From the Jamming! Magazine Archives: Pete Townshend, 1985 (Part 1)
“The younger generation in Britain view Pete Townshend as yesterday’s man, a forgotten hero.”
So I wrote in Jamming! 28, introducing my interview with the (then) former Who leader. And at the time, in the spring of 1985, those words were hard to dispute. A flurry of activity at the dawn of the 1980s, including two new Who albums and two solo albums in just three years, had pushed Townshend to the brink of collapse – financially, emotionally, creatively, every which way. He had then – belatedly, many would claim – shut down The Who, though not before a farewell tour of stadiums, and not without following up the awful final studio album It’s Hard with the even worse souvenir of those stadium shows, Who’s Last. Though The Who ended their career at a peak of American popularity, these records were snubbed both critically and commercially in the UK, where even the most ardent of Who fans felt like Townshend had allowed the great band’s reputation to become tarnished.
Upon reflection, Pete may himself have agreed. He took a part-time job as associate editor with publishing house Faber & Faber, spoke publicly about his early-80s heroin addiction (addressing, in 1984, a meeting of Young Conservatives on the subject), worked closely with Prince Charles on the Prince’s Trust, and finished a collection of short stories, entitled Horse’s Neck. He even appeared on stage brandishing his guitar a couple of times. It was not, by most peoples’ standards, a life of seclusion, but it represented a lower profile for one of rock’s most public figures, and it also suggested a deliberate attempt at personal and professional maturity. After all, Townshend was to turn 40 in May of 1985.
That was the month he appeared on Jamming!’s front cover – looking, it must be said with blunt honesty, every year his age. Oddly enough, while I remember everything about my first interview with Townshend – conducted back in 1978 at Eel Pie in Twickenham by the massed ranks of all four Jamming! Contributors – I can’t recall too much about this later encounter, not even the precise location. (Trident? Faber & Faber? It was certainly Central London.) I do remember that the interview was not desperately difficult to secure (perhaps, endorsing my comment up top, there was not much interest in him from the music media), that it seemed pleasant enough at the time, and that it reads as being perfectly pertinent and relevant in the present day. I had no idea at the time that I would end up writing a biography on Keith Moon that would delve into Townshend’s own life in great detail. I was just happy to have what I considered a more sophisticated conversation with my original rock hero than the fan-like Q&A that had formed my first interview over six years earlier.
Of course everything that goes around comes around, and Townshend’s public standing with the “younger generation in Britain” is about as high now, in 2006, as any man in his sixties could expect. And so, on the occasion of The Who’s first studio album in 24 years, Endless Wire – because yes, The Who did reform, several times over – I thought it would be nice to present this interview in almost completely unedited fashion. My thanks, yet again, to Anthony Blampied for retyping the interview from the original manuscript. The usual rules of copyright and fair use apply; please link to this original interview if you choose to quote from it.
-Now that The Who have finally gone and you’re doing this work for Faber & Faber, is it like starting afresh for you?
Well no, not really, because I’ve been doing publishing with Eel Pie Books for eight years, so it’s a continuation of that. But I do feel I’m starting afresh in a lot more sweeping ways. I think the emotional change happened the day that I realised that was it. I issued a press statement that only one paper printed – John Blake in The Sun. I expected that to be an opportunity for the other guys in the band to say “Well, fuck him – we’ll go on.” They decided not to go on without me, and at that point I realised that the band was over. So in a sense what’s been a new start for me is that since I made that statement, in late ‘83, I’ve been feeling a lot happier.
-Was it like releasing a weight off your shoulders?
In a sense. Because I felt for the first time that I’d actually had the courage to do what I wanted to do for quite some time. I wanted to leave the group before Keith died, around 1976, and I didn’t really have the guts to do it then.
-You said at the time that Keith’s death was the most positive thing that happened to The Who in years.
It was, because we had to really think about what we were going to make of it, how we were going to respond. Whether we were just going to sit back and let it look like it was Keith’s misadventure that meant the band had finished, or whether we were going to consciously say “All right – this is the end.” And we felt that in a sense it had given us the opportunity to try some experimenting, which we tried and it turned out it was no experiment at all – we were just doing the same old thing. Roger resisted change and felt that everything that was good about The Who was what we’d built up over the years, and I took the opposite stance. I said “No, what was good about The Who was that in the early days they were dangerous and risky – and we’ve got to take those risks.”
-He had the show business attitude, didn’t he? Carrying on releasing stuff but always falling back on the hits.
We both agreed a lot more than is commonly known. But like politicians, one of us had to be on one side of the line and one on the other. I would take the side where I was all for risk and danger and creative experiments, and he would be the traditionalist, the showbiz pro. But in actual fact Roger has taken tremendous risks in his own career, doing acting and producing films, and is currently very interested in appearing in small musicals. He’s very capable of taking risks.
-When Keith died you said “Great, we can do things” – but it didn’t happen, you didn’t experiment.
Well, to a great extent we did experiment – a lot more than people knew. It didn’t work because we realised it wasn’t what people wanted from us. What people wanted was for The Who to be like Status Quo – they wanted us not to change.
-You reckon? Because right back in the sixties when you did Tommy, no band could have made more of a change than that.
Oh, for Christ’s sake! Tommy is still something which more people sneer at than anything else we’ve ever done. It’s been said that it was pretentious, that it was creatively immoral, that it was an abandonment of all the finer principles of rock ‘n’ roll…
-Surely enough people bought it to justify that it was a success?
It established us with a much wider, much more conservative audience. The kind of people who came to see The Who because of Tommy were much more of a Woodstock / White City[sic]-festival type of generation. And they to this day are steeped with nostalgia. Whereas the people who are nostalgic for the early sixties aren’t nostalgic for The Beatles, The Who, The Stones, The Kinks and The Yardbirds – they’re nostalgic for what happened then and for the fact that that was a period of discovery. Well, that’s a much more healthy thing, isn’t it?
-Do you still think Tommy was a brave move?
I think it was dangerous and quite pretentious, and there were parts of it that were daft and tongue-in-cheek. But I’m not turning ‘round now and saying it was meant to be a joke. There’s always been parts of my work that have meant to be jokes – ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’ was a complete joke; ‘Pictures of Lily’ was a complete joke – but behind those jokes were very serious subjects. Now we’ve got young girls’ magazines like Just 17 and 21 that do talk about subjects like masturbation. In those days it wasn’t a word you could actually print in a newspaper, and I just thought it was funny to have a record at number 4 that was about wanking off. When Tommy came along, I wrote it very much with a strain of seriousness – not artistic pretentiousness. What I did feel was that there were a lot of deaf, dumb and blind people walking around, and that they needed waking up.
-When it was on TV at Christmas, ‘Tommy’ looked really dated.
Don’t you think it looked that way at the time, though? What I thought was good about it is that the couple of times it’s been on the TV it’s got funnier. Seeing Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson and Elton John – even, to some extent, Roger with his Woodstock poses. It’s nice and light and it’s funny. You can take it as an amusing piece of kitsch. It’s bad taste and it’s Ken Russell at his most gauche – but underneath the whole thing is this story of the way the British brutalise and stereotype their children. Everybody talks about female stereotypes – we’ve just started to attend to the fact that the worst thing that’s happened in this country isn’t female stereotyping, it’s male stereotyping. Men who are incapable or unwilling to show their softer side, who are afraid to say that they’re weak, who are afraid to cry in public, who are afraid to say they’re afraid, to say that they want to show their children love, that they don’t want to fight, that they’re afraid of dying. Those stereotypes, which date back to Victorian imperialist Britain, to the days when we were each expected to just do our duty, to go and die in some trench somewhere, leaving behind our mothers and our lovers and our children – that’s still deeply entrenched in the British mentality. And my feeling is that that’s entrenched at a very very early age. I think a lot of the symptoms of what’s wrong with British society are rooted in the way we bring up our children. My oldest daughter is 16 and I often think “What have I given her? What have I lumbered her with that’s going to cause her problems?”
-I would say with the image of the male stereotype you’ve done a lot in your time to break that down.
One of the great things to do is laugh at it – physically, by just enjoying yourself and overcoming it, and being happy, which is one important part of rock music. And the other side is to admit it and face up to it. Both are part of the same picture but they’re both very different. I think somebody like Morrissey from The Smiths is going up on the stage and he’s the tortured child, like “Look at me – I’m the product of this generation, and aren’t I screwed-up and weird?” Your first impression might be “What an idiot!” or “What a wimp!”, and then you realise he’s holding this quite remarkable band together. I think the guitar player in The Smiths is one of the best in Britain.
-Certainly Morrissey within his lyrics is doing more to show those stereotypes and break them down than anyone else around.
My problem in the early days was that I was writing for a very macho voice. It’s the way Roger used to be. What’s interesting is that, twenty years later, Roger is one of the most gentle men walking the face of the earth. And I do find it very difficult to reconcile with the image I had of him then.
-The band as a whole had such a macho image, though – smashing up instruments, the real hardened mod image, causing chaos everywhere.
We weren’t as macho or tough as, say, The Jam were. We were much weaker: our shows would often break down in fits of petulance, we would often have public arguments. Our weaknesses were always seen as one of our strengths. Okay, we looked a macho outfit, we rapidly learnt that that was how we felt we should look, but that wasn’t how we were. So a lot of the guys who came to see us – because our audience was predominantly male, about 80% – used to come because they felt the same sort of feelings towards us as perhaps football fans feel towards George Best: an element of real interest and admiration, but also an element of pity and identification with the childlike side.
-You’ve hit on something there I don’t think most musicians would admit – a comparison between their crowds and football crowds.
There are parallels, but what there isn’t in audiences is true competition. Often the competition happens far more in conversations, let’s say between Jam fans and Clash fans. They gather in a pub and argue one way and the other. Everybody in the rock business likes to think that, above everything else, we all share the belief that music has some kind of palliative effect. It doesn’t matter what we use it for – the fact is that it’s a healing thing and it is uplifting. That’s universal, it’s always been a quality of music. It’s so easy in this world of people talking about music that carries messages that we forget that behind the lyrics is music. You see, Dylan came along and he changed the purpose of the song. He showed that white men could sing the blues in their own way; could string long, complicated sentences together; could precisely say anything that annoyed them – whether it was about the militaristic tendencies of Western imperialism… whatever it was, you could sing about it. You could still sing about riding around in a mini-van if you wanted to, but Dylan showed that the song was capable of so much more. Nobody before him really did that. Everything was brought together around 1967 when Dylan had his first hit with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ which, to me, was the most important song ever. Suddenly it’s “Why is this record four minutes long?” – It’s because what he’s saying is so important.
-You’ve always talked about the power of music and what it can do to people, but there’s a lot of people in the mid-eighties questioning how relevant that is: “Rock music is just a background noise.” Almost saying that the whole idea of thinking of music as something important has failed.
There’s a debate there with two sides. One is that people are saying “Listen, the likes of idealists like Townshend and all these other prats from the sixties saying that rock music is capable of changing the world, what has it actually done? Look at his life: he’s made a lot of money, gone through a terrible marriage break-up, a personal breakdown, drug abuse… what kind of document for success is he? He’s just like the rest. And in the end, what have we got to show for it? – Wham!” And on the other hand you’ve got people who still believe in something which is carried in the frustrations and anger and desperation of young people – specifically young people, under 25 – to express itself. I think that if you listen to something like Frankie Goes to Hollywood – particularly ‘Two Tribes’ – what you’re hearing in that music is the most unbelievably cleverly and most sophisticatedly organised… Trevor Horn, as we all know, is a brilliant producer, but he’s also a modern-day composer. There’s all this energy and force brought together and that music is unbelievably uplifting. I think when you put ‘Two Tribes’ on, the sound that comes out of the speakers is like listening to the crescendo of Mahler’s Eighth. It’s devastating. The words of the song, though, have now been said a thousand fucking times.
-The whole thing about Frankie is that they aren’t bothered about war or anything. The idea of causing a big fuss to get their name in the paper is great, but I’d say Frankie are a very dodgy example to use…
No, I don’t think they are. I chose them very carefully. What I’m saying is that it is evidently true: they’re mostly interested in success and they’ll use, as you say, whatever medium is necessary. But what is interesting is, despite that, their music is still uplifting. And that music is well-written and well-produced and has got the right elements, still stirs the blood in some way. I think we all carry around these music genes and they respond first. All right, two years later we can say “Oh God, I wish I hadn’t gone out and bought ‘Two Tribes’, because Frankie are such a load of wallies,” but it’s too late now – we all have gone out and bought the fucking record. And we all probably enjoyed it the first couple of times we played it, before we perhaps realised we were being duped.
-I’m not alone in wanting to know why you chose to address the Young Tories conference about heroin. A lot of people felt you were declaring to be on their side.
Well, they are in power and they had the platform. I wasn’t invited by the Young Socialists until afterwards. Obviously, most of my connections are socialist – I’m having dinner with Michael Foot on Sunday, I talk to Ken Livingstone on the phone. But I felt the drug issue was being squandered by the press in the most dramatic way, that what was needed was somebody to stand up and talk to the press at large about how parents might be able to recognise and help their kids, and also not to feel ashamed of the fact that their child might be a heroin addict. Because there’s still a lot of problems now with somebody who doesn’t understand drugs. Okay, so now they know to look for dilated pupils, runny noses and the tin of small change going missing. Fine. How do they respond when one of their neighbours goes “So-and-so’s son is a junkie”? – they still hang their heads in shame. They shouldn’t do, because it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It can happen to anybody and the circumstances in society are so rife that any kid can become Christianne F.
When I was invited they said “It’s a fringe meeting and if you come and talk we reckon there’ll be about 200 press people there.” Now, I happened to know that the room I would be talking in only holds 150, so I thought “If 200 press people show up, there ain’t gonna be any Young Tories there.” There were four. Four Young Tories. The rest of it was press.
-But you still appeared under the banner of the Young Tories and there was nothing that appeared in the press that showed you had anything against them. Do you see that?
I do, but I don’t particularly care, because I’m not a political animal. I’ve always resisted the pressure of my friends on the left to become active in socialist politics. I don’t think it’s right for me to do so.
-Is that just a personal thing?
Yeah, it’s my business. It’s my business what I vote and it’s my business who I have dinner with. But I felt it was a pretty crafty move. Along comes a socialist who actually stands up and paints all of the policies that the Tory party had at the time as black as they could be painted…. It makes no difference to me whether people think I’m a wally or not. I don’t care – because I know I’m not a wally. I don’t really feel I have to make any defence. I also don’t think in a sense that it matters if anybody is needled by thinking “Oh God, what a stupid thing to have done – to have gone and talked to the Tories,” because the whole thing made people think about the real problems. Their answer that day was to bring out incredibly swingeing sentences for pushers. Well, we all know what that’s gonna do – it’s just gonna put a lot of addicts inside.
I think that anybody who hasn’t now realised that it was the right platform to use is too cynical and isn’t really looking deeply enough into it. There’s no point even addressing oneself to that kind of individual. When I did the Brockwell Park ‘Rock for Jobs’ thing, there were all these Socialist Workers Party representatives walking around giving people pamphlets for the Revolution. It reminded me of 1967 when I had the John Sinclairs and Abby Hoffmans and Mick Farrens all telling me that what The Who should be doing is giving their money to Tariq Ali to buy guns with. I mean, I’m not that part of the Left and I’m not that part of the Right. I just see myself as someone who happens to have been brought up very much in the middle. If you’re a public figure you have to use whatever platform you’re given. I don’t refuse to appear at the Royal Albert Hall on the basis that half the boxes are owned by very very rich families – I play there because it’s a stage. Plus, I don’t refuse to give concerts for the Prince Charles Trust because I’m against the principle of royalty. I am against the principle of royalty, but I also think you have to make the best of a bad job. We’re in a transition period, and he happens to be a really good bloke. He cares – and he’s lumbered with being Prince Charles just as much as you’re lumbered with being who you are.
-It’s interesting you say that, because there is this idea that Prince Charles doesn’t like having to do a lot of what he’s expected to.
Well, first-hand I’m not anything like close enough to the man to know, but instinctively my feeling is not that there’s anything about the way he lives that he would want to be able to change tomorrow… but what amazed me is that when we did the judging of the bands at Tottenham Court Road, of which there were six – mainly reggae – outfits… he had not only heard the tapes but he’d seen them all play. He said “Well, my favourite is so-and-so” and I thought “This is incredible. Here we have a guy who is going to be king sooner or later, and he’s obviously spent a good bit of his time listening to reggae bands.” I just felt good about that. If somebody’s going to be lumbered with being king of this piss-pot country, then I’d much prefer it to be a man like that, rather than, say, Norman Fowler [then-Secretary of State for Social Services under Margaret Thatcher].
-You seem to be saying that if we can have gradual change, then it’s the best of a bad job.
‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ is a song about the futility of revolution. I’ve never been a revolutionary. I don’t believe in bloodshed. Not for any cause. I’m an ardent supporter of the raising of black consciousness in South Africa, but what I’m not an ardent supporter of is supplying the militants over there with the machinery by which they can create an enormous bloodbath. Because I think that hangs on your consciousness. What the Americans did in Vietnam and what we did in Korea – it lasts forever. People get used to bloodshed. They get used to blood and they can’t live without it. So politically, I’ve always felt that rock music – and this is where I begin to sound again like my old, idealistic self – is the healthiest kind of revolution, because it’s the revolution of self-abandon and of aspiration and transcendence. Young people have to be able to feel optimism – that they have power – that they don’t need older people. The truth of the matter is that they don’t. You don’t need the help of the older people – you don’t need their rules, their regulations, their fucking hang-ups.
More Pete Townshend at EelPie.com, PeteTownshend.co.uk, TheWhotour.com
Mark Wilkerson’s biography of Pete Townshend available here
The iJamming! Keith Moon pages start here
The iJamming! Jamming Magazine Archive pages start here.
Part 2 of this interview follows here