The Who

"The Who is just a brand name now"

As heavyweight contenders for the crown in the ’60s, The Who fought their corner with a sonic punch unequalled by their peers.

So loud and destructive were their performances, they easily wiped the floor with all that dared compete with them on stage.

From the earliest days of maximum R&B, when amps were toppled and guitars were smashed on stage in the tiny Goldhawk Club in London, to last year’s Live8 when two old classics spat in the face of every other worn-out greatest hit, The Who have always proved themselves as masters of the live arena. This summer, prepare for an aural onslaught from those who really should know better. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The Who are pioneers. Their adventures in sound and song writing led music through its greatest revolutionary decade, and the four musicians through hell and back. As young mods they crafted perfect pop singles, and as their horizons expanded they heralded the invention of the rock opera, ushering in the importance of albums as a band’s ultimate statement. The only thing more incendiary than their music was their individual personalities. Each member of The Who played their instrument as a lead; Keith Moon’s rampaging drums would mimic the bellowing cries of Roger Daltrey; John Entwistle’s fingers were just as nimble on four strings as Pete Townshend’s were on six. The result was a cacophony of glorious noise and a legacy undiminished by time or competition.

Although The Who soldiered on after Keith Moon’s tragic, yet not unexpected, death in 1978, many thought it was all over following John Entwistle’s fatal heart attack in 2002. However, with positive signs of new material emerging this year, Roger and Pete are back where they belong, side by side in front of the eyes of the world. Ahead of this busy spell as he returns to the fray, Pete Townshend spoke exclusively to Clash about the band that, to many, defines all that is insurgent about rock ‘n’ roll.

I wanted the band to fail, to explode, to blow up.

As The Who started their long career, you were dividing your time with studying at Art College. What did a schooling in the visual arts teach you that informed your music and image?

An incredible amount. The course I did was ground-breaking, run by Roy Ascott and dedicated to breaking down the student’s preconception of what an artist and art is, but also to widening the language used by the artist and preparing him for the electronic world that lay ahead. Words like ‘cybernetics’ were used every day and were then still not in any dictionary. The visual arts as taught there also extended into installation sculpture and by inference to ‘installation’ as it is understood today. I built an Experience Shed, with music built in, and was keen on colour-driven kinetic sculpture.

You were a firm supporter of Pop Art. How did you extol its virtues as a fairly new movement?

Pop Art was almost journalistic in function – it made one look again at images and ideas that were familiar, jaded, and misused. By 1966 it was beginning to fade, The Who’s use of targets, chevrons, medals and flags on our clothes and amplifiers was a Pop Art act in itself – re-iconizing the icons.

The explosive stage show of The Who reflected the off-stage explosive temperaments of the four disparate characters of The Who. However did you all survive as the fame rose and you were thrown together all the time?

We were not explosive off stage. We were sweethearts. I was very focused, very sullen, and Roger was hard. But Keith and John were comedians. We survived because Keith made us laugh. But we mainly survived because I was a fucking genius. Money was available without my songwriting though – we toured hard and sold out most shows.

‘My Generation’, arguably your most famous and enduring single, was also your highest charting, reaching Number Two. Are you upset that The Who never had a Number One?

‘I’m A Boy’ was Number One somewhere in some chart. I remember being upset that we actually had a Number One. I know that might sound disingenuous but I wanted the band to fail, to explode, to blow up, to slide. I was thinking Sex Pistols before they were born. I saw myself then – I suppose I do today – as an artist rather than a rock star, and one who used rock as a vehicle. The purity of this thesis falls apart though because I so love music, it’s hard to be a great artist if you really like something like music, or some strand of music. You end up being swept away by some aspect of the instrument or process you are attempting to use up, or dilute like paint. The other problem for me was that I liked having a studio to work in, that was expensive and my songs paid for it. It made me weak as an artist. I wanted ‘My Generation’ to be our last word, then ‘I’m A Boy’, then ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. None of them were, or will be, my last words. I’ll always get carried away by a new musical trick.

Was there ever any planning or was The Who’s trajectory simply the following of your muse?

Depends who you speak to. We did have brilliant, fast talking ideas men behind us in management; I was always alert to a new idea. So there was a lot of planning, but most of it became subject to forces beyond our control. My muse was in fact an instinctive knack – shared by many other artists of course – to know what the ‘60s and ‘70’s rock public wanted to see and hear.

Do you think having someone else sing your words gave you a certain confidence – because of the emotional distance – and influenced how you wrote?

I never thought of myself as singer until [solo album] ‘Empty Glass’ in 1978 when I realised I had a pretty good voice. This is an interesting question; I often wrote aggressive stuff for Roger because I thought he would prefer it that way. Later, he became a real influence in softening my writing, choosing less aggressive material to sing.

You were one of the first champions of creating albums as one whole piece of work rather than a collection of singles. Do you enjoy pursuing the vision of a large-scale project or do you simply relish in story telling?

I like both. I am rather dilettantish, I flit, so having a story or conceptual manifesto of some kind helps me keep focused while the wheels of commerce revolve distractingly around me.

By 1969 you had discovered the teachings of Indian Perfect Spiritual Master Meher Baba. How did you discover him, what are his philosophies and what impact did this new outlook have on you and your music?

Mike McInnerney [‘Tommy’ cover artist] told me about him. Meher Baba was not a philosopher, he was a Perfect Master from the ‘30s who later declared himself to be the ‘Avatar’ (put simply, the incarnation of the first ever soul to make the journey from nothing to everything – in essence: the Messiah). Finding him came at the end of a long search, and I ‘knew’ I’d found someone I could trust to guide me further. I still follow him today, even though he passed away in 1969. I am not much interested in the Messiah bit; I love the people Meher Baba gathered around him, I met hundreds of them and I immediately liked them all, felt I knew them all. Briefly in the late ‘70s I even considered becoming a Sufi under Murshida Ivy Duce who in San Francisco was driving one of the offshoots of the master musician Inayat Khan’s Sufi movement that embraced the West. They are the most disciplined group following Meher Baba, apart perhaps from the people running the Trust in India. Murshida Duce did not expect me to leave The Who, but I longed for her to do so. When she didn’t I felt I could not do what Cat Stevens did later, and leave music behind, because I was in a group I didn’t have the guts to leave. I felt I was there for a reason, and although much of what The Who represented appalled me if I tried to judge it with spiritual criteria, it seemed there was something good and great going on with The Who that I should stick with. I’ve since learned that in the Sixth and Seventh centuries there were branches of Sufism – which is essentially a form of Islam – that embraced extreme decadence, music, alcohol and even sex, as a way of finding ‘self-forgetfulness’ and whirling literally back into the arms of the Prophet. I think my low-key Christian upbringing – singing in choir and Sunday School – has always prevented me properly embracing rock ‘n’ roll decadence the way Keith Moon did. Meher Baba proscribed just one indulgence to those who wished to follow him in the late ‘60s – psychedelic drugs. He said for the sincere seeker they might start the ball rolling, but once the seeker had found the ‘path’ or the ‘master’, further use would lead to madness of an extreme kind. In other words, he was speaking about drug-driven hypocrisy: that drugs have a function, but if you then ignore what they demonstrate, you are denying your spiritual destiny, duty and responsibility to yourself and will go to a kind of hell of your own making. Drugs might be said to be a model of human tendency that reflect all of life in this respect.

We mainly survived because I was a fucking genius.

Songs from ‘Who’s Next’ came from the aborted project ‘Lifehouse’, a story that took almost 30 years to complete. In the story individuals were connected by a force you called a “grid”, a concept that foresaw the invention of the Internet. How do you see the future of music in regards to the Internet? Will the record companies ever give up their power to artists distributing their own work over the web?

Record companies don’t have power. They provide resources, funding and protection to artists. I think they have had a bad deal lately, but they shouldn’t have blamed downloading for their own poor business practice and downright deceit and fraud. They are beginning to see that downloading is the new radio, and – hey – they don’t have to pay DJ’s payola.

‘The Who By Numbers’, released in 1975, has been described as your “suicide note”. Its dark subject matter (growing old, anxiety, desolation, disillusionment, alcoholism, etc) is sometimes unsettling but always honest. What are your memories of this period, and did writing these songs clear your conscience of the problems?

Yawn. Suicide note indeed. I was rocking if I remember rightly. Fucking journalists. Roger chose much of this stuff. This is the Roger-the-singer-stuff I spoke of earlier that surprised me – I offered a lot of varied stuff. It was Roger who chose some of the darkest material, often choosing to sing songs that were really personal to me, and it is still one of his favourite Who albums. I was quite happy at this time, though I probably felt rushed as usual. I’d made a number of demos at my country studio that differed from my home studio at home because it was a big room with a big desk. The lyrics I had all lent themselves to acoustic guitar more than electric. Roger is not a simple man, he has deep, dark shades himself and has always been ready to jump in with me to try to interpret my lyrics in a new and more powerful and direct way. On ‘Who By Numbers’ he went that extra mile, and I did find the album cathartic as a result. I have to say I really did end up thinking most music journalists were complete prats because their reviews were so crowingly jubilant that I appeared cowed.

You publicly battled a drink problem in the late 70s/early 80s, coming to terms with advancing age while being surrounded by young punks, a movement whose music was directly inspired by yours. Did you feel out of place at that time and look for solace in booze?

I was already using booze for ‘spiritual solace’ when Punk arrived. I loved Punk. I thought we would be overthrown. I was deeply sad when I realised the young ones didn’t have the chops to pull off the coup. Wimps. But what wonderful wimps. What a great period. It was glorious. I only wanted to be younger so I could be a part of it. The Pistols started something that may well have had roots in New York, but we British seem to know best how to wrap up new music and new style like no other country. “God Save The Queen… I mean it man”. “We’re so pretty – vacant”. Such powerful images.

Keith Moon’s death, which reportedly occurred in a period when he was trying to clean up, didn’t do much to dissuade your own habits. How did his passing affect you personally?

You get this wrong. While Keith was alive my habits were traditional. I took no drugs. I drank a lot – sometimes. I didn’t drink at all for long periods – especially around my family. So I was a ‘binge’ drinker you could say, except in my case all my drinking was on stage or in the studio, it was around my work. When Keith died I realised that for years he had provided me with cover for a kind of denial – once he was gone I had to face myself, and I found it hard from then on to work without drugs. Cocaine, later heroin, briefly became a big part of my drinking. My sexual life became a bit rougher too. By early 1982 I was clean and dry again and have remained so, apart from a short experimental lapse in 1993, until today.

The new Who album will be the first without John Entwistle on bass. How has his absence changed your working methods or the studio process?

We don’t get together and try to be a band. I do the tracks at home. I miss him terribly; he was such a cool guy.

How easy was the birth of the forthcoming album? Have you felt inspired and what has influenced the songs chosen?

It would be wrong to call it hard, but jeez it’s taken so long. I am enjoying recording and writing a lot today and it is my work with Rachel Fuller, my partner, that has helped. Her ‘In The Attic’ webcast is an occasion to play songs I might otherwise never play, and to test out new stuff. The new album is very simply produced. A good bit of it is straight acoustic guitar and vocal. We also write songs together around the house, and I’ve never done that before. Rachel is seen as someone benefiting from my guidance – good. Because I have benefitted hugely from her musical pragmatism and skill. She sees music as both medication and method. It has really helped me keep my music flowing to have her in my daily life over the past four years of trying to write new songs for The Who.

When you were arrested three years ago, was there a point when you thought your career had no future?

Just for a moment, satellite vans at my door, I thought I hadn’t a hope. Then one of the tabloid reporters said to me: “Pete, this is all shit, don’t say anything else to any of us, not today, maybe later, you’re going to be OK.” And from then on I felt OK. Maybe all journalists aren’t wankers after all. I shouldn’t forget that man. Thanks Phil.

Is this really the final tour of The Who? What does the future hold?

I don’t know who said it was the final tour. Maybe Roger has said a few times that he doesn’t know how long he can go on, that’s a different way of looking at it – but he’s stuck with my wagon train for fifteen months. After that I can manage without him if he wants to retire. He won’t. I won’t. The Who is just a brand name now – two old fuckers with wrinkles and tricks. Remember the genius of Chuck Berry? When we were just naive teenagers we watched the old git, listened and learned. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can do certain things better than others. I am good at a lot of things, but when you give me an electric guitar and stand me next to Roger, with a decent band behind us, I am so much closer to God. It’s a wonderful place to be. Remember, I actually saw Jimi Hendrix. Eric [Clapton] deals with Jimi’s blues, Jeff Beck with Jimi’s sonic perfection, Slash (and many others) with Jimi’s shredding – I do Jimi’s Shamanistic light show. Or did he do mine? Only one of us is alive to argue the toss. So I’ll do it.

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