Chatting With Pete Townshend by John Tobler & Conner McKnight
After almost three years of Zigzag, it was about time that we got round to doing something on the Who. So, at the end of last year, John (Tobler) and a Who-freak friend called Connor McKnight, spent a couple of evenings with Pete Townshend and came away with 7 cassette-fuls of chat. This was duly transcribed and a pile of handwritten foolscap, about two inches thick, arrived for perusal and editing. What to do? Well, in the end, we decided that we would publish selections of the interview in this issue and number 26 (next issue is solely on the Byrds), and the whole thing will eventually be coming out as a Who Special (details in 26). Subjects discussed ranged from Hells Angels, via Thunderclap Newman, to evolving technology in the recording studio, and from Dylan, via Chuck Berry, to all the Who's albums. and it's all good stuff. So, for this issue, we chose a random section labelled ŒTape One - second session¹.
ZZ: A lot of your earlier songs had a definite Stones feel about them (and you recorded a couple of their numbers) and you said in The Times that their resurgence as a live band owed a lot to your example. It's obviously a pretty complex relationship, but can you talk about it a bit?
Pete Townshend: Yeah, sure, but first let me say that that thing in The Times was a bit embarrassing, because re-reading it, it seems to be full of name dropping. To really pin that down...I'm writing a piece for a magazine that Meher Baba lovers put out in India, and one of the questions they asked was to give an intimate glimpse of three of your famous contemporaries - and I really couldn't...I can¹t give an intimate glimpse of anybody really. I could give several intimate glimpses of Ronnie Lane, but there isn't anybody else. We don't really know the Stones; we've never spent any time with them socially, and we've never really spent time with the Beatles - we were around them a lot when Epstein was their manager because we were hoping to get in that stable. Kit Lambert and Brian Epstein really respected each other very highly - quite rightly I think. We were hoping for some sort of leakage into the Beatles thing, but it fell through when Epstein died, and I don't think I ever saw any of the Beatles again socially.
Hendrix I always admired tremendously but never got to know, and same with Eric Clapton, who I spent a bit of time with. I met Dylan once, but that's all. But Mick (Jagger) is one of those guys who seems to ring up occasionally and say "hello", but everytime he rings up he asks about a gig or a particular venue or working on the road or some particular problem which has to do with touring. I think that the reason he came to us was that we were the only group that lasted; a contemporary of the Stones right from the ground up, and we were working the kind of gigs that they needed to work when they went back on the road last year. It was at a point where the status was similar, the kind of performance was similar, and the dynamics that we were involved in would be similar.
Quite simply, I personally feel that the Stones are the world's best rock and roll band - I think that unqualifiedly. Not that I think their records are always great...It¹s like Glyn Johns says about a Stones session; you can sit and wait for weeks and they'll just churn out a lot of rubbish - and Glyn's very tough like this - but when they do get it together, they're the best in the world. This is why they are often weak live - because you can't wait for three weeks to get it on, but if they did a live tour that came up to the pitch that they get onto some of their albums. the presence, the physical excitement the mental exhilaration, the electricity of the whole occasion, they would be, really, the best in the world. They suffer, I feel, because Jagger's the only one who wants to play.
ZZ: Mick Taylor wants to play... Have you seen Altamont?
PT: No. I was too nervous. We've had a few experiences with bad vibe audiences and evil audiences here and there.
ZZ: Not in England presumably.
PT: One was in England... we had a few in England actually. I had an argument with a Hell's Angel on the stage at Leicester once, and got bottled. It made the press in a small way, but they treated it like ŒChrist, don't let this sort of thing happen again¹ - that sort of way. A road manager and I had to have eight stitches apiece, but even so, I think that if I had not been quite so pissed and quite so bloody, I would have got stuck in a lot further and probably got a lot more badly hurt. Because I got hit on the head, and it bled a lot, I thought I'd better get to a hospital, but I was really wild; I broke my guitar across some geezer's collar bone, but it didn't seem to do much to him - he had a ring in his nose, I remember.
ZZ: It's a nasty thing to say, but I wasn't sad when they got their's over Weeley.
PT: I know; I must say that I felt the same. I know a lot of Hell's Angels and they always seem, on the surface, to be incredibly innocent, fun-loving people, but there isn't any doubt that when they get involved in a fight, they're willing to go a lot further than other people. This too, I suppose, is the feeling I've always had about skinheads, and it's because they're not interested in anyone as a human being, they're much more interested in themselves as a showpiece. When they're clubbing you with a billiard cue, they must look graceful when they're doing it - and they're not going to hold back, because their chick is there watching. You find that by themselves, they are very ordinary people, and that's what scares me the mast in a situation like that - this mindless thing where they're out to get you though they haven't really got any grievance at all ~ like facing an army of robots, and the obvious thing is to run.
ZZ: To get back to the Stones/Who thing, I feel that the Stones have come adrift from their audience. I mean, ŒBrown Sugar¹ is a long way from ŒGoin Home¹, don't you agree?
PT: (pauses) I dunno... it¹s hard to say.
ZZ: I think they're about dope, basically.
PT: Maybe... I suppose they could be... it's really hard to say. I know that Mick is an incredibly sharp guy, and if he thought that the Stones would remain a vehicle for him if he wrote songs about dope, then he would... because he wants the Stones to exist and he wants to work within the Stones - he wants the whole thing to keep going, and he might even do it subconsciously, if you like. 'Brown Sugar' might be about a black chick's cunt or about raw cocaine - I mean, I don't really know, but I do know that coke is a huge thing in the rock world at the moment. In the last two years, it's overtaken pot in popularity among musicians, and I feel it's very much something to remark on, because coke is an addictive thing. Whether you snort it or mainline it or take it in your mouth. . . it's addictive, and much more than just psychologically addictive. It's slower to get to you, but it gets you in the end. I've had people here, and they've really amazed me - won't mention any names, obviously, but I've had people here that I'd never ever thought of as being drug-hungry people, and I've seen them just break down right in front of me and say "I've just got to get some coke... get me some coke, I've just got to have some - where am I going to get it from... who do you know?"
ZZ: Do you think that drugs are self-destructive, or destructive of anything?
PT: I think that's such a difficult question... I don't really know. Some drugs, like hallucinogenic ones, actually alter the mind - they don't just cloud it over like alcohol does... they actually alter it.
ZZ: On a permanent basis?
PT: No, not on a permanent basis.
ZZ: What about acid?
PT: Well, I don't know about acid. I mean, chemically, the only thing they've been able to pin down to acid is the chromosome damage, about which there is no doubt, but apparently, by the time you're 80, you've already lost half your chromosomes anyway - through eating too much vinegar on your fish and chips or something. So I don't really know the relevance of that. What I'm worried about is the psychological thing about it. When I stopped, and I stopped because of Meher Baba, my whole world suddenly caved in. Mind you, it had got to the point where I found it very repetitive; it was humping everybody's music into the same bag and it was always going to the same place in my head. When I first got into pot, I was involved in the environment more; there was a newness about Art College, having beautiful girls around for the first time in my life, having all that music around me for the first time, and it was such a great period - with the Beatles and all that exploding all over the place. So it was very exciting, but although pot was important to me, it wasn't the biggest thing; the biggest thing, rather, was the fact that pot helped to make incredible things even more incredible.
Later on, say 5 years later, I'd gotten into that rut of listening to every record stoned, and it was just turning to sculpture in my head... I was seeing the music rather than hearing it. It's hard to explain but it was like symmetrical towers of sound - that's how I saw it. The last time I ever heard a record stoned on pot was ŒMusic from Big Pink¹, the night I first met John Sebastian, at Peter Tork's house - so there!
ZZ: So what happened to you when you stopped smoking?
PT: Well, like I said, my world just sort of caved in, and I suddenly thought ŒChrist, what have I been up to?¹ I found that I couldn't listen to a record unless I was stoned! I've got about 250 albums now, and the only ones I like are the ones that I first heard when I was stoned... what I call 'the stoned ones'; the ones that had that Œstonedness¹ around them, that aura. I've got to learn to listen to music all over again, and I've got to learn how to write all over again.... I've got to learn how to enjoy life all over again, without leaning on dope. This wasn't the betrayal though; the betrayal was that I found I could give it up just like that (snaps fingers). When I realised that everything I'd been crediting to pot was nothing at all to do with it... the fact that I could write a song, or play guitar, or have a good time at a party, or enjoy a satisfying sexual relationship. Alright - a lot of people would say that I learnt through pot, but anyway, it was like a betrayal.
It was a very strange thing; I thought ³Christ almighty, what have I been doing? I've been giving my whole life to a weed². Previously, I'd been saying ³it's only a weed growing out of the ground - what can be harmful about that?² But now I think that pot is possibly the most subtle evil of all, because of its subtlety and because the psychological dependence, which to me is a far more gritty dependence than actual physical dependence, takes over... it's more spiritually based, where you can't enjoy the pleasures of the spirit or the soul. I found it very easy to give up tobacco, and I found it very easy to give up pot, and I think that if I decided not to drink any more I'd find that fairly easy - if there wasn¹t a Keith Moon in the group, that is - but it was the results which were important. I know I'm lucky in that respect, but it was the results which made me take a positive stand on it - and it¹s not just aping Meher Baba's words and spouting them out in a quasi-religious manner. I really did make that decision for myself, and in some respects I made it before hearing about Baba. I was, as I said, getting bored with these symmetrical visions, though at the same time, I was attached to them. I liked them, yet I was bored by them, so I suppose that in itself shows that something was in decline.
What shook me about acid was when I took what I thought was acid, but turned out to be STP - something that I would never ever ever take. It was after the Monterey Pop Festival, and I spent more time outside of my body looking inside myself than I've ever spent... it was like a hundred years. It was actually a four hour hump, whereas a normal acid hump is about 25-30 minutes... you have a hump and then plane off into a nice trip. Well on this STP trip, the hump was about 4 to 5 hours - and it was on an aeroplane over the Atlantic.
ZZ: What do you think about legalising dope?
PT: Well, even though I'm against drugs, I say pot should be legalised. You see, I spent so much of my time pissing around with pot purely because it is illegal; and I came very close to being involved with far more serious drugs because policemen in police stations told me, with grave looks on their faces, about the terrible things dope does - ³do you know what this stuff does?² I mean, do they know what it does? No. One day they get a pot smoker in and give him an incredibly hard time just because the day before they had a heroin addict in - and to them, it¹s just the same... if you're not one, you're the other because you're on your way.
ZZ: They say that if pot were made legal, people would find something else that was not.
PT: That's a possibility. The other argument I've had put to me several times is that alcohol, which is legal, is still very dodgy. But then look at prohibition - that never stopped people drinking... they made their own and died because it was such poison. This is the point; if we're going to have dope, let's have decent dope - at least that would do away with the corruption, and it would bring the thing into the open. Then you could separate pot from drugs that really do cause physical and mental problems.
ZZ: Let's get onto a lighter subject, shall we? Can you tell us about Keith Moon's epics in American hotel rooms?
PT: They do happen with alarming regularity. Keith feels that he has to be involved in some form of entertainment all the time - even when the rest of the group is asleep, he feels he has to entertain us and wake us, either by causing explosions or by getting us thrown out of the hotel. The first really big thing he ever did was on our first American tour (with Herman's Hermits); we happened to go to Georgia, which is the only place in the States that you can buy fireworks. They sell these things called Cherry Bombs. Anyway, a few days later I was in his room and all the paint round the door knocker was black where he been putting these things in the key-hole. I happened to ask if I could use his bog and he just smiled like this and said "Sure". I went in and there was no toilet - just a sort of S bend coming out of the floor! "Christ, what the fuck's happened?" I asked, and he said "well, this Cherry Bomb was about to go off in my hand, so I threw it down the bog to put it out". "Are they that powerful?" I asked, and he nodded. "How many of them have you got?" I said, with fear in my eyes. He said "500", opening up a case which was full to the top with Cherry Bombs.
Of course, from that moment on, we got thrown out of every hotel we ever stayed in. The Holiday Inns were phoning round saying "don't let this group in - they'll blow the place up", and it got to the point where they were asking for 5000 dollars deposit to let us stay in even the shoddiest hotel.
My nerves finally broke in the Goreham, which is like the hotel in New York where all the groups stay. My wife was with me at the time and it was hard enough just to try and keep the hangers-on away from the cosy family situation, but we got ensconced in our room and tried to make it feel a bit like home. A couple of hours or so later, we got to sleep, only to be woken up by police cars outside and a lot of police running about. I thought that Tom, our production manager had been busted, because he was really heavily into dope, so I ran out and got the lift to the seventh floor where his room was. Then I heard this huge great explosion which rocked the lift. Then the lift stopped, the doors opened, and all I could see was thick smoke - so I got back in and pressed the button for the seventh floor again, and just as the doors were closing, I saw Moon walk past. He'd apparently picked the hotel manager's wife's room, and so, of course, we got thrown out of that and every other hotel in New York as a result. We still have difficulty finding a place to stay in New York.
ZZ: Does he still carry on like that?
PT: Well, Moony's got this thing now, where you wake up in the morning and he says "greatest hotel room I've ever done -it was a work of art"... and you look in his room and it's just total chaos. He does this a lot now - he actually arranges it artistically... you don't hear any great smashing noises these days - he just arranges it so that you look in and go "Oh Christ, what you done?² - but he hasn't actually broken anything, he's just made it appear wrecked. He unscrews cabinets and prises them apart, takes the television cabinet off and sticks black sticky tape over the screen to make it look shattered or, if he's drunk enough, he just smashes the place up... pours tomato ketchup in the bath and puts those plastic leg things sticking out.
When we play English towns, Keith always finds the joke shop; tear gas pellets and smoke bombs, stink bombs and itching powder in the bed, bugs under the pillow, naughty doggie in the sink
ZZ: Why do they always nail down that plastic sheet under him on stage?
PT: I don't know. I can't really work that out... it can't have anything to do with the sound.
ZZ: Does he still own the pub?
PT: Yeah - he's got a half share in it. they got an Egon Ronay star this year for good cooking - it's a very good hotel.
ZZ: Did he have something to do with that shout of ³I saw ya² on the end of 'Happy Jack'?
PT: Oh yeah. Keith, you see, is very annoyed at not being allowed to sing; he's got an awful voice... really terrible. So when we do all the vocals, he feels left out, and being Keith, he pisses about. On that particular session, we kept trying to get the vocals down, but he kept stopping us by talking and so on. In the end, we stuck him in the engineer's booth so that we could do them - but that didn't work because he kept pulling these funny faces at us through the glass, so that we laughed in the middle of the take. To stop him, we made him crouch down under the panel so that we couldn't see him - and just as we were finishing, he lifted his head up to see what was happening... I yelled out 'I saw ya', and we left it on.
ZZ: Is is right that Roger made all your guitars in the beginning?
PT: He made his own. There was a time when we were all using home made guitars - it was a bit of a weird situation; we used to make our own, rather than put up with shoddy gear. John was the first that I know of; he'd make bass guitars out of one piece of half inch ply. He'd mark out the shape with a pencil, cut it out, divide the neck into frets and get someone to fret it, put a pickup on with the wire hanging out, put a few false knobs on and paint it bright red. He used to get a fairly good sound out of it too. I had a guitar that I made myself, but it wasn't really very good, but Roger had one which he made, and that was alright. He was a bit of a handyman, but he only made his own and told us how to make ours - he was always too busy pulling birds I think.
ZZ: You played on Mike Heron¹s album, and Keith was on ŒBecks Bolero¹ - what else have you all played on besides the Who?
PT: Sorry to disappoint you, but I think that's it. Keith's played on a few.
ZZ: Like that awful Viv Stanshall record ŒSuspicion¹.
PT: Well, he produced it didn't he? He was on the Scaffold's ŒDo the Albert¹ and one or two others. The thing is that when Keith did Beck's Bolero, that wasn't just a session - that was a political move. It was at a point when the group was very close to breaking up - Keith was very paranoid and going through a heavy pills thing. He wanted to make the group plead for him because he'd joined Beck.
ZZ: Was Ronnie Lane on that session?
PT: I don't think so.
ZZ: What's the tie-up between you and Ronnie Lane, because you must've been rivals in the old days.
PT: No, we were never rivals... I don't think he's got a rival in the world. The tie-up is the fact, I suppose, that the Small Faces and the Who always got on incredibly well. 1 don't know how it came about though, because Kit Lambert was murderous to the Faces; he accused them of copying us. I always used to get on really well with Steve Marriott too - it was a pity when he and Ronnie split up, because they were cohorts.... I looked that word up today, and it said 'Roman legion'. They were the two songwriters and producers, but I think it was natural, in a way, that the Small Faces broke up after ŒOgdens Nut Gone¹... there's that 'Tommy' thing... the ŒTommy Test¹; you do your classic album and then you really have to use every ounce of stamina and guts to stick together, because it's so tempting to relax.
ZZ: Can I ask you a question that's intrigued me for years, and that is this: The two best bands in Britain today, in terms of sitting in a seat and watching and listening to them, are the Faces and the Who. How much is this that you share the mod thing?
PT: I don't know. They were a damned sight more real mods than we were... at least they were the right size.
ZZ: Shepherds Bush wasn't really a very mod place was it?
PT: It was the sort of place where you'd never wear your mod clothes because you would get them dirty in the bundles. But no.. Shepherds Bush was a very mod place as it happens; the Goldhawk Club was amazing - I used to spot all the major fashion changes at the Goldhawk Club... nowhere else. Like you'd see one guy wearing a pair of sneakers with buckles and you'd know that next week they'd all be wearing them and, sure enough, they were. Maybe it was because I got to know all the leaders and could spot the right things.
But to go back to your question, I don't think the mod thing has much to do with it... it might be in a line - Stones, Who, Faces - not that Rod Stewart follows in a line from us. I used to go and watch him when I was in short trousers; the night he started - the Cyril Davis benefit night -was the first night I saw him. I remember saying to my mate "Cor, look at 'im, what a poof, what an 'orrible 'aircut", because he had exactly the same haircut then as he has now, and it was really outrageous.
ZZ: He always used to camp it up on stage.
PT: Yeah. Well, to put it bluntly, I think Rod Stewart was a poove - still is a poove. I¹ve gone from my poovy stage. It's difficult to say whether what you see means anything, or what you hear means anything, because people allow what they want to hear to be heard. In those days it was a really good mystifier if people thought you were queer.
I think the Small Faces were a mod group, and we were a mod group, and in their way, I suppose the Stones were too, although they came from different sources and were quite old. We were a mod group because we picked the situation and went into it; the Stones were picked by the mods and dragged into it, and the Small Faces came out of the mods. We weren't mods but we became mods - we looked at it and said "that's incredible, let's be involved in it"... we didn't grow up as mods, but had to learn all the stuff. I was at Art College, had long hair, was smoking pot and going with girls with long red hair, and all that. Painting farty pictures and carrying my portfolio around... and I had to learn how to be a mod.
Like in those days, a scooter was a big status symbol, but I used to have an old American car - that was my symbol. But I used to have to lie to the little mod chicks I pulled, and tell them I had a Vespa GS... "Oh yeah, I buzz all over the place". If I'd told them I had a '58 Cadillac, which to me was a dream, they would have thought I was a rocker.
ZZ: Do you want people to think really deeply about your music, or just listen to it?
PT: Oh it's so difficult - I don't want to pin people down to any attitude. I know that people get things out of certain people's music that I just can¹t relate to. For example, when Dylan first came out, I dug his music - his sound and chords and voice, but I'm only just beginning to get the lyrics of his songs. It's not that I'm thick, it's just that I wasn't listening to them. I think, however, that Dylan made people listen to the lyrics but his genius lay in the fact that he didn't consider his lyrics. The way he used to write and record was to write down the rhyming words and fill in with the first words that came into his head or spontaneous titles that came into his head, just sing them off and fill in lines. Let's face it; Dylan is a poet and poets become expert at doing that. Ending up in the same place they started. Allowing their minds to flow freely and yet organising their minds at the same time. I don't suppose for a minute that he was conscious of what he was saying, but when you took at it in retrospect you can really find out an incredible amount about the man - more than you'd ever find out by meeting the fucker. He won't rub two words together for you - and if you mention a song, you've had it.
I suppose he's realty got the biggest problem of responsibility of any rock star in the world; his biggest problem of responsibility is that he can't face people - that's why he's so incredible in his music; because everything, everything comes out in his music. But, because of things he said in his early music, now that he's become big and influential his responsibility (if you took at it in the Jean Paul Sartre syndrome) is to get up and do something about the world and of course, he's not capable. He's a very ordinary, shy, weak person. This is really where I hope to be a bit more successful... I dunno, to try and relate the group's work to some role in life. It's really hard, but it just has to be done - you can't just walk around in a dream all the time.
ZZ: Well Dylan's got his problems - like Weberman for a start.
PT: Well, Weberman I would've killed by now; I've had Weberman equivalents and they've had hammers bashed over their heads before they got in the door. If someone looked through my dustbin... Christ, Hoffman got a bat in the neck for less. It's just bull headedness for bull headedness's sake. To go back to the lyrics, if you want to know where Dylan stands, you've got to look there - that's the problem. Weberman is listening to the lyrics and saying "there's the man, there's his words, there's his work - but look at him just sitting there with a lot of money, a wife and family and doing nothing. He isn't using the money for the right purposes - he's a hypocrite". But that isn't true; Dylan is a one way person - from him to you through his music - that's what it's all about, and you can't play the guards-van off against the locomotive. The whole drag is that people really do that. I mean, I can't play the first few years of my musical career off against what I'm doing now. When I started off, the object was to make as much money as possible in the shortest time, don't let any fucker get in the way, be a big star, fuck a load of women, and end up with a mansion in the country. It's taken a lot longer than I thought, and in the meantime I've learnt some sense.