaine or Patti Smith or Lenny Kaye in the mid-’70s. You know, a lot of people say that America missed punk, but it actually had punk before we did – in a sense, Jim Morrison was the first punk. The point is that I end up doing interviews which people kind of attach to the Who, and they’ve got nothing to do with the Who; they’ve got nothing to do with my work – they’re just conversations. And so it’s nice for me just to be a guitar player and a songwriter, but just do that job. Not so much to dispense with the myth at all, because the myth is as much a part of the band as anything else, but the interviews are just conversations, and I don’t want to have to live or die by things I’ve ever said in an interview.
It’s not so surprising that Tommy would be resurrected now, given its rather universally applicable themes, but it does seem odd that a band that’s so reflective of the times would reunite without a new record.
You see, I don’t think the band exists in the present day at all. I went to see the Everly Brothers at the Albert Hall, and there they were, big and fat and in person and all the rest of it, and they still had the same voices. Easier to accept them, perhaps, as the Everly Brothers, because they’ve always worked with bands, but had never actually been a band. For us it’s a little bit different, so I felt the best thing to do was to make the lineup of the band as anonymous and capable as possible, in a sense. In fact, there was a point at which I thought that in order to make the band less jagged, less distracted, "the more of them there are, the better." Of course, there’s another reason why I think the big band helps, and that’s because you can get a powerful sound without too much volume. But I felt that it’d be really good that Roger and John and I were just sort of stuck at the front of this kind of wall of musicians, and that the audience actually felt that those three people were the survivors, it you like, the ones trying to deal with the problems we’re presented with at the moment – you know, the need to celebrate, live, what we do, despite all of the terrible worries about both the moral and the artistic problems with stadium performance. We haven’t quite reached that stage yet; you know, we’ve not actually reached the point where it’s been John and Roger and myself at the front of the stage, banded together. And I think when that moment comes, then we’ll know whether this is going to work or not.
Since Tommy, the acoustic guitar has provided a sonic cushion for almost everything you’ve recorded, no matter how bombastic the context, and the new album is pervaded by that cushion. But I detect that this record is the first time you’ve ever recorded without your Gibson J-200 since 1969.
[Smiling] That’s correct, yeah. This is a weird thing about guitars and musical instruments. You know, I’ve smashed so fucking many guitars, and always maintained that they’re just planks of wood, and, "Don’t give me that shit about guitars with all that ‘it knows when I’m away’ stuff," but because I hardly used it on this record at all, it died! It was in the studio waiting in its case, and I went back to do some work there with Boltz, the other guitarist. I opened the case and picked it up, and it had just completely fallen to bits. The strings had corroded to an extraordinary extent, the frets had grown mold, the bridge had come off, the back had popped open, and all of the top had delaminated. And yet, while I was working on the demos before I went into the studio, it worked perfectly well. It’s almost like once it knew it was not going to be on the record, it just went bing! I had it rebuilt, and I’m going to have to take it home and play it. It’s like a different guitar now, like a new guitar. I’ve been trying to reassure people that there is genuine, explosive excitement in acoustic rhythm guitar. I mean, you only have to think back to the great players like Richie Havens, who’ve founded careers on it. And I can make acoustic guitar fly. You know, there’s no question about it. And I feel much more comfortable on the acoustic than on the electric. But there are things it can’t do. It’s very difficult to make the transition, for example, from single-string work to heavy flourished work on acoustic guitar. These are things that I’ve always known, that I’m reconfronting now. But when I get to a comfortable thing like the "Pinball Wizard" bit, it just sounds so obviously right to me, and I just know that’s going to send shivers up people because it’s the sound that’s on the record. But there are other places where the guitar plays a much more subtle role, and I think it’s then that it’s really important that I’m at the front, holding it, and I’m seen to be physically making a subtle contribution. When I did my shows on my own [Pete Townshend’s Deep End, Atco], I played acoustic on most of that, and although I didn’t even have the guitar plugged in, I could actually change the feel of the track. I thought at first that it was the way I played it, and then I found that of course it isn’t; it’s really … [stands up] ’cause you’re there with your guitar, and say you’re on a syncopation, and you’re going [mimes and plays straight rhythm], and then you want to do some trotting or galloping [sings triplets and bends upper body forward], you immediately change your posture and lean in a little bit, and everybody sees that from behind and they go, "Oh, I know." [Physically indicates a responsive corresponding change.] So it’s the visual signals possibly, but I’m hoping that as I … emerge from the box [smiles] and get out front, I’m going to be able to work better. Simon Phillips and I have worked together so much now that we’ve developed a very good rapport.
Is your current demoing process similar to the one you’ve been using over the last 20 years or so?
No, it’s gotten much more sophisticated because I’m using the Synclavier, so my original Portastudio four-track demos are now actually done on a four-track direct-to-disc system which costs more than my house, literally. It means that odd little moments on Iron Man, like the vocals and basic accompaniment on "A Fool Says," are the demo; the whole thing is just something I knocked out very, very loosely. I tried redoing it, and I just thought, "Well, why? It’s all there." I engineered it myself, and this is a problem-I was taking stuff into the studio and saying [as if to himself], "Can’t you hear that buzz?" [Laughs.] But in that respect, as I said earlier, my upper-frequency hearing is actually returning, and that’s become a great relief. I think one of the things about tinnitus and hearing damage is that you psychologically close yourself off. You don’t fight for hearing. The reverse happens: You kind of say, "No, no, please, no more loud noises. Stop. Stop!" A jet might go over, or somebody might toot their horn. Or yesterday my alarm in my car went off [whines loudly], and I lifted up the bonnet to switch it off, and I couldn’t get near it. I thought, "If I get close to this fucking alarm, I’m going to blow my brain out." The modern world seems to be full of these terrifying sounds.
So my demo process has changed only in terms of the more modern equipment, but that’s enabled me to work on a much more sophisticated level, more like a composer than a songwriter. Now, I don’t need the structure of a song before I start to work on it. Working on a Synclavier or on MIDI software or whatever it is that I happen to be using, I can actually approach a shape with a phrase, a musical phrase, and start to develop that. And I can actually try other intellectual ways of approaching a piece of music. We went through all of the songs on Iron Man with just acoustic guitar and vocals yesterday, and the interesting thing about them is that they’re all identical; they’ve all got this strong harmonic thread running through them which you don’t hear when you listen to the finished album. It’s not all that evident because of the way the songs have been slightly dressed up in the recording process. But their genesis is the same harmonic series of phrases I carried all the way through. I really wanted a strong through-composed feel to the musical, not the album. Jesus Christ, I mean, Tommy would have been so much better if I had had modern equipment. It would have been much, much, much easier. I can’t tell you how hard that was for me. I’m not a great memory man, I’m not very good at music, I’m not very good at ordering my thoughts. I’m very, very flitty, and I found it so difficult to write that. I mean, just to write the two or three bits where there was an element of through-composition, like "Go To The Mirror" having "See Me, Feel Me" in it, and the "Overture" – it was just a nightmare, because I had to write stuff on paper and I had no training. That’s my one great regret.
It’s a fair assumption that the pen and paper may one day be swallowed up in the shadow of the technology that gave us the Synclavier.
I think that the assumption these days that you don’t need musical training because there are machines is just another myth. The myth that was around when I was a kid was that music, as it used to be, was dead, and I remember my father always saying to me, "Learn to read, learn to read, learn to read. Whatever music you want to play, it doesn’t matter, just learn to read. This is the language." And you feel a bit like you’re at school and somebody’s saying to you, "You know, this school has never been the same since they dropped classical Greek." You think, "Oh, God." And then you decide one day that you want to read Homer or Plato, and you buy five books, and they’re all utterly different – not only is it a different translation, but different subject matter, and then you realize, "Hey, it might be fun to learn classical Greek. It would be fun to learn what these great, original foundation-stone philosophers were actually saying, and to make my own interpretation of it." Anyway, he made his musical point, and I ignored him, and I wish I hadn’t. I think the other thing I wish I’d done is to develop my virtuosity. Reading a magazine like Guitar Player, you understand that one thing that is not neglected there is the possibility for, and the value of, virtuosity. I’d say to anybody who’s fucking around with music computers now, "Well, that’s fine, but make sure that if you’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean and all you’ve got are sails, that there’s an instrument that you can play to raise your spirit, without any electrical power." Because although this is the modern world, we are closer now than we’ve ever been to having to live naturally. It could happen at any moment, just at any moment; somebody could come and steal all the energy.
Actually, the acoustic portions of your work are among the most exciting. In their own way, those solo demo versions of songs like "Behind Blue Eyes" [Scoop] and your live version of "Drowned" [The Secret Policeman’s Ball, IRS] have a much more present dynamic than the band recordings. On the acoustic "Behind Blue Eyes," you can really hear the villain confronting his demons; you can sense him cowering from his demons. That’s an organic relationship that must feed the whole acoustic rebirth you’re undergoing.
Yeah, definitely. I’ve kind of taken refuge in it because of hearing problems, and then rediscovered the instrument – certainly by exploring new tunings, and finding that there’s a tremendous range of expressions available. Harmonic expressions, not just structural things, are available to you, which, when you work on a piano, get lost in the clichés you tend to gather behind you. What’s interesting is that on a guitar, you can gather all those clichés and then arrange the strings in a completely different order, and all those clichés become something else. It’s like learning a new language, and I quite like doing that on the Synclavier, just actually swapping the keys around on some sort of rnodal level, and then playing some of your familiar shapes and thinking, "Jesus Christ, this is extraordinary."
Have any of your more well-known riffs or sequences come out of accidents like that, through playing with a tuning possibility?
Well, if Iron Man does well, then yes, because one fundamental thing involved was a voicing which is very un-guitarlike, where the 3rd is in the bass, and that came about through a sort of stumble on my guitar. The tuning I used for "Parvardigar" [Who Came First, Decca], which I call "Parvardigar," incidentally, is a 12-string tuning that goes C, G, C, G, C, D. On regular guitar it can be used a whole-step up: D, A, D, A, D, E. I believe I’ve heard this used by Joni Mitchell. The Iron Man version on 6-string in D simply has the lower A string tuned down to G; I’m sure I’ve heard this one used by Ry Cooder. There are other examples. "Praying The Game" [Another Scoop, Atco] developed from a discovery of this thing where you have an open tuning but you put a thin D and a thin G string on the top, and I got that as a development of the G banjo; I thought about how to get a G-banjo-type tuning on guitar, and of course, there was a string spare, so I made that even higher. Things like that actually make you think slightly differently about what you’ve been doing.
Few would suspect that there was a jazzman lurking within you, but some of your work with the Who actually comes as close to eloquent chord soloing as rock ever gets. On the unreleased demo for "Teresa, " there’s a nice jazz-inflected solo that for some reason was dispensed with when the song became "Athena" for It’s Hard. It’s interesting that your playing on this new record is more unconstrained than it’s been in years, and that most of the solos are unabashedly jazzy. Even more interesting is that in the ’60s, among British guitar hero figures, you may have been one of the first to have compromised his musicality for his salability.
Well, that wasn’t exactly me doing that; that was really me coming out against the full force of John and Keith – mainly Keith, but John, too. Actually, John isn’t a musical snob at all. John’s very much as I am; he’s got very broad tastes. But Keith was a musical snob. Awful musical snob. He hated music that swung. With him, everything had to be on. Like a record like "Face The Face" [White City, Atco], he just would not have been able to play. He would have actually felt it was quite fey, despite the force of it. It would have ended up [pounds lap in four, then growls rigidly], "We-can-face-the-face, you-can-face-the-face," you know, like some kind of militaristic street gang.
So he was entirely responsible for making the band more volatile and on the beat?
Yeah, definitely. And in such an extraordinary way that, of course, I didn’t argue with it. I mean, I found it quite difficult to write for Roger; songs like "My Generation," "I Can’t Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," and lots of songs I wrote that never actually made that period, which I’ve got on demos, are embarrassingly macho, because I was trying to find things that he would feel comfortable singing. I liked singing stuff like "Happy Jack," "Pictures Of Lily," and "I’m A Boy," which I was later delighted to discover that Roger was happy to sing, too. I thought, "How could Roger Daltrey, this tough Shepherd’s Bush guy, possibly sing about a boy who was brought up as a girl, wearing girls’ clothes?" And he was quite comfortable with it. Maybe he didn’t understand it, I don’t know. I think he did, but by that time he just felt certain enough of his own masculinity not to worry about it. That was my idea of fun. The main thing about jazz that makes it distinctive from other areas is that behind it is musical competence and musical training, and the next thing I suppose that signals it is the importance of swing, that the beat should swing. Which is inherited, really, from its ’40s and ’50s heritage, so every now and again I think I can get away with it.
I just really wanted that song "Athena" to go away [laughs]. It was just too revealing, and I’ll say no more. I did a lot of demos at Amiga Studios [in L.A.], and [singer] Rickie Lee Jones was in one studio and the Doobie Brothers were in another studio and the atmosphere was just extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary, and I did some really good songs that trip. But then we went home with those songs and came up with Face Dances [Warner Bros.], one of the most insipid albums that we’ve ever produced. I don’t know what went wrong; I think I was just working too hard.
Quadrophenia’s "The Real Me" is another very revealing demo. The bass line you recorded as a guide for what eventually became one of Entwistle’s greatest showcases was actually a characteristically Entwistle line to begin with, which suggests that at some point, you began demoing expressly for the purpose of the band’s interpretation. To what extent are the original arrangements and structure you envision for your songs preserved – or influenced – by the band that ultimately records them?
Well, "Athena"/"Teresa" really did go through a tremendous change, because I did not want a song out there called "Teresa," but the structure was roughly the same. It’s really difficult, isn’t it? I mean, I saw a thing that my friend Irish Jack did on Irish television recently. There was a guy with him, a journalist, an early-’60s Irish rock commentator, and they were talking about what happened in the early days of the Who and were analyzing and describing my creative drive as something kind of like a backdoor mentality – you know, going and taking things here and taking things there and being very much manipulated by people like Peter Meaden and Kit Lambert and greatly influenced by Keith and by Roger and my art-school background – meaning that I actually was interested in drafting ideas rather than in having a spontaneous creative flow of new things – and that’s what made the Who successful. And to a great extent it’s very true: That was the way things happened.
When I first started, as a kid, I didn’t really want to be in a successful band. I think it’s been one of the things that I’ve had great psycho-neurotic difficulty with, I don’t really like being a star; I don’t really like being rich. Not that I’d want to be poor – I never was, you know; I came from a fairly wealthy middle-class family and wasn’t trying to pull my way out of the gutter or anything like that. I just wanted to be like my dad; you know, I worshipped him. He was a magnificent player and a fantastic man. He said to me, "Pete, the big band is finished. We just can’t afford to carry a 26-piece band and a coach and 26 hotel bills every night. It’s just absurd, and you guys are going to take over." Although I wanted to work in a different kind of music, I still wanted to be a sideman rather than a frontman. Roger was the one who really pushed me into the front; you know, he decided that he didn’t want to be the lead guitar player anymore and he wanted to be a singer, partly because he was frustrated with his own guitar playing, but also partly because he wanted more attention and more central visual control. I thought he was a very good guitar player – he had a kind of fairly clumsy style, but it was extremely attractive. What you hear him do now is not quite how he used to play. For the time, he was a very good player, and I was quite happy playing rhythm behind him. I’d already forged a very strong characteristic rhythm style of my own, because I started as a banjo player when I was 11, so my whole kind of flourishing guitar style had started on the banjo – trad-jazz, dixieland, and stuff. I was happy there. Then, when we went in for our first record deal, the guy said, "You’re a great band and we’d sign you, but you’ve got to write your own material." We didn’t have any. And there was nobody in the band who could write except me. I’d done a little bit, because it was one of the little experiments that I’d done: I’d tried oil painting, I’d tried making the Super 8 film – you know, this was the kind of art-school dilettantism that I was involved in. And along the way I tried making a song, a song called "It Was You," which I actually sold to a Liverpudlian band, the Naturals. And then I just thought, "Well, that’s songwriting; didn’t enjoy that very much," and left it. If it had been a hit, I probably would have been more excited about it, but it wasn’t.
So when I actually started to make demos, I consciously set out to take in what was there, you know, what was already established. John’s bass guitar style, as it was at the time of "The Real Me," was not quite the kind of wild virtuoso style that it is right now, not quite so fast, I suppose. But he certainly was an extraordinary player even then; you know, he was one of the first players to use open harmonics and roundwound strings rather than simply to underpin and keep time. It really was the secret of our sound, because the rhythm sound that I produced and his sound molded together and created a rash of random harmonics which is very attractive. And I suppose I was very conscious of that; whatever I put on a demo had to, actually meet that brief [mandate], to the extent that on a song like that, I would sing partly with Roger’s alter-ego in mind, being Roger’s alter-ego. You know, "What would he sing? How would he want to sing it?" And certainly, for a long time, that was why I didn’t put any drums at all on demos, because it was just impossible to mimic what Keith did. So for songs that I felt were going to benefit from fantastic drums, like "Magic Bus," I didn’t put any on the demo, and extraordinarily enough, they didn’t even really get into the single properly until the very end, but when he comes in, it’s like a floodgate opening.
That’s actually a more thoughtful approach to the task than "just the band’s guitarist" would take.
I think I gave you the preamble to sort of set the tone. I really saw myself in a much less manipulative position than sometimes an outsider might see me in. I didn’t connive, and I didn’t calculate. I learned to do this stuff recently, to control through conniving and planning and strategy. I now control everything, and I’m not embarrassed about saying it. I control absolutely everything, in a very open way, so that everybody knows it and I don’t have to hide it. I find that that’s the best way. But it has taken me a long time to be honest about that. And I suppose I went through a period in the late ’70s when it was very frustrating, because I wanted control of my life – not their lives, not the band’s lives. And taking control of my life meant taking control of their lives, and I was unwilling to do that. Maybe I just didn’t have the courage, and I was afraid of doing it, and when I realized – and it happened too late for Keith – that they loved me so much that they didn’t mind if I did that, I found it very difficult to accept that love at that level. It was just so extraordinary when people like Roger, who was always seen as an opponent, an adversary, said to me, "Whatever you want to do, I’ll do it." "I’m in your hands" was actually what he used to say, and I thought, "I can’t handle this. I have to have the adversary back." I suppose in the last two or three years, I’ve realized that both in my own career and in this kind of thing that we’re doing with the Who now, and in all other business, I just accept the fact that I am at the center of things and have to take control.
So on a demo now I’d do exactly what I want, and try to make people do exactly what I wanted, even to the extent of writing the part out. So things have changed in that respect. But then, times have changed. You see, during Quadrophenia, the Who were such a wonderful band to be writing for. I loved that period. I mean, I didn’t like taking it on the road, because it didn’t work. [Prior to their addition of touring keyboardists to recreate parts unplayable as a trio, the Who frequently used backing tapes that were notoriously unreliable onstage.] But the recording was fabulous for me, because they gave me complete freedom. They gave me the whole album, to produce it, write it, mix it – everything. That led to a minor war later with Roger, because he felt that the vocal was buried, and that it was a deliberate act on my part, which fucked our relationship up on that tour. Later, it turned out to be a technical fault, a phase flaw.
Many of your more recent solo songs have dealt with the philosophical pitfalls of control, of free will and determinism. It may seem an obscure connection, but your solos in two songs that seem to illustrate subtly conflicting notions in that area, "The Sea Refuses No River" [All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, Atco] and "Crashing By Design" [White City], are very similar in tone and at some points, even the intervals used.
I think my musical vocabulary is unbelievably limited. It astonishes me. I’ll sit at a piano or work on a guitar and think that I’ve hit on something new, and then a couple of weeks later I’ll go back and analyze it and realize that I’m drawing on a very limited "goodie bag" of ideas. I’m probably like everybody else in the world at the moment; I’m poaching like mad from exploratory players like Keith Jarrett, who spends five or six hours at a piano at a concert trying to find those odd groups of notes that haven’t yet ever been played, which are beautiful and not just nonsense – and every now and again hits it off. You can’t resist but be influenced by them. When I’m working on my own, that really doesn’t happen at all. If I work instinctively – if I just write from the hip, as it were – I don’t find that I’m going over similar ground all the time. I suppose there are emotional pathways in songs that evoke similar musical responses. "Crashing By Design" was about the fact that there are a lot of people that like pain. I went through a period of really liking pain, and I think I still do to some extent like pain, but I hate witnessing pain and hate inflicting pain – it’s a very kind of perverse situation. And in "Sea Refuses No River," to some extent I’m talking about that, but more about the idea that no matter how awful you are, you will, in some way, prevail. In some way, you’ll prevail. You’ll certainly be accepted: At the end, you’ll be taken into the soil and you’ll turn to dust, and at least you’ll be worm food at the bottom line. And there’s kind of a strange admission in that, sort of an admission of, "I am nothing but a piece of shit, but even a piece of shit will come back to God in the end." And I’m not as sure about that song as I used to be. They wanted me to play it this trip, and I don’t know that I can. And I don’t know that I can play "Slit Skirts" [All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes], a song about early middle age. I don’t know that I can play a lot of those songs because I’ve been through that, and I’m out the other side. I identify a lot more generously with my early work rather than with the middle-period stuff. "Rough Boys" [Empty Glass] I like, because it’s a good song. You know, of all the solo things, I like Chinese Eyes the best, but I’m starting to move away from that now.
Well, it’s kind of a stretch, but you could almost call Iron Man a sort of "My Generation Redux," because as with other things you’ve addressed — even in songs like "Sea Refuses" – it’s really innocence that’s crucial to a pure, undiverted sense of self-expression. It’s certainly a more optimistic celebration of youth than "My Generation," but it has fundamentally the same foundation.
Yeah. Well, in a way, there’s a mission that you accept when you start in rock and roll. I know a lot of people felt that what I was doing was taking things that we’ve known about in rock right from the beginning and reselling them – what, to some extent, Bono and U2 get accused of doing now, of telling an audience that it’s not so much his idea, but that he has recognized that it was our idea originally, and he is reminding us of how wonderful it is. It’s almost like somebody coming from the outside, like the prodigal son returning and discovering that family life was pretty good all along. And then you realize that rock began in the early ’50s, and that there I was 15 years later, telling America about their own music. That was part of our job, to allow young white Americans to accept what was essentially a black music of emancipation, and to overcome all of those ethnic barriers that appeared on the surface, and yet to unite us by the music. And they were uniting us in the most extraordinary way, because you were dealing with sometimes third-or fourth-generation émigrés, but that isn’t very much. That means that you’ve got a grandfather who can still sing Polish songs, or one who still knows the Jewish gypsy songs, or maybe a grandfather who remembers his grandfather, who was perhaps part of one of the families that moved through Bulgaria, and took all that music with them. You might even have Baltic or Balkan roots of some sort, so you might have a feeling for that kind of universal thing of Bulgarian music. But certainly, the African heritage was the one which really counted. But go further than that and look back to what Europe brought to America: the Swedish folk music, the French music, the German, the Austrian, the English, the Scottish, and in particular the Irish music – very, very strong influences. The Irish and the Swedish probably most of all, and maybe a bit of Scottish music as well. But seeing those rhythms and those folk traditions woven into a whole new form of pop and then played to the only audience in the world in which every single note had its representative – and that was an American audience – and suddenly you play and you think, "I can’t get it wrong! Whatever I do, there’s somebody somewhere who likes it, a bit of it." That’s the beauty of the American cosmopolitan, universally international audience, and that’s really what made rock and roll grow.
And one other big missing thing was that the black emancipation came through the church, and that was a very difficult pill for a lot of white Americans to swallow. The function of the early-’60s rock bands, then, was to bring R&B to America, where it belonged, to allow the people who had made the music grow to wake up again, the way that [disc jockey] Alan Freed had in the ’50s, the way that Elvis had tried, and Buddy Holly tried.
Hendrix certainly served, maybe even unwittingly, a similar purpose.
Yeah. That’s right.
You shared bills with him …
A lot. We were on the same record label. He was discovered by [Animals bassist] Chas Chandler and brought over and went onto Track, which we co-owned at the time, so he was actually on our record label.
You had a very specific approach to the guitar at the time. Was it in any way intimidating to have something like that happen around you?
It destroyed me. Absolutely, completely destroyed me. [Pauses.] Just destroyed me. I mean, I was glad to be alive, but it was horrifying. Because he took back black music. He took R&B back. He came and stole it back. He made it very evident that that’s what he was doing. He’d been out on the road with people like Little Richard, had done that hard work and then he’d come over to the U.K. And when he took his music back, he took a lot of the trimmings back too.
You were quoted as saying that the guitar was really all you had, and that you’d put it through ceilings and amplifier grilles because you were frustrated by what you could do with it and what you perceived you couldn’t. I’d guess Hendrix might have shifted your emphasis.
It did shift my emphasis. I suppose like a lot of people, like Eric, for a while there I think we gave up, and then we started again and realized … it was very strange for Eric and me. We went and watched Jimi at about 10 London shows together, and he wasn’t with a girl at the time, so it was just me, my wife-to-be Karen, and Eric, going to see this monstrous man. It got to the point where Eric would go up to pay his respects every night, and one day I got up to pay my respects, and he was hugging Eric, but not me – he was kind of giving me a limp handshake – just because Eric was capable of making the right kind of approach to him.
It was a difficult time. You have to remember the other thing about him, that he was astonishingly sexual, and I was there with my wife, you know, the girl I loved. And you could just sense this whole thing in the room where every woman would just [claps] at a snap of a finger. I mean, there were situations sometimes where Jimi would do it. He wasn’t particularly in control of his ego at the time. There was this slightly prince-like quality about him, this kind of imp at work. I found him very charming, very easy, a very sweet guy. You know, I just kept hearing stories. I mean, one story I’ve heard – I think I might have been there – was the night that he went up to Marianne Faithful when she was there with Mick [Jagger], and said to her in her ear, "What are you doing with this asshole?" There were moments like that when he would be very, very attracted to somebody and felt that he would actually be able to get them, and he just couldn’t resist trying. There were no boundaries, and that really scared me. You know, I don’t like that kind of megalomaniacal perspective…
Ah! Except now …
Well, I think it’s very important to respect other people’s relationships. I’m not saying property or territory or emotional space, but their relationships. You know, with relationships there are always opportunities. If you’re a sophisticated person, you know when you see somebody that if there’s a chance of you and them having a relationship together somewhere else at some other time, that a look is enough. It doesn’t need you to go up and say in somebody’s ear, "What are you doing with this asshole?" And slowly but surely, Jimi became sure of himself. I’m talking about the first two weeks he was in London; you know, it was a new band, and they were just taking London by fucking storm! You can’t believe it. You’d look around and the audience was just full of record-company people and music-business people. I suppose I went away and got very confused for a bit. I kind of groped around, I had a lot of spiritual problems, I asked my wife to marry me before it was too late [laughs], and started work on Tommy a bit later. I just sort of felt that I hadn’t the emotional equipment, really, the physical equipment, the natural psychic genius of somebody like Jimi, and realized that what I had was a bunch of gimmicks which he had come and taken away from me, and attached to not only the black R&B from whence they came, but also added a whole new dimension. I did actually feel stripped, to some extent, and I took refuge in my writing. The weirdest thing of the lot is that although people really, really value those early years, the Who was not a particularly important band at that time. We were at the end of an era; under normal circumstances the band should have just disappeared. But because he came along and, kind of like in early punk, just swept everything aside, I had to learn to write, and it became like a new art, from a new angle. And what that actually did was provide me with records that sold in America, somehow. I don’t know why that is.
FLAILING YOUR WAY TO GOD: The Pete Townshend Interview, Part 2 — Interview by Matt Resnicoff [Guitar Player, October 1989]
Three vocalists, a percussionist and a lone acoustic guitar player are jamming to a backing tape on the great stage at Radio City Music Hall. The performers hold diligently to their positions putting forth their parts with an earnest, almost workmanlike precision – all except the guitarist, who’s passionately singing a song about friendship and trust while he bounces himself around his microphone and splashes harmonics over the quirky synthesized rhythms. Midway through the song, he catches his breath and makes a rather pointed set-up for something that in rock traditionally requires little or no introduction: "I’m going to play an acoustic guitar solo for you now." His wrist is already in motion to summon the first few phrases as he shuffles back and realizes he can’t be heard over the tape.
Two glaring eyes shoot towards the soundman. The singers are nervously glued to their microphones, and the percussionist eases her attack as the guitarist strums fiercely and shouts into the small bustle of confusion at the mixing board. He tosses his pick and begins snapping the strings rhythmically to kill time and sustain the energy until the levels get evened out, but the taped synth-bass continues pumping, the hand cymbals sing their brittle little chorus, and technicians just grin and start sweating. More than three quarters of the way through the solo space, the soundman finally gets the message. The guitar player steps forward, closes his eyes, and squeezes off a finger-picked calypso-flavored solo that lingers in the vaulted ceiling like sanctified organ strains. From a projection screen towering 50 feet above, his enormous face looks down mournfully at its own tiny, twitching body as it finds its way inside the music.
This is a Who concert. You can tell because the guy with the guitar yells at someone, dances around, and then finds a few seconds to play a great solo that doesn’t go on as long as it should. It’s at this kind of concert where you’re supposed to experience the delights of rock and roll spectacle – guitars flying into cymbal stands, drums rolling over singers’ toes, old ladies fainting. This most recent road show is a universe apart from the band’s former self, at whose hands a song like "My Generation" might melt into scat rhythms, meander into valleys of harmonics and graceful chord melodies, catwalk through chicken-picked funk-metal, and ascend into a shower of improvised ensemble riffs before segueing into the next piece. On today’s bill, the movements are judiciously choreographed; the experience is designed to kick you in the seat of the pants at just the right moments, but the footprint it leaves on your behind is that of an expensive Doctor Marten, not the typical Who workboot.
Wearing the boot, stoking the flame, and generally stuck in the middle of all of this, is an acoustic guitarist named Pete Townshend, who, despite an understandable concern for personal health maintenance in the workplace, simply doesn’t have it in his heart to allow a good thing to die off completely. Later on in the Radio City set, when the Who lurch into Bo Diddley’s "I’m A Man," he seems to draw a sincere exhilaration from playing the eardrum-rupturing electric guitar he promised he wouldn’t be using all that much on this particular return to the stage. For a musician who sees himself as having become well-known for "simply making a noise," he’s certainly bringing an epiphanal glory to these blues. With a hungry gleam he pounces into the upper register, firing concise but wrenching bursts into the plodding machinery of the groove. The phrases break apart and rejoin in their flight upwards, a resonant celebration of knowing just where to step on a familiar path without ever quite visualizing its trickier twists. "Making a noise," yes. "Simply"? Not on your life. There’s a complex art working at the core of even the most visceral expression, and picking it apart is Townshend’s stock-in-trade. So it came as only a minor surprise when Pete prematurely capped an unresolved "Shakin’All Over" before a stadium crowd of 72,000 people several nights later, presumably because the band just couldn’t capture the salient unsteadiness of the song’s treatment by the original Who. And it was certainly no great shock to the few keen observers who caught Pete checking his manicure between each windniilling slash of his picking arm-the other half of that shattered pre-tour promise of self-preservation as he climaxed a roaring solo over "I’m A Man" at that same gig. And it certainly should only have been expected that Pete’s inspired drop-kicks and scissor-leaps should produce crowd responses that overwhelmed the general fervor accompanying the Who’s just being there. When he strikes that graceful balance between the limitations of form and tapping music’s instinctive sense of pure release, Townshend embodies the complex ideal of rocking and rolling. He’s a prototype punk guitarist who may have crystallized in a single line one of the most lucid observations about both art and the life it imitates – that "true beauty is time’s gift to perfect humility" – and he lives and dies by it every time he picks up his instrument. Be he ever so humble, no musician meshes power with purpose quite as eloquently as Pete Townshend. Like Miles Davis, Townshend’s best work comes at once from everywhere and from nowhere at all, where impulses are pressed into service by a set of specific musical conditions that are just as easily disregarded as they are a necessary springboard for ideas. Once the barriers are rejected, the field is cleared for noisemaking of a very high order: writing music infused with meaning in a format centered almost purely in anarchy, producing characteristically transcendental acoustic guitar work over a Synclavier pulse on a moment’s notice, or having a rock trio beat bloody hell out of a synthesizer track and be left with foundation-stone rock anthems, as the Who did nearly 18 years ago with their renegade experiments with the ARP 2600.
Not ironically, it’s the same museful deliberation that makes The Iron Man (the new solo album/musical on which the majestic "A Friend Is A Friend" appears) one of Townshend’s most protean guitar statements in years. Pete plugged into his new Synclavier music computer and produced direct-to-disc solo passages based in everything from distorted chaos to angelic classicisms to ratty bebop and beyond. Back are the Hessian themes and the vibrant acoustic atmosphere that always intimized and typified his work (he noted in the Sept. ’89 cover story his unqualified rediscovery of the instrument), but the contexts are far more elaborate, the bombast infused with lyricism, the effect joyous. Over the pattering rain against the dingy little aluminum trailer where Pete sat reflecting on the project one particularly wet British afternoon, the Who could be heard rehearsing for their 25th anniversary reunion tour in an airplane hangar 30 yards away.
Do you think that bringing back Tommy now is a way to cajole a spiritual reawakening, a sense of reflective self-awareness in the American culture?
Well, it could only do it, really, if the audience are looking for that. I mean, what was actually happening was that people were devastated by what was going on around them. Devastated. People don’t admit it; I find myself in sort of a class of one, having the courage to admit that I hated Woodstock, and that it was actually quite horrible to be up to your neck in rnud. And in a sense, what people were looking for was just something to hang onto. Tommy actually filled a need; there were people out there with a spiritual hole in their life which they filled up – and partly created – by using psychedelic drugs. Everybody was using psychedelic drugs, and the people who weren’t were using strong hallucinogenics, even though they didn’t know it, in the shape of marijuana. You know, where if you took six joints in a row, you were in the first stages of a psychedelic experience anyway. And that was just rampant. You’d look out at an Electric Factory audience or a Fillmore audience and you’d realize that at least a third of them were on serious LSD trips, and the rest were stoned. And Woodstock, well, the whole audience was on LSD. It’s really quite a grotesque idea, that you’re actually there with a million mad people. Tommy today would only answer that as it did then if there was that kind of chaos, and I don’t think there is.
What the young audience is doing at the moment is very different. I think they’re actually trying to make some kind of sense out of their parents’ experiences. They’ve been told about this dream, this wonderful time – you know, you look at the lineup of Woodstock, and there’s not a bad fucking band there! And when you listen to the charts today, or if you look at Live Aid, for example, there was a lot of rubbish. I say rubbish – that’s a bit cruel. There was a lot of very average stuff. What was amazing about Woodstock was the variety there, from Richie Havens to John Sebastian to Sly And The Family Stone to Jefferson Airplane to the Band to Creedence Clearwater – what a range of artists and talent!
In musical terms, that era really does seem a lot more appealing.
A lot of young Americans say just that: They’re trying to get context. Americans that are younger than you are desperate for context. I mean people who are in their teens right now, and are particularly intelligent music listeners who can recognize the genius of something like Prince, or the genuine talent of a band like U2. They’re stunned by artists like Madonna or Michael Jackson, by their ability to manipulate the audience, their craft, to make so much money so quickly, and to stay sane. How do they do it? So the first thing you say is that they’re not sane, that they’re actually lunatics. But none of them are lunatics. They’re all extraordinary people, and in the case of Prince, you’re dealing with an indisputable, giant genius who is only going to appear in context over the next two or three hundred years. You know, he’s Chopin, that’s who he is. He’s today’s Chopin, and in a sense, a character, a talent, a seductiveness, and a personal attractiveness of that order can only be seen from a long way away – you don’t see it in the present.
Now, how does a young record buyer deal with all that? Only by tracing how Prince could possibly have been created. He has to know all about Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard, two major influences in Prince’s career. He’d then have to know all about Joni Mitchell, because she is another major influence on all of the harmonic substructures in Prince’s music, all of the delicate suspensions and stuff. You then have to see how Joni Mitchell was affected by the rock people around her: how she was affected by my writing, and how she was possibly affected by the constant use of suspensions and such by the other British musicians she associated with. It’s like one of those family trees. You have to start to get the context together. Then it starts to be less of a mystery. The black musicians of the moment are actually rewriting the book on stardom. This is yet another new punk invasion, in a sense, with big house-music and rap artists creating companies which they then completely and utterly dominate. And they understand that the reason you run a company after you’ve had a rap hit is not because you want to be in the business, but because you’re only allowed to be a star for five minutes. Not allowed to be – you only want to be a star for five minutes. I love this story about a Chicago rap group: The guy from the record company called them and said, "You’ve just got to get back together" – they’d gone back to college – ‘You’ve got a hit, and remember: Andy Warhol said everybody’s entitled to be a star for five minutes," and the guy on the other end of the phone said, "Hey, guys, some guy called Andy Warhol said that we’re entitled to be stars for five minutes. Can we spare that much time?" Everything’s changing. There’s a lot of people out there who still want that, but it’s very different. So Tommy comes at a time when I think people will look more at what it means in an almost ecological sense, a real sense. I think people will talk about it more in terms of, "Have we neglected our children?" – in other words, about the superficial things, its symbols of autism and neglect, the things I responded to in my childhood which actually produced the songs – rather than the symbolism which they create. I don’t think anybody is that interested in pedantism or their spiritual life at the moment; they’re interested in trying to get their fucking car to run properly, to try to get their machine to work without creating noxious fumes.
Let’s look at how you got yours to work. Do you recall the revelation of first stumbling onto the suspended chord?
Yeah. [Who manager] Kit Lambert gave me an album by a 17th-century English composer called Henry Purcell. It was just full of Baroque suspensions, and I was deeply, deeply influenced by it. I remember I’d just written "I Can’t Explain," which was just a straightforward copy of [The Kinks’] "You Really Got Me," but with different rhythm. I was on my way, but I was just copying. Then I sat down and wrote all the demos for the Who’s first album, and it’s just covered in those suspensions: "The Kids Are Alright," "I’m A Boy," they’re full of them. And it’s still one of my favorite pieces of music. In that sense, it was another very, very important thing that I got from Kit, because he wasn’t just a manager and he wasn’t just a record producer; he was a fantastic, extraordinary friend. I remember I was staying at his flat in Belgravia once, and he put it on for the first time. I heard it and went into the room, and there were tears streaming down his face, because it was his father’s favorite piece of music, and it reminded him of his dad.
Do you have a favorite period in your career, where you feel you broke down what you regarded as guitaristic barriers?
I think the significant moments have actually had a lot to do with guitars, actual guitars. Like being given an orange Gretsch Country Gentleman and an Edwards [volume] pedal by Joe Walsh, and being told exactly how to set up the amp to produce that amazing Neil Young noise, and using that sound on "Won’t Get Fooled Again" and "Bargain" [Who’s Next, MCA]. Or, being given another wonderful guitar by Joe, an original [Gibson] Flying V, and getting that incredible kind of Jimmy Page noise. I used that guitar on The Who By Numbers, and once or twice for some flourishes on Empty Glass. It’s about guitars; I once found a wonderful Fender Stratocaster that quite obviously had been owned by Buddy Holly. You just played it and said, "Ahh!" It had a lot to do with just kind of responding to sounds.
But I find that the biggest gateway that I’ve been through lately has been into Synclavieriand. Not the guitar side of it – that side of it is a bit antiquated. But working in a sophisticated, studio-quality format has definitely been a revelation. I mean, the machine is one of the most expensive pieces of hardware in human history, and it’s worth every fucking cent. I feel like a kid starting to learn about music, and it’s released me as a guitar player from the responsibility of actually trying to organize on the guitar. I can just respond on the guitar, and it’s so much nicer.
Joe Walsh seems to be a sort of American Pete Townshend figure; there’s a lot of the Who detectable in James Gang, and vice versa.
I was greatly influenced by Joe’s writing. I think stuff like "Pure And Easy" [Who Came First, Decca] and a lot of the stuff around Who’s Next are very sort of James Gang structures. I’m still really good friends with Joe, but I don’t see enough of him as I’d like. I’ve never worked with him. We used to hang out.
Given the spiritual essence of Who Came First and much of the other music you were writing for the Who at the time, it’s odd that you didn’t make use of Indian sounds at all. In fact, a lot of your work at the time had what seems to crop up a lot in your solo and demo repertoire: an American, folk-country feel.
Well, that’s because Indian music is classical music. It’s a high art, and I don’t find it easy to incorporate any of those ideas into my own work. I also prefer country music because I can see the country it comes from, and the backgrounds evoke certain images in me that I feel happier with. You know, when I was first introduced to the teachings of Meher Baba, I didn’t really think of him as an Indian mystic at all; I thought of him as a Sufi. This is not really the best time in the world to start to talk about Persia, but it was the Persian stuff, the Sufi dervish, the idea of literally flailing your way to God, that attracted me. I felt that Christianity was a cumbersome, distorted route to God, and I was more interested in pure Judaism and Sufism and Zoroastrianism. I didn’t even really like any of the new teacher/master figures. There’s quite a few people who still study with and get tremendous spiritual strength from something like Satya Sai Baba, that guy who does miracles in India now, but I couldn’t get into it. I’ve just never been able to meditate very successfully. When I’ve been able to, it’s frightened me. I’ve got a very delicate spirit. I can actually project myself into a set of emotions very, very easily. I can go physically green talking about seasickness.
That’s psychosomatic neurosia.
That’s right. But I never really listened to that much or became a student of Indian music, although I love it. I went to George Harrison’s house last year to a concert by Ravi Shankar and a couple of new 6-string guitarists, these young Indian kids who play a regular acoustic steel-string guitar on their lap. Astonishing. Absolutely astonishing. They make Ry Cooder look like a beginner. And they actually use a lot of modal scales, one of which is very European-sounding, very optimistic-sounding, compared to most Indian things, with none of that kind of superior heart-searching. And then Ravi came on and did his bit, and then you feel like, "God, why did Jimi Hendrix have to die?"
Did your producers help you to incorporate your acoustic sound into the Who, or to develop a specific approach to recording guitars, or did you just sit down, throw up the mikes, and play?
Glyn Johns was a real genius at recording acoustic guitars. He got a fantastic acoustic sound for everybody he worked with. It’s still his best thing; he still gets the best acoustic sound of anybody that I have ever worked with. So when I’m working on acoustic, I try to copy him. If somebody comes along and puts a mike on and it doesn’t look like the position that Glyn would have it in, I’d move it [smiles].
Did Glyn assist you in the recording of electric guitars?
No, Joe [Walsh] was the guy who gave me the most help, and since then, it’s really been Alan Rogan [see accompanying story, below]. But Joe was always the one who would actually give me complete setups to try, or suggest complete setups to try. On the stage, however, I would just go back to my Hiwatt stack.
It’s been said that Live At Leeds and the Who’s live performances during that period gave birth to heavy metal. Yet it’s been reported that you despise the form. Is that true?
I don’t despise it. I think it’s very light-hearted, isn’t it? You know, I’m not into men in Spandex trousers with hair like that (holds palm one foot from head). I’m kind of confused as to why these guys look like that, and why it is that they think they look so cool. Maybe they would just say that I was old-fashioned, I don’t know. But there’s always been a kind of glam-rock thing that came out of the late ’60s with bands like Sweet, and it was very underestimated. I underestimated it, anyway, although there was some good music there, and some good musicianship. But today, a lot of these guys in spandex trousers and hair like that are playing some of the most unbelievable guitar [laughs], and you can’t really argue with it. It’s just that sometimes the vehicles seem to leave a little bit to be desired. I mean, that W.A.S.P. recording of "The Real Me" [Quadrophenia,, MCA, covered on W.A.S.P.’s Headless Children, Capitol] – you give them a good song, and they’re fuckin’ out there; it’s frightening. But it’s interesting that they picked that song; they picked a song which is a boast, a threat. It’s just that the form is limiting, and I suppose part of that I actually respect, because I think that limitations are very, very valuable, but I just can’t understand how so many musicians just want to be the same as so many others. But if you’ve grown up in a college or a university where instead of the situation in my school – where there were only three guitarists, so we got together and formed a band – there were 60. Some kid I was talking to the other day said, "Do you realize that when I was in college we had 40 groups, and they were all pretty good? [Laughs.] And that three of the fathers were millionaires and they had more gear than you’ve fucking got up there now?" And kids have been playing guitar and having lessons from the age of eight, sometimes younger, so when they hit 14 or 15 or 16, they’re sort of going past their peak. There’s some wonderful stuff happening there. I just wish there was a better medium for it. I wish we had something that was more akin to jazz in its ability to take virtuoso performers and give them a stage, rather than just be hit with little tongue flashings and wagging fingers and legs astride and waggling very big kind of psychedelic cocks at the audience. So in that sense, I suppose I do despise it [smiles]. So who knows where it will go? But I’d trade 50 Def Leppards for – that’s not enough – I’d trade 150 Def Leppards for one R.E.M. It’s as simple as that. I heard R.E.M., and my heart just soared. To me, that’s just divine music; I like the sound of it, I think the words are brilliant, I think it’s just perfection, and the fact that none of them can kinda go blidibidineeeaoowr just doesn’t interest me at all, because if they wanted to, they could go out and they could hire any one of those guys [laughs], you know what I mean? What’s really important is the music, the content, the heart of it.
You recorded "Driftin’ Blues" [Another Scoop] during a pretty dour time in your life. And looking to the blues as a salve and as the most elemental musical ideal, it seems strangely appropriate having John Lee Hooker portray the enigmatic character of the Iron Man.
He has said to me – and I’ve heard a lot of other people echo this – that the blues is a friend. I don’t know about the quality of the recording or the performance of "Driftin," but I can remember doing it: I was in my house in the country, I had been living away from my wife for about nine months, had had a string of unsatisfactory relationships with young women, and was feeling like shit because I wasn’t able to accept their love, either because I wasn’t completely cut off from my wife or just because I wasn’t man enough to do it. I was drinking a lot, I’d gone back to using cocaine, which I despised in other people, and I wasn’t in very good spirits. I just started to play that song, and suddenly I just felt happy with myself. You know, I felt I had a friend in me. And I suddenly realized what the blues was. What it is. And it was a great, great, great thrill for me to work with John Lee Hooker. You know, just to hear him saying my name on the [studio intercom] talkback. I mean, he was the first blues performer I really adored. His music, his early albums – well, all his great albums were unbelievably early. I mean, the first couple were made before I was born. He’s a fantastic guitarist. And he doesn’t read, so he carries all his stuff around in his mind, but when he wants to produce the blues, he just does it, and it’s extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.
Was it strange playing that off-kilter blues lick in "Eat Heavy Metal" and actually having him there doing the vocal?
It was, except that he didn’t regard anything on the backing track as having anything at all to do with the blues. It’s not necessarily about form following function, but the blues is a functional thing; it’s something that you do. It’s not something that you can put on a record and sing to [smiles]. So to him it was all just pop.
Did you make a conscious decision to play more on this record?
Yeah. I also made a very conscious decision not to use a producer. You see, Chris Thomas has been a fantastic producer, and I didn’t not use him because I had any misgivings about him at all; I actually missed him terribly. The other thing was to have complete control over the voicings of all the chords, so that nobody would ever play a note that I didn’t want, and the structures would be very, very pure. That was partly something that came about with this voicing, which is with the A string tuned down. You get this strange, special voicing on the guitar which I was desperate to hold onto. So I made the backing vocalists do it: For the bass voice, I made them take the 3rd down and use that on the bottom instead of the root. You get these strange, kind of upside-down harmonies that work wonderfully well.
You’ve abandoned the more conventional, condensed song structures of White City, which succeeded some fairly sprawling stuff on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. And you’ve never previously used choral vocals as a harmonic tool.
That was a conscious thing, because I was dealing with a musical, and I suppose my first hope was that I would be able to pick up a guitar or sit at a piano with a bunch of vocalists, and the thing would hang together. And it does; you can strip away everything. The three or four songs from Iron Man that I’m going to do on the stage will just be me on guitar, maybe a bit of percussion, and voices, and I think that then, probably, you’ll hear the way they work. Billy Nicholls, one of the backing singers, was the vocal musical director, and we did a lot of advance work. And again, the Synclavier came in fantastically handy for that, because we were able to rewrite parts very, very quickly, print them up, try them, and then revoice them. It’s good to know that there’s other, cheaper Apple Mac-type software which will do that, because it was fucking great to be able to do it; I remember when I was doing it, I felt really guilty because I kept thinking, "This is so powerful, in what it allows you to do, that it’s wrong that it should be limited to Frank Zappa and me and Stevie Wonder and a few other people who can afford to buy one." That will always be wrong. [Pause.]
"Over The Top" is very reminiscent of a Larry Carlton progression called "Blues Bird," from Sleepwalk [MCA]
Yeah, I’ve got that album – probably something else that’s gotten into the back of my brain. At one point I actually thought about inviting him onto the record, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to play lead guitar. I also thought of Pat Martino, who I desperately want to work with sometime. I hear he’s back in action again. I’d quite like to do an album where I’d just write some chord progressions for people to work with. I like Larry Carlton a lot.
It sounds like it; the tune features a very impulsive, yet harmonically advanced, jazzy solo. Did you work that out?
No, none of the solos were worked out. They were all just off the top of my head, and they were all done in two days, because I didn’t think the album was going to have any lead guitar on it. And then at the last minute I thought everything should have acoustic on it. I’ll tell you what it was: It was going to George Harrison’s house — before the Indian concert; this is another occasion, for a friend’s birthday – when they were working on the Wilburys’ album, and Roy Orbison was there. They were playing the tracks in George’s studio, and Mark Knopfler kept coming up to me and saying, "Strumming, man, that’s what everything’s about: strumming, great strumming! Life is just about strumming guitars. Not about solos, not about anything – just strumming! Even just the word: strruumming." That’s about as cosmic as Mark is ever gonna get [laughs]. I went back and took the first song, "I Won’t Run Anymore," and I thought, "I’m going to try two guitars on this, strumming." I tried it, and my assistant producer, Jules Bowen, said, "It really picks it up; it sounds lighter." So I went through and put strumming guitars on everything, and then it begged an electric guitar. I realized I was going to have to do lead guitars. And with a few little edits here and there, made possible by our working straight down to disc, the playing is completely free, because I knew that if I made a mistake I could cut it out. But I made very few mistakes; that’s what was such a kick. If I had been going down to tape, I would have been pathetic, but because I knew I could correct the mistakes, I just kinda went [mimes guitaristically] and it’s like Adrian Belew on acid, or something [laughs]. There are some great moments, and there are some other really quite conventional straight solos. That’s what the Synclavier has done for me – it’s allowed me to work on records almost as though I was on demos.
And really blur the line between improvising and composing.
That’s right. I was pleased with the guitar work on it. It’s not front-line stuff, but I was pleased with it because it fits and it’s comfortable, in terms of the way I play.
The chord sequence and voicings in "Was There Life" are a bit reminiscent of Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson.
They’re two people who I really like.
I’ve actually been working a bit with Joe to try writing lyrics for him, unsuccessfully as yet. I really respect what he’s doing at the moment. And Todd has been a major influence in using – I don’t know what you call it in America; everybody has their own jargon – what I call a displaced bass pedal, where, as I explained, you’re placing the 3rd as the bass note when you’re playing a chord. He’s a master of that. But that particular song, actually, is unbelievably conventional. It’s written in an old-fashioned manner; it’s the most arch-musicalesque song. It’s written very much in the tradition of songs like "Begin The Beguine" [covered on Another Scoop]; it doesn’t have a verse-chorus format. It just runs through, and each little part of it is slightly different. But it was after I’d written it that I realized that I’d actually unwittingly poached a little bit of [pianist] Keith Jarrett off the Sun Bear Concerts [ECM], and I’m putting it in print so that he can sue me if he wants, because I fight against it terribly. But there’s one little bit that is off a piece of Chopin, which is played at an extraordinarily high speed. When you slow it down, it turns into this beautiful sequence. I thought I discovered it, and then a couple of weeks later I brought the album out and listened to it, and there it was. I find (pianist) Glenn Gould very interesting to listen to because he used to ignore the composer’s instructions about speed. There’s something very educative and illuminating about doing that. Sometimes you can rip off ideas very, very successfully just by changing the speed [laughs]!
The bass lines and tones being used throughout The Iron Man are very powerful
It’s either Chucho Merdhan, or it’s me on the Synclavier. Mainly Chucho. Chucho worked with me for the first time as the music director of the Deep End gigs [Pete Townshend’s Deep End, Atco], and he works a lot with the Eurythmics.
Do you give your bass players any specific directives?
"Keep it simple." I like Pino Palladino the best. He worked on "Give Blood" [White City]. I think he’s wonderful.
Those aren’t simple lines, nor is a lot of the bass work on any of your solo albums. It’s very present.
I like slightly more complicated bass playing than average, obviously, because I’ve grown up with John, who has been much more loquacious as a bass player than most. But still, when I’m not working with John, I like it to be a little bit simpler than John would have played. But then on the other hand, when he came and played bass on "Dig," it was just great.
So you don’t tell your bassists how to reharmonize the tune. You just give them the chords…
[Smiling.] There could be a little guide in there somewhere.
Did you improvise the Spanish-style nylon-string solo and accompaniment on "A Fool Says… "?
It’s one take, but it’s an overdub, The vocals and the guitar that I played in the background were done at home, and I took the tapes to the studio.
That’s another unconventional piece for you, perhaps the first time you’ve worked on record with that type of instrument.
Well, I’d seen Sting recently doing a lot of classical-style guitar in bits and pieces, and I thought,"If he can get away with it, maybe I could."
I think the glissandos and harmonics are just part of the way that I play around the house, and bits and pieces of ideas leaking out. Everything that I ever do one day finds its way onto tape, and finally into a song somewhere. So I don’t have an unlimited goodie bag of ideas. There’s a lot there; I mean, I’ve got a lot of things I can draw on; mainly because my influences are so broad, and include an extraordinary amount of music.
"To Barney Kessel", from Scoop, is the only unaccompanied guitar piece you’ve ever released.. Was he a big influence?
Well, yeah, in a way he was. I mean, he’s just one of the many guitarists who interested me during a period I went through before I got stuck into the Who properly and really got into R&B. I used to listen to him, to Wes Montgomery, and to Kenny Burrell, and that’s it, really. Then I got distracted; in my art school, there was a guy who was mad about Chet Atkins, and I got very interested in and started to learn how to play Chet Atkins-style. Then I got even further diverted by another guy who was a James Burton freak and would make me listen to the B-sides of Ricky Nelson records. Then the Who, the band, started to pick up R&B. My friend Barney [Richard Barnes] and I moved into a flat owned by an American guy named Tom Wright, who was drummed out of England because of pot busts, and had to go in such a hurry that he had to leave his record collection in our custody. And it was an extraordinary record collection: Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith – a fantastic collection for the time, and I never looked back. I found in R&B a way to pull my jazz and my pop influences together.
It’s funny how marijuana was indirectly responsible for such miraculous musical exposure. Do you feel that once you began to use it yourself during your early twenties, it opened up many creative doors?
I think it was really important – maybe not as important as alcohol is for somebody as shy as I am socially, but very, very important, because it does change your perception of music and it allows you to enjoy without analysis. I think it allows you to stand outside yourself as a listener and an observer when you perform, and thus it enables you to respond and react. If you’re trained and you’re expert, your body will play the solos and you can just monitor them [looks down at his hands, as though from much farther above]: "Oh, that’s not too cool – go somewhere else." And it’s sad, in a sense, that as a drug, marijuana actually tends to turn you into such a sort of a softball in the end. But I think it’s still a very, very useful artistic relaxant for a lot of people. I don’t think it’s very successful socially; you giggle too much, you know. I still think that alcohol is very good socially. But both things have been disastrous for me, ultimately, because I’ve relied on them too much, and I’ve had to learn how to do all this stuff without them. But had I not been able to learn how I could work with them, I don’t think I would have known in what direction to go without them. When you’re drunk, you know that you can get away with going up to somebody that you’ve got absolutely no hope of ever even politely brushing their cheek, and just saying, "You’re the most beautiful girl in the world – I love you, I want you, I’ll give up everything just for you." And she might turn around and say, "Oh, that’s very flattering. I’d love to have you as my friend." When you realize you can do it drunk, you then realize that it works sober, too. It’s just having the courage to say it, having the courage to do it, having the courage to go for what you want. And the same is true, in a sense, with music: If you’ve got the courage, you can do without marijuana what you can do with it. But I think it just feels more dangerous because you’re fucking with something very, very phenomenal. You’re fucking with something that involves the left and the right side of the brain, and to do that, you really have to have some kind of knowledge of the way that the mind and the body work. It’s mystical.
It’s often been reported that you were the first guy to use Marshall stacks. Is that accurate?
Well, not really. John was the first person to use a Marshall stack on its side. He used two 4×12 cabinets, and I bought a single 4×12 and used it on a waist-high stand so my Rickenbacker would feed back. Then it seemed a logical extension to stand a top 4×12 on another 4×12 that was actually a dummy, and then eventually to do what John was doing and have two amplifiers. I never, ever used a stack with one amplifier until I got into Hiwatts, and I didn’t use Marshalls very long. In fact, I never used Marshall in the beginning at all. I used to use Fenders; I had a Fender Pro and a Fender Vibrasonic and a Fender Bassman top, and I used to drive Marshall 4×12’s with those amplifiers. I thought Marshalls were awful, and I’m afraid I still do, although that’s just a personal opinion. I don’t mean it’s bad stuff: I just mean I didn’t like the sound. And when I heard Hiwatt I was over the moon, because they sounded to me much more like a really good, top-line mid-’60s Fender amp. I still think it’s hard to beat Fender amps; they’re astonishing.
You went through a period in the ’70s when you were performing with Les Paul Deluxes almost exclusively, and your models were decorated with large numerals on their faces. What was the code, and what purpose did their two extra toggles serve?
I had various versions: there was a three-pickup one that had three toggles to switch the pickups on and off, but I think the toggle on the others – these were Deluxes, with those small humbuckers – was an extra switch to double-boost the Seymour Duncan in the middle for feedback. They were numbered because I had 10 of them and they seemed to go in and out of action. I used to need four in good shape: I’d have one main guitar, one with a capo on it for "Baba O’Riley," another one with a capo on it for "Drowned," one spare for the capo guitars and another spare. I was carrying five, so another three on the road seemed to be logical. Alan Rogan, my guitar man, put the numbers on. I don’t have very much to do with my guitars – it’s absurd [laughs].
What was the tuning that gave you that full, rich F-chord sound on "Baba O’Riley"?
It’s just normal tuning. The capo’s at F, first position. It’s the shapes that I play. None of the shapes that I play with loud distortion have a 3rd, because you hear the 3rd in the distortion. You’re getting the second- and third-harmonic distortion, so the first note you’re hearing is the 3rd, the second note you’re hearing is the 4th, and the last note you’re hearing is the 5th, so if you played the 3rd, you’re going to get a note which is a 4th up from that, so, oh [grimaces]! That sound I can’t stand is people playing a complete C chord with fuzz. They’re actually getting something like a C13.
But that approach seems to have spilled over into your acoustic work, as well. When you play an open-position A chord, for instance, you seldom include the C#.
That’s just habit. I mean, I like to have a ringing tone, so sometimes, like, for example, in "You Better, You Bet" [Face Dances, Warner Bros.], when I play C, F, G, C, F, G. the high G is in all the time on the F and the C chords. So effectively, I’m playing C with G at the top, then F with G at the top, and then G with G at the top. And that’s a very distinctive part of the way I voice chords: having a drone, but at the top rather than at the bottom. I went through a period in the early days with stuff like "Substitute" and "I Can See For Miles" where I was running a drone in the bottom, and I got very bored with that, so I started to find other ways of approaching it.
When you do your flamenco-style strumming, how rigid do you keep your picking hand?
It’s quite slack. I’m using quite a heavy pick – a Manny’s heavy – but I’m not actually holding it. It’s floating, just literally being held in space [laughs]. It’s a trad banjo technique [sings twangy strums], a ukulele/banjo technique that lends itself to the guitar quite well, although I think it’s one of the things that has inhibited me being able to play faster, because I’m using such a heavy pick and I’m holding it in such a strange way.
You’ve been photographed with picking hand literally soaked in blood, and actually appeared onstage in a cast that reached almost halfway to your elbow That must have made "Pinball Wizard’ quite a painful challenge.
That’s another hazard of the way that I worked. A lot of people have said, you know, " If you can’t go out there and be Pete Townshend, how are a lot of kids, going to feel?" Well, the problem is not only has it made me deaf, but, you know, as soon as we’d hit "Baba ORiley" I’d go djaaang, swing, swing, all my fingernails would just get broken off across and from then on I would be in absolute agony for the rest of the tour. I wouldn’t be able to sleep; you know, at night my hand would be throbbing. I’m not allowed to use any kind of opiates at all, so I can’t use strong pain-killers, and aspirins don’t do anything. And the other thing is, when you swing your arm and you’ve got a cut finger, blood pours out of it at a great rate, and it goes all over your strings. So one of the other things I decided to do on this tour was be a little bit more careful with my hands. You see, I’ve seen a lot of people do arm-swings, and I’ve never seen anybody do it right.
What is the right method?
Well, the right method is to bleed, you know? Your hand and the pick have to connect with the fucking strings. You don’t open your fingers up and just sort of slap. And you have to be able to do it in a downward direction as well as an upward direction. Doing it from the top is right easy, but coming up from below … you know, you’re going around, the string catches under your fingernail, carves it back, pulls it out and then goes poing, backwards. If you get it wrong. And I thought, "Well, fuck this. Nobody knows." I just don’t want to do that anymore. It’s another example of the way that I developed a way of working which is disabling.
Do you think that on this tour you’re going to have difficulty walking the thin line between what you referred to recently as the "Parthenonic "and the arcane?
[Laughs.] Yeah, maybe. Maybe not just in the material on the stage, but most of all, with trying to tell the difference between what is a good part of the audience to respond to and what isn’t. I think I will have difficulty with that, because I perceive the Parthenonic side of it in a rather different way to everybody else. This has always been my problem. Although it belittles us to admit it, it’s not entirely true to say that I am a Who fan like everybody else, because I think that a lot of people who like and are interested in the Who aren’t Who fans at all, aren’t even people who necessarily spend a lot of time listening to the records, and they aren’t necessarily people who like all of the music or all of the individuals in the band. What is important about the Who to them is something else; it’s like the jigsaw puzzle they fill in, and the fact that their relative life cycle is so fascinating. So to actually talk about fans is a bit self-aggrandizing [laughs]. A lot of people are going to see the Who so that they can say, "I went to see the Who." They don’t know what to expect. A lot of people are coming to see whether they like us or not [laughs]!
You’ve been around since before many of those people were even born. It might seem intimidating to younger people; by the time you were their age, you were already "conquering the world. "
And a lot of people say, "Oh, you’re ever so humble." It’s not humility that makes me say this, but I really do think it’s a team that makes it, and that the people who are kind of at the spearhead of the team, group, or peer group have no real conception of what they’ve achieved, of what the group has achieved. That’s probably why it’s so preposterous that people should actually take any interest in what I’ve got to say about the subject of rock and roll – I probably know less about it than they do. You do it because the audience allows you to do it. You’re on a stage because the audience has chosen you to do a job, and you’re elected from among your peers. So in a sense, a lot of people I meet who were there at the very, very beginning of the Who’s career, do act as as though they own me.
I’ve got a very fancy house in England. I used to live in quite a modest house, and I wanted a studio and a garden. So we bought a house on one of the poshest streets in town, and there’s a park next door. There’s a parkkeeper, and he’s got thinning, gray hair like me – less hair than I have – and he comes up to me and says, "[heavy Cockney] You know Pete, I used to come and see you – why don’t you blokes do something fucking decent, like in the old days? You’re fucking useless now. What are you doing in that big fucking house you’ve got ‘ere? I’ll bet you just sit up there and just do fucking nothing all fucking day! Why don’t you fucking do something?" This is the fucking parkkeeper! He’s the guy that sweeps the park; I pay my rates so that I can walk there. You know, I don’t get any respect, as Rodney Dangerfield says. Those moments are precious, because then you realize, "Hold it. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just Roger. It wasn’t just the Who. It wasn’t just the band and a few hundred selected faces that used to hang out at the Marquee club. It was a whole generation of people, and we were just one of the bands."
I think that’s the way you have to think about your role in life and your contribution. You know [sighs], it’s lucky to get the larger rewards, there’s no question about it, but now, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, and tomorrow, I can honestly say that I would trade places with the parkkeeper at the drop of a hat. I really would. He’s got a divorce behind him, and I’d still trade places with him, because I can just see that he’s happier than I am, and that he’s been through less hassle than I have. Now, that’s not to say that that’s true of everybody, and maybe that’s an ungracious thing, in a sense. I am happy with my lot. It’s just that with the rewards come terrible problems, which is the fact that when you’re in my position, you chastise yourself for not having made better use of the opportunities and the advantages. It’s very difficult to respond to criticism like, "There you are, with a hundred thousand quid in the bank moaning about how unhappy you are," and that often gets heard. "Don’t give me your miserable songs. Cheer me up." And as an artist you say, "Well, I can’t. I’m unhappy." "Well, if you’re unhappy, fuck off. Just get off the face of the planet." And you don’t say that to unhappy people. That’s what "Slit Skirts" [Chinese Eyes] was about: You know, you don’t say to somebody who’s sad, "Fuck off! Get out of my life!’ But people say that to artists. Artists have been elected by the public to be the happy people, to be the entertainers, to be the constructive, positive force. And when they fail to do that, they’re expected to disappear. And it’s very difficult to disappear. And you know you should disappear, because you also know that you feel that way about other performers. You pick up the paper and you say, "Oh, poor fucking Rod Stewart. You’ve lost one blonde and got another blonde and my heart bleeds for you. And this one’s 50 times as good-looking as the other one – oh, you’ve got a tax bill to pay, you poor sod. You only earned 60 million dollars last year?" So you know how people feel about you, but nonetheless, it’s a clearer perspective from this position. Being on the stage and looking at the audience, one thing is clear: We know better who the audience is [chuckles]. You know, we really do. They don’t really know who we are. They don’t really know that we’re just shit like them. And that’s what was really interesting about Elvis being put into the Army; I don’t know whether he got an easier ride, but you can imagine if there was a really serious war and they take Michael Jackson and draft him into a crack Marine troop you just know they’d have that little fucker in shape in six weeks. You know they would! And the interesting thing about it is that the guy’s fit. And he’s dangerous! Do you know what I’m saying? I mean, here he is, a little plastic man who likes to [cavort] with a llama or whatever – he’s a heavy guy. And he’s bigger than he looks, too. It’s that whole feeling of what happens when you strip people and just put them alongside one another and you see how different everybody is. And then in difference, everybody gets lost. The thing about large stadium audiences, which raise up the star, is that the larger the mass, the lower the level of humanity you seem to end up with. In a large enough mass, you just kind of average everything out, and the individual gets pointed up. You’ve just got to stop thinking of yourself as having to be measured by the achievements of anybody else at all – that’s the important thing.
How do you respond to that dilemma these days?
I’m responding to that now. Just last night I was trying to find an empty piece of videotape to copy something for a friend, and I found the concert Prince did with the Revolution, the one around the time of Christopher Tracy’s Parade album. I started looking at it, and [sighs] it’s just demoralizing – absolutely demoralizing. It’s about 20 songs into his set and he hasn’t even sweated a fucking bead! I mean, not only is he running a studio and a band and writing songs and playing great guitar and dancing, but he’s obviously lifting weights and doing aerobic training. Where does the guy fit in his extraordinary sex life that I keep reading about? And I don’t want to compare myself to him. I don’t even want to try to aspire to anything that he’s done, and yet, part of his attraction is his extraordinary capability. But there again, he was around for a long time. He was around for three or four years before the public decided that they were going to have him on any level at all – you know, when they granted him permission to be a star, when he’d been in the wings long enough: "Okay, just stay there for awhile. Keep the corset on. No, actually, take the corset off. Put the gown back on. That’s right. A bit more oil on it. Now wait, just wait there." And he waited and waited and waited. "Okay, all right, now we’re ready for you. Out you come. On the motorbike, please, and, uh, I think you really … hmm … because you’re such a weird guy – could you bring a girl with enormous tits with you, please? Great, that’s perfect! Now you’re a star!’
That’s the process. And it happens at every level of life. The most important thing is actually being able to play that game with yourself, to actually recognize what your own pacing is, and where it is that you’ve already decided to go.
Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Certainly for a musician, every little decision closes off an entire world of possibilities. When you recognize that each seemingly insignificant little choice you make is actually so crucial in determining that ultimate direction, it can become quite overwhelming.
What you need is to do something like sailing or mountaineering, where the philosophy is that you learn to control every aspect of what you can control, and you learn to accept and respect the influences of things that you can’t control. And that that’s what life is about. There are some decisions that you can control, and those you should consider very carefully. But most of them you have no control over; it’s just that you think you might.
When you get on a plane, for instance, you don’t control whether it’s going to get where you’re going in one piece. And there’s no point worrying about that. That’s the moment where you put yourself in the hand of destiny, or God, if you’re lucky enough to believe in God. That kind of process really helps, I think, especially in the world of guitar, for example, in wanting to aspire, wanting to practice, wanting to become a particular kind of player. In the rnodern world, some people can achieve what they want to do with such apparent ease, and you think, "What they found so easy is so unbelievably hard for me." So what you should actually be doing is looking for the difficult things, looking for the things where there are no possibilities. If you really feel that you’re presented with so many options that you just don’t know what to pick next, then go somewhere where you’ve got no options. Go stand in the middle of the Kalahari desert for a couple of weeks. And not so you suffer, but just so that there are no options, so you know that the most important thing – the only thing – that you’ve got to do next is to make sure that your supply of water is kept up, and that you get some clean food. And live like that for a couple of weeks. I get that from sailing: You’re out on the ocean, and the only thing that you’ve got to do next is find out where the fuck you are [laughs]. And you know that if a storm hits you, that you’ve just got to strap everything down.
LET ME AT MY STACK
"I’m not really a true guitar connoisseur. I had a D’Angelico New Yorker until a few months ago, but I sold it to buy a boat. What used to make me swoon about that guitar was its look. I think the rest’s all romanticism."
Hardly surprising diatribe from someone who demolished more electric guitars in his post-adolescence than most devout guitar buffs probably see or play in a lifetime of collecting. But whether he’s bashing away at a cranked-up Schecter Telestyle, an old jazz box like the New Yorker, or a time-worn Gibson J- 200 acoustic – his beloved mainstay of 22 years – Pete Townshend sounds just like Pete Townshend. Maybe that’s romanticism, but it may console the diehards who just can’t imagine Pete detached from his Hiwatt stacks and patched into the PA., which is the studio-savvy manner he’s affected for his performances on the Who’s 25th-anniversary reunion tour. According to longtime technician (and true guitar connoisseur) Alan Rogan, Pete is relying on three independent setups for three distinct sounds. The primary rig is the simplest, in which one of several Takamine 6-strings feeds a Demeter direct box and is then fed straight into the board. The two electric rigs, one for Fender Eric Clapton Strats, and one for Rickenbacker 12-strings, place independently preset MESA/Boogie Studio Preamps between guitar and direct box. The Takamines are tuned D, A, D, A, D, E, low to high, for "A Friend Is A Friend" [The Iron Man, Atco], capoed at the 1st fret for "Baba O’Riley" [Who’s Next, MCA] and "Join Together" [Hooligans], or at the 3rd for "5:15" [Quadrophenia, MCA]; on "up" gigs, he capos the Strats for those particular songs. All of Pete’s onstage monitoring comes through wedges at his feet. He uses no other speakers.
To avoid confusion, each of Pete’s instruments are numbered – the acoustics, between pickup and fingerboard, and the electrics, on the tremolo cover – much in the infamous tradition of his mid-to-late-’70s Les Paul Deluxes. Outfitted with a coil-tappable DiMarzio Dual Sound humbucker in the middle position and usually fed through an MXR Dyna Comp compressor, a Roland Dimension D, and a Roland SDE-2000 delay, those guitars went in and out of action with an unpatterned regularity. "Back then," offers Rogan, "there were five main guitars, although that basically meant one Les Paul and ten spares. However, Numbers One, Two, and Three at the beginning of a tour weren’t necessarily the main guitars at the end. The first three Pete would have arrived at after trying a number of guitars, and the rest would become spares. Working with the others at the sound-check and the gig, he may change his preference; Number Three would become Number Five, and Number Five would become Number Two – whatever. It’s much simpler these days, thank goodness."
Despite the apparent randomness, Pete Townshend is actually quite selective and specific about his guitars. "In practical terms," begins Pete, "I look for strength first, and a solid line from tail-piece to headstock – and that all components in that pathway be of high quality and super strength. I’m also very keen on clean, enhanced treble of the Gibson variety, but with no sustain. This more closely approximates the vibration cycle of the acoustic, and suits my rhythm style far better than charged-up, overwound pick-ups that whine on for hours. However, when I play solos, I like sustain, so a well-matched guitar and amplifier is the key, one in which the treble doesn’t change – up or down – when you change the level of the guitar into the amplifier. All that should change is the amount of sustain, in my opinion. I got a perfect combination for stage work with my Les Paul Deluxes or Schecter teles run into a master-volume Hiwatt."
Although Pete has settled into using rack-mountable amplification and processing for recording, many of his more vintage sounds were obtained at decidedly low-tech moments, like his Who’s Next-period Bigsby-wavered feedback, courtesy Joe Walsh’s Gretsch 6120 and whatever old Fender amps happened to be lying about. (In one memorable incident near the completion of The Iron Man, Rogan recalls, when the Who added their version of Arthur Brown’s "Fire," Pete actually plugged into a stack to test a guitar and unleashed a refreshing tirade of Townshendian fury.) Rogan, who spends much of his free time on the road seeking out special amps and guitars, recalls that he and Pete cooked up the whining theme tone for "Rough Boys" [Empty Glass] by having Pete play an a Roland GR-300 guitar synth through a MESA/Boogie combo, a modified four-channel 1970 Who Hiwatt amp and cabinet, Rogan’s old Ampeg B15N and a Roland Jazz Chorus. "I have to remind Pete that, say, a [Fender] Twin is not just a Twin, especially now that he’s so reliant upon that horrible rack-mount stuff in the studio," says Rogan, who’s been helping Pete find sounds since 1975. "When we were doing sessions in New York around 1980, I acquired a Dual Showman amp and cab, and a blonde Twin, both of which he loved. Part of what I do is to make him aware of different amps’ capabilities."
On the current tour, Pete is stretching, windmilling through, and otherwise flaying Ernie Ball strings: medium-gauge (.013 to .056) on the acoustics, light-gauge (.011 to .052, with a plain .018 G) on the electrics. Picks are Manny’s heavies; fingernails are optional.