September 21, 2020

’95 The History of Rock and Roll Interview

From the PBS televised series on rock’s history, Townshend discusses Hendrix, the Kinks, Cobain, and others.


(Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, 1995)

QUESTION: Can you tells us about your first band, The High Numbers?

PETE TOWNSHEND: in the early days, we were like a high school band. We used to play pubs, bars, clubs, weddings, parties, and things like that. It was a struggle for us to find an image so we’d just copy other bands. With the help of a guy called Peter Mayden, who was an English press agent, we developed this image which was in tune with what was a growing, modem jazz movement, which related to kids in Paris called Mods. We adopted that style of dressing and The High Numbers was a transmutation of street talk. Numbers were the average guys, so high numbers were a bit above average.

QUESTION: Could you tell us, because especially Americans are a bit confused by it, what was the whole Mod versus Rockers scene about and what was the difference between these two people?

PETE TOWNSHEND: The Mods versus Rockers was pretty gutter level most of the time. It was bunches of kids, punks, thugs, you know, people with nothing to do, just playing around with violence and not really doing anything. The problem with it for Americans is that there’s no American equivalent. Mods were fashionable because they dressed in Ivy League clothes, like the clothes rich businessmen used to wear for summer weekends in the Hamptons. This was transmuted into Soho, in London, and had some kind of fashionable meaning. I was attracted to the idea of image building. I was at art school through that whole period from the 60s onwards so I was constantly looking for visual value as it applied to what was going on in the street. It’s like, when I’m on my bike I am a spiritual being. I’m closer to God. It’s not about getting drunk and dragging people behind bikes with chains, and with the Mods it was the same thing. It was, when I’m dressed in this particular way, I am closer to God. That was the basic ethic behind it. It was the poetry of lifestyle which grew out of the writing lifestyle of the 50s in the States. Kerouac, and people like that. We were very much removed from the literary thing that was going on. The art scene was almost closer to Pop. People like Jasper Johns and Liechtenstein. The people that were actually painting pictures seemed to understand popular culture more than the people in the music industry. As much as I loved Frank Sinatra and adored Ella Fitzgerald, it was quite clear that these great artists were losing touch with young kids. They were from a period of romanticism.

QUESTION: How did The High Numbers became The Who? Why did you make that change?

PETE TOWNSHEND: We made the change because the Mod thing ceased to be of commercial value to us. The other thing was that the first record we put out flopped. We wanted a new start so we went back to a name we’d used a bit earlier, which was The Who.

QUESTION: Talking about being a spokesperson of sorts, "My Generation" was exactly that. You were saying something that nobody else had put down in a song, but everybody related to. How did that song come about and what was its motivation?

PETE TOWNSHEND: "My Generation" came straight out of the conscious that I felt I’d landed with. It was the beginning of me taking on some of Roger’s attributes and trying to empower myself with some of his attributes. He had more traditional and acceptable good looks, was very tough, and didn’t take shit from anybody. So I took that and kind of combined it with my kind of social sensibility. I think that’s what was so successful and why it was an extraordinary moment. There was a whole group of people who realized, "We don’t have to be weak because we don’t have wars to fight. We don’t have to be powerless. We don’t have to be shit because they say we’re shit. We can be shit because we say we’re shit." I don’t think it’s a healthy song and I don’t think it comes from a healthy period, but I think it’s led to a healthy place. "My Generation" was one of the songs that helped draw a line right across life and say, "Everything up to this point does not relate to this group of people who are growing older." I think there’s a tremendous desire in young Western kids to draw that line again and they’re trying, but are finding much harder than we found it.

QUESTION: What were the Stones like when you first discovered them in Richmond, playing the local pubs and The Richmond Blues Festival?

PETE TOWNSHEND: I was just blown away by them. Blown away by everything about them. How wild they looked but how friendly they were and how erotically charged everything around them was. You know, it was really between Jagger and Brian Jones at the time. Brian Jones was very beautiful-looking for the time, and Jagger was just kind of this kind of gawky, you know, body, really. They used to fight one another for the attention of the audience and I suppose it was my male response to that eroticism that actually surprised me. You know, it wasn’t me looking at a bunch of screaming girls. It was thinking, "How the f* * * do they do it?" I didn’t realize that it was just because girls liked to scream (LAUGHS).

QUESTION: Tell us a bit about the other important English bands at that time, The Kinks and Ray Davies’ work. What did you think of them and how do you think they’ve held up?

PETE TOWNSHEND: Well, really, the only two bands I think were really important were The Animals and The Kinks. The Animals because a lot of people forget how early they got into America. They were the second band to follow The Beatles in. They were huge. But The Kinks were much more quintessentially English. I always think that Ray Davies should one day be Poet Laureate. He invented a new kind of poetry and a new kind of language for Pop writing that influenced me from the very, very, very beginning. I think that Dave Davies is also very underestimated.

QUESTION: What was the feeling you had when you first heard The Beatles"’ Strawberries Fields" ?

PETE TOWNSHEND: Well, I really felt that they were starting to tap surreal areas. Even "Penny Lane," which seemed like quite a jaunty ditty compared to the darkness of "Strawberry Fields," was really looking at Liverpool and the death of English Iffe. That never had a place in Pop before. Getting back to The Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset" is definitely a song about the empire and decline. A lot of English pop writing from that particular period, ’67, ’68, is about that. "Tommy" is about that. "Sergeant Pepper" is about that. We’d been in the middle of the war and felt we’d learned a peculiar lesson which hadn’t been learned quite the same way in Central Europe and the States. We somehow knew that the war was over. We somehow knew we were never going to be able to get dignity and credentials from being given a gun. We were going to have to find some other way and in order to do that, we had to undermine more … attack the country in which we’d grown up and say, "Listen, you might think you’ve got it all together, but we don’t think you have. We don’t think it means a shit." And so, those songs were about looking at it and saying, "Listen, we love our country. We love the peace that we’ve got. We love the images, the icons. We love the buildings. We love the history. But it’s decaying … it’s going … and there’s a new world ahead of us. That’s what those songs were addressing.

QUESTION: Let’s switch gears. What was it like for you and The Who’s debut in America at the Monterey Pop Festival?

PETE TOWNSHEND: It wasn’t exactly a debut. We’d been into New York and done the KO thing with Murray the K and Cream, four or five shows a day. In comparison, Monterey was a picnic. I’ve got a lot of pain with that period, you know. I really felt that I was kind of losing my grip around that time, partly because of being confronted with the genius of style, Jimi Hendrix.

QUESTION: What was his impact on you?

PETE TOWNSHEND: Seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time was a Hell of a lot of pain. That’s what I felt. I still feel it. I think that’s about it really. I hadn’t touched psychedelic drugs for a year when I saw him at some concert in Washington or somewhere in the States, and he was pulling those old psychedelic stunts again. And you have to see him to know what I’m talking about. He did things which were magical. I don’t think he knew he was doing them or that he could do them, but he’d do things with his body that were very, very beautiful to look at, yet accompanied by these incredibly wild noises. It was some kind of strange alchemy. He took the drug culture and made it into something by demonstrating that there was actually such a thing as physical poetry in rock, something that was very close to ballet. I’m not saying he danced ’cause he didret, but he was very beautiful to look at, and you felt pain in his presence and in the presence of that music. You felt small and you realized how far you had to go. What was also painful was to meet him afterwards and realize he didn’t know what he was doing. He had no idea of his greatness. There was also a feeling that he was going to bum out very, very quickly. He was so insecure and shy. Sweet guy. Really nice guy.

QUESTION: Is it true you guys had a coin toss to decide who was going on first?

PETE TOWNSHEND: Yeah. The coin toss actually has some kind of meaning after that eulogy to Jimi because that’s the way I feel about him now, and that’s the way I felt about him then. But I couldn’t deal with the idea that at this critical concert we might go on after him. And he said to me from his insecurity, "That’s not what you really mean. What you really mean is you don’t want me to go on first. You want to be first up there with the guitar smashing." So I said, "Jimi, I swear to you that’s not what it’s about." Brian Jones was standing with me and Jimi started to play. He stood on a chair in front of me and he started to play this incredible guitar, and it goes down in history as a jam session. I’ve heard Roger talk about it as a jam session. But it wasn’t a jam session. It wasjust Jimi on a chair playing at me. Playing at me like, "Don’t f*** with me, you little shit." And, and then he snapped out of it and he put the guitar down and said, "Okay. Let’s toss a coin." So we tossed a coin and we got to go on first. He then went on immediately after us. I don’t think there was anybody in between. So I went out to sit with Mama Cass to watch Jimi and as he started doing this stuff with his guitar, she turned around to me, she said to me, "He’s stealing your act." And I said, "No, he’s not stealing my act. He’s doing my act." (LAUGHS) And I think that was the thing. For me it was an act, and for him it was something else. It was an extension of what he was doing.

QUESTION: Pete, tell us if you would, because it’s something we really need said and you say it so well. Is rock reinventing itself?

PETE TOWNSHEND: I think maybe the most interesting view to look at is the one that we’ve just passed through: Grunge … which has been an obvious harping back to an earlier style of rock. Not just about the sound of the bands, but what it means to the people that are listening to the music and the significance of Kurt Cobain’s death. You start to get a sense … what actually happens is not that Rock ‘n’ Roll reinvents itself, but that human beings don’t have very many ideas and they tend to do the same thing over and over again, behaviorally. Individuals will always make the same series of mistakes again and again and again. The day I die, my parting words will be, "Please God, in my next life, will I not do that every day of my life?" We all get caught by the same problems. Since the second World War, certainly in America and in Europe, you’ve seen groups of people form themselves into generations. That’s a big mistake. That’s wrong. And that’s why Kurt Cobain is dead. But then there’s people that think, "Ah, we’ve learned from this." But they haven’t. They’ve not experienced anything. The people that have learned the lesson of Kurt Cobain’s death are really just a handful of people that are very close to him. Ms wife, his poor little kid ,who’s going to grow up in the spotlight without a father, and the other guys in the band. Look at my generation. How did that work? Jimi Hendrix. Brian Jones. Janis Joplin. Keith Moon. The list is f***ing endless. They’re dead people. My life is full of dead people. My friends are dead. My friends. They n-dght be your f***ing icons. They’re my f***ing friends. They’re dead. Dead people in my life. Lots of them. People that I knew, f***ed, loved, played with, grew up with. Now, we have Generation X which is responding to this big significant moment, which is Kurt Cobain committing suicide, and I just think this shouldn’t happen again. It will happen again, but it shouldn’t. In the 60s, we really thought that we were changing the world and we didn’t. When we got college degrees andjobs and became lawyers and politicians, then we started to change the world. If you want to change the world, you have to get out there and change it. Music is not going to change it. Music changes the way you live, in the world. It changes the way you see it. But it doesn’t change the world itself.