Frustrations of The Who by Chris Van Ness
TALKING ABOUT different problems you've had, there were some problems with your record company around the time of the Magic Bus album. Have those all been resolved?
I don't think any group's ever completely happy with their record label. If I was to say I was happy with Decca because of the improvements I made, it would be taking credit away from our managers who are the people who really totally re-oriented Decca — although Decca would never admit it.
It was partly through our managers hassling for them to get a decent rock department — and using every trick in the book and really going into some heavy numbers — that they managed to get a rock department at all.
That sort of helped things.
Then they slipped back again about the time of the "Magic Bus" album. We were working on "Tommy", and we kept telling them it would be ready next week, it would be ready next week, it would be ready next week, it would be ready next week; and it never was.
So in the end, in desperation, they got us to do this photo session which they said as for a publicity handout of us farting around with this absurd bus.
[The result] was a culmination of all the most terrible things American record companies ever get up to. Just exploitation.
They didn't care about "Tommy" ever coming out; they just wanted to exploit the Who while the Who were big – though we weren't that big then, really – and make a few bucks, because who knows what may happen tomorrow.
Plus the fact that they made it look like a live album.
I mean, that's the worst thing that's ever gone down; and there are a few people in the L.A. part of Decca that I won't even look at, because they were there at the photo session knowing it was for an album cover.
Was that whole incident in any way responsible for the beginning of Track Records?
No. Track is really a weird story. A guy in England started firing questions at me recently about Track as if it were our label. And I said, "Listen, Track is Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp's record company. It has nothing to do with us at all.
Well, it's certainly branded as the Who's Label.
Well, originally it was sold to us. We did sign to it originally, because it was supposed to be our label.
In practice, what could we do to run a label; it was obviously Kit and Chris' thing. And it was made far, far bigger by Kit's discovery of Hendrix than it was by our record sales – in England anyway, 'cause Hendrix was on Track over there. But Kit did say, later on, that if it ever got big he'd give us shares in it.
I don't really know the full details, but we've never really had that much to do with Track. We're only on it now because it's a family concern that we're involved in. Our management does most of our bookings over here; and it makes it so you've got so much more control, because the people who are doing it with you are with you night and day – not literally, but they fell more intuitively what you need over a long period of time.
You've got realize, being part of the Who, that you really have to think in the long, long term; because whenever you look back, all the big mistakes that groups make are always because they think they're not going to last very long. So they rush things – they over-expose – and they go through too much in too short a time and burn themselves out.
I sense that you're much more involved in the business than most other performers are. Is this by choice, or is it just something you've fallen into over the years?
I don't think we are, really. Only the history; I don't know what's going on right now, for example.
There's a European deal going on right now; but I don't know any of the details, and I won't know any of the details until I sign it.
I just know it's going to be the best deal anybody ever negotiated – as was our American deal renegotiated with Decca, because the people behind us are – over and above management representatives – they're personal friends. Everything's done on a completely different basis; people are ruthless on our behalf in the name of friendship.
I don't really know that much about the business side – nor do I really care that much.
I know Roger's very, very conscious all the time of the money set-up. I think it's quite simply because he can't sleep at night unless he does actually know what we're earning. But that's because he's probably never spent the way Keith and I have spent – which is that we don't care how much we've got.
We spend what we need to spend, and then we ask questions later.
I've never gotten into the red because of my writing money, which has kept me a wee bit ahead of the group; but Keith has occasionally gone into the red through overspending. But then, in the end, you just say, "We're just going to have to do a few more tours or something."
You were losing money on your U.S. tours until recently, weren't you?
We've done so many now; it's really hard to say. We lost money on about our first six or seven tours; and then we didn't really make any money on what were supposedly successful tours because we were paying back debts.
There were incurred in all kinds of ways – spending far too much on hotel bills because we stayed then in exactly the same kind of rooms we do today – like a thirty-dollar room and steaks every day and a load of booze and a lot of guests and parties and things like that. But we were earning a lot less.
That's the way we got accustomed to living in England and in Europe and that's the way we lived over here.
We went into New York on the Murray the K Show and we stayed at the Drake. We spent five thousand dollars in four days at the hotel alone; we had to tip the man at the door $250 before they would let us have our baggage.
That was the kind of world we were suddenly thrown into and we couldn't figure the whole thing out; we couldn't work out what was happening.
The bus bill. We hired a bus for one tour; that seemed like a fundamentally good sense thing to do. It cost us about nine thousand dollars or something; there were incredible sort of money things going on.
We tipped the bus driver a hundred and he tore it up; because everybody really thought that we were earning like millions and millions and millions of dollars.
You were simply being taken advantage of.
Well, when we arrived over here, that's the first thing that Frank Barcelona of Premiere Talent told us.
He said, "For Chrissake, don't worry about the bank notes; worry about the dimes and the nickels and the money that you spend in hotel rooms; 'cause if you look after that money, that's where you make it up."
Of course, that's just one side of it. The other side of it was the equipment. I used to break a guitar every performance – if not two sometimes – and they would always cost around $150.
In pawn shops
They would always cost an incredible amount of money to find; they'd cost like road managers' time and my time to look through pawn shows, local music stores and things like that.
And Keith used to go through a lot of drum kits.
He used to get a lot of stuff free but you could never know. I mean, just a set of skins for a drum set is around $300; and after every show he'd just go bang, bang, bang, bang, bang through all his skins and then kick the whole thing over.
I mean, literally – really literally if "Tommy" hadn't really sold a lot of copies, we'd be exactly where we were then. And probably with a lot bigger problems because our demands now equipment-wise are so much larger.
We work on such a bigger scale now; we carry our own lights and a much bigger P.A. system and a lot more crew.
So a lot of that is still being financed by records.
I mean, people don't believe it, but it's true; it really is true. We're having enough trouble convincing people in England that we're breaking even over there, so it's going to be very difficult to convince people here that we're not going back millionaires every time.
Admittedly, we gross millions of dollars on a tour – not millions; but on this tour, it is coming around five or six hundred thousand dollars. But the fucking expenses. And it all goes straight back into the American bin.
So nobody should lose any sleep.
THE LEAD for this part of the interview should probably read something like: "Shortly after midnight in front of several hundreds of their peers, the Who proceeded to destroy twenty-eight gold and four platinum records which had just been presented to them by the president of MCA Records." Why not?
The Who had just finished their concert at the Forum – an average gig at best, as they were admittedly tired and bothered by the security men who sought to keep the audience down in their seats (end review).
There was a party in their honor at the Top of the Strip on the top floor of the Continental Hyatt House; and since they weren't too satisfied with their concert, they weren't exactly in the most festive of moods.
The cast was mostly friends plus a few select members of the press and invited record company officials. Some of the guests included Cass Elliot, John and Catherine Sebastian, Mick and Bianca Jagger, etc. On a stage at one end of the room, neatly displayed on chromium stands, were the thirty-two aforementioned records, glittering under carefully placed spotlights.
Shortly after midnight, Mike Maitland stepped to the microphone and made a short, informal presentation speech.
It seemed like everybody in the room knew what was going to happen.
The four members of the Who (Townshend, Daltrey, Moon and Entwistle) strolled quietly, at first, among the discs of gleaming precious metals, muttering under their breaths.
It was Townshend who started it all. He suddenly started grabbing as many records as he could, screaming: "They're all mine! They're all mine!"
Just as suddenly, the other three were on top of him, and the entire display of chrome, gold and platinum was flying about the stage.
Immediately in front of the stage, Mick Jagger was jumping up and down encouraging whatever carnage he could, while Maitland was trying desperately to scramble for safety.
Just another typical evening in the simple lives of the Who.
A LITTLE LATER in the evening, Roger Daltrey, who had raised his spirits considerably by imbibing quite a bit os same, came over to me and threw his arm around my shoulder. After the typical thanks-for-the-article-it-was-great hello, he took me aside and very contritely explained that he wanted to get one thing straight.
"It's about that money thing," he said, referring to Townshend's accusation of his being the only one in the group who cared about the Who's finances. "It's not that I'm money-mad or anything; it's just that nobody else gives a fuck. I don't want to worry about the money, and it really haunts me that I have to. But somebody has to look after it. I've seen so many groups get fucked over by mis-management, and I refuse to let that happen to the Who.
"That's all; I just wanted to set things straight."
But Daltrey was being honest, AND HE WAS RIGHT. It has been Roger, more than anyone else, who has been responsible for keeping the group together through their six years of trials and tribulations.
Even Townshend admits that.
For Daltrey, the Who and their prestige in the rock world are the two most important things in his life; and he's not afraid to admit it. He may only seem to be the lead singer; but as Townshend says, "He does it in strange ways, but he gets what he wants for the group."
Later in the evening (it was a long evening), Townshend came over and threw his arm around my shoulder (it seems the Who have a thing about draping themselves on people).
In a very shy, little-boy sort of way he said, "I just wanted to tell you I enjoyed reading the first part of that thing. I don't usually get so emotional when I do interviews. I'm usually very cold and clinical about the questions, but – Oh, well, I enjoyed reading it; I think it was a good thing."
With that, I muttered something like "thank you," and Townshend crept back into the safety of the back of the room.
It's a rather odd feeling getting feedback from the subjects of your article while you're still in the process of writing the article. I can't help but wonder, in view of his comments to me that evening, what Townshend would say about the emotional level of the section of the interview that follows here.
We resume the conversation exactly where we left it in Part One.
When was the last time you smashed a guitar on stage?
Quite recently, actually. I did a few on the English tour, 'cause I got really frustrated. On the last tour over here. I was really musically frustrated; I just couldn't get into playing all the same old stuff.
Didn't I read somewhere, just after "Tommy" came out, that you said you were finished smashing guitars?
I am – as a piece of the act. But sometimes they literally fly apart in mid-air or sometimes they crack when I'm playing them; and then I smash 'em up, because I figure why lay 'em to a quiet grave when they can have a glorious finish?
But I never smash a guitar now without thinking about it; I mean, I do it very, very rarely – I suppose about one out of every dozen gigs or so. And usually it's not out of frustration these days; it's just because I've dropped it on the deck or something and it's broken. I break more guitars putting them on the music stand than I do smashing them on purpose.
I put 'em on the music stand, they fall on the ground, and the neck's cracked. And there's nothing you can do about it; you might as well just smash it and give the bits away.
The thing that always amazed me was the apparent lack of reverence for the instrument.
Yeah. Well, I worked out all my quotes to say about that: "I care more about the music than the instruments: and all that sort of stuff. Or: "I care more about the act than I do the music" was another famous thing I used to say when I was nineteen.
But I think really where it came from was that I used to care more about the writing then the guitar playing.
I mean, make no bones about it, it was all an ego trip: but the stage act that I had was an assertion, if you like, that I'd written the stuff.
If I hadn't of written our hits, I don't think I would have been quite so cocky on the stage; I wouldn't have had anything to be cocky about.
I couldn't play guitar very well.
There are a lot of people who would argue that.
Yeah, but in those days I was very much a solid chord man; it wasn't a featured-guitar thing.
I mean, I never had any Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck-type fans. Never.
I had kids that dug me because I was crazy or because I was totally outrageous, not because I could really play well.
I mean, Steve Marriot can't play very well, but he's one of my favourite guitarists; I like him much better than I like Peter Frampton, who's a brilliant guitarist. But Steve plays the way I like to hear the guitar played.
So I think the whole thing was that the guitar just became a piece of hardware which was something to be used to assert – not masculinity or superiority – but – Christ Almighty! It's a tough group to do that in.
TOWNSHEND: YOU KNOW, Roger Daltrey has a very, very powerful stage presence: and, in a peculiar sort of way, it was very hard to pin down at the beginning what it was all about. And Keith was just amazing when he was younger; apart from being a dynamite drummer, he was also very, very pretty.
And John was just the straight, quiet bass player. It was a lot to work against, and I had to use every trick in the book; and guitar destruction became one of them.
I think I justified it just in terms of being noticed. And, fuck it, I wasn't going to stand on the stage and play rock and roll if it was just for the music; because that's not what rock and roll is anyway.
It might be what the blues is, but rock and roll is something else again.
I don't really have that much reverence for anything.
I just bought my first classic guitar the other day – just to see what happens.
I haven't yet used it on stage, because I'm very worried about it getting broken.
I still buy guitars very much off the production line, and the road manager customizes them a wee bit to the way I like them.
I don't know; I think it's sound now that's more important than the reverence to the instrument.
I still don't visualize myself very much as a guitar player. I don't know why. Still more as a part of the Who and as a writer for the Who, and as a performer.
Is Tommy going to stand as the definitive work by the Who?
Well, naturally, I hope not; I don't think it is a definitive work.
I think that, in retrospect, it's as important now to the Who as a definitive work as was My Generation previously to it.
"My Generation" was always sort of a bastard to get above, to live down, to get out of our system; but we did it.
We did it, I felt, with "I Can See for Miles" and that never really ever got public recognition. But I didn't really care, 'cause I knew we'd done it.
So when Tommy came along, I think we all really felt that we'd already moved along or gone somewhere else and that we were heading in a new direction.
But Tommy was certainly the thing that really brought the Who to the public eye. And it was also the thing, getting back to Decca, that really turned Decca around as a company.
Yeah, I think that's true. They were ready to get turned around, though. I mean, we told them that they were going to have a five-million-copy album on their hands, and they refused to even listen.
I mean, I was going up to people and shaking them by the lapels and saying, "Look, this album is going to sell more copies than any other fucking album in history, so get your fucking brains together."
And I must admit that I'm still disappointed with the sales of Tommy.
I was disappointed with the sales in England and Europe in particular; in England, the sales were just dreadful.
But the sales are well over three-million now.
I don't know, but I suppose I find that figure disappointing for three years of sales – regarding all the fuss that was made over it.
This is not disappointment because of what I expected of it; it's in relation to the reaction and to the fact that something as crappy, to my mind, as Jesus Christ Superstar, has done the same thing and more in a much shorter period.
I think you have to weigh out what Tommy is worth, not in terms of copies and not in terms of public impact and not in terms of what it really did, which was to widen the Who's audience, but in terms of where it is in the history.
The period between Who events get logarithmically longer from single to single to album to album. I mean, you get albums like John's album coming out and Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy coming out giving the impression of something happening; but the Who albums are getting more and more spaced apart, and the Who events are getting more and more spaced out.
I think if we do finally start work on a film next year, it'll probably take two or three years to make.
If that happens, is that going to be an all-consuming, three-year effort?
I hope so.