Pete interview on MSN

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Mon Nov 12 06:18:20 CST 2007 

Inside Music: Interviews / Pete Townshend Q&A 
By Sam Sutherland 
MSN Music 

Add the Who to the list of iconic rock figures being revisited through more ambitious documentaries, a welcome wave amplified by the commercial payoff of DVDs, which have transformed this once specialized niche into a new video and film staple. 

This month brings the debut for "Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who," a new two-hour film that chronicles the original quartet's pilgrimage from Shepherd's Bush, where they first built a Mod audience as the Detours, to international acclaim as one of rock's most ambitious and explosive bands of the '60s and '70s. That feature premiered Nov. 3 on VH1. 

On DVD, "Amazing Journey" will be coupled with a second disc, "Six Quick Ones," comprising individual short films featuring original members Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, plus a 2003 D.A. Pennebaker profile of a recording session, and "Who Art You," a look at pop art and Mod culture. The two-disc DVD set releases Nov. 6 on the coattails of the cable premiere. 

"Amazing Journey" isn't the first authorized profile of the band, which previously was examined nearly 30 years ago in "The Kids Are Alright." But the new film inevitably takes on a darker cast beneath the long shadows of the band's subsequent experiences, including the deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1978, at the age of 32, and bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002. 

We asked Who guitarist, songwriter and principal architect Pete Townshend about his reactions to this newer view of the band, conducting our virtual interview via e-mail with the wired and Web-savvy Townshend, whose current solo activities have been woven through the Web for years. 

MSN Music: In the past, you've been deeply involved with the Who's archival projects, but earlier this year you told Alan Light that "Amazing Journey" is "Roger's baby with our managers." How do you view the finished package -- is it significantly different from how you might have portrayed the band's history? 

Pete Townshend: I like it very much, I think Roger gets the right amount of air time at last. I see the man I know, rather than someone who just throws away his chance to speak, as often seems to happen in documentaries about the Who. 

The Who's 1979 documentary, "The Kids Are Alright," is regarded as one of the best rock profiles ever and noteworthy for its often self-deprecating tone. To your eyes, how do the two views of the band compare? 

I prefer the first one, but then those were the halcyon years. What this new movie does is make some sense of everything that followed, and a lot of it is pretty scary. 

Your own visions for the band notably included interactive aspirations for the "Lifehouse" project. How might that have taken shape as a DVD? 

I would have needed the Web, not a DVD. I am running an interactive music site at LIFEHOUSE METHOD. This is close to what I envisaged back in 1971. The missing part is bringing all the pieces of music together at a big concert event. 

Your original managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, documented the band frequently on film, which pays dividends here. How do you feel looking at that early footage of the band when you were the Detours? 

I particularly like hearing Roger's R&B voice, it's authentic, different to the post-"Tommy" voice. I've never heard Roger's voice presented so consistently in this kind of context before. I also like the fact that the band sing pretty well too, especially on the Tamla stuff. 

Between your own documentaries, the Who's historic inclusion in the Monterey Pop and Woodstock projects, and then the theatrical versions of "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia," the Who has provided one of the more comprehensive visual records for any band from that halcyon '60s era. Was that always part of the band's creative vision? 

We've been lucky in some ways, but people always liked to shoot the Who, we move around. Certainly, as you rightly say, Kit and Chris were filmmakers from the beginning. But Tom Wright was with us before them, and though he was a stills photographer, his style was documentarian. Soon after, we met Richard Stanley and Chris Morphett, who elevated the documentation through stills to movies. I even made movies myself. 

"Amazing Journey" underscores how your songs reflected the specific experiences of growing up in a "black and white" postwar England, and the impact of economic austerity and Mod culture on the Who. In that regard, the Who seem rivaled only by the Kinks for addressing that period so directly. Does that seem a fair assessment, or are we missing other peers? 

You're right, I think. It's not that we were alone entirely, but that we needed to feel we were in a second wave. The Stones and the Beatles had taken the city, the Kinks and the Who had to work out why we'd wanted it in the first place. The answers were confusing. It was a nice place, but populated by people who seemed smashed by war and degradation, death and loss. 

As a longtime fan, it's predictably thrilling to relive the triumphs of the band's late-'60s conceptual experiments. But revisiting the early singles does suggest a surprising parallel that might have been unimaginable a decade ago: In those early songs, the identification with youthful alienation and oblique but tangible allusions to privation, abuse and generational identity prefigure some of the big issues for emo -- without the shoe-gazing, and better musicianship, of course. 

We watched our audience, and did what they wanted. If emo describes what we did, and it's back today, then the audience is probably still asking for it. My question is why young people need answers to questions like, "Should I blow my brains out; I feel really bad?" I would have thought the answer was obvious. 

"Amazing Journey" taps into genuine emotions in the reconciliation and eventual bond you and Roger describe between each other, as well as in acknowledging the poignant sense of loss after the deaths of Keith and John. Did addressing this so directly on film come easily to you? 

Nothing I say comes easily. I think these particular subjects are tricky because we are speaking of the dead. John and Keith have living relatives, they both have living mothers. Some home truths may have to wait. As for Roger and me, WYSIWYG. 

For so many fans you are the Who. By the late '70s and early '80s, rock, like film, embraced an auteur theory in which the songwriter would naturally be viewed as the engine driving the band. In "Amazing Journey," are you distancing yourself from that? I found it moving that you suggested your solo work would "never surpass" the band. 

I am not trying to be humble. I think I always knew my function, and still do. I understand the way creative teams work. With Roger and me today, what is so much clearer is the moment when one function is handed on -- when my role as songwriter stops, and his role as interpreter and deliverer begins. Suddenly I transform from the driver to the passenger. (Albeit a noisy one.) 

You cite your conviction that "the album was going to be the new art form" as driving the leap from three-minute singles to the conceptual ambitions of "A Quick One," "The Who Sell Out" and "Tommy." How do you view current prophecies about "the death of the album" in the face of digital music distribution and slumping sales? 

Yawn. If we really do have a 30-second attention span (cited by almost every Net guru I speak to) then how do we watch movies or read the paper? I predict the death of predictions. 

When asked about plans for a 40th anniversary celebration focusing on "Tommy," you instead told Alan Light you wanted to restore "Quadrophenia" to its original true surround context. Have you made any headway on that project? It's certainly the most explicitly autobiographical work the band ever tackled, and it seems more potent in the wake of the '96 tour. 

I've changed my mind. Too time-consuming and only a few people would notice the improvement, if there was an improvement. 

With record companies blaming the collapse of their traditional business -- and the album itself -- on the rise of digital music, how do you view the alternative career strategies suggested by artists such as Radiohead, Madonna, Paul McCartney and the Eagles? Each is breaking ranks from conventional label relationships. 

I thought of it first, needless to say. When I see a genuinely new idea I will concede, but lately all I've seen is artists reinventing the wheel. I like the story of Frank Sinatra asking that a recording session be conducted with just one microphone when engineers were starting to put out dozens of them. The old ways still work. Maybe what we need to be selling are records that are 12 inches round. 

Your own recent solo work notably exploits the fluidity and intimacy of the Internet through your In the Attic sessions. That seems in keeping with the Who's determination to stay accessible to its audience. Do you see your music bridging traditional and new media platforms? And do you envision that for the Who as well? 

I would like to see everyone's music bridging traditional and new media platforms. The problems happen when we start to set one platform against the other, and complain or simply drop dead whenever we are faced with difficult changes. For Roger and me, time is running out. Do we go to Vegas, or do we continue to pretend that the road is still long and empty and wide? Do you come to us, or do we come to you? The Internet does provide a chance for us to skip the questions. But what we do must be live in real time. 

-Brian in Atlanta 
The Who This Month!

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