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Article Archive › A Brief Conversation with Pete Townshend (1996)

A Brief Conversation with Pete Townshend

Addicted to Noise, June 1996.

By Mark Brown,

Between awards show appearances, interviews, organizing a Who reunion and promoting his new greatest-hits album, the man who made The Who who they are, took some time to talk to ATN's Mark Brown about all of the above and more.

The pattern has become familiar the past few years. You don't hear from Pete Townshend for what seems like an eternity and you wonder what he can possibly be up to. Then he'll return with a new rock opera, more music, a tour, a box set, and 47 other projects in the works.

This time was no exception. Townshend showed up in LA recently to kick off a solo promotional tour of small US venues; to meet with the designers of his Tommy CD-ROM and to mark the release of that disc; to appear on the VH1 Honors; to push the release of Coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestoking, his new greatest-hits album; to get his stage adaptation of Quadrophenia put together for a Prince's Trust benefit this month (June) and a possible shed/arena tour later on; to hammer down the logistics of what will be yet another Who reunion at that Prince's Trust performance; and to meet with the press to talk about all those topics.

As usual, Townshend had so much to say when tape started rolling that those issues, plans, and projects were barely addressed. More than ever, he's obsessed with early rock & roll and where it's going in the '90s. More than ever, he wants to talk about rock & roll as a force that can change his life and society as a whole--and call bullshit on himself in the very next breath.

He stayed at a small hotel off of Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. The suites are spacious but not by any means lavish--certainly not where most of us would stay if we had Townshend's take of the mega-grossing 1989 Who tour and the perpetual cash factory that Tommy has become in recent years. While nothing about the place screams "rock star," you can walk to the clubs, the restaurants and the shops nearby. You can walk right in off the street without a locked gate, doorman or security guard in sight--so we won't print the hotel name so Pete can stay there again next time he's in town.

Looking strikingly fit, dapper and surprisingly tall, Townshend spent his single press day jumping from the technical interviews from the likes of Guitar World and computer magazines to sitting down with newspaper reporters--and all the while unsure of what exactly he'd play when he hit the House of Blues stage a few nights later for a couple of solo shows where the tickets disappeared in an instant. By the time he hit that stage he had it figured, lacing his sets heavily with rarely heard songs like "The Shout" and "I Am an Animal," carefully doling out Who songs such as "A Legal Matter," "I'm a Boy," and "Magic Bus," and skipping the "Pinball Wizard"-sized hits altogether.

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ATN: What brought about the Quadrophenia plans? All that's been revealed over here was a brief wire story.

TOWNSHEND: Really all it deserves is a brief piece at the moment. It's a piece of paper. I've been working on a script for a shed show of Quadrophenia for some time. I'd agreed to play at this Hyde Park concert for the Prince's Trust about four or five months ago. I don't perform very much but I'd done this concert with Paul Simon last year for his charity at the Paramount and I enjoyed it. I played solo and felt that I could do a concert. Then when I learned more about it I learned that the expected audience was 150,000 people. And essentially I thought what the hell am I going to do?' Stand up there with a guitar? What I did with Paul Simon was play a bit of piano, play a bit of guitar and it was a very intimate occasion. I realized I really couldn't do that and thought about what I could do as an alternative. I swung the idea of doing a celebrity version of Quadrophenia on the organizers. They agreed. They got sponsorship form Mastercard very, very quickly--not quite enough money, but very, very quickly. And then I thought that I should start to invite people to play. Obviously my first voice for a main voice was Roger [Daltrey]. I asked Roger if he'd appear, and Roger said 'you must get John [Entwistle] to play.' Roger had done a tour last year with John on the bass and Zack Starkey on the drums. So they became the nucleus of the band around the time of the announcement, so it kind of amounts, in a sense, to a Who reunion. Though that's not how it's going to look because I'm not going to play guitar, I don't think. I'm going to be in it, performing some songs. It's exciting. But that's where it stands.

Just before I left to come here I had a creative meeting with a guy to shoot footage for story-telling subtitles, I suppose you'd call them, to advance the story. I've got a narrator. I'm using Phil Daniels, who played the role of Jimmy in the movie. For anybody who has seen the movie it'll mean something because he can say "That was me as a young lad and this is my story."

The reason I wanted to do it was I really want to see Quadrophenia turn into a theatrical property of some sort. It's a much more cohesive, dramatic work, really, than anything I've ever done. The problem with it is it's an inside view. It's an internal story. So it's quite difficult to realize without quite a lot of suspension of disbelief on the audience's part. What I'd really like to see happen is to see it as a touring production that would feature major rock star celebrities like Roger, like a number of other people who may be slightly disenfranchised by their bands breaking up earlier than they would like. Certainly it's a piece that would work well in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, in Atlantic City installations, and in sheds on the road, with a band. It would be Who music and Pete Townshend's story. And it might turn out to be a really strong vehicle for Roger. But we'll have to see about that.

ATN: None of the versions of Tommy seemed too cohesive until Des McAnuff put it together onstage. Do you face the same problems here or have you gotten ideas from the Tommy experience to make Quadrophenia translate as well?

TOWNSHEND: The story is there. It's as simple as Tommy. I read a review of my album the other day and it said 'It's nice to hear some of Pete Townshend's songs unencumbered by the literary schematic that he usually hangs on his work.' And there's a kind of a painful truth about that for me. What happened with Quadrophenia is it's a very elegant piece of work that to an extent is confused by its grandiosity. But it's a very very simple story. A young man has a bad day, basically, and that's really all there is. It's a series of events.

(At this point, Townshend went into a 10-minute blow-by-blow plot description of Quadrophenia).

He just realizes that all he has in his life is himself and some spiritual future. Very much like Tommy in a way, the end of it.

What's happened to me in my life is I've had kids come up to me like Eddie Vedder and say 'I used to listen to Quadrophenia because it was my childhood. I could see my childhood in it.'

ATN: When I last talked to Eddie we were talking about `How Many Friends' off The Who By Numbers and remembering being 15 and listening to it with headphones in our rooms. You're obviously an artist who is inspiring him still. He's still going hrough that struggle that you had, that he had, that everyone has.

TOWNSHEND: I think it's seminal. I think it's fundamental. I think it lies at the heart of what this music is. I can get very fancy on the subject and probably too smart for my own boots. But what our music is about is extended childhood and the consequences of that.

What's happened in the west is because of extended education we have an extension of responsibility and dependence on the family. That means we have a much greater tendency to lapse into emotional interdependency and co-dependency with the family. It's very difficult to become your own person when your father is paying for the gas in your Chevy. A lot of the problems that used to be the problems of 8- to 12-year-olds became the problems of 14 to 19-year-olds. In the '70s, '80s and particularly the '90s, they're more the problems of 19-year-olds to 30-year-olds. My daughter has given explicit instructions that I'm never to mention her in an interview again. But she's still at the university. She's 28. She doesn't need me to pay the bills; I don't mean to infer that. But I do feel as a parent I have a duty to help with that. Those things create strange scenarios for us to grow up in.

ATN: When you see someone like Eddie who is as deeply influenced by what you did, do you feel like you've passed something on--that besides your biological children, you have musical children?

TOWNSHEND: I'm pleased to see it happen. But it doesn't feel like it belongs to me particularly. I think that--and this is not me being coy about it--I actually think I inherited a wonderful gift (back in the early '60s) which was the job of trolling together early country and western, early delta blues, and the Memphis early pop scene. It was handed to us in the UK on a plate. It was not being exploited in the early '60s. Americans just didn't know what to do with it.

It's a bit like today. It's very strange. Because Garth Brooks has a funny, rather badly fitting cowboy hat on his head, he is seen to be of a different country, space, time and echelon than Billy Joel or Michael Jackson. This is an American phenomenon. This is a problem that you guys have.

In TV Guide this week there's this wonderful interview with Cybil Shepherd where she talks about Elvis Presley smelling rather good. You think `Which bit of him is she talking about?' Later in the paper is a thing about country and western music, about the fact that they've grown up and now they wear Armani suits. But they're all still wearing these weird, low-slung cowboy hats just to let you know they're not one of these Peter Pan types like Michael Jackson, they're not one of these weird New Yorkers like Billy Joel, or presumably, not some post-drug-addicted fuck-up like Pete Townshend.

He's huge, Garth Brooks. Absolutely huge. He's now the biggest selling record artist in the world. And if you guys think he's selling records in fuckin' England, you're mistaken. Or, Japan. He's not an international artist.

The fantastic thing about it is when you start to look from the outside, you start to think `This is justice.' Because Hank Williams is the great forgotten root of white, Caucasian, drug-addicted, fucked-up, self-abusing, Waspish, screwed-up, wife-beating rock & roll. He's the wooden leg of British rock & roll. On the other hand there's the whining voice of delta blues. Somewhere in the middle of it was Elvis Presley, smelling good.

What we actually saw (back in the early '60s) was Jesus Christ, this is such a wonderfully profound span, but they can't do is put it all together. We can. So that's what we did. (pause). I've forgotten what the question was.

ATN: You seem very comfortable going over your past. So many musicians don't do that; they say `I'm an artist. I'm looking forward. I don't look back.' You're working on new stuff, but taken your past and updated and changed it. You seem to have no problem with that.

TOWNSHEND: There are problems with it. The time that I spend on old stuff means that I can't develop new stuff. And there are problems in it with me as a human being work in progress. My family aren't wild about the way I talk about myself in public. But this is where I find myself, I suppose.

As a writer I find myself discovering things about myself through my work. And I'm happy with that. I'm very comfortable with that, partly because I think early rock & roll, which I was just talking about, the second wave of rock & roll, the serious bit where we started to realize that this is not just about alleviating the feelings that you had when you were young about being a bit frustrated or a bit misunderstood, the rebel-without-a-cause thing. There was a corollary to this: if we didn't deal with those feelings, we might die. Because we had no purpose. Our parents' generation had much bigger issues to deal with. And we seemed to be like spoiled brats and we felt like spoiled brats. This is a very much a phenomenon that still exists today.

The thing that I've actually found about going back and looking at my early work again is it's something I have to do. When it started a lot of it was experimental. Some of it worked and some of it didn't. Some of it is helped by refining. It's like you saying that Des McAnuff helped to discover what Tommy was really all about. I think all he did was really trust in it. I think he's very very skilled. A great dramatic analyst. But he says to me--and this is unbelievably pompous--but he said to me `Shakespeare kept rewriting.' I don't compare myself to Shakespeare at all, but there's no reason why I shouldn't use his rulebook. It's great to have opportunities to go back and revise. If you were putting a book of your writing together for publication you'd wanna go back and hone it into shape. And bring it up to date. Excise the stuff that looks dumb. (laughs).

ATN: The new Tommy CD-ROM seems to pull that project together in a cohesive package as well, encompassing the original album, the movie, the tours, and now the stage show.

TOWNSHEND: I'm glad you feel that. Obviously this is something that has come to be. I'm not so sure it was the intention. I wasn't involved in the authorship of the CD-ROM at all. I was a producer and obviously a participant. But there is a job to be done there. For a lot of people it must be quite difficult, especially if you're new to the piece, to draw all these strands together.

But, I think it's also something that, again, without being pompous about it, is something that our business deserves. A bit of archival librarianship. We tend to only get this when an artist has a biography written about them or when some rock writer writes a dictionary of rock & roll or an encyclopedia of pop or something like that. And, what you then tend to get is arch opinions and narrow views and preferences.

But, I'm not afraid of going back and saying to someone yeah, look at everything about this particular piece and gather it all together.' There's a part of me saying `Fucking hell, it's just a pop record.' But on the other hand I'm thinking `Yeah, but you know, we can do this. And they want to do it. Let's do it. Let's see what happens.' What it suggests was you could do this about every great classic. Not just every pop record but every great pop event that has ever been. It would be a wonderful way to quickly pull yourself up to speed on what I believe is a very important part of modern life.

ATN: One last question: your take on the Sex Pistols reunion.

TOWNSHEND: It's very difficult for me to even comment about because I just love them all so much. I love John Lydon. I'm amazed that Steve Jones is still alive.

Isn't it a bit sad that John is making such a joke out of it 'oh, this is just for the money.' I know he said that it's OK that the Who got together in 1989 because Pete Townshend said it was just for the money. But, it just seems interesting...he seems to...it seems hard for him to accept that what we all love about him is not just that he has a great sense of humor but they made one of the greatest rock records of all time. It's trying to get that to him; don't you understand you made one of the greatest rock records of all time? You were there. OK, it wasn't all your doing, OK, it was just a product of the time, but you were there. And that's why we're going to come see you. Not because we care whether you can pay the rent.

But I suppose that if even for a second he spoke about that, he'd look as pretentious as I sound.

But Nevermind the Bollocks is a great record. I listened to it just the other day. When I went to do my first solo album with Chris Thomas I didn't even know he'd worked on that album. So some of the techniques he was using in the studio with me were sort of post-Nevermind the Bollocks studio techniques. For example he was doing this thing of taking the bass drum and snare drums and putting them through a PA system in the studio. So when the guy went boom in the studio, the whole studio resonated with this noise. And that went into all the microphones. It was just a huge, wonderful sound. The other thing was Steve Jones doing overdubs, maybe up to 15 overdubs of the same guitar, which luckily I didn't need to do, though we tried it a few times.

But there was a lot of innovation that went into that record as well. It was a great record. The songs were just wonderful, absolutely wonderful. And I hope he knows that. I hope deep down he knows that "Pretty Vacant" is one of the great lyrics.

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