Three vocalists, a percussionist and a lone acoustic guitar player are jamming to a backing tape on the great stage at Radio City Music Hall. The performers hold diligently to their positions putting forth their parts with an earnest, almost workmanlike precision — all except the guitarist, who’s passionately singing a song about friendship and trust while he bounces himself around his microphone and splashes harmonics over the quirky synthesized rhythms. Midway through the song, he catches his breath and makes a rather pointed set-up for something that in rock traditionally requires little or no introduction: “I’m going to play an acoustic guitar solo for you now.” His wrist is already in motion to summon the first few phrases as he shuffles back and realizes he can’t be heard over the tape.
Two glaring eyes shoot towards the soundman. The singers are nervously glued to their microphones, and the percussionist eases her attack as the guitarist strums fiercely and shouts into the small bustle of confusion at the mixing board. He tosses his pick and begins snapping the strings rhythmically to kill time and sustain the energy until the levels get evened out, but the taped synth-bass continues pumping, the hand cymbals sing their brittle little chorus, and technicians just grin and start sweating. More than three quarters of the way through the solo space, the soundman finally gets the message. The guitar player steps forward, closes his eyes, and squeezes off a finger-picked calypso-flavored solo that lingers in the vaulted ceiling like sanctified organ strains. From a projection screen towering 50 feet above, his enormous face looks down mournfully at its own tiny, twitching body as it finds its way inside the music.
This is a Who concert. You can tell because the guy with the guitar yells at someone, dances around, and then finds a few seconds to play a great solo that doesn’t go on as long as it should. It’s at this kind of concert where you’re supposed to experience the delights of rock and roll spectacle — guitars flying into cymbal stands, drums rolling over singers’ toes, old ladies fainting. This most recent road show is a universe apart from the band’s former self, at whose hands a song like “My Generation” might melt into scat rhythms, meander into valleys of harmonics and graceful chord melodies, catwalk through chicken-picked funk-metal, and ascend into a shower of improvised ensemble riffs before segueing into the next piece. On today’s bill, the movements are judiciously choreographed; the experience is designed to kick you in the seat of the pants at just the right moments, but the footprint it leaves on your behind is that of an expensive Doctor Marten, not the typical Who workboot.
Wearing the boot, stoking the flame, and generally stuck in the middle of all of this, is an acoustic guitarist named Pete Townshend, who, despite an understandable concern for personal health maintenance in the workplace, simply doesn’t have it in his heart to allow a good thing to die off completely. Later on in the Radio City set, when the Who lurch into Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” he seems to draw a sincere exhilaration from playing the eardrum-rupturing electric guitar he promised he wouldn’t be using all that much on this particular return to the stage. For a musician who sees himself as having become well-known for “simply making a noise,” he’s certainly bringing an epiphanal glory to these blues. With a hungry gleam he pounces into the upper register, firing concise but wrenching bursts into the plodding machinery of the groove. The phrases break apart and rejoin in their flight upwards, a resonant celebration of knowing just where to step on a familiar path without ever quite visualizing its trickier twists. “Making a noise,” yes. “Simply”? Not on your life. There’s a complex art working at the core of even the most visceral expression, and picking it apart is Townshend’s stock-in-trade. So it came as only a minor surprise when Pete prematurely capped an unresolved “Shakin’ All Over” before a stadium crowd of 72,000 people several nights later, presumably because the band just couldn’t capture the salient unsteadiness of the song’s treatment by the original Who. And it was certainly no great shock to the few keen observers who caught Pete checking his manicure between each windmilling slash of his picking arm-the other half of that shattered pre-tour promise of self-preservation as he climaxed a roaring solo over “I’m A Man” at that same gig. And it certainly should only have been expected that Pete’s inspired drop-kicks and scissor-leaps should produce crowd responses that overwhelmed the general fervor accompanying the Who’s just being there. When he strikes that graceful balance between the limitations of form and tapping music’s instinctive sense of pure release, Townshend embodies the complex ideal of rocking and rolling. He’s a prototype punk guitarist who may have crystallized in a single line one of the most lucid observations about both art and the life it imitates — that “true beauty is time’s gift to perfect humility” — and he lives and dies by it every time he picks up his instrument. Be he ever so humble, no musician meshes power with purpose quite as eloquently as Pete Townshend. Like Miles Davis, Townshend’s best work comes at once from everywhere and from nowhere at all, where impulses are pressed into service by a set of specific musical conditions that are just as easily disregarded as they are a necessary springboard for ideas. Once the barriers are rejected, the field is cleared for noisemaking of a very high order: writing music infused with meaning in a format centered almost purely in anarchy, producing characteristically transcendental acoustic guitar work over a Synclavier pulse on a moment’s notice, or having a rock trio beat bloody hell out of a synthesizer track and be left with foundation-stone rock anthems, as the Who did nearly 18 years ago with their renegade experiments with the ARP 2600.
Not ironically, it’s the same museful deliberation that makes The Iron Man (the new solo album/musical on which the majestic “A Friend Is A Friend” appears) one of Townshend’s most protean guitar statements in years. Pete plugged into his new Synclavier music computer and produced direct-to-disc solo passages based in everything from distorted chaos to angelic classicisms to ratty bebop and beyond. Back are the Hessian themes and the vibrant acoustic atmosphere that always intimized and typified his work (he noted in the Sept. ’89 cover story his unqualified rediscovery of the instrument), but the contexts are far more elaborate, the bombast infused with lyricism, the effect joyous. Over the pattering rain against the dingy little aluminum trailer where Pete sat reflecting on the project one particularly wet British afternoon, the Who could be heard rehearsing for their 25th anniversary reunion tour in an airplane hangar 30 yards away.
- Do you think that bringing back Tommy now is a way to cajole a spiritual reawakening, a sense of reflective self-awareness in the American culture?
Well, it could only do it, really, if the audience are looking for that. I mean, what was actually happening was that people were devastated by what was going on around them. Devastated. People don’t admit it; I find myself in sort of a class of one, having the courage to admit that I hated Woodstock, and that it was actually quite horrible to be up to your neck in mud And in a sense, what people were looking for was just something to hang onto. Tommy actually filled a need; there were people out there with a spiritual hole in their life which they filled up — and partly created — by using psychedelic drugs. Everybody was using psychedelic drugs, and the people who weren’t were using strong hallucinogenics, even though they didn’t know it, in the shape of marijuana. You know, where if you took six joints in a row, you were in the first stages of a psychedelic experience anyway. And that was just rampant. You’d look out at an Electric Factory audience or a Fillmore audience and you’d realize that at least a third of them were on serious LSD trips, and the rest were stoned. And Woodstock, well, the whole audience was on LSD. It’s really quite a grotesque idea, that you’re actually there with a million mad people. Tommy today would only answer that as it did then if there was that kind of chaos, and I don’t think there is.
What the young audience is doing at the moment is very different. I think they’re actually trying to make some kind of sense out of their parents’ experiences. They’ve been told about this dream, this wonderful time — you know, you look at the lineup of Woodstock, and there’s not a bad fucking band there! And when you listen to the charts today, or if you look at Live Aid, for example, there was a lot of rubbish. I say rubbish — that’s a bit cruel. There was a lot of very average stuff. What was amazing about Woodstock was the variety there, from Richie Havens to John Sebastian to Sly And The Family Stone to Jefferson Airplane to the Band to Creedence Clearwater — what a range of artists and talent!
- In musical terms, that era really does seem a lot more appealing.
A lot of young Americans say just that: They’re trying to get context. Americans that are younger than you are desperate for context. I mean people who are in their teens right now, and are particularly intelligent music listeners who can recognize the genius of something like Prince, or the genuine talent of a band like U2. They’re stunned by artists like Madonna or Michael Jackson, by their ability to manipulate the audience, their craft, to make so much money so quickly, and to stay sane. How do they do it? So the first thing you say is that they’re not sane, that they’re actually lunatics. But none of them are lunatics. They’re all extraordinary people, and in the case of Prince, you’re dealing with an indisputable, giant genius who is only going to appear in context over the next two or three hundred years. You know, he’s Chopin, that’s who he is. He’s today’s Chopin, and in a sense, a character, a talent, a seductiveness, and a personal attractiveness of that order can only be seen from a long way away — you don’t see it in the present.
Now, how does a young record buyer deal with all that? Only by tracing how Prince could possibly have been created. He has to know all about Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard, two major influences in Prince’s career. He’d then have to know all about Joni Mitchell, because she is another major influence on all of the harmonic substructures in Prince’s music, all of the delicate suspensions and stuff. You then have to see how Joni Mitchell was affected by the rock people around her: how she was affected by my writing, and how she was possibly affected by the constant use of suspensions and such by the other British musicians she associated with. It’s like one of those family trees. You have to start to get the context together. Then it starts to be less of a mystery. The black musicians of the moment are actually rewriting the book on stardom. This is yet another new punk invasion, in a sense, with big house-music and rap artists creating companies which they then completely and utterly dominate. And they understand that the reason you run a company after you’ve had a rap hit is not because you want to be in the business, but because you’re only allowed to be a star for five minutes. Not allowed to be — you only want to be a star for five minutes. I love this story about a Chicago rap group: The guy from the record company called them and said, “You’ve just got to get back together” — they’d gone back to college — “You’ve got a hit, and remember: Andy Warhol said everybody’s entitled to be a star for five minutes,” and the guy on the other end of the phone said, “Hey, guys, some guy called Andy Warhol said that we’re entitled to be stars for five minutes. Can we spare that much time?” Everything’s changing. There’s a lot of people out there who still want that, but it’s very different. So Tommy comes at a time when I think people will look more at what it means in an almost ecological sense, a real sense. I think people will talk about it more in terms of, “Have we neglected our children?” — in other words, about the superficial things, its symbols of autism and neglect, the things I responded to in my childhood which actually produced the songs — rather than the symbolism which they create. I don’t think anybody is that interested in pedantism or their spiritual life at the moment; they’re interested in trying to get their fucking car to run properly, to try to get their machine to work without creating noxious fumes.
- Let’s look at how you got yours to work. Do you recall the revelation of first stumbling onto the suspended chord?
Yeah. [Who manager] Kit Lambert gave me an album by a 17th-century English composer called Henry Purcell. It was just full of Baroque suspensions, and I was deeply, deeply influenced by it. I remember I’d just written “I Can’t Explain,” which was just a straightforward copy of [The Kinks’] “You Really Got Me,” but with different rhythm. I was on my way, but I was just copying. Then I sat down and wrote all the demos for the Who’s first album, and it’s just covered in those suspensions: “The Kids Are Alright,” “I’m A Boy,” they’re full of them. And it’s still one of my favorite pieces of music. In that sense, it was another very, very important thing that I got from Kit, because he wasn’t just a manager and he wasn’t just a record producer; he was a fantastic, extraordinary friend. I remember I was staying at his flat in Belgravia once, and he put it on for the first time. I heard it and went into the room, and there were tears streaming down his face, because it was his father’s favorite piece of music, and it reminded him of his dad.
- Do you have a favorite period in your career, where you feel you broke down what you regarded as guitaristic barriers?
I think the significant moments have actually had a lot to do with guitars, actual guitars. Like being given an orange Gretsch Country Gentleman and an Edwards [volume] pedal by Joe Walsh, and being told exactly how to set up the amp to produce that amazing Neil Young noise, and using that sound on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Bargain” [Who’s Next, MCA]. Or, being given another wonderful guitar by Joe, an original [Gibson] Flying V, and getting that incredible kind of Jimmy Page noise. I used that guitar on The Who By Numbers, and once or twice for some flourishes on Empty Glass. It’s about guitars; I once found a wonderful Fender Stratocaster that quite obviously had been owned by Buddy Holly. You just played it and said, “Ahh!” It had a lot to do with just kind of responding to sounds.
But I find that the biggest gateway that I’ve been through lately has been into Synclavierland. Not the guitar side of it — that side of it is a bit antiquated. But working in a sophisticated, studio-quality format has definitely been a revelation. I mean, the machine is one of the most expensive pieces of hardware in human history, and it’s worth every fucking cent. I feel like a kid starting to learn about music, and it’s released me as a guitar player from the responsibility of actually trying to organize on the guitar. I can just respond on the guitar, and it’s so much nicer.
- Joe Walsh seems to be a sort of American Pete Townshend figure; there’s a lot of the Who detectable in James Gang, and vice versa.
I was greatly influenced by Joe’s writing. I think stuff like “Pure And Easy” [Who Came First, Decca] and a lot of the stuff around Who’s Next are very sort of James Gang structures. I’m still really good friends with Joe, but I don’t see enough of him as I’d like. I’ve never worked with him. We used to hang out.
- Given the spiritual essence of Who Came First and much of the other music you were writing for the Who at the time, it’s odd that you didn’t make use of Indian sounds at all. In fact, a lot of your work at the time had what seems to crop up a lot in your solo and demo repertoire: an American, folk-country feel.
Well, that’s because Indian music is classical music. It’s a high art, and I don’t find it easy to incorporate any of those ideas into my own work. I also prefer country music because I can see the country it comes from, and the backgrounds evoke certain images in me that I feel happier with. You know, when I was first introduced to the teachings of Meher Baba, I didn’t really think of him as an Indian mystic at all; I thought of him as a Sufi. This is not really the best time in the world to start to talk about Persia, but it was the Persian stuff, the Sufi dervish, the idea of literally flailing your way to God, that attracted me. I felt that Christianity was a cumbersome, distorted route to God, and I was more interested in pure Judaism and Sufism and Zoroastrianism. I didn’t even really like any of the new teacher/master figures. There’s quite a few people who still study with and get tremendous spiritual strength from something like Satya Sai Baba, that guy who does miracles in India now, but I couldn’t get into it. I’ve just never been able to meditate very successfully. When I’ve been able to, it’s frightened me. I’ve got a very delicate spirit. I can actually project myself into a set of emotions very, very easily. I can go physically green talking about seasickness.
- That’s psychosomatic neurosia.
That’s right. But I never really listened to that much or became a student of Indian music, although I love it. I went to George Harrison’s house last year to a concert by Ravi Shankar and a couple of new 6-string guitarists, these young Indian kids who play a regular acoustic steel-string guitar on their lap. Astonishing. Absolutely astonishing. They make Ry Cooder look like a beginner. And they actually use a lot of modal scales, one of which is very European-sounding, very optimistic-sounding, compared to most Indian things, with none of that kind of superior heart-searching. And then Ravi came on and did his bit, and then you feel like, “God, why did Jimi Hendrix have to die?”
- Did your producers help you to incorporate your acoustic sound into the Who, or to develop a specific approach to recording guitars, or did you just sit down, throw up the mikes, and play?
Glyn Johns was a real genius at recording acoustic guitars. He got a fantastic acoustic sound for everybody he worked with. It’s still his best thing; he still gets the best acoustic sound of anybody that I have ever worked with. So when I’m working on acoustic, I try to copy him. If somebody comes along and puts a mike on and it doesn’t look like the position that Glyn would have it in, I’d move it [smiles].
- Did Glyn assist you in the recording of electric guitars?
No, Joe [Walsh] was the guy who gave me the most help, and since then, it’s really been Alan Rogan [see accompanying story, below]. But Joe was always the one who would actually give me complete setups to try, or suggest complete setups to try. On the stage, however, I would just go back to my Hiwatt stack.
- It’s been said that Live At Leeds and the Who’s live performances during that period gave birth to heavy metal. Yet it’s been reported that you despise the form. Is that true?
I don’t despise it. I think it’s very light-hearted, isn’t it? You know, I’m not into men in Spandex trousers with hair like that (holds palm one foot from head). I’m kind of confused as to why these guys look like that, and why it is that they think they look so cool. Maybe they would just say that I was old-fashioned, I don’t know. But there’s always been a kind of glam-rock thing that came out of the late ’60s with bands like Sweet, and it was very underestimated. I underestimated it, anyway, although there was some good music there, and some good musicianship. But today, a lot of these guys in spandex trousers and hair like that are playing some of the most unbelievable guitar [laughs], and you can’t really argue with it. It’s just that sometimes the vehicles seem to leave a little bit to be desired. I mean, that W.A.S.P. recording of “The Real Me” [Quadrophenia, MCA, covered on W.A.S.P.’s Headless Children, Capitol] — you give them a good song, and they’re fuckin’ out there; it’s frightening. But it’s interesting that they picked that song; they picked a song which is a boast, a threat. It’s just that the form is limiting, and I suppose part of that I actually respect, because I think that limitations are very, very valuable, but I just can’t understand how so many musicians just want to be the same as so many others. But if you’ve grown up in a college or a university where instead of the situation in my school — where there were only three guitarists, so we got together and formed a band — there were 60. Some kid I was talking to the other day said, “Do you realize that when I was in college we had 40 groups, and they were all pretty good? [Laughs.] And that three of the fathers were millionaires and they had more gear than you’ve fucking got up there now?” And kids have been playing guitar and having lessons from the age of eight, sometimes younger, so when they hit 14 or 15 or 16, they’re sort of going past their peak. There’s some wonderful stuff happening there. I just wish there was a better medium for it. I wish we had something that was more akin to jazz in its ability to take virtuoso performers and give them a stage, rather than just be hit with little tongue flashings and wagging fingers and legs astride and waggling very big kind of psychedelic cocks at the audience. So in that sense, I suppose I do despise it [smiles]. So who knows where it will go? But I’d trade 50 Def Leppards for — that’s not enough — I’d trade 150 Def Leppards for one R.E.M. It’s as simple as that. I heard R.E.M., and my heart just soared. To me, that’s just divine music; I like the sound of it, I think the words are brilliant, I think it’s just perfection, and the fact that none of them can kinda go blidibidineeeaoowr just doesn’t interest me at all, because if they wanted to, they could go out and they could hire any one of those guys [laughs], you know what I mean? What’s really important is the music, the content, the heart of it.
- You recorded “Driftin’ Blues” [Another Scoop] during a pretty dour time in your life. And looking to the blues as a salve and as the most elemental musical ideal, it seems strangely appropriate having John Lee Hooker portray the enigmatic character of the Iron Man.
He has said to me — and I’ve heard a lot of other people echo this — that the blues is a friend. I don’t know about the quality of the recording or the performance of “Driftin,” but I can remember doing it: I was in my house in the country, I had been living away from my wife for about nine months, had had a string of unsatisfactory relationships with young women, and was feeling like shit because I wasn’t able to accept their love, either because I wasn’t completely cut off from my wife or just because I wasn’t man enough to do it. I was drinking a lot, I’d gone back to using cocaine, which I despised in other people, and I wasn’t in very good spirits. I just started to play that song, and suddenly I just felt happy with myself. You know, I felt I had a friend in me. And I suddenly realized what the blues was. What it is. And it was a great, great, great thrill for me to work with John Lee Hooker. You know, just to hear him saying my name on the [studio intercom] talkback. I mean, he was the first blues performer I really adored. His music, his early albums — well, all his great albums were unbelievably early. I mean, the first couple were made before I was born. He’s a fantastic guitarist. And he doesn’t read, so he carries all his stuff around in his mind, but when he wants to produce the blues, he just does it, and it’s extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.
- Was it strange playing that off-kilter blues lick in “Eat Heavy Metal” and actually having him there doing the vocal?
It was, except that he didn’t regard anything on the backing track as having anything at all to do with the blues. It’s not necessarily about form following function, but the blues is a functional thing; it’s something that you do. It’s not something that you can put on a record and sing to [smiles]. So to him it was all just pop.
- Did you make a conscious decision to play more on this record?
Yeah. I also made a very conscious decision not to use a producer. You see, Chris Thomas has been a fantastic producer, and I didn’t not use him because I had any misgivings about him at all; I actually missed him terribly. The other thing was to have complete control over the voicings of all the chords, so that nobody would ever play a note that I didn’t want, and the structures would be very, very pure. That was partly something that came about with this voicing, which is with the A string tuned down. You get this strange, special voicing on the guitar which I was desperate to hold onto. So I made the backing vocalists do it: For the bass voice, I made them take the 3rd down and use that on the bottom instead of the root. You get these strange, kind of upside-down harmonies that work wonderfully well.
- You’ve abandoned the more conventional, condensed song structures of White City, which succeeded some fairly sprawling stuff on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. And you’ve never previously used choral vocals as a harmonic tool.
That was a conscious thing, because I was dealing with a musical, and I suppose my first hope was that I would be able to pick up a guitar or sit at a piano with a bunch of vocalists, and the thing would hang together. And it does; you can strip away everything. The three or four songs from Iron Man that I’m going to do on the stage will just be me on guitar, maybe a bit of percussion, and voices, and I think that then, probably, you’ll hear the way they work. Billy Nicholls, one of the backing singers, was the vocal musical director, and we did a lot of advance work. And again, the Synclavier came in fantastically handy for that, because we were able to rewrite parts very, very quickly, print them up, try them, and then revoice them. It’s good to know that there’s other, cheaper Apple Mac-type software which will do that, because it was fucking great to be able to do it; I remember when I was doing it, I felt really guilty because I kept thinking, “This is so powerful, in what it allows you to do, that it’s wrong that it should be limited to Frank Zappa and me and Stevie Wonder and a few other people who can afford to buy one.” That will always be wrong. [Pause.]
- “Over The Top” is very reminiscent of a Larry Carlton progression called “Blues Bird,” from Sleepwalk [MCA]
Yeah, I’ve got that album — probably something else that’s gotten into the back of my brain. At one point I actually thought about inviting him onto the record, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to play lead guitar. I also thought of Pat Martino, who I desperately want to work with sometime. I hear he’s back in action again. I’d quite like to do an album where I’d just write some chord progressions for people to work with. I like Larry Carlton a lot.
- It sounds like it; the tune features a very impulsive, yet harmonically advanced, jazzy solo. Did you work that out?
No, none of the solos were worked out. They were all just off the top of my head, and they were all done in two days, because I didn’t think the album was going to have any lead guitar on it. And then at the last minute I thought everything should have acoustic on it. I’ll tell you what it was: It was going to George Harrison’s house — before the Indian concert; this is another occasion, for a friend’s birthday — when they were working on the Wilburys’ album, and Roy Orbison was there. They were playing the tracks in George’s studio, and Mark Knopfler kept coming up to me and saying, “Strumming, man, that’s what everything’s about: strumming, great strumming! Life is just about strumming guitars. Not about solos, not about anything — just strumming! Even just the word: strruumming.” That’s about as cosmic as Mark is ever gonna get [laughs]. I went back and took the first song, “I Won’t Run Anymore,” and I thought, “I’m going to try two guitars on this, strumming.” I tried it, and my assistant producer, Jules Bowen, said, “It really picks it up; it sounds lighter.” So I went through and put strumming guitars on everything, and then it begged an electric guitar. I realized I was going to have to do lead guitars. And with a few little edits here and there, made possible by our working straight down to disc, the playing is completely free, because I knew that if I made a mistake I could cut it out. But I made very few mistakes; that’s what was such a kick. If I had been going down to tape, I would have been pathetic, but because I knew I could correct the mistakes, I just kinda went [mimes guitaristically] and it’s like Adrian Belew on acid, or something [laughs]. There are some great moments, and there are some other really quite conventional straight solos. That’s what the Synclavier has done for me — it’s allowed me to work on records almost as though I was on demos.
- And really blur the line between improvising and composing.
That’s right. I was pleased with the guitar work on it. It’s not front-line stuff, but I was pleased with it because it fits and it’s comfortable, in terms of the way I play.
- The chord sequence and voicings in “Was There Life” are a bit reminiscent of Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson.
They’re two people who I really like.
I’ve actually been working a bit with Joe to try writing lyrics for him, unsuccessfully as yet. I really respect what he’s doing at the moment. And Todd has been a major influence in using — I don’t know what you call it in America; everybody has their own jargon — what I call a displaced bass pedal, where, as I explained, you’re placing the 3rd as the bass note when you’re playing a chord. He’s a master of that. But that particular song, actually, is unbelievably conventional. It’s written in an old-fashioned manner; it’s the most arch-musicalesque song. It’s written very much in the tradition of songs like “Begin The Beguine” [covered on Another Scoop]; it doesn’t have a verse-chorus format. It just runs through, and each little part of it is slightly different. But it was after I’d written it that I realized that I’d actually unwittingly poached a little bit of [pianist] Keith Jarrett off the Sun Bear Concerts [ECM], and I’m putting it in print so that he can sue me if he wants, because I fight against it terribly. But there’s one little bit that is off a piece of Chopin, which is played at an extraordinarily high speed. When you slow it down, it turns into this beautiful sequence. I thought I discovered it, and then a couple of weeks later I brought the album out and listened to it, and there it was. I find (pianist) Glenn Gould very interesting to listen to because he used to ignore the composer’s instructions about speed. There’s something very educative and illuminating about doing that. Sometimes you can rip off ideas very, very successfully just by changing the speed [laughs]!
- The bass lines and tones being used throughout The Iron Man are very powerful
It’s either Chucho Merchan, or it’s me on the Synclavier. Mainly Chucho. Chucho worked with me for the first time as the music director of the Deep End gigs [Pete Townshend’s Deep End, Atco], and he works a lot with the Eurythmics.
- Do you give your bass players any specific directives?
“Keep it simple.” I like Pino Palladino the best. He worked on “Give Blood” [White City]. I think he’s wonderful.
- Those aren’t simple lines, nor is a lot of the bass work on any of your solo albums. It’s very present.
I like slightly more complicated bass playing than average, obviously, because I’ve grown up with John, who has been much more loquacious as a bass player than most. But still, when I’m not working with John, I like it to be a little bit simpler than John would have played. But then on the other hand, when he came and played bass on “Dig,” it was just great.
- So you don’t tell your bassists how to reharmonize the tune. You just give them the chords...
[Smiling.] There could be a little guide in there somewhere.
- Did you improvise the Spanish-style nylon-string solo and accompaniment on “A Fool Says... ”?
It’s one take, but it’s an overdub, The vocals and the guitar that I played in the background were done at home, and I took the tapes to the studio.
- That’s another unconventional piece for you, perhaps the first time you’ve worked on record with that type of instrument.
Well, I’d seen Sting recently doing a lot of classical-style guitar in bits and pieces, and I thought, “If he can get away with it, maybe I could.”
I think the glissandos and harmonics are just part of the way that I play around the house, and bits and pieces of ideas leaking out. Everything that I ever do one day finds its way onto tape, and finally into a song somewhere. So I don’t have an unlimited goodie bag of ideas. There’s a lot there; I mean, I’ve got a lot of things I can draw on; mainly because my influences are so broad, and include an extraordinary amount of music.
- “To Barney Kessel”, from Scoop, is the only unaccompanied guitar piece you’ve ever released. Was he a big influence?
Well, yeah, in a way he was. I mean, he’s just one of the many guitarists who interested me during a period I went through before I got stuck into the Who properly and really got into R&B. I used to listen to him, to Wes Montgomery, and to Kenny Burrell, and that’s it, really. Then I got distracted; in my art school, there was a guy who was mad about Chet Atkins, and I got very interested in and started to learn how to play Chet Atkins-style. Then I got even further diverted by another guy who was a James Burton freak and would make me listen to the B-sides of Ricky Nelson records. Then the Who, the band, started to pick up R&B. My friend Barney [Richard Barnes] and I moved into a flat owned by an American guy named Tom Wright, who was drummed out of England because of pot busts, and had to go in such a hurry that he had to leave his record collection in our custody. And it was an extraordinary record collection: Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith — a fantastic collection for the time, and I never looked back. I found in R&B a way to pull my jazz and my pop influences together.
- It’s funny how marijuana was indirectly responsible for such miraculous musical exposure. Do you feel that once you began to use it yourself during your early twenties, it opened up many creative doors?
I think it was really important — maybe not as important as alcohol is for somebody as shy as I am socially, but very, very important, because it does change your perception of music and it allows you to enjoy without analysis. I think it allows you to stand outside yourself as a listener and an observer when you perform, and thus it enables you to respond and react. If you’re trained and you’re expert, your body will play the solos and you can just monitor them [looks down at his hands, as though from much farther above]: “Oh, that’s not too cool — go somewhere else.” And it’s sad, in a sense, that as a drug, marijuana actually tends to turn you into such a sort of a softball in the end. But I think it’s still a very, very useful artistic relaxant for a lot of people. I don’t think it’s very successful socially; you giggle too much, you know. I still think that alcohol is very good socially. But both things have been disastrous for me, ultimately, because I’ve relied on them too much, and I’ve had to learn how to do all this stuff without them. But had I not been able to learn how I could work with them, I don’t think I would have known in what direction to go without them. When you’re drunk, you know that you can get away with going up to somebody that you’ve got absolutely no hope of ever even politely brushing their cheek, and just saying, “You’re the most beautiful girl in the world — I love you, I want you, I’ll give up everything just for you.” And she might turn around and say, “Oh, that’s very flattering. I’d love to have you as my friend.” When you realize you can do it drunk, you then realize that it works sober, too. It’s just having the courage to say it, having the courage to do it, having the courage to go for what you want. And the same is true, in a sense, with music: If you’ve got the courage, you can do without marijuana what you can do with it. But I think it just feels more dangerous because you’re fucking with something very, very phenomenal. You’re fucking with something that involves the left and the right side of the brain, and to do that, you really have to have some kind of knowledge of the way that the mind and the body work. It’s mystical.
- It’s often been reported that you were the first guy to use Marshall stacks. Is that accurate?
Well, not really. John was the first person to use a Marshall stack on its side. He used two 4x12 cabinets, and I bought a single 4x12 and used it on a waist-high stand so my Rickenbacker would feed back. Then it seemed a logical extension to stand a top 4x12 on another 4x12 that was actually a dummy, and then eventually to do what John was doing and have two amplifiers. I never, ever used a stack with one amplifier until I got into Hiwatts, and I didn’t use Marshalls very long. In fact, I never used Marshall in the beginning at all. I used to use Fenders; I had a Fender Pro and a Fender Vibrasonic and a Fender Bassman top, and I used to drive Marshall 4x12’s with those amplifiers. I thought Marshalls were awful, and I’m afraid I still do, although that’s just a personal opinion. I don’t mean it’s bad stuff: I just mean I didn’t like the sound. And when I heard Hiwatt I was over the moon, because they sounded to me much more like a really good, top-line mid-’60s Fender amp. I still think it’s hard to beat Fender amps; they’re astonishing.
- You went through a period in the ’70s when you were performing with Les Paul Deluxes almost exclusively, and your models were decorated with large numerals on their faces. What was the code, and what purpose did their two extra toggles serve?
I had various versions: there was a three-pickup one that had three toggles to switch the pickups on and off, but I think the toggle on the others — these were Deluxes, with those small humbuckers — was an extra switch to double-boost the Seymour Duncan in the middle for feedback. They were numbered because I had 10 of them and they seemed to go in and out of action. I used to need four in good shape: I’d have one main guitar, one with a capo on it for “Baba O’Riley,” another one with a capo on it for “Drowned,” one spare for the capo guitars and another spare. I was carrying five, so another three on the road seemed to be logical. Alan Rogan, my guitar man, put the numbers on. I don’t have very much to do with my guitars — it’s absurd [laughs].
- What was the tuning that gave you that full, rich F-chord sound on “Baba O’Riley”?
It’s just normal tuning. The capo’s at F, first position. It’s the shapes that I play. None of the shapes that I play with loud distortion have a 3rd, because you hear the 3rd in the distortion. You’re getting the second- and third-harmonic distortion, so the first note you’re hearing is the 3rd, the second note you’re hearing is the 4th, and the last note you’re hearing is the 5th, so if you played the 3rd, you’re going to get a note which is a 4th up from that, so, oh [grimaces]! That sound I can’t stand is people playing a complete C chord with fuzz. They’re actually getting something like a C13.
- But that approach seems to have spilled over into your acoustic work, as well. When you play an open-position A chord, for instance, you seldom include the C#.
That’s just habit. I mean, I like to have a ringing tone, so sometimes, like, for example, in “You Better, You Bet” [Face Dances, Warner Bros.], when I play C, F, G, C, F, G. the high G is in all the time on the F and the C chords. So effectively, I’m playing C with G at the top, then F with G at the top, and then G with G at the top. And that’s a very distinctive part of the way I voice chords: having a drone, but at the top rather than at the bottom. I went through a period in the early days with stuff like “Substitute” and “I Can See For Miles” where I was running a drone in the bottom, and I got very bored with that, so I started to find other ways of approaching it.
- When you do your flamenco-style strumming, how rigid do you keep your picking hand?
It’s quite slack. I’m using quite a heavy pick — a Manny’s heavy — but I’m not actually holding it. It’s floating, just literally being held in space [laughs]. It’s a trad banjo technique [sings twangy strums], a ukulele/banjo technique that lends itself to the guitar quite well, although I think it’s one of the things that has inhibited me being able to play faster, because I’m using such a heavy pick and I’m holding it in such a strange way.
- You’ve been photographed with picking hand literally soaked in blood, and actually appeared onstage in a cast that reached almost halfway to your elbow That must have made “Pinball Wizard” quite a painful challenge.
That’s another hazard of the way that I worked. A lot of people have said, you know, “If you can’t go out there and be Pete Townshend, how are a lot of kids, going to feel?” Well, the problem is not only has it made me deaf, but, you know, as soon as we’d hit “Baba O’Riley” I’d go djaaang, swing, swing, all my fingernails would just get broken off across and from then on I would be in absolute agony for the rest of the tour. I wouldn’t be able to sleep; you know, at night my hand would be throbbing. I’m not allowed to use any kind of opiates at all, so I can’t use strong pain-killers, and aspirins don’t do anything. And the other thing is, when you swing your arm and you’ve got a cut finger, blood pours out of it at a great rate, and it goes all over your strings. So one of the other things I decided to do on this tour was be a little bit more careful with my hands. You see, I’ve seen a lot of people do arm-swings, and I’ve never seen anybody do it right.
- What is the right method?
Well, the right method is to bleed, you know? Your hand and the pick have to connect with the fucking strings. You don’t open your fingers up and just sort of slap. And you have to be able to do it in a downward direction as well as an upward direction. Doing it from the top is right easy, but coming up from below ... you know, you’re going around, the string catches under your fingernail, carves it back, pulls it out and then goes poing, backwards. If you get it wrong. And I thought, “Well, fuck this. Nobody knows.” I just don’t want to do that anymore. It’s another example of the way that I developed a way of working which is disabling.
- Do you think that on this tour you’re going to have difficulty walking the thin line between what you referred to recently as the “Parthenonic” and the arcane?
[Laughs.] Yeah, maybe. Maybe not just in the material on the stage, but most of all, with trying to tell the difference between what is a good part of the audience to respond to and what isn’t. I think I will have difficulty with that, because I perceive the Parthenonic side of it in a rather different way to everybody else. This has always been my problem. Although it belittles us to admit it, it’s not entirely true to say that I am a Who fan like everybody else, because I think that a lot of people who like and are interested in the Who aren’t Who fans at all, aren’t even people who necessarily spend a lot of time listening to the records, and they aren’t necessarily people who like all of the music or all of the individuals in the band. What is important about the Who to them is something else; it’s like the jigsaw puzzle they fill in, and the fact that their relative life cycle is so fascinating. So to actually talk about fans is a bit self-aggrandizing [laughs]. A lot of people are going to see the Who so that they can say, “I went to see the Who.” They don’t know what to expect. A lot of people are coming to see whether they like us or not [laughs]!
- You’ve been around since before many of those people were even born. It might seem intimidating to younger people; by the time you were their age, you were already “conquering the world.”
And a lot of people say, “Oh, you’re ever so humble.” It’s not humility that makes me say this, but I really do think it’s a team that makes it, and that the people who are kind of at the spearhead of the team, group, or peer group have no real conception of what they’ve achieved, of what the group has achieved. That’s probably why it’s so preposterous that people should actually take any interest in what I’ve got to say about the subject of rock and roll — I probably know less about it than they do. You do it because the audience allows you to do it. You’re on a stage because the audience has chosen you to do a job, and you’re elected from among your peers. So in a sense, a lot of people I meet who were there at the very, very beginning of the Who’s career, do act as as though they own me.
I’ve got a very fancy house in England. I used to live in quite a modest house, and I wanted a studio and a garden. So we bought a house on one of the poshest streets in town, and there’s a park next door. There’s a parkkeeper, and he’s got thinning, gray hair like me — less hair than I have — and he comes up to me and says, “[heavy Cockney] You know Pete, I used to come and see you — why don’t you blokes do something fucking decent, like in the old days? You’re fucking useless now. What are you doing in that big fucking house you’ve got ’ere? I’ll bet you just sit up there and just do fucking nothing all fucking day! Why don’t you fucking do something?” This is the fucking parkkeeper! He’s the guy that sweeps the park; I pay my rates so that I can walk there. You know, I don’t get any respect, as Rodney Dangerfield says. Those moments are precious, because then you realize, “Hold it. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just Roger. It wasn’t just the Who. It wasn’t just the band and a few hundred selected faces that used to hang out at the Marquee club. It was a whole generation of people, and we were just one of the bands.”
I think that’s the way you have to think about your role in life and your contribution. You know [sighs], it’s lucky to get the larger rewards, there’s no question about it, but now, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, and tomorrow, I can honestly say that I would trade places with the parkkeeper at the drop of a hat. I really would. He’s got a divorce behind him, and I’d still trade places with him, because I can just see that he’s happier than I am, and that he’s been through less hassle than I have. Now, that’s not to say that that’s true of everybody, and maybe that’s an ungracious thing, in a sense. I am happy with my lot. It’s just that with the rewards come terrible problems, which is the fact that when you’re in my position, you chastise yourself for not having made better use of the opportunities and the advantages. It’s very difficult to respond to criticism like, “There you are, with a hundred thousand quid in the bank moaning about how unhappy you are,” and that often gets heard. “Don’t give me your miserable songs. Cheer me up.” And as an artist you say, “Well, I can’t. I’m unhappy.” “Well, if you’re unhappy, fuck off. Just get off the face of the planet.” And you don’t say that to unhappy people. That’s what “Slit Skirts” [Chinese Eyes] was about: You know, you don’t say to somebody who’s sad, “Fuck off! Get out of my life!” But people say that to artists. Artists have been elected by the public to be the happy people, to be the entertainers, to be the constructive, positive force. And when they fail to do that, they’re expected to disappear. And it’s very difficult to disappear. And you know you should disappear, because you also know that you feel that way about other performers. You pick up the paper and you say, “Oh, poor fucking Rod Stewart. You’ve lost one blonde and got another blonde and my heart bleeds for you. And this one’s 50 times as good-looking as the other one — oh, you’ve got a tax bill to pay, you poor sod. You only earned 60 million dollars last year?” So you know how people feel about you, but nonetheless, it’s a clearer perspective from this position. Being on the stage and looking at the audience, one thing is clear: We know better who the audience is [chuckles]. You know, we really do. They don’t really know who we are. They don’t really know that we’re just shit like them. And that’s what was really interesting about Elvis being put into the Army; I don’t know whether he got an easier ride, but you can imagine if there was a really serious war and they take Michael Jackson and draft him into a crack Marine troop you just know they’d have that little fucker in shape in six weeks. You know they would! And the interesting thing about it is that the guy’s fit. And he’s dangerous! Do you know what I’m saying? I mean, here he is, a little plastic man who likes to [cavort] with a llama or whatever — he’s a heavy guy. And he’s bigger than he looks, too. It’s that whole feeling of what happens when you strip people and just put them alongside one another and you see how different everybody is. And then in difference, everybody gets lost. The thing about large stadium audiences, which raise up the star, is that the larger the mass, the lower the level of humanity you seem to end up with. In a large enough mass, you just kind of average everything out, and the individual gets pointed up. You’ve just got to stop thinking of yourself as having to be measured by the achievements of anybody else at all — that’s the important thing.
- How do you respond to that dilemma these days?
I’m responding to that now. Just last night I was trying to find an empty piece of videotape to copy something for a friend, and I found the concert Prince did with the Revolution, the one around the time of Christopher Tracy’s Parade album. I started looking at it, and [sighs] it’s just demoralizing — absolutely demoralizing. It’s about 20 songs into his set and he hasn’t even sweated a fucking bead! I mean, not only is he running a studio and a band and writing songs and playing great guitar and dancing, but he’s obviously lifting weights and doing aerobic training. Where does the guy fit in his extraordinary sex life that I keep reading about? And I don’t want to compare myself to him. I don’t even want to try to aspire to anything that he’s done, and yet, part of his attraction is his extraordinary capability. But there again, he was around for a long time. He was around for three or four years before the public decided that they were going to have him on any level at all — you know, when they granted him permission to be a star, when he’d been in the wings long enough: “Okay, just stay there for awhile. Keep the corset on. No, actually, take the corset off. Put the gown back on. That’s right. A bit more oil on it. Now wait, just wait there.” And he waited and waited and waited. “Okay, all right, now we’re ready for you. Out you come. On the motorbike, please, and, uh, I think you really ... hmm ... because you’re such a weird guy — could you bring a girl with enormous tits with you, please? Great, that’s perfect! Now you’re a star!”
That’s the process. And it happens at every level of life. The most important thing is actually being able to play that game with yourself, to actually recognize what your own pacing is, and where it is that you’ve already decided to go.
- Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Certainly for a musician, every little decision closes off an entire world of possibilities. When you recognize that each seemingly insignificant little choice you make is actually so crucial in determining that ultimate direction, it can become quite overwhelming.
What you need is to do something like sailing or mountaineering, where the philosophy is that you learn to control every aspect of what you can control, and you learn to accept and respect the influences of things that you can’t control. And that that’s what life is about. There are some decisions that you can control, and those you should consider very carefully. But most of them you have no control over; it’s just that you think you might.
When you get on a plane, for instance, you don’t control whether it’s going to get where you’re going in one piece. And there’s no point worrying about that. That’s the moment where you put yourself in the hand of destiny, or God, if you’re lucky enough to believe in God. That kind of process really helps, I think, especially in the world of guitar, for example, in wanting to aspire, wanting to practice, wanting to become a particular kind of player. In the modern world, some people can achieve what they want to do with such apparent ease, and you think, “What they found so easy is so unbelievably hard for me.” So what you should actually be doing is looking for the difficult things, looking for the things where there are no possibilities. If you really feel that you’re presented with so many options that you just don’t know what to pick next, then go somewhere where you’ve got no options. Go stand in the middle of the Kalahari desert for a couple of weeks. And not so you suffer, but just so that there are no options, so you know that the most important thing — the only thing — that you’ve got to do next is to make sure that your supply of water is kept up, and that you get some clean food. And live like that for a couple of weeks. I get that from sailing: You’re out on the ocean, and the only thing that you’ve got to do next is find out where the fuck you are [laughs]. And you know that if a storm hits you, that you’ve just got to strap everything down.