The Who's Pete Townsend talks over life, love and new tour Endless Wire
March 27, 2009 12:00am
IN A frank a personal interview with The Daily Telegraph's Kathy McCabe, The Who's Pete Townsend talks about life, love and the love of music on the eve of the band's return to Australia.
Q: Your Australian promoter tells me your touring decisions these days are steered by potential enjoyment factor. Does that mean a good mix of indoor and outdoor shows, particularly if one of them is a winery?
Ah, I don’t drink alcohol any more, so I won’t be touching the wine. In this case we responded to the offer of this tour partly because it seemed exciting to come at the time of the Formula One racing, but also because we had planned to come to Australia when we did our world tour behind Endless Wire in 2006 and 2007.
That tour ended up being so exhausting that we needed a long break, and eventually had to face the fact that we had promised to come back, and we needed to make that promise good.
Without opening up a strange one-sided dialogue here, I don’t perform for enjoyment.
I certainly don’t tour for fun. I am almost unique in this.
I don’t really know any other musicians like me. I grew up backstage with my dad who played in a post-war dance band, so I always feel at home at a venue.
Backstage, I get sleepy, and want to curl up and snooze. I never get nervous, whatever the event. I feel quite detached until I walk on stage, and then some gear inside me clicks and off I go like a wind up doll.
As I move around, the adrenalin flows, and I start to get a little high. I often don’t smile, but if I do – and I sometimes laugh without reason – I’m afraid it’s because I suddenly feel the whole business of music for ‘entertainment’ is ridiculous.
But as soon as I come off stage I withdraw quickly, and go back to feeling sleepy. I hope we entertain, but we think we have a higher purpose too. I might say some more about that later.
In truth I probably put financial gain ahead of pleasure in selecting shows, tours and venues.
I still live off performing to some extent, though I obviously can live by my song-writing alone if I care to.
When I do a tour, I often buy myself a stupid car before I go on the road, so it is waiting when I get home like a reward.
Or I come home and spread the money around my family, staff, friends and charities. It’s not guilt about money, I feel that being paid to perform is right and just, but royalties from songs tend to feel like windfalls. So there can be abundance.
The really big tour from 2006-2007 was actually a poor earner as the dollar was so low when we finished. I also spent rather a lot on charter flights for me and me alone.
I knew it would be last time I could ever justify chartering private planes. I’ve stopped now forever. It’s not just about the pollution. I want to age with some dignity. I want to be part of the human race. So I get in line and take off my boots.
Q: What or who is driving the momentum for The Who to stay on the road during the past few years?
For a while I was perfectly happy not performing with The Who. From 1982 to 1989 I felt the Who did not exist. I let the band go, in my heart. However, Roger Daltrey had other ideas.
He would not let go. He worked on me constantly to go back out with him and John Entwistle, and when I finally did in 1996 with Quadrophenia I realised my long-frustrated dream to play that great work of mine in its entirety at last, with a narrative movie to explain the action.
We sort of drifted back into doing the rest of the Who material at the end of Quadrophenia, to create a friendly ambience for long-time fans.
This particular phase of Who work is still driven by the release of our last studio album Endless Wire. I’m not sure how many tracks from the album we will perform in Australia, but we are doing at least three songs.
At one time we were playing four or five, which is a lot of new songs for us. After the shows with you, I am settling down to try to write something new and different, or just something………my song-writing process feels very different today.
I don’t write for something we call “The Who”, with all its cumbersome history and theatrical stage songs. I just write music, or poems, or lyrics, or songs. If they work for Roger, or for me, we will record them.
I may never manage to write such a song again, but as Endless Wire featured some of the most recent and least anthemic songs I’ve ever written – just the songs that came to me as I stumbled through a novella I was writing called The boy who heard music – there’s a good chance we’ll find something when I’m done doing whatever I do in the summer of 2009.
John’s death in 2002 was also a factor in the return to serious touring. That 2002 tour was the last I ever intended to do with the band, and my mission was to make enough money for John so that he could get out of debt.
He had some back tax, and a double mortgage to juggle. He died the day before the tour was meant to begin. I felt his mischievous and wonderful sense of irony in that.
“You thought you’d give me handout Pete. Well now I’m giving YOU a handout. Take my share, and tour without me if you dare.”
It felt like a gracious gift from John, in the best of humour, even though his passing was really tragic. You’d have to have known him as we did to understand.
Roger and I were thrown together. We had been respectful, and friendly to each other, but we had never been great friends. We had never managed to find a way to live with how different we are, and how differently we think and work.
With John gone, we were on our own, no distractions, no excuses that we were working to help John pay his debts. We had to decide whether to go on, just the two of us, or take the opportunity to stop. Suddenly, I realised I wanted to go on.
I had always loved playing with John, but his passing would mean a new phase for me on stage, more space. John filled a lot of air with his huge sound and his extraordinary playing. Now I can be a real lead guitarist, and I’m learning fast.
Q: I was blown away by how powerful the band was on the last Australian tour. Is there alchemy at work in this line-up or graft ie dogged rehearsals?
The alchemy is there. It has new shades with the new line-up too. We don’t rehearse much at all. We often don’t always do sound-checks.
We save our energy and focus for those two hours and fifteen minutes on stage and don’t let up for a second.
Roger and I are old men. We’ve been doing this for years. We don’t need to practice; we need to catch fire and rise above the pain. I’m glad you liked our shows last time.
Pino Palladino played on Endless Wire, and is now starting to amaze even himself with his explosions of energetic creativity. It’s a really great band.
John Bundrick, on Hammond and keyboards, is a genius. Zak is getting better and better, and more musical every show we do. He says this is the hardest work he’s ever had to do, but we can’t keep him away.
My brother Simon is still with us, and is a joy to work with. He plays more and more guitar, and at first I found that tricky.
Now I am enjoying it, and we are finding interaction to be intriguing. He’s been a Who fan and guitar player since he was seven years old.
Q: Do you use soundchecks at all for working up new songs? Will there be another album?
I think I’ve covered this. But yes, if we do soundcheck we might work up a new song, or a variant to an existing song. But Roger and I both like to make stuff up on stage. The album? Why not? As I said, I just need to write and see what happens.
Q: Congratulations on the J.F. Kennedy Center Honours recognition. Are you a bashful award recipient? And what does this kind of recognition – and the recent Grammy nomination - mean to you now at this point in your life?
The other awards have mostly come quite late in my career, apart from the first proper gold album with Tommy. The Kennedy Center Honor meant a lot to me. To be so recognised in the USA, where our music had most of its roots, was quite a shock. What about Bruce Springsteen? The Rolling Stones?
Age seems to have something to do with it – most of the honourees over time have been in their sixties or seventies. Maybe Bruce is too young, but one day he will be honoured. As for the Stones, Keith Richards wouldn’t arrive on time, and so Mick would simply have had to refuse the honour. I’ll bet it has been discussed. Since we returned from Washington carrying our ribbons, I have had to fight the feeling that for me it spells an end, or a beginning.
I have even had to fight the feeling that it portends a surge. It was an amazing weekend of special events in which none of the recipients have to “sing for their supper” as the organisers like to say. We went to the White House, met President Bush and his wife Laura. I liked them both very much.
In the mode we met them they were like Hollywood stars – gracious, easy and extremely kind.
My best moment was when during the Gala performance the wonderful soul singer Bettye LaVette sang an astoundingly moving version of Love Reign O'er Me from Quadrophenia and Barbra Streisand who was sitting beside me turned to me in wonderment: ‘Did you write this beautiful song’.
Q: How emotional is the process for you when revisiting the archives for DVD releases? What do think of Pete Townshend The Younger?
Unless the great Barbra Streisand is gazing at me in awe I feel no emotion. This is my work. I have a function; it has been the same throughout my career.
When I see myself I don’t see an actor, or someone learning a craft, I see a young man providing what the rock audience who followed the Who expected from me. I came to expect it from myself.
I made music that was useful to my audience that in those days was mainly young men.
Now I have a 19 year old son. Sometimes when I see myself in film from the early days I am reminded of him, the body rather than the face (he is quite a bit more handsome).
I have always resisted the documentaries about the Who. I tried to stop Kids Are Alright.
I played no useful role in Amazing Journey. Yet these are the main vehicles for all of the amazing archive footage I so earnestly gathered over the years and protected in a special archive. Also – with Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp – I actually helped to make the films in many cases, or commissioned them. I nurtured friendships with filmmakers, and we let them into our private world on stage and backstage whenever we could.
Of course the fact that a lot of our filmed and televised interviews descended into insane humour at the insistence of Keith Moon adds value.
Q: In the history of rock, there seems to have only been two uniforms; T-shirt and jeans or the suit? Why are you generally more comfortable in the latter? Are they tailored or off the rack?
Ah! There was the boiler suit and Doc Martens for me for many years. After the psychedelic absurdities I decided to go anti-fashion. I first wore a suit on stage in 1989 for the band’s 25th anniversary tour.
Many of my friends thought I looked like a twat. I had a pony-tail, suggested by my beautiful and elegant wife, obviously in an attempt to keep the groupies away from me.
She was unsuccessful in her mission, and our marriage unravelled a few years later. I was quite handsome in 1989, though not as handsome as I am today.
I am currently wearing my Clash outfit on stage: very tight pants, black boots, black shirt and a kind of black surfer Volcom trilby with dark glasses.
I love to wear a suit sometimes, and I buy them off the peg from Prada, I’m a very ordinary shape. But when I wear a jacket I get fed up with the way it interferes with my arm-swing. The arm-swing has a limited life I fear, I am starting to sense my arm is about to leave its socket.
Q: Which collaboration did you find most revelatory during the Attic Jam sessions you did last year? How did you soothe the nerves of the younger contributors to the shows, I must say it would have been daunting for them to play in front of/with you.
The whole thing was a revelation. I started it purely to keep my fabulously supportive partner Rachel happy. She agreed to come on the road with me for two years, as long as she could continue to do her In The Attic show, which had been webcast once a week from a studio, and occasionally in Live shows at various venues.
We took it on the road in an Airstream caravan with a satellite dish. It was great for me, I was never bored at the prospect of just another Who show because I knew before the Who went on I would meet someone new on In The Attic, hear them play, talk to them, play with them, and possibly play something new or rare myself.
It became one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done, but also quite tiring. I did have to go out of my way to make younger performers feel at ease, but even my contemporaries like Lou Reed, needed be welcomed and made comfortable.
I most enjoyed performing with Rachel. She is a genius musician. The last Attic Jam was a few months ago at the Troubador in LA. I remember every moment with every artist.
Every one was special, but it is the friendships I made from 2005 to 2008 on all the various incarnations of Rachel’s show that are most important – E from Eels, Billy Corgan, Sean Lennon, Martha Wainwright, Ben Harper, the Fratellis – and many more.
These are people I now feel close to. The really young ones like the Kooks, Editors, Amos Lee, Rachel Yamagata, Joe Purdy, Willy Mason, Mika, Adele – I have been blessed to meet them and join in their triumphs and struggles.
The music business has always been tough, but today there are some incredibly talented people like those I mention above who are fighting for attention and time, and working as hard as anyone from my early years. I felt the honour was all mine, and I’m not kidding.
There was a very, very cool young Australian musician who was one of Rachel’s first guests on her web-cast show prior to the tour. We played together. I will ask her for his name tomorrow and send it on. (Best Buy in the USA are releasing the highlights from the 2006/7 shows on DVD, release date is next spring.) (musician was Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother)
Q: When you are performing now, does it occur to you that there is probably a huge contingent of the audience who are seeing you for the first time? On the Australian tour, this will certainly be true. Does that impact at all on how you approach the show?
Of course, and many of the crowd are also much younger than we are. We play the famous songs partly for that reason. But I like to play the famous ones because they are so easy for me – they sort of play themselves. I can weave in and out. I really love performing to a new audience.
I like to see whether the Who’s rock function works for new people.
And often it seems to work very well. We have always made music that has been aimed at providing a kind of cathartic channel for our audience rather than express some inner feelings of our own.
Even as a solo artist I have always tried to keep myself out of the way. I have been offended when critics have said I have indulged in sentimental autobiography or indulgent heart-searching in my song writing. A lot of the time I was writing about them! Yes, songs about critics.
In Tommy there was autobiography, but I only realised that years later when I tried to understand its enormous and unexpected success.
It has its roots in the difficulties of my rather typical post-war British childhood: parents trying to find themselves after a frightening and traumatic time, and their growing kids wondering how they would ever be able do anything to match their parent’s courage. New audiences hear Tommy, and find a different story, their own story: that is what matters to me.
I want the music to have function. If Abba’s music is to help us sing our way through a grey day, the Who’s music is probably better to stop you driving your car over a cliff. Both are important functions, but I always want to feel I have helped you see something about yourself, not something about me. Abba and the Who are closer than they might first appear. Love Reign O'er Me and SOS are both songs about the search for intangible love. Not a small subject.
Q: Have you ever seen anyone windmill better than you?
Actually, I take that back. In 1982, soon after I left the Who for the long sabbatical I judged an air guitar competition for a London evening paper.
One of the competitors was a young woman wearing a mask. When she windmilled, certain other body parts came into play. Needless to say, she won. She married my friend Roger Taylor of Queen. Bloody drummers.