Pete interview in Metro International

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Wed Jun 6 05:58:55 CDT 2007 

L'interview de Pete Townshend en anglaisLe leader des Who, en concert à Paris, se confie... 

It’s hard to believe that the last album recorded by The Who was a quarter of a century ago. Did you have all or part of these songs “in stock” and decided to rework them?

I had the play script of The Boy Who Heard Music (TBWHM) in stock. I spoke to Roger about it a few times in 2004 and 2005, but he never showed very much interest. In any case I wasn’t sure it would make a good basis for a Who album. I had already written some lyrics and made some demos for the play as it stood in early 2005. I had the rough lyric for Fragments, and a 
demo for In The Ether. 

But Roger and I always felt that any album we did together should not be tied to any kind of concept – we both wanted each song to stand alone, and if any of the songs happened to come from a concept, that would be OK, but we would not press the issue of the concept. As this year (2006) opened up I realized that this song-by-song approach would not work for me. I had spent too long working inside TBWHM to let it go. Suddenly I hit on the idea of consolidating a part of the project into a smaller concept as part of the new album. Once I thought of doing a Mini-Opera, as we had on two of our early albums with A Quick One (1966) and Rael (1967), I moved ahead very quickly. I had so many thoughts I could gather, and so much collateral. This means Wire & Glass is dense, and if you want real context you must read TBWHM on my website. What is published there is really a work-in-progress rather than finished book. 

The rest of the songs were just floating around. Some of them I started in 2002, when John Entwistle was alive, and he always lots of songs ready. At that time Roger was promising to write songs as well, so I concentrated on trying to produce songs that were arch, dark and extreme – leaving the lighter stuff to John and Roger. This is how I came up with songs like Black Widow’s Eyes and In The Ether. 

It must be even more exciting to play live now that you have new material. Do you get tired of playing certain songs?

I enjoy playing the old classics. They work so well, they almost play themselves and the audience drives them along. The newer songs are good to have, good to play, but they are more demanding for all of us. If I tire of a song I will discuss that with Roger and we will try to address what to put in its place. It rarely happens. 

Have some of your old songs become less meaningful for you?

Of course. I wonder sometimes if I can remember why I wrote certain songs, or what they were supposed to mean for me. Because I record at home I have often knocked songs together quickly simply so I can enjoy some recording, or to try out a new gadget or technique. My song Drowned happened that way, and yet it is one of the most powerful songs I’ve written about spiritual longing, and the desire to submerge into the nothingness of the universe. 

Is it a final album, like some like to speculate?

No. Roger and I have found a way to work together now and we will not let it go. The problem for us is still that we two are not a proper band. Neither could we afford to be a proper band. Records don’t sell the way they used to, the only way we could create a band would be to accept a new cooperative (the way the Who used to operate). That would mean we would need to be very certain about who we invited into a new band. Already Zak – who we both adore – has said he prefers being a free spirit, and though he loves working with the Who, he is still young and needs to work more than Roger and I are capable. So he will probably work with Oasis again in 2007/2008. I have some ideas for a new record. We need to finish this tour first, it ends in Denmark in July 2007. We have postponed a trip to Japan and Australia until later. 

Are you transposing yourself in the character of Ray High?

In part. Ray High is also partly Roger Daltrey, Ray Davies, Lou Reed, that kind of performer-thinker. The aspect of myself I gave to Ray was my hopeful, youthful dreams. The decadence of his old age is not what has happened to me, luckily. In the last twenty four years I have used alcohol only for a few months in 1993 (in a short-lived experiment to see whether I could handle it: I couldn’t). I think it could be useful for any Who fan who is interested to listen to my solo album Psychoderelict. In that story I suppose I attempted to look into the future of rock ‘n’ roll and suggest what might happen when artists like me became too old to function normally in their jobs. What has not happened, that might have happened, is the internet producing a new kind of congregation that truly changes the way art functions in the world of pop music. At least it has not happened yet. The internet is not being allowed to operate in real time because advertisers prefer everything to be
 downloaded at any time so it can be free of the problems of Time-Zones around the world. In Psycho I imagined that by 2006 pop music would be entirely computer driven. I was wrong – there has been a reaction, and much music this year is hearty, organic and electro-acoustic. This is true even for the radical artists like Sigur Ros and Sufjan Stevens – their music might use the internet but it is not dependent on it. In Psycho I envisioned a world in which an artist like Ray High would be forced to use the internet, or he would die. Today he would die if he tried to depend on it and had no other outlet. 

Would you consider staging it (in a longer version) as a rock opera?

No. I hope the music (and additional music) will be used to make an animation film. 

And what about your writing projects?

My next writing project is to complete my memoirs. I want to be ready for 2010 when I am sixty-five. 

Do you listen to “regular” opera?

Yes. Especially Mozart, Phillip Glass, Benjamin Britten. 

Do you like bluegrass? I think The Who have a bluesy element. I mean, that’s where rock ‘n roll started from, isn’t it?

I like all good music. I love Alison Krauss’s band. Rock ‘n’ Roll started in a mix of blues and country music – somewhere between Hank Williams and Leadbelly. The British rock and pop of the ‘60s came from an even wider range of influences. Irish music, Swedish folk music, Jewish music, Flamenco, Dixieland Jazz, baroque music etc. 

Rock ‘n roll, or popular music in general, has been the voice of protest, of raising awareness. Do you believe that artists have a “duty” or even “responsibility” (strong words, but I can’t think of anything else!) to use their celebrity to raise awareness?

Artists have one job – to provide a resource for their audience. For the Who that has been mainly focused on giving our male fans an outlet for their frustrated anger at the mistakes of the past. We have sometimes appeared to protest, when in fact we were being reactionary – reserving our right to live in the way we personally thought was right. Won’t Get Fooled Again is a good example of that. 

Looking back on your career, are there things you would’ve done differently?

I would not have blamed rock ‘n’ roll for my personal fall in 1981. I brought it onto myself. I see that now. At the time I had to make space in my life, and I chose to end the Who as that was the biggest part of my life at the time. I don’t regret ending the Who in 1982, but I do regret the reason I ended it. I closed the door too tightly, and it has been hard for me to accept that although the Who were in creative trouble in 1981, we weren’t quite beaten. We might have survived. 

What do you think of the state of rock today? It’s become quite the big subject amongst us rock journalists. Do you think that bands in the 60s, 70s, even the 80s had some spark that modern-day groups lack?

I like a lot of new music. It is the word ‘bands’ that could be the source of your troubles – you journalists. To run a band you need an incredible amount of strength and focus, at the same time you must be prepared to live and let live. It is very costly to run a band. The best bands are often the ones with the most willful leader – like Razorlight. Many of my favourite artists today are solo artists – Martha Wainwright, Sean Lennon, Willy Mason, Joe Purdey, Alexi Murdoch, Ed Harcourt, Foy Vance. 

One thing all new artists must face is that it is hard to be innovative. So much has already been done. But there is an infinite landscape – everything is possible. 

Which current bands do you like?

Shack. Kooks. Fratellis. Razorlight. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Raconteurs. Flaming Lips. 

The music industry is very different from when you started out. There are a lot Kleenex bands (three-hit wonders who sell millions then disappear, only to show up two years later on some reality show) and there’s also technology, which you seem to have fully embraced. Has it changed your approach to making music and even appreciating it in a different manner?

There have always been one-hit-wonders. To last in this business you need a lot of talent. You also need to work very, very hard. Critics tend to see what they see, and don’t always understand what goes on behind the scenes. But even a one hit wonder can make money, like Thunderclap Newman for example with Something In The Air which I produced in 1969, this was sold to British Airways a while ago for an astonishing sum of money. And of course there were no costs, no tours, no drugs, no press, no reviews, no radio or TV – just a grand payment that benefited the writer and the band. From mid-air! Technology is moving too fast for artists at the moment. We get left behind, even when we are visionaries. As I predicted back in 1971 it is the ‘Barons’ who are getting rich: the controllers of the bandwidth and the software. They are grubs feeding on an artistic corpse. The artistic creative folks freely and unconditionally providing the content are like First World War
 infantry throwing themselves into the gunfire in wave after wave – each one hoping to be the exception, to live, to prosper, to be recognized. The Barons look on and laugh, and build their 200 metre motoryachts that clog up the beautiful ports of the Cote d’Azur. (Microsoft’s Paul Allen’s hooter got stuck on in Antibes last summer and the Mayor forced him to take his monster yacht out to sea, the sound was so loud it shook the ground). 

There’s also illegal downloading and the unwillingness of many, many fans to pay for a CD. Are you outraged that your music is “stolen” online?

I have always been bootlegged, and my music has always been given away ‘free’ or almost free on the radio and television. We view this as a form of promotion now. If people feel it is OK to walk through an artist’s life and take their work for free, then those artists will die. It’s that simple. We will soon be a world full of wealthy plumbers charging €5,000 an hour for our services. Artists and artisans will be like beggars. The public simply have to stop stealing our art, but no one can stop them stealing, they are an immoral, unthinking army. I am not outraged by them, because I am wealthy. This is the French Revolution all over again. This time it is every artist who suffers, not only the ‘aristocratic’ artist like me. 

Is there anything – it could be an artistic project or even something unexpected like baking cakes - that you would like to achieve?

I am learning French. I already speak a little German, but French is the language I wish I’d taken at school. Artistically I would like to find some way to use the Internet that creates a sense of real community, society, commonality and congregation through music. 

The greatest Who moment?

The release of Who’s Next in 1972 to great acclaim after what felt to me like a great struggle and failure to achieve what I set out to do with my Lifehouse idea. 

The moment in rock you would’ve liked to witness?

Bob Dylan playing in New York at the Tin Angel along with Dave Van Ronk in 1963. 

The ultimate rock icon/iconess?

The Red Hot Chillie Peppers warming up for their shows – they jump and down and run around like children, then go on and jump and down and run around some more. I love them. Steve Tyler supping Oxygen between songs is pretty cool as well. Keith Richards falling out of a tree? Me spearing my right hand with my whammy bar? 

Do you realize the impact you’ve had on music? You get old fans who come along with their kids to your shows. Is that amazing for you?

I had a lot of very interesting things happen to me. I was the son of a touring ‘pop’ musician who exposed me to great jazz and great songs from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I learned to serve the audience above all things. There was very little musical or artistic snobbery in my world. I saw Bill Haley play live when I was 11 years old. I got my first guitar at 12. I went to an amazing art college where they taught us about computers. I met the American photographer Tom Wright there who introduced me to marijuana and R&B in the same day. Then it turned out I could write songs because I had wanted to be a journalist when I was young, before I went to art school, and had worked hard to improve my use of language. My last lesson at Art college was that every artist needs a patron and a brief. My patron would be the band’s audience. My brief would be to speak for the inarticulate ones in that audience. Ealing where I grew up was not New York, it was not Liverpool, but it was the little
 suburban town where the Rolling Stones played their first shows in London. When I was still young I met Bert Jansch there too. I had quite a few breaks. So no I am not amazed. I feel that people recognize that I was in a first wave of those musicians who effected the first major change in the function of pop music (and thus all pop culture and subsequently all art) after the Second World War and the advent of Nuclear Weapons. The world needed to change, and the way we young people began that change was by inventing a new language. 

-Brian in Atlanta 
The Who This Month! 
My blog:

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