The Who: Interview with Pete Townshend

—by , November 29, 2006

The WhoWith their rebellious and raucous attitude, they laid the groundwork for punk music. With rock operas and grandiose song arrangements, they gave birth to progressive rock. By bringing demolition to the stage and amassing legendary tales of offstage excesses, they created the blueprint from which many heavy metal acts would later follow. They pushed the boundaries of pop and filled stadiums long before other acts dared to grace such an intimidating stage. The Who did it all and, with two original members remaining, they’re back at the helm.

Pete Townshend, the group’s primary songwriter and guitarist, has defied expectations and brought the dream of a new album to reality with the release of Endless Wire. Together with vocalist Roger Daltrey, the volatile duo has picked up where their great records left off and brought The Who back to life—one part singles, one part opera. It may have taken 24 years to create, but that’s simply because Townshend had to tend to more important matters such as “fishing, sleeping, playing golf and masturbating.”

Pete Townshend granted The Aquarian an interview that, as you’ll come to read, touches on several topics unlikely to be covered by other publications.

Contrary to the longstanding promise of new material from Roger Daltrey and inside information from friends like Eddie Vedder, The Who didn’t seriously begin working on new material until very recently. “I really got stuck into this in January of this year. There were some false starts, and some delays, but I knew I had a new Who CD in me once I decided to base a group of songs on my novella, The Boy Who Heard Music,” says Townshend.

A self-confessed imperfectionist (“it’s a much harder business to perfect”), Townshend found himself in the daunting position of living up to his past successes. “What happens if you’ve done something great is that it is actually very clear where you stand with everything that follows. Either you go left field or you wait until you have something that compares,” Townshend continues. “I’ve been left field for a while. Now I think we have a CD that compares to The Who’s best.”

It’s true. There are many elements on the new album that parallel the group’s previous releases. Freeform yet precise, drums, soaring bridges, rousing power chords and Roger Daltrey’s course vocals echo the sound of years prior and are present throughout the disc. The song topics revisit familiar territory involving misunderstanding, the troubles of the underdog, triumph and various perverse incarnations of love. Once again, there’s an underlying theme to the album, which characterized most of The Who’s prime releases.

“I’m stunned at how good some of [the songs] are,” confesses Townshend. “My favorite is probably ‘Stand By Me.’ I wrote it in two minutes prior to one of my partner Rachel’s webcast shows (intheattic.tv), because in previous shows I’d just about exhausted every acoustic song I knew. It turned out to be an unconscious vote of thanks to Rachel, to Roger, my family and to all those who stood by me through my troubles with drink, drugs and the law.”

Although he has forever served as the band’s lead composer and musical architect, The Who is very much a band, in that each member contributes to the final product (whether initially welcomed or not). “I sometimes feel Roger is overworking my songs in the studio, but when I hear them performed live by him I always come to understand what he does so well—he makes a physical and emotional connection—where I am only really interested in a spiritual or artistic moment,” explains Townshend.

The music may come together onstage, but with The Who there’s far more to the show than the sound of songs as they take on new form. Their concerts are renowned for pushing beyond perceived limits. Whether they blew up a drum set or aggressively smashed guitars into amplifiers, they always kept their performance a notch above the rest. With age, however, such violent acts have been eliminated and replaced with a performance style more akin to that of bands 40 years their junior. Now that’s truly dangerous.

“I never watch [Roger swing his microphone]. It seems like asking for trouble. But then maybe me trying to leap into the air at 61 years old is asking for trouble,” says Townshend. “We are showmen, here for the audience. I have no desire to smash axes anymore. They still fall apart in my hands through what I do in my normal playing. I’m still pretty hard on them.”

With such liveliness onstage, it’s fair to conclude The Who are nowhere near penning a track that addresses the hardships of life on the road. Come to think of it, the topic would likely make for a catchy satirical tune, which is right up their alley. “[Touring] is a piece of cake. It does get tough sometimes climbing into the Lear jet,” quips Townshend.

Lear jets can get expensive, but The Who have it covered. If you tune into 15 minutes of primetime television, listen to the radio or watch several movies, you’re bound to come across a classic Who track. Whether featured in a commercial, during opening credits or hidden within programming, The Who’s music is so prevalent in the media that one could understandably mistake them as a fresh, new act. The group’s decision to license their catalog has proven to be both a great monetary success and a genius way of keeping the music alive and attracting new fans.

Many of their contemporaries initially resisted the lure of advertising dollars under the belief that their art was vastly superior to the car or television program it would promote. In response, Townshend had this to say, “I am smart. They may be naive or too romantic perhaps? …it has helped keep our music alive.” If you’ve noticed, many acts have recently changed their opinion and begun to follow suit. Take that as proof that The Who continue to lead the pack.

What separates a rock god from the average man on the street? “Nothing. What makes rock gods are common people gathered in audiences. They vote us in. We have no option but to serve. It’s our duty,” says Townshend.

As a deity of all things that rock, he had a few words of advice for my generation. “Make the older people tell the truth,” he remarks. Perhaps a bit less political but equally important and relevant to music fans, “I worry about your hearing. Look after it.”

Judging by their remarkably solid new album and continued vitality onstage, the end for The Who is nowhere in sight. However, if it were to end, he would like the band to be remembered for “innovation, color, humor, toughness, impudence, valediction, and finally for Roger and me, faced with a terrific new audience, humility,” says Townshend.

It’s time to get serious. I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, The Who was revolutionary to rock and roll and changed music as we know it. They took the live concert to new heights, redefined what an album can represent and are back on the scene, almost as strong as before. But, honestly, how do The Who measure up against P. Diddy?” Well, fortunately for all, I got the answer. When asked, Townshend replies, “I feel like P. Diddy when I’m on my yacht in St. Tropez. I was there first.” I guess that settles it. They’re still a step ahead of everyone… even P. Diddy.

Be sure to catch The Who on tour at the Borgata in Atlantic City, NJ, on Nov. 24. Their new studio release Endless Wire, featuring the mini-opera “Wire & Glass,” and bonus live DVD EP is available in stores now.


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