One of the first big interviews I did was with Pete Townshend of The Who. The piece appeared in the NME of 12 June, 1982.
Where the River Thames leaves the London grime behind, and winds inside a leafier landscape – just along from Eel Pie Island – that’s where you find the Meher Baba Centre. And you approach it along suburban streets so posh, you feel like a suspect-burglar just for walking down them.
Inside the Centre sits the man who built it: late 30s, looking fit and well, pale blue eyes, a manner that’s friendly, if often intense. Pete Townshend is guitarist and songwriter of The Who, and his history needs no reiteration here. But whether you like The Who or not, or used to or still do or never did, Pete Townshend is always worth listening to.
Pete takes interviews seriously, and conscientiously; he approaches them with the same professional candour and rigorous thought that he’s put into his best songs (of which there are very, very many). But then, he’d argue that that’s no more than the music deserves. At a time like now, when the commonest stance in modern pop amounts to a coy giggle, or a hopeless admission of futility, Townshend’s faith in the music’s potential, and its importance, is as valuable as it’s unfashionable.
In a startling, but typically personal article which he wrote for NME in 1977, he offered this definition of rock . . .
“If it screams for truth rather than help, if it commits itself with a courage it can’t be sure it really has, if it stands up and admits that something is wrong but doesn’t insist on blood, then it’s rock and roll.”
That definition can’t be all-embracing, obviously: few could live up to its almost impossibly high standards. But for year after year, Townshend has tried, and a damned sight harder than most. Not the least result of this is that he’s sometimes made a complete dick of himself – the times when the pressure got too much, perhaps. But through it all he’s carried an enormous measure of affection and respect.
I believe that he still merits it, and I hope that this interview will suggest the same to you.
I’ve cut the dialogue slightly, trying to maintain the clarity. The pauses in the answers represent Pete’s attempts to get to grips with his other preoccupation of the session: a gigantic bacon sarny.
What have you done since the last Who album, ‘Face Dances’ (March 1981)?
A lot of strange things. I started thinking practically immediately about a solo album, because I was really frustrated with The Who album. It didn’t seem to do anything or go anywhere, and I couldn’t quite work out why… So my first reaction was just to run like shit from The Who because they were confusing me more than ever. And I started producing material for my own record, and I went to New York and Paris and a few other places, just to change my environment. I was going to form a band.
But of course the first thing I did was to tour with The Who in Britain, which I enjoyed a lot. But towards the end of it, my mind started to turn inside out in a way, and I had almost decided to blow the London gigs. There was so much animosity around the band: a lot of us are still at odds about what we want to do. And I don’t think what I want to do as a musician or as a performer has really got anything to do with The Who at all.
Anyway, after that, I did cancel a European tour. I just said to everyone I wasn’t ready to do it. I didn’t really know what was going on in me head, but I could see trouble coming. And I started to work on my own record.
At that particular time, as from early last year, I was getting used to living away from my family, which hadn’t happened to me – I’ve been married for 14 years – so that was the first year it’d ever happened, I was actually living apart from them. It was a mistake, which both my wife and I realise now, but it was something we were trying out. But it didn’t protect the kids from my lunacy which I was going through, and it didn’t help my old lady, and it didn’t help me.
But I did have a fantastic amount of free time. I saw probably more bands last year than I’ll ever see in my life. I think I saw about a hundred bands. And I did some travelling, on my own. And I got to grips with a book of short stories which I’d been planning for about a year, and that’s about two-thirds done.
And also, towards the end of last year, the band did start to crawl from the darkness, y’know – what are we gonna do next?
A weakness of ‘Face Dances’, I thought, was that your writing seemed to get increasingly personal to you, meanwhile you were still using Roger Daltrey as vehicle for your songs. The result was a lack of conviction.
Right. It was very short-sighted of me. It was really with the best of intentions, because I wanted the band to have material that was equally as varied as I would get on a solo album. ‘Empty Glass’ wasn’t particularly avant-garde, but it was interesting to me because I was able to do the kind of variety of material that The Who used to do, y’know? On our first two albums we did stuff that ranged from comedy songs through tender love ballads to just general insanity.
And it’s not that I want to get back to quite those extremes, but it is nice not to be bound by limitations. Having enjoyed it as a solo performer I thought well fuck it, why can’t the band do it? And the band can’t do it because they’re so wrapped up in their own traditions.
And I think the writing I’m doing now for the band has come out much more successfully. I sat round with everybody and I asked them: What do you want to fucking sing about? Tell me, and I’ll write the songs. It’s a piece of piss! I’ve been writing songs for 20 years. D’you wanna sing about race riots? D’you wanna sing about the nuclear bomb? D’you wanna sing about soya bean diets? Tell me!
And everyone kinda went ‘Uhhh’. So I said, shall I tell you what I think we should be singing about? So I told ’em. And it actually turned into a debate, in a sense, as to what we really felt we should be doing, as to what our responsibilities were vis-a-vis our position – and this is probably more important over America than it is here, cos in America they’re still asleep, know what I mean? But most of all, what was it that each one of us shared, our common ground?
Well, after establishing, quite quickly, that there was very little common ground, we did find that we all cared very deeply about the planet, the people on it, the threat to our children from nuclear war, of the increasing instability of our own country’s politics. There’s the fact that we’ve actually infiltrated the establishment, in a way that younger bands haven’t been able to do. It’s taken us a long time to do, but now we can see that even the establishment is impotent, it’s not just us, and we’re really in a danger zone, and not to cry PANIC, PANIC! But it was something we needed to express. Consequently a lot of material we’re doing at the moment is quite anguished.
You’ve called your new solo LP ‘Chinese Eyes’. Why is that?
I was struck by a feeling last year that, particularly viewed from California, that stardom as they saw it, establishment stardom, and drugs and decadence, AND the world’s power structure, all somehow had this thread going trough them. And what it was was people’s need to externalise – er, this gonna sound like Pseud’s Corner – to externalise evil, and even power.
In other words, to say, there’s fuck-all I can do about it, it’s them. It’s the Chinese, fuck-all I can do. It’s the Japs, or it’s Ronald Reagan, or it’s Margaret Thatcher. Nothing we can do. It’s the police, they’re fascists. And, in a sense, people’s need for people like me – either to build up or to crucify, or Strummer or Weller or anybody else who’s gone through a similar degree of external examination, and self-examination.
The need for that is, I think, the fundamental weakness we’re suffering from at the moment, in that we’ve become so media-ised, so used to externalising everything, that we don’t take responsibility for fucking anything. And that’s really what the title’s about: the heroes and villains all look the same, they’re all ‘over there’, they’ve all got slit eyes. I’ve tried to explain it in the story on the cover, but it’s very hard. I didn’t want to explain it and make it all too pat, cos I see it on a thousand different levels.
And you dedicate it to “teenagers in love”.
Yeah, that was a last minute thing. Well, it’s also dedicated to Meg Patterson, cos she got me off junk. And then to my wife and myself, who are behaving like teenagers at the moment. I didn’t think I could dedicate the album to The Sex Pistols again. (Laughs)
One musician you’ve used is Ravishing Beauty Virginia Astley.
Well, I didn’t have to look very far for her, cos she’s my sister-in-law… I know it was very fashionable last year – and I don’t mean this to demean all the genuine female talent – but there was a fashion for rowing a woman in, row in a couple of birds. Do I dare say this, The Human League, they did it, didn’t they? It looked like a row-in to me – a very delightful one, which might develop into something substantial.
Anyway at that particular time I decided that I wanted a band of women. And that was basically because I was fed up with men. I really was. I was fed up with male sensibilities. I was fed up with fighting for everything I wanted, sometimes physically fighting. I was fed up with the macho music press… And I was under the misapprehension that maybe if I surrounded myself with female players that a lot of that would recede. I think perhaps now that I was just hoping that I’d be able to get what I wanted more quickly.
I was keen not to end up with a heavyweight record, to get away from people’s preconceptions. So it started off very experimental. When I took the first tracks to New York and played them to the record company – you would have paid money to have seen their faces! I mean, they were just watching millions of dollars disappearing in front of them. Cos my last album sold incredibly well in America. I was determined not to be caught up in the commercial machine. I thought, fuck it, do what I wanna do. And in the end I realised that what I really wanted to do was sell records! (Laughs)
Cos there’s little point in sitting and writing material, and getting obsessed with whatever you choose to get obsessed with, and then have nobody to listen. And it’s quite devastating, actually, how many records you need to sell to get a small amount of feedback, when you’re in my position. I used to get more feedback when The Who were selling maybe 10,000 copies of a single, than I do today when they sell about two or three million. I still get about the same amount of mail, no more no less.
And it’s weird, it’s that thing I was saying about you becoming more remote. I feel I’ve been externalised to a great extent, and I’ve fought against that more than anybody else in this business. I’ve led a personal vendetta against it. I still get externalised.
I think it’s a weakness in me, this need to get reacted to. It’s not an inability to deal with ‘stardom’ because that’s a completely empty quality. I think you only have to look at Steve Strange to realise that: there’s a definite charisma there when he’s layered with make-up, but still you can go up and touch him, or if you like you can knock his front teeth out. He makes himself that approachable.
When it comes down to it, the feedback I need most is letters. That’s why I try to reply: so people know they can get through if they want. I hate that thing of being externalised…
One new song, ‘Uniforms’, sounds a bit like ‘Quadrophenia’ revisited, but making your disillusionment with the male gang, youth cult ethos much more explicit.
I really like that song. I wanted to put it out as a single, in time for the Falklands crisis. I think if I see Margaret Thatcher on the TV again, talking about “our wonderful boys”, with her smarmy voice, I am actually gonna be physically sick . . . But the song doesn’t actually criticise anybody that wants to wear a uniform, it just observes it.
I’ve always been fascinated by people’s needs for that, and my need for it, and the way it’s inherently wrapped up in rock music culture. Cos even in America – they think we’re very cute with our weekly changes of haircut – their uniform has been identical for the last 15 years. What they think you have to wear to a rock concert, I think it’s hilarious. It’s that uniform you’d wear to ride around in a pick-up truck, and shout. That’s the way you spend your weekend in California, you get a bottle of beer and you drive past going, Yeurgghh-uh-uh! Jesus Christ, what a way to spend your childhood.
Also the reference to coke, which I think is not so much a drug problem as a problem of uniform. It’s something people do because they think they should do it.
I mean, you must have had coke. No? Well I’ll tell you, the amazing thing about it is that nothing happens! Nothing. All that happens is that if you snort enough of it, at the end of the night you feel fucking awful. And you watch these people putting thousands of pounds’ worth up their nose, which really does very little. You’d get a bigger kick OD’ing on aspirin.
That’s why heroin is such a problem in London, cos somebody says, Listen, for the same price you’re paying for that white powder, try this, and you go, Fucking hell! This works! This is a real drug.
The compartmentalising – of people’s clothes, of the way they look, into cults, and ideologies, into actual frames of consciousness and social sensibility – is what I find amazing. I know it’s often said that just because somebody dresses like a skinhead, doesn’t mean they’re gonna kick you soon as they get a chance. But it does start to affect the way they think. A lot of Oi-boys start off fairly innocuously, just interested in the look, and they end up believing that they hate all Pakistanis.
And in the same way, thinking back to the days of mods and rockers, mods really thought that they hated rockers. And this is the problem. And I still find it fascinating, in a dark way: why it is people do it; why the individual is not more important. And is America different? Of course over there they’ve got this thing about the individual, haven’t they?
Speaking of America, that must be an easier market for an establishment rock band like The Who.
Oh yeah, a piece of piss! I mean, look at Asia [the group], they’ve just walked over there with all that pre-fabricated stuff, produced a load of records to the usual format, and they’re gonna be number one.
When I met Ray Davies, I thought he was frustrated in that England was his home, but its kaleidoscopic scene was hard for him to fit back into, whereas it’s so easy to go to America and churn out ‘Lola’ and they’ll love it.
Yeah, you have to approach it very academically to keep on top of it. You must know this as a journalist, it’s almost impossible to listen to everything there is, and give it all the attention it deserves.
I mean, God forbid being a disc jockey these days. What must be going on through their heads? You can listen to Radio One, and people like Peter Powell, he’s in a state of shock – permanently. I mean, the guy’s a wimp anyway, he doesn’t know what he likes. He’s lost, he’s got no clue.
But Ray doesn’t need to change, because there’s nothing he has done that isn’t 100 per cent perfect in my eyes. And if he changed it, I’d personally go and knock on his door and try and persuade him to do otherwise.
A lot of the experimental outfits around today wouldn’t be able to exist were it not for the fact that there is a hard central core of established, principled, traditional, experienced rock, in the centre, to buffet against. In order to enjoy the delight of experimentation, you need something solid in the middle – even if the thing in the middle suffers occasionally from the feeling that it’s a bit staid. It’s not the fun position to be in. It’s much more fun to be the rebel.
But if Ray Davies disappeared overnight, and if The Who disappeared, and the Stones or any of the other establishment bands – even back down the line, through to Madness, and Jam and Clash, who are establishment bands – it would render a lot of what was going on at the periphery kinda futile. They need it there.
Nowhere in the world, so far as I can see, has got a music situation as healthy as ours is here. And like I said, I really like being, as it were, in the middle of it. It’s not much fun, but, I mean, if I wanted a part of the glory I could produce a few bands, couldn’t l? Do what Martin Rushent did. I don’t know if I’d prefer to be actively involved with a band that was making a mark with something new these days, or just looking. I get as much pleasure looking as anything else.
What have you seen which inspires you especially?
Anything that breaks down the traditional rules and regulations that exist between words and music … To me, when somebody like The Fun Boy Three or Bow Wow Wow just completely destroys the established principles of songwriting, and still get success, and still make good records, I find that very exciting. Cos I think, Ah, the form itself has been tampered with, has been allowed to grow and evolve.
The standard now is so much better because people have access to small studios quicker, to more sophisticated equipment. They’ve got a greater amount of material to study, in an academic sense, to decide what they wanna do, what they want to explore.
When I started in the rock business, my grounding in music was probably trad iazz rather than rock’n’roll. A little bit of classical music thrown in on the side, listening to my dad’s dance orchestra. And then, suddenly, the “miracle” of rock’n’roll – in the shape of Bill Haley, and Cliff, and Elvis Presley, who I still don’t understand. And that was all.
And I don’t call that much of an education. Yet rock’n’roll still got into my blood as a new form. I don’t think it was until I heard Chuck Berry that I realised what you could do with words – and how unimportant the music was, cos Chuck Berry always used the same song!
But I think now it’s evolved to an extent where people can look a long way back. Also the edges of rock have blurred to such an extent that the word “rock” is inadequate to describe the form. You have to start talking about contemporary music.
I think it’s a drag that the record companies aren’t equipped to deal with it all, cos I don’t think small labels are the answer. Small labels are very exciting – I think that bands like UB40 and The Beat have proved that an artist-controlled label can be good. But it must be a fantastic pressure on them, to do that, and do all the gigs and everything else.
I mean, I run as many businesses as I choose, but if any of them get in the way of my work I shut them down. Whereas if you shut down your record label, you’ve shut down your own outlet. And I do think other people should be doing that work. The bloody irony of it is, you start your own fucking label off, and the big companies distribute it, they get the lion’s share any way.
I think rock’n’roll is art! I wanna be patronised, for the fucking shit I have to go through. I want me million dollars in front, mate! I’m quite serious. I’m not gonna commit to go out and go through all the shit you have to go through – all the actual parading yourself in front of everybody, describing in explicit detail all your hang-ups, the inadequate length of your cock, and your predilection for custard enemas and God knows what else – and not get paid in advance for it!
Haven’t you sensed a retreat from taking rock that seriously? A trend to cute, escapist pop which doesn’t dare show pretensions to being more than cute escapist pop.
That always happens, doesn’t it, when you see really good bands – like Echo, Teardrop, Mirrors, who from the Liverpool clique looked to me like they were gonna start a mini-revolution, and to see the Mirrors go down was, for me, acutely painful, cos I thought they were glorious, and they just went down through record company apathy. And I think what follows then is, it’s natural that a few intelligent people like Nick Heyward (Haircut 100) will sort of say, Hang on, if you get too serious in this business they chew you up and spit you out.
But is that to say that Nick Heyward is quite as empty as he seems? He can’t be. I’m not saying that he wants to change the world, maybe he doesn’t. But you don’t fucking get up on stage just to have a good time. I know that it’s too painful and too complex an experience to do twice, just for fun. People don’t do it for fun. And if they tell you they’re doing it for fun they’re fucking lying. Cos it’s not fun.
I mean, how can Nick Heyward possibly, for example, think that the day – and it’ll inevitably happen, it happened to The Bay City Rollers and other people working in that tradition – I wouldn’t compare Haircut 100 to them, but their audiences are similar. My daughter’s a fanatical Haircut 100 fan, she’s only 13, she knows everything about them. But, y’know, someone’s gonna get crushed in the front row, cave their ribs in. They’re gonna bring the little girl back and say, The only thing she wants before she’s taken to hospital to have her stomach stitched up is she wants the band to say hello to her. The number of times I’ve heard of that exact incident happen to people.
In other words, there’s the shit you’ve created, you can’t pretend it’s not happening: My daughter so-and-so was at your concert at the Hammersmith Odeon and she was unfortunately crushed and blah blah blah. The thing she would like most in all the world is an autographed picture from you boys which would help her to a speedy recovery. That’s just one example.
Obviously the other end of the wedge is Cincinnati, where people died at the concert.
I don’t think rock is purely fun. That’s too simplistic. I suppose everyone breathes a sigh of relief when you get a period like now. But I suppose I’m waiting to see what happens to a band like Haircut 100, with as much interest as I was waiting to see what would happen to Madness.
I mean, Madness have proved me right: they’re about as funny as a fucking funeral these days. “Welcome to the House of Fun”: it’s all ‘fun’ on the outside, but behind it all they’re deadly serious. It’s quite scary in a way.
But you know what it’s like if you work on a music paper, and you get involved in too much heavy stuff for too long and too much futility and too much frustration, it just gets boring. And in the end you welcome somebody like Haircut 100 with open arms, you think – Thank God!
Is it a burden, carrying around descriptions like “Britain’s longest-serving honest man of rock”? (NME headline from 1980.)
I think this “honest” thing really comes from something else: it comes from an openness rather than honesty. I don’t think I’m particularly honest. But there’s nothing about me that I want to keep secret. I don’t think it would help to keep it secret.
I am still very confused about what I should be doing, even in terms of The Who’s career. We’ve sat round and we’ve decided that we don’t want to go on for ever – even seeing an end to the band’s career in 18 months, at least in live performing. We haven’t absolutely decided yet, but we are discussing it.
I think the area of honesty that is important about the band – and about life in general – is that if you’re gonna sit and do an interview like this, which is going to appear in what I take to be not just a music paper but a good newspaper as well, you’ve gotta think pretty clearly about what it is you want to portray, and what it is about you that people are gonna judge.
I don’t wanna do an interview, or go onstage, and hold a load back, hold all the nasty bits back, hold the fact that I get pissed out of my brain, so that when people say they like The Who what they’re really saying is they like the ‘nice’ bits of The Who. If anybody likes me I want it to be because they like me. And if anybody hates me I don’t want to think, Oh they hate me, but if only they knew a bit more about me they’d think I was wonderful, if they knew how much I gave to charity. I wanna be judged for what I am, and that’s why I’m as open as I can possibly be.
Mightn’t you go too far? I thought on the ‘Face Dances’ album, for example, you were almost making a career out of your vulnerability, trading on your lapses. “Falling over gets you accepted”, as the saying goes. It’s like the drunk who collars you in a pub, unloading his problems on to you.
Yeah, I think, more generally, this is the problem of the drunken writer, isn’t it? It’s James Joyce, it’s Scott Fitzgerald, it’s all those drunken arseholes. Whether or not I’m fully recovered from a period of drunken writing I don’t know. But I’ve read lots of books about alcoholism in writers, and I have actually accepted the fact that I am an alcoholic. And I suppose now I’m waiting in fear to find out if what I write is any good.
Because, and here’s one place I can afford to be honest, my favourite subject is me. If other people find it boring then that’s their hard luck, because (laughs) I’m determined to keep shoving ‘me’ down their fucking throats!
It depends what you’re good at, doesn’t it? I mean, I don’t interpose ‘me’ between the listener and something that I want to get across. And I don’t really talk about my problems because I think people are interested in my problems. I talk about them because they might be archetypal, because they may be general, because they might be things that people can identify with, and that my thinking processes might actually allow people to get a look at themselves…
As a postscript to what I was saying about… “bubblegum” music, I suppose, music for pleasure – I’ve got interest in it. And I’ve got no interest in doing it. I’ve got no interest in hiding what I am. If I want to be a private person, and keep all my problems to myself, or to my family and close friends, then really I’ve got no place as a writer. I should just go into business or something. But it’s my ability to get some of those feelings down on to paper, and on to record, and to live with the responsibility of admitting that you’re vulnerable – that makes it important.
On the positive side, there’s your involvement with the teachings of Meher Baba, which goes back many years now, way beyond the usual faddish enthusiasm for some exotic cult…
Nah, I’ve ’ad enough of it now. ’E was a charlatan! ’E took me for every penny I ’ad! (laughs)
Where do you think you would be today without Meher Baba?
I don’t know if anything would necessarily have changed. I can’t say I’m a better person because of him, or otherwise. But the very real feeling of God’s presence is what’s enabled me to retain a very real sense of humility. It’s not a pose that I’ve adopted and have difficulty keeping up. If I wanna behave like a flash bastard, that’s when I’m posing.
I actually do feel that I belong to this planet. I do feel that the people I come into contact with are brothers and sisters. I do feel a sense of kinship with people all over the world. And I think that must come from a universal view of creation.
There was a great line in The Third Man, one of the Orson Welles films, where the guy’s looking down from the whirley-gig, looking at the human beings and seeing them as ants. If you suddenly feel yourself to be an ant…
Y’see, most people believe that what happens if you become involved in some spiritual pursuit is that you ‘rise above’ everything, that you look down. But that’s not what happens! And when I hear people who talk about, Oh, I’ve discovered EST, man! Or – I’m into so-and-so! … Aah, fuck it. Just go away. Take your meditation and ram it up your arse.
It’s the reverse that counts. It’s feeling yourself to be actually a speck of dust. And that starts off by firstly accepting that God exists, so you can get yourself in some kind of perspective. And then accepting that some other man has the power to allow you to feel that… the principle of the Guru, or the Messiah. And once you’ve done that… You’re ready.
It’s one of the enigmas that we have to face up to: that sure, whatever you or I or anyone else in the British music business says about the state of the world, it’s not gonna make that much difference. For fuck’s sake, what difference would it make if we all asked for those all those ants in the Falklands who are being shot at to be brought home? Nobody would take any notice. But we do have a responsibility of some sort.
That’s why the bits of British music that excite me the most have always been the areas were people take on that responsibility and deal with it – Paul Weller, Joe Strummer. I still think they’re the best human beings. Whether or not they make the best music, whether or not they’ve got the best bands, it doesn’t bother me. I prefer to look at them as being the hub.
And I know it’s serious, and it’s overt. But to me, that’s important. I can’t escape from what I feel: that rock demanded a much greater degree of involvement from its audience than existed at the beginning. It tore it out of its public. It got them emotionally involved. You went through from your little 14-year-old love affair with The Beatles, you ended up with John Lennon telling you the world’s gotta change. And you can’t deny that John Lennon, to some extent, did change the world a little bit.
And it doesn’t matter how often somebody like Mick Jagger says, Oh, there is no such thing as the rock cultural revolution. It’s happened. The world has changed.
I’m not saying that it should be serious. But I think it should be taken seriously.