Here Who guitarist, Quadrophenia writer and former resident of Helford in Cornwall, Pete Townshend, talks to What’s On about the show.
How did you come to write Quadrophenia – what was the catalyst and also what came first the story or the songs?
I have a strange way of approaching what I do. I am inspired by very diverse circumstances and conditions. A new piece of computer software, something that simply makes funky drum sounds, might set me off. A walk by the river or looking at the sea might start me off on some tangent as a lyricist. I might position a table in a particular place in my home and find I write a whole batch of essays, poems and lyrics. A new guitar (or guitar open tuning) could inspire a burst of creative work. I am especially stimulated by the designing and creation of studio-workshops and technical workplaces. The modern recording studio is as much a hobby for me as a train-set or a boat. There is a lot childlike play in all this.
With Quadrophenia, a very wide range of these kinds of inspirational strands came together in a very short space of time. The Who as a band decided to build a commercial studio for themselves. I was already building a private studio for myself in the country. My studio at home in London was tiny; nevertheless a lot of the music for Quadrophenia was written there and the recording started there. I was also pursuing a new idea, telling a story using sound effects. So I was often out and about with a field recorder listening to trains, birds, cars, planes, rivers, the sea and the chatter of people in pubs.
In the midst of all this came the news that quadraphonic sound was about to arrive as a domestic format on vinyl records. Pink Floyd had already pioneered four-channel sound in their concerts, but what excited me was bringing The Who - an astonishing band to stand in the middle of when they played at full tilt - to life on vinyl in surround sound. So, the two new studios, one for The Who in Battersea, and one for me in the country, were designed as the first quadraphonic rooms in the world.
At the same time, I felt I wanted to try to compose a set of songs about the internal struggle I saw so many of my peers were still experiencing. A lot of them seemed to have drug and alcohol issues that had turned into psychoses. Remember that my immediate peers had all been mods, most of them, and so it was natural to set the story in the closing years of that movement. One or two of the songs were already in place: Drowned, Love Reign O’er Me, and Is It In My Head, were all songs about the desire for some spiritual sustenance in a world that seemed devoid of faith and direction at the time. The old wartime values were still invalid, remember. Using these three songs, I scribbled out the story you see inside the cover of the record sleeve and started to discuss it with my friend and mentor Richard Barnes, and the photographer-essayist Ethan Russell. From these discussions emerged the idea of a four-faceted character, coming at you from four speakers.
Subsequently the idea was somewhat deepened, but also somewhat confused, by the notion that a member of The Who could reflect each facet of Jimmy’s character. I am still uneasy about this. This is the story of a member of our audience not of the band, but we had big egos and wanted to feature in the story somewhere. The only song I intended to speak about the band was The Punk and the Godfather, which was actually highly critical of what we had done thus far.
On top of all this I could feel a new wave or reaction rebellion coming in the music business. The big bands were becoming careless and self-indulgent. I wanted my songs to continue to have a cathartic function for our audience. When punk hit a few years later I was not surprised.
The mod movement of the 1960s was almost forgotten at the time of the recording. Skinhead culture was springing up and was much more politically driven, albeit right wing. The mods I had known were all more gentle souls, effete in some ways, certainly intelligent and creative. What had happened to Jimmy? Where was he? What had he been through? Did he find what he was looking for?
This wide range of stimuli sets up a now familiar dilemma for me, in that when I look back I can tell the story of any particular project in a number of different ways. I often feel I am guilty of revisionism, and am sometimes accused of it. More on this later maybe.
Before it was adapted for film, Quadrophenia was a designed as a rock opera – is the stage where you had in fact always imagined the piece? Did you always have a performance in mind?
We had performed Tommy in its entirety many times and I felt Quadrophenia would blow it away in live performance. But we got sidetracked by the complications of the necessary technology. We were highly pressured by deadlines, so we didn’t perform the complete work until 1996. I wanted to have a quadraphonic PA system like Pink Floyd, but have a dramatic reason for using it. I wanted a great album and a great vehicle for our live shows. In the end only a few of the songs survived to be played regularly as part of The Who set.
What do you most fondly remember about developing Quadrophenia? There’s so much – the experimentation with sound, the exploration of the themes (via the story and the music) and the film to be proud of…
I loved all the technological innovation, there was a lot of fascinating research involved. The film was different because it happened in the final years of punk. We actually tried to cast Johnny Rotten as Jimmy at one point and he and I became friends. I didn’t have much to do with the film. John Entwistle was music director and I concentrated on providing one or two pieces of incidental music that was required. I was personally on a big drinking jag when the film was made. To achieve what I’d managed to achieve as a writer and performer in the years from 1964 to 1976 required full-time work from me. When the other band members were resting between tours, I was working, writing, or researching; I didn’t get a break. By 1979 when the film was made, shortly after Keith Moon’s death, I had taken on a solo record deal as well. I had been much encouraged by my managers and advisors who thought it would help me feel more fulfilled. In fact it was the last straw. So the film passed me by in a bit of a haze, but when I came round from my stupor I was deeply impressed.
How did you feel watching it for the first time? Did director Franc Roddam et al interpret the story in line with your vision?
I didn’t feel the script went deep enough into Jimmy’s psychosis and I was sad that it didn’t precisely follow the song-cycle structure. However, I also knew that there was no story in place on the album, just a journey that was deliberately left vague and open so that people listening could get inside it. The film needed a story, and Franc and his writer came up with one. I was delighted with the film when I saw it, truly, but I didn’t feel it was my work at all. The response to the film from the public was good – and within a month the mod movement seemed to have enjoyed a revival.
Why do you think that the subject matter of the film (and indeed the album) is so lastingly popular?
The mod period was a very special one.
This story is set in the 1960s at a time where society is still struggling after a recent war, as its liberated youth reasserts itself. Historically, the conflicts on the beaches are remembered, but only because they fit the language understood by the older generation of that time and its tabloid press. They were a small part of the mod happening. In fact, the assertion of new values by the mods was different and simpler to the one espoused in a more conventional story like West Side Story.
While to an observer it was clear Mod kids wanted to be a part of something, it was also clear that the choices they made as a group were rebellious as seen by the old order. The mod girls looked like boys, the mod boys were soft and didn't mind looking fey, dancing alone, wearing eyeliner.
Meanwhile, what the older generation missed was the enormous inner struggle many of the mods were going through. Repudiation of the old ideals of the war years meant that even conventional methods of courting were defunct. Certainly the notion of ‘uniforms’ within the mod movement was absurd because the charismatic individuals - the so-called Faces - were always trying to change their influential look over a single weekend and thus restore some sense of their very temporary leadership and individuality.
Suddenly, around the time of the mods, young people were aware of individual responsibility, especially for their own emotional safety and sense of security, and for their sense of belonging. There were terrible cases of conflict where children and their parents really could not understand each other at all – this is echoed today: a black mother is writing about black gang culture using her son's stories as her research base. However, the mod years also repudiated that the issue of ethnicity was important. There weren't many black mods, but the ones there were had real influence. In the parallel black community of the times, the Blue-Beat movement, the fashions often overlapped under and over those of the mod groups.
Today, all these issues seem to be relevant and significant again, but with new shades of course.
How will Quadrophenia be staged for this production? What can audiences expect from this adaptation? Will it resemble the film?
We are hoping for a new kind of musical. That is probably dangerous, but that is what we want. It will not resemble the film, except that I believe the girl will be more important in this play than she was on the album and more pivotal than in the film. On the album we only observed the girl from Jimmy’s screwed-up point of view. In the film, and more so in our play, we see her as real person, with her own story to tell and her own frustrations about what mods did and did not achieve.
What do you hope the stage version will achieve?
I want the show to entertain, of course, but a grander mission is to see it connect with the audience as well. Good rock music, as we now call my kind of pop, must be functional, it has to do something more than just entertain.
To what extent are you involved in this staging?
I am the old bloke who talks too much and falls in love with every single member of the cast, male and female. I am involved, of course, but I am trying to keep out of the way. This is a fresh interpretation of the music and, having already fallen in love with the new cast, I am certain they will bring new life and new angles to the story.
How has this stage adaptation come about? Did you take much convincing to get involved?
I took a lot of convincing. Not because I felt Tom Critchley and Jeff Young were on the wrong track, but because of divided loyalties. The Who do a terrific live performance of Quadrophenia, with video screens helping to tell the story, and Roger is very keen, and has been for the past three years, to tour The Who’s concert version one last time while he can still sing it (it’s hard to sing well).
Roger put a lot into the stage version we did, and it was great for me to be able to work with him creatively for the first time with such trust. So it took a big leap of faith for me to say no to my beloved mate Roger in The Who and yes to the huge ménage of reprobates who are now putting up the show at the Plymouth Theatre Royal. I think in the end my aspirations as a composer and writer for the theatre proved more powerful than my desire to play this wonderful music on stage with The Who. The Who version may happen again, but not for some years now.
Are you enjoying this process and revisiting the material? And do you ever revisit the film?
I sat in the casting sessions quietly, somewhat stunned at how wonderful it all was. To hear my songs sung by new young people is a thrill. I enjoy working in music theatre and have a huge amount of experience now. I feel at ease, and a part of the team. It is humbling and exciting at the same time. The film is not something I see as a part of my personal creative thesis, but there is a sequel being developed at the moment within The Who managerial camp. I am not a part of that process either and I doubt there will be any new music from me.
One thing is certain, in my original book Jimmy did not die at the end of the story, but I have no idea what happened to him. Any sequel will have to make a huge and arrogant leap to decide what happens to him and I hope it doesn’t spoil our individual fantasies about what Jimmy might have done when he got off that rock in the rain.
How do you think new audiences – those who have yet to discover the film – and existing fans will respond to this adaptation?
I have no idea. But the young cast members all said they felt a connection with the issues it embraces. But then they would, wouldn’t they? My concern is that mod old-timers might get too caught up in what they believe to be the fine details. We are not trying to recreate the mod world. In fact, a lot of modern mods get it badly wrong.
Mods rarely wore parkas except when on a scooter – that’s just an example. Today young people show up at Who concerts wearing parkas. That’s fine for today, and we need to let the past go. What I want new and existing fans to do is respond to the story as it told today and to try to find something in the show that enriches their lives today. I also hope they have a great time.
Have you/the creative team reworked any of the music for the stage? If so, what can audiences expect? Are there going to be any new songs, for example?
There are some old Who songs included from the early years in a club scene, but otherwise no new music. I will help audition and choose band members, and guide their playing.
Can you describe how important this album and the film are to you? You’ve said in the past that Quadrophenia was the best and will the best you have ever written. Do these feelings still stand? How does it figure in your list of creative achievements?
Tommy is my most successful and visible song-cycle to make the jump to film and music theatre. But Quadrophenia is the composition I am most excited about, partly because it is so tricky to stage. It does not have a straightforward story. Some of the best dramaturgs (directors and artistic directors) have had trouble finding a way to make it work and stay faithful to the music. If we can make this work, it will bring me real satisfaction, but also make me feel that my commitment to the pop and rock form, and the rules they are bound by, can work at many emotional levels.
Jimmy’s story – especially after his epiphany where he finds clarity and redemption – is incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking? Do fans and audiences often admit to you how it has influenced them?
Fans are always telling me that Quadrophenia either changed their life or helped them in some way. I’m not sure Jimmy does find clarity or redemption. What is clear, is that he yearns for it. I think that yearning for meaning is what people relate to.
In your short story in the cover notes you wrote: The guitar player … He wrote some good songs about mods but he didn’t quite look like one.” Forgive me if I’ve misjudged this, but it certainly suggests you were not one. What were you feelings towards the mods?
I was a mod. No question about it. The other three guys in The Who were not. My best friend at art college Nick Bartlett and his older brother Tim were the sharpest mods I came across, I hung out with them as much as I could. The thing is that anyone could be a mod. You didn’t need to be working class. I once hung out with a group of mods in Brighton with a girl, and we slept under the pier and chased rockers. The rest of the band had gone home. I wanted to feel a part of something, I always have. The mods allowed me that. When I went our clubbing in Soho, dancing I came across some of the Faces of the day. Phil the Greek, Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Micky Tenner, Sandie Sargent and, of course, the Small Faces themselves. I was always close to the greatest Face of them all, Peter Meaden, and if The Who hadn’t got in the way I would have embraced the mod movement far more deeply. But my position on the stage allowed me a good view of what was going on. I became someone who gave a voice to some of those mods. But I was a part of what was happening. When LSD hit London I moved on, like so many others.
You’re known for your music and writing, are you a fan of theatre? What musicals, shows or theatre professionals are you a fan of?
I like Tom Stoppard’s work, especially his Arcadia, and Kenneth Brannagh’s work on Shakespeare, especially his film of Hamlet. I am a huge fan of Arthur Miller and was an investor on Last Yankee back in 1993. Musicals? I liked Cats and Phantom of the Opera. I love the soundtrack of the Phantom of the Opera movie, and I adore Minnie Driver as the Diva. I liked Rent, and Guys and Dolls at the National years ago. I’ve seen ‘em all. I think my favourite musical is Into The Woods by [Stephen] Sondheim and Lapine. I also like West Side Story as a film – who doesn’t. I am a huge Abba fan, so I am looking forward to watching Mamma Mia when I have time. (Ken Russell said I would love it).
Have you had any feedback from Roger Daltrey? What are his feelings on the project? Will he be going along to see it? And will you be coming to see the production?
I will be there, of course. Roger will find this production tough to engage. He felt he should have been involved, and he might well be correct. I’m certain that given the chance his process, his version if you like, would have been a valid one. But I wanted to keep this production away from The Who and its internal machine. I hope he comes to see the show, and if he does I hope he likes what he sees. He wasn’t a great fan of the Broadway Tommy. Whatever he thinks he will tell me honestly and we will remain friends.
What else are you working on at the moment?
Oh God! This year is my year dedicated to writing. I have started so many things that I am excited about and I need to pick one to complete. I am composing a lot of new music at the moment. A lot of it sounds like old-fashioned music theatre stuff rather than pop or rock, so I have no idea where it will go. I am having a ball. I began this set of replies to your questions by speaking about how I respond to all kinds of diverse stimuli. This does tend to make my output seem lacking in direction, or overly eclectic. But as I close in on a final idea I tend to drop everything else and get very highly focused. At the moment I am working on about five or six ideas, in about the same number of different methods. I don’t want to say too much, in case I set myself up, but I having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. My partner Rachel Fuller is working on three theatre musicals too, all at the same time - she is a composer – so the house we share is like a music workshop. It’s a great way for a musician to live. I am very happy about it.
The Who are touring Australia and New Zealand this spring, are there any more dates in the pipeline?
Ah! Now we hit the tricky part. I’m really happy to be going to Australia and NZ, but performing is not something I enjoy the way everyone around me does, and I don’t get from it what I probably should. I don’t like touring or performing, never have really. But I am very good at it, and I find it easy.
But I do get a lot of fulfillment from playing these days; I enjoy playing the electric guitar with our present band. I discover new things all the time. The best thing about the next tour is that we will be playing to new audiences. The other good part is that I love the guys in the band, their women, and our amazing crew. It’s a circus family of the best possible kind. The rest of the year I am writing, working on Quadrophenia, and I have no other plans. The Who get lots of offers at the moment, and many of them are very attractive and exciting. But I need to write, and these days it takes me a long time to do what I have to do.
Can you describe what it feels like performing live with the band again? Are you enjoying the experience?
I feel rather old all of a sudden, to be honest. I am very fit, but the aches and pains don’t go away after a tour the way they used to. I am definitely slowing down. That said, I will never make the mistake I did in 1981 when I declared I was leaving The Who. I sincerely thought the band would carry on without me. Roger simply wants me never to say “never”. I can live with that.