Pete Townshend Keeps The Who Live by Keith Altham
THE WHO are possibly the last of the late great British groups (saving the enormous potential of the Small Faces) who remain to face us "live" from the stage. Their continued success is largely due to the tall boney figure of Pete Townshend who cares so intensely about what he is doing.
Last week he finished tracks with the group for their next album, "Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy" which is likely to give the group an entirely new significance from that of "the guitar smashing bunch" that they have been labeled in the past.
"Magic Bus" was written about the same time as "My Generation" admits Pete. "I can no longer sit down with a straight face and write things like that although I was quite serious about them at the time.
"Mind you, I still don't know what 'Magic Bus' is all about.
"It was recorded at a time when we had just returned from our first trip to America having been conned left right and center and no one really wanted to make a single except Kit Lambert whose job was to see that we did.
"We all got absolutely paralytic drunk one lunch time and by the time we arrived at the studio no one cared what we did.
"'Magic Bus' was just a lot of fun – Keith bashing about and Jes' from the Alan Bown Set singing in that Stevie Winwood type voice on the record. We were just all enjoying ourselves.
"It's very difficult to know just what is going to be a hit for us now, especially in America where we were not able to do those discs like 'Happy Jack,' 'Pictures Of Lily,' and 'I'm a Boy' which were a novelty in England because they had the strange attraction of being 'sweet songs' sung by a violent group.
"In America we have to find instant hits and that's really what 'Magic Bus' is."
When I interviewed Pete he was clutching an old poster of "Gone With The Wind" in one hand – which he sacrilegiously referred to as "that cowboy picture" – and a pint of bitter in the other. He held forth at some length about the deficiencies of Radio 1.
"Radio 1 was supposed to replace the Pirates and it has not," said Pete emphatically. "The reason so little is happening that is new is that the ex-Pirate DJs who helped to make groups like us and the Stones are not allowed to feature that kind of new talent any more.
"John Peel is the only DJ I know who has a free hand and that's basically why his programme is better than anything else – most of the discs on the other shows are selected by programmers with one eye on the charts and not a musical idea in their head.
"Groups like Steppenwolf who had a great disc released, 'Born to be Wild' are hardly ever played on the BBC – they don't know they exist. Because it is so important and is virtually a monopoly it also inhibits what you write and you have to ask yourself if they will play it.
"To an extent that was why we released 'Dogs' – because we knew they would pass it as fit for human consumption. They make me incredibly cross and angry when they dictate to the very people who they were supposed to replace (the pirate DJs) how it should be done."
There is no doubt that Pete is incredibly easy to interview although his deeper philosophical ideas often weigh down his argument and you find yourself lost in a sea of imponderables.
A recent interview in the American underground paper "Rolling Stone" became so heavy he almost sank under his own intellectual weight and the inner man lay bare and almost embarrassingly vulnerable.
"They really had me over a barrel with that interview," admits Pete. "Everything just came spilling out – sometimes I get so involved that I wish I could preserve Keith's humorous approach to matters, I say about ten paragraphs and he comes along and destroys with one word lunatic word."
It is the almost frightening involvement that Pete has with his new album, "Deaf, Dumb, And Blind Boy," which makes it so difficult to write about it.
He has been working on the project for nearly two years and has obviously thought long and deeply over the problems.
It is a far from "sick" subject although too much attention to the subject might make it so.
"I wanted to get an appreciation of things through the eyes of someone or something that was not preconditioned by the bias of the senses," said Pete. "I thought of looking at life through the eyes of animals, adolescents and finally the deaf, dumb and blind boy.
"The boy registers everything in the form of musical vibrations. That is if he is struck a blow – he does not feel pain – he experiences something like the chord of G. In the beginning he is abused by his family, raped by an uncle and given drugs like LSD to help his condition.
"Because of his disabilities he develops a technique which enables him to become a pin-ball playing champion. His sight begins to come back and he becomes obsessed by his own reflection in a mirror – then his hearing is restored when his mother shatters the mirror.
"He finally ends up as a kind of national hero who lectures on his disabilities and how he overcame them – a kind of cross between Billy Graham and a rock and roll star. He founds a holiday camp (this is Moon's idea) where all the people try to become like him by wearing eye patches, ear plugs and having corks in their mouths.
"In a way I am mocking myself because the album contains ideas and attitudes which are very important to me personally and by placing them in front of the Who they have destroyed them. It helps you put something into perspective sometimes if you can take something you really care about and laugh at it. In a small way the album is a solution to the way that might achieve divinity because I have no faity in evolution and science only reveals another two things to be revealed."
Shocked? Puzzled? Sickened? Whatever your reaction it should be something positive and that is what amongst other things Pete is looking for. I think it also fair to point out that a great deal of the influences behind the work which he has explained here you might not find on the LP. You will be left to your own deductions of many of the tracks.
Other business discussed included the Who's tour which is currently on the road and how much longer they will continue to do live appearances.
"You tend to forget what it's all about if you stop appearing on stage," said Pete. "You work out in a recording studio with instruments and all the technical hang-ups and then go out and face an audience in somewhere like Newcastle and it soon comes home. Someone recently wrote how good our act was and what a great guitarist I was – personally I think I'm just a flash xx**!"