Pete interview in The Times, part one
brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Mon Apr 20 11:18:55 UTC 2009
In today's (Apr. 20) The Times:
Pete Townshend on Quadrophenia, touring with The Who and the Mod revival
The presiding genius of The Who explains why, after 36 years, he is putting his masterpiece Quadrophenia on to the musical stage
by James Jackson
It's 36 years since Pete Townshend wrote his rock opus Quadrophenia, later turned into a cult film, but he'd be the first to admit that nothing he's done since has equalled it. Now, as he and Roger Daltrey keep the 'Orrible 'Oo going part-time, Quadrophenia is back - this time as a full-scale UK touring theatre production, with Townshend a creative consultant. Are its tales of style-conscious Mods and teenage alienation in 1960s Brighton as much of their era as eel pies and popping “blues”? Or can this new version do what Tommy did in the early-1990s and make it all the way to new audiences on the West End and Broadway?
In a remarkably frank interview, Townshend discusses everything from Mod culture and musical theatre to his “Groundhog Day” life as a rock star and why he is “very afraid that the front row of the first performance will be Mods wearing parkas”.
Why do you consider Quadrophenia to be your masterpiece?
That feels like a midriff punch. The thing about being a writer who is also in a big rock band is that sometimes I speak with my bolshie rock star's attitude. At times like this, sitting now in Richmond quietly to try to talk about a piece of work I am very proud of, I recoil at some of the things I've said, or the way I said them in the past. But the ego-driven language does have a place: I have to accept that I probably don't have the energy, self-certainty or focus to produce something like Quadrophenia again. I not only wrote and recorded this record in 1973, I also built two quadraphonic recording studios, did a huge tour and many small shows here and there, helped Eric Clapton and his girlfriend Alice get off heroin, began to set up the Tommy movie contacts and wrote a number of songs ready for the next Who album, Who By Numbers.
In that sense my achievement was towering, and I am humbled by my work ethic when I was young. I needed to guide Quadrophenia alone. It was a new kind of song-cycle, a development on the system I'd invented for Tommy, and my previous attempt at a dramatic work, Lifehouse, had fallen almost at the first post. For a brief period I tried to work with our old producer and manager Kit Lambert because I was afraid of becoming overloaded. But he was in bad shape. The band, as with Tommy, fell in behind me in the most extraordinary way, although Roger had some problems with me having so much control, but that was only because there is no proper story, and the characters are so iconic and mythic. He wanted to find some way into the story, and I'm afraid I wasn't very helpful because I was deliberately keeping everything open and vague.
Today Roger is one of the few dramaturgs [story analyst] who can really understand what Quadrophenia was intended to do for its audience. Where the word “masterpiece” is appropriate is probably in the method of my work. I am a studio nerd, and some of the new technology of the mid-1970s promised all kinds of easy ways to make big sounds. Instead, in the studio I used old-fashioned methods, big studio drum sounds, layered violins (that I played myself), John Entwistle's powerful brass choirs, banjos, backing voices, bells and, of course, sound effects. All that and electric guitars. It was a fabulous time for me, because I love working in studios, and recording music. I gathered all those strands in a way that seems to me today to be quite masterful. I couldn't do it now.
What debt does Quadrophenia owe to musical theatre?
In a way, rock itself owes much to music theatre, simply because the songs from that world began to lose meaning in the late 1950s. I'd grown up very close to that music because my father was in a dance band. There was an intimidating body of work written by some of the finest composers and lyricists of a 30-year period. And yet the songs didn't seem to mean much to me or my buddies when we began to grow into our skin. There had to be something new.
But the supporting structure of music theatre somehow began to show itself like a manifesting ghost in early British rock. The Beatles larked about like Arthur Askey in a panto; Ray Davies exalted the glamour of the working-class world; The Who wrote songs about growing up that with a few word changes could have been squeezed into My Fair Lady. Music theatre, and its bastard brother music hall, had created and inhabited most of the venues that early British pop bands used to play in. You simply couldn't get away from the idea that it might come back one day, and of course it has. The musicals of the late 1950s - especially those by Lionel Bart - did try to anticipate what rock soon arrived to do. But Lionel himself told me once that he was just two or three years too old to understand what had been coming - it reminds me today of my anticipation of punk in the early 1970s. I knew something needed to happen, and I knew it would be subversive, but I
couldn't see how it would take shape.
I always felt, right from my very first song and the reaction to it from the kids in my neighbourhood, that in a pop song the function was different to the songs from music theatre. There was already a story being experienced, by the listener - the context was already established. Songs about fantasy and a romantic future didn't seem useful any more. A song had to fit into the world we were living in, and that was an immediate postwar world in which Britain and its youth had to face massive change. The cult of the individual happened partly because we found our own language, and that was very much enshrined in music.
I think the Mods transformed themselves into a kind of living music theatre project in the early 1960s. So when I revisited the scene in the mid-1970s, it was natural to create a song-cycle to bring it to life.
Has Quadrophenia simply become a historical document? Can it really appeal to teenage culture today?
What a document! Everything was turned on its head. Girls looked like boys, boys wore eyeliner and danced alone or in pairs like girls. Today we are facing something of the same kind of upheaval. In the financial mess we are in how will young people express their need to be different? Roger Daltrey often says that Mod wouldn't have happened if well-paid work hadn't been available. But what awful work it was, and what antiquated rules and authoritarian systems were still in place. This musical version is inhabited by young people, and a few teenagers, but we are not trying to re-create Mod. It seems to happen every now and then as a throwback; I understand there is a big Mod revival in Southend at the moment and it will take off this summer.
What has been your involvement with the new production?
I have been involved until recently only as the original creator. After Tommy went to Broadway [in 1993] it was natural to look at Quadrophenia. I am now involved in the production of the show, the casting, the way the band works and will do some work during rehearsals. A lot of what I did on Tommy, after producing the script with Des McAnnuff the director, was deep background work with the cast. I tried to explain what it was like to grow up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
Austin Powers has done a lot of damage to the image of swinging London, parodying what had already been parodied by lazy American newsreels over the years. So in a sense my mission is to bring back some of the greyness, the bleakness of those years, and demonstrate to the cast that what happened simply had to happen, otherwise we would all have gone nuts. It wasn't an optional outing of boys playing on scooters; it was a vital rebellion.
Where the Mod movement looks shallow today is in its lack of political, social or ecological interest. But you have to understand that after the ban-the-bomb movement and the failure of anti-apartheid, and then the Cuban missile crisis, young people felt their input was pointless. Fashion, music and daily life was elevated to a form of aloof poetry and was very much a secret society.
The production was slow to arrive because it doesn't have a conventional backbone. Unlike West Side Story, it is not based on a classic tale. In fact I avoided the temptation to complete the story or to try to make the characters whole and reachable. I have always understood that rock and pop need music and a star system that offers partly empty vessels to the audience. Quadrophenia isn't even about battles in the street, it's a musical journey inside a young man's mind during a drug-fuelled psychotic episode. But this is not a story about junkies. This is a day or two in the life of a young man who really can't do what his peers are doing and survive. Jimmy is an ordinary young man, with modest emotional needs, but who is looking for something other than what is on offer.
How has the experience with the musical theatre version of Tommy affected you?
Every manifestation of Tommy has had its price for me. Happily it has usually been lucrative as well. The music theatre version came late for me - I had tried to mount it in London in the late 1970s but it had clunked. There was always interest to try it again from New York, but I resisted. One day in 1991 I fell off a push bike, broke my wrist so badly that I was told I would never play guitar again, and possibly never be able even to hold a pencil. While I was still in plaster the offer to develop the Broadway production came in. I jumped at it, but said I would stay out of it, but was drawn in by my creative relationship with the director, Des McAnuff.
It was the most exciting and invigorating time of my life. The Who had been inoperative (at my behest) since 1982, and I got a taste of fame and glory again. I'm afraid it went to my head for a while. I quickly recovered when overwork led to me starting to drink again (after an 11-year break), but my marriage did not survive for very long after that.
In 1993 when Tommy went to Broadway I also staged Psychoderelict, my own solo musical, and later that year Iron Man at the Young Vic. So it was year of intense and varied music theatre experience. At the end of it I promised myself I would never take a careless dig at Andrew Lloyd Webber or Richard Stilgoe again. The creative work behind a musical is almost beyond imagination in scale - and the problem is that unlike normal theatre, the story changes as the music is played, with each singer, with each phase of performance. As the composer and/or lyricist you have to be on your toes until the day the show closes.
Have you ever been to see a rock musical based on a back-catalogue?
I live inside one. Musicals based on back-catalogues are becoming a saturated market. How can rock musicals avoid being watered-down exercises in asset-stripping?
Do you visit the theatre much as a punter? What plays have impressed you profoundly?
I don't go as often as I would if I lived in the West End, so I tend to do more theatre when I'm in New York, staying at a hotel right in the thick of the scene. It's great to walk to and from hotel, theatre and the restaurants involved in a night out.
I have been most profoundly affected in recent years by Arcadia and An Inspector Calls. In both cases the non-dialogue devices used at the end of the play - in Arcadia the return to the waltz, and in An Inspector Calls the collapse of the Victorian house - fold both plays entirely back into themselves in a manner that is almost musical. Certainly the device seemed familiar to me: the way that when you reprise a song at the end of a show it has new power, and brings everything that has gone before to life in a new way.
Musicals? My favourite of all time is Into the Woods. My favourite opera is Billy Budd. The last time I saw that (at Covent Garden) I realised I had stolen the entire setting of Billy Budd for my last scene in Quadrophenia, the young boy on a rock, alone, fearing death in the grey rain.
-Brian in Atlanta
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