Why Who Pretend They're Onstage While Recording by Penny Valentine
THE WHO – that merry rag, tag and bobtail of a group who seem to stick together through thick and thin—have found a new label.
"A Travelling Circus" is what Pete Townshend calls them. And it may go a long way to explaining their continual and steady success in an era when hardly any original early '60s groups are left, I when he adds:
"We must be one of the few groups around who are stupid enough to leave our nest—even with broken legs and influenza.
'We've always been believers in good old fashioned theatre entertainment. Part of the 'show must go on' brigade – giving our best even when we're ill.
"As far as 'sticking together' goes I suppose we are one of the few original groups left from that age — apart from the Stones. The Stones did a triumphant thing rather than getting crushed by Brian's death — it was very symbolic in a way. They used to depend on him so much to lay down a beat but they lost faith in him and it became impossible for them to play on stage. But Mick couldn't do without the Stones, and now, with Mick Taylor, they've been re-born.
"It still surprises me that the Beatles couldn't make it. As much as they were in a more peculiar position than we are and they've been through more, I always thought the most exciting thing about the Beatles was them as a group playing on stage.
"Apart from the fact that we rely on each other and need to play on stage we have a number of secret lives.
"One is our university audience that respects us highly and always gives us a new lease of life. If we're down in the public eye; i.e., if we don't have a hit single – they give us the excitement to keep us going.
"The other life is America – though that's hardly secret any more. It took us ages to break there – five years after our first hit record and when we eventually went we were hailed as Underground heroes. In a way I think we spearheaded the current Underground popularity of British groups there."
Townshend was talking in his riverside house at Twickenham, with its white walls and comfortable velvet furniture. Next door Paul McCartney's solo album was playing and three children and a mass of wet dogs had flung themselves through the front door.
It is a cosy homely life and – although Pete has a specially build studio there – it's no wonder he finds it difficult to write in such a contented atmosphere.
"I really do write better when I'm away and feeling un-confident. Here I'm too happy to write – I think that's the clue to McCartney's album, which I like very much. He's too contented and it shows in his work on that album."
Pete wrote much of the highly acclaimed "Tommy" in the States. "Tommy." He says, was written with the idea that it would musically bridge the gap between the Who on stage and the Who on record – a gap that was getting wider by the moment.
"Tommy was supposed to be a doorway for us to go through. We were changing and there was such a marked difference between stage and studio sound that it was getting impossible. In the end "Tommy" swept away both sides of the argument. It got rid of the aggressive guitar bashing non-musical Who and the recording studio Who.
"The album that earned us a whole new batch of fans – a lot of them quite honestly I'd be pleased to lose again. Especially the American pseudo-intellectuals who kept reading things into it. I would have thought that was impossible – for God's sake, it WAS a story and very clear at that."
The first recorded Who sound since that triumph has been their new single "The Seeker" – not what we have come to expect as typical Who. Was this deliberate policy by Townshend?
"To be honest I'm a bit disappointed in that single. It's the kind of mistake we often make at the most obvious time. It was meant to bridge the gap between the old Who sound and the new Who sound. It was the first record in the limbo after 'Tommy' and it excited us all. But when I heard it again I thought it was a bit cumbersome – like a wild elephant. It's a bit of an apology for a single, rather like 'Magic Bus' was. The thing I like most is Roger's voice, which has improved so much—the way he whips through vocals now is terrific.
"I'm still a big singles man. I like what happens to them – if they get into the chart or not, if they get to number one, even for half an hour. I got less kick out of 'Tommy' being a success than 'I'm A Boy' being number one in the singles charts.
"The odd thing about the Who is that we play the best we can on stage, driving the group forward all the time but we never seem to capture that same feeling in the recording studio. I can make demos of my songs quite happily playing all the instruments myself. But when you stick four Who together they require an audience.
"We're working on an album now; well, at least we keep going into the studio, but Keith demand curtains, and then a rostrum so he can feel he's on stage – and all that takes time to set up. You see he likes to pull the curtains across when I say 'Take Three' or something he whips them apart and starts playing.
"Pop is such a human thing, beset by frailties and subtle textures. Live appearances should, in my opinion, be a thing where musicians give to an audience and that audience gives back. If I do something I expect something back. What I write is my dream and I can only hope it's someone else's dream, too.