Pete Townshend – Rock Music in the Future by Steve Peacock
IF ROCK is ever going to sustain a position where it is more than just a youth branch of showbusiness, more than the centuries-old situation where you have a mass audience clamouring at the feet of stars and heroes, then there will have to be a radical change in the attitudes both of rock musicians and audiences – a new way of involving people in a rock situation.
It has become pretty obvious over the past couple of years that we have gone just about as far as we can with the old concept. The Next Big Thing can only be a variation on the most recent big thing. In the '60s, rock began to liberate itself from the strings of the mighty business control, it began to set a life style that affected thousands, millions of people, and because of the way it had been held down in the past, with rock and roll stars being little more than glossy consumer products, raking in the money for commercial concerns like a phenomenally successful line of cosmetics, it was necessary at that time for rock musicians to establish themselves as musicians. But that has been done now, it is now possible for people to be successful be doing what they want to do. The trouble is, where do we go from here?
It's as if the whole rock scene, or rather the parts of it that were concerned with change, kicked the old style in the teeth, broke loose, and dashed blindly off towards the horizon with a great cry of "We're free!" That's fine, but what seems to have happened now is that having achieved that we've been left suspended in a kind of limbo, unsure about what to do next.
You could keep running towards the horizon, but that isn't really going to achieve much; you could keep shouting "Freedom", but having established that concept for the rock musicians you are faced with the problem of applying it to people.
Rock seems to have reached a crisis point that has faced various forms of art again and again – having reached a certain stage of liberation within its own development, how does it apply that liberation in a wider context? The question is not "who is going to be the next superstar?" but "how do we use what we have already achieved?" It may well be that someone who is as yet unknown will come along with a way of using the ideas that people like Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones and the Who have established – because you have to use freedom, it is worse than useless as an abstract concept – but it could equally well be that the established leaders in rock at the moment can do it. Someone like Pete Townshend perhaps.
As he puts it: "Standing on stage and waving your arms about is wearing a bit thin, I think. There's going to have to be a way of listening to music which doesn't mean that you're going to have to face in a particular direction, there's going to have to be a way of listening to music that doesn't mean that you have to go out to a concert hall between eight and ten in the evening.
"I've seen moments in Who concerts where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the world was just going to stop, the whole thing was just becoming so unified. But could never reach that state because in the back of their minds everybody knew that the group was going to have to stop soon, or they'd got to get home, or catch the last bus or something – it's a ridiculous situation."
The way to get over this, he feels, is to get completely away from the whole idea of one-night stands, and headlining tours, and four hours concerts towards a way of working that would involve setting up a kind of situation where musicians and the people who come to hear them would be able to meet and live together and work together in terms of music for as long as it took to achieve something lasting, something that is almost impossible to define but which everyone who has ever got fully involved with the kind of magical experience that you can go through when everything comes together through music, knows is possible.
"Supposing," says Townshend, "you look and you ask what is going to happen to rock tomorrow, and you see that we're screaming out for a new Beatles, or a new Rolling Stones, or – God forbid – a new Monkees, it's just not going to be enough for them to be good musicians. I think they're going to have to be technocrats; they're going to come across in a new wave of technology as well. It's not just going to be a group that stands on the same old stages, it's going to be a group who can probably only play one sort of gig in one sort of situation, and that's it."
The basic idea would be to involve people fully – "and I mean really fully" – in the music, not just as an object that comes out from the speakers, but as an input and an output. "I think that instead of being bombarded with other people's music, you should be getting your own music, and instead of the heroes being people who lay their number on you, they will be the people who lay YOUR number on you. That would seem to be a far more honest rock…ethic, or whatever.
"For most people, rock music is just an output – they just sit by a record player and it comes out. But from being in a band and seeing what can happen, I know that that is not what rock is all about, in fact, it is the complete opposite, and I know that if you can create the right situation and use the right technology you can cut down be a fantastic amount the distance between the input and the output. I think some groups come very near to doing it by extended extemporization in live performance – like Grateful Dead, you start to feel that there isn't anything between you and them and that the music is happening here and now and that you're part of it.
"And it is this kind of thing, only more advanced technologically, that I think must happen in the future. You'd go to a place, only you wouldn't go to watch a concert, you'd go to live there for six months or something, and the reason you'd be there would be because it was the alternative society – rock is it. If you can get a big enough piece of land you can live on it anyway, but the kind of thing I figured would happen would be that you'd use roadies and all the circus-like organization that groups are into today to organize a kind of full, complete long-term society that would be self-sufficient for a given period of time.
"It doesn't have to be a free-concert situation necessarily, because paying isn't really that important, it's just a kind of exchange thing, a way of feeding people, but I do think that some of the limitations which rock imposes on people at the moment are completely unreasonable, and also they're so old-fashioned – they're all tied up with the theatre and the cinema and the opera and the circus and things like that."
If you think all this sounds like pure conjecture and theorizing on the part of Pete Townshend, they you are being less than fair to him, for although he admit he may be speaking a bit ahead of time, he and the Who have tried to put the ideas into practice. In October last year they started looking around for a theatre which they could use for a period of time – six weeks or two months – to create the sort of situation he has been describing where the Who would cease to be the Who and the audience would cease to be the audience, and they would all create something that would be recorded on film and for an album – but more importantly for a film, because as Townshend says it is all very well taking 500 people and doing it, but if you don't make a film of it and show to people that it can be done it is going to remain a very isolated and private thing for 500 people.
If you prove to a large number of people, though, that your ideas work then it is much more likely to spread an attitude of change quickly. Also, the question of financing the project comes into it here, because to do everything you want to do and to buy and construct all the equipment you need costs a lot of money – "you really do need millions of pounds" – and by getting backing from a film company, who would get their money back when the film was shown it is possible to "create a situation where, in fact, what happens is that life is free."
"My original idea," says Townshend, "was that we should go into a theatre and produce pieces that related directly to the individuals in the audience, and that in that way we'd produce a very real, reflective sort of thing, In the average rock song you write about something that you're fucked up about or frustrated about, and they identify with the fuckedupness or frustration but not necessarily with the thing you're writing about. In this case what we were trying to do was take an audience, and take their particular moods and frustrations – even exhilaration and happiness and things – when we then capture on film and record at a series of concerts."
But it didn't quite work out that way. For a start they couldn't get the money they needed, then they could only get the Young Vic, and that only for one night a week instead of for a continuous time, and by the time they'd sorted out all the setting-up and technical problems, they found that they didn't quite have the energy to carry the thing off.
"I still think we could pull off a filmed event, but you see the organization behind making a film is just incredible – it makes the organization behind running a festival look like a sideshow at a bloody fair.
"We originally wanted the Young Vic for six weeks, and this was to be a trial period in which we were going to make the film, but the Young Vic is a government sponsored bloody organization, and it turned out that we could only have it every Monday, and then everybody started to think that it should be every Monday – I could never see it like that. I always figured it would be something where you woke up and went to bed with it; either that or you came and went every day.
"But it failed more I think because we, the Who, couldn't really find the energy to cope with the technical problems, and by the time it came to doing it we couldn't fully identify with the idea. We proved that it was all possible, but by the time we'd done that we just didn't have it in us to do it. We'd had so much of it. I mean I was getting slightly…hallucinogenic I think is the word, and the whole thing eventually just fell apart.
"I wrote about four different scripts, about 40 tunes, got about four hours of experimental tapes, I spent thousands on synthesizers, we bought new lighting systems, we had the acoustics at the Young Vic altered, we developed a quadraphonic PA system, we bought special cartridge type playback machines with very specific logic controls so that as soon as you're playing you can hit a button and get an instant piece of music to play along with you at a given tempo, we went into the production of machines that can alter the tempo of music but without altering the pitch so that the music could play along with us at our tempo rather than the other way around – I mean we went into an incredible number of things. And now we're back on the stage doing the same old things – new numbers of course – but what has gone into the making of the new album you just wouldn't believe. I only hope that that kind of depth of the energy that's gone into the thing comes out."
Did he think that perhaps part of the problem was that he'd seen too far ahead with the project, and planned it just a bit too precisely?
"Yeah, that's true. I mean it's all very well visualizing, but I suppose when you do that there's always the problem that when things don't start going in the direction that you'd seen them going in – even though they might be going somewhere incredible anyway – you get a bit uptight because you've seen things in a certain way. I always thought that if was going to have to be made to go in a certain way and then it would start doing it itself, it would like get taken over."
But despite the failure that time, and despite the fact that the Who are now going back on the road like a rock and roll band always has gone back on the road, Townshend has by no means given up. "Whether or not the Who are going to have the energy to carry it through, I think that if I got together with a really incredible young director who could turn the ideas into something solid instead of just myths, he could work with the Who. And that means me too – I'm only a member of the Who. It's all very well me having these bright ideas if I can't put them into practice, so what you really need is a really strong director to make the film happen. And it has to be a film.
"It's very difficult to explain, but I think one of the things about it is what has rock ever poured back directly into itself? I think really very little. I think the Beatles and the Stones, and groups like the Who and all their contemporaries, at this stage are guilty of feeding their own strength a lot and not really ending up any stronger. Really it gets to the point where you can only be as strong as the audience is capable of making you, and you can only be as secure as the audience is capable of making you.
"Every human being wants a certain amount of security and privacy, blah blah blah…but at the same time we're never going to be private or secure until it's done on our own individual terms. It can't be done in terms of a society that we don't respect, it can't be done at someone else's expense, it has to be done in terms of rock – that's where we've started and that's where we should be finishing. So I really think that in that way it is a case of changing the face of the way rock pays its dues.
"That means audiences as well. I don't want to get this confused with the capitalist bullshit argument that goes on about free concerts and all that because I see this as a completely separate thing. This is about paying its dues in terms of the weight, if you like, of what it is. I think it's about the only real thing there is left, rock and roll."
After an event like the recent free Glastonbury festival he agreed, the whole face of festivals had to change, and the good festivals from now on would have to be free. They'd be paid for either by exploitation of the event, like the Glastonbury film or the Glastonbury album, or they'd just happen because everyone – groups, audiences, everyone – would just go there and live there for the event and they wouldn't feel any need to exploit the situation.
"It wouldn't have to go on forever. I mean I don't see it as a sort of Utopia starting of with a film company's money and then ending up with everybody living in huge voluminous rock communes with everybody growing their own grub and listening to endless Who concerts. I just feel that you would be sustained by these events. I mean a really good Glastonbury could keep you going for a really long time because it puts meaning back into life. A free concert at Hyde Park doesn't for me."
But could you really come away from something like Glastonbury and go back to being a chartered accountant?
"I don't see why not really. Obviously you have to wait for change. Democracy isn't the reason why change is slow. Things are slow so democracy exists as a reflection of that slowness of change. Glastonbury is the beginning of change just as say the original Isle of Wight was or the original Woodstock was in a way. So a thing like rock can start to change things very slowly if the people involved in it were really sincere and had the stamina to see the thing through, and had the ability to shoulder a certain amount of responsibility, but also to share it – which is really the role of government, but government isn't willing to share responsibility – in other words we call ourselves a democracy and yet we're not allowed to vote about relevant issues, and if we were asked to probably half the nation wouldn't bother.
"The responsibility has to be built into a situation and if you don't go, if you like, then you've got to be alive to go, and if you want to go then I suppose you've got to work a bit of time as a chartered accountant.
"But maybe some time in the future there won't be such things as chartered accountants, because they'll have nothing to account. I don't know."