Pete interview with What's On News - Pt1

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Thu Apr 30 20:04:14 UTC 2009

Pete Townshend lifts the lid on Quadrophenia - the musical
Thursday, April 30, 2009, 14:25

The Who’s seminal album Quadrophenia comes to life in a new theatrical production, largely based on the successful 1979 film. The new musical received its premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth from May 9-16. For all ticket details see

Here Who guitarist, Quadrophenia writer and former resident of Helford in Cornwall, Pete Townshend, talks to What’s On about the show.

How did you come to write Quadrophenia – what was the catalyst and also what came first the story or the songs?

I have a strange way of approaching what I do. I am inspired by very diverse circumstances and conditions. A new piece of computer software, something that simply makes funky drum sounds, might set me off. A walk by the river or looking at the sea might start me off on some tangent as a lyricist. I might position a table in a particular place in my home and find I write a whole batch of essays, poems and lyrics. A new guitar (or guitar open tuning) could inspire a burst of creative work. I am especially stimulated by the designing and creation of studio-workshops and technical workplaces. The modern recording studio is as much a hobby for me as a train-set or a boat. There is a lot childlike play in all this.

With Quadrophenia, a very wide range of these kinds of inspirational strands came together in a very short space of time. The Who as a band decided to build a commercial studio for themselves. I was already building a private studio for myself in the country. My studio at home in London was tiny; nevertheless a lot of the music for Quadrophenia was written there and the recording started there. I was also pursuing a new idea, telling a story using sound effects. So I was often out and about with a field recorder listening to trains, birds, cars, planes, rivers, the sea and the chatter of people in pubs.

In the midst of all this came the news that quadraphonic sound was about to arrive as a domestic format on vinyl records. Pink Floyd had already pioneered four-channel sound in their concerts, but what excited me was bringing The Who - an astonishing band to stand in the middle of when they played at full tilt - to life on vinyl in surround sound. So, the two new studios, one for The Who in Battersea, and one for me in the country, were designed as the first quadraphonic rooms in the world.

At the same time, I felt I wanted to try to compose a set of songs about the internal struggle I saw so many of my peers were still experiencing. A lot of them seemed to have drug and alcohol issues that had turned into psychoses. Remember that my immediate peers had all been mods, most of them, and so it was natural to set the story in the closing years of that movement. One or two of the songs were already in place: Drowned, Love Reign O’er Me, and Is It In My Head, were all songs about the desire for some spiritual sustenance in a world that seemed devoid of faith and direction at the time. The old wartime values were still invalid, remember. Using these three songs, I scribbled out the story you see inside the cover of the record sleeve and started to discuss it with my friend and mentor Richard Barnes, and the photographer-essayist Ethan Russell. From these discussions emerged the idea of a four-faceted character, coming at you from four speakers.

Subsequently the idea was somewhat deepened, but also somewhat confused, by the notion that a member of The Who could reflect each facet of Jimmy’s character. I am still uneasy about this. This is the story of a member of our audience not of the band, but we had big egos and wanted to feature in the story somewhere. The only song I intended to speak about the band was The Punk and the Godfather, which was actually highly critical of what we had done thus far.

On top of all this I could feel a new wave or reaction rebellion coming in the music business. The big bands were becoming careless and self-indulgent. I wanted my songs to continue to have a cathartic function for our audience. When punk hit a few years later I was not surprised.

The mod movement of the 1960s was almost forgotten at the time of the recording. Skinhead culture was springing up and was much more politically driven, albeit right wing. The mods I had known were all more gentle souls, effete in some ways, certainly intelligent and creative. What had happened to Jimmy? Where was he? What had he been through? Did he find what he was looking for?

This wide range of stimuli sets up a now familiar dilemma for me, in that when I look back I can tell the story of any particular project in a number of different ways. I often feel I am guilty of revisionism, and am sometimes accused of it. More on this later maybe.

Before it was adapted for film, Quadrophenia was a designed as a rock opera – is the stage where you had in fact always imagined the piece? Did you always have a performance in mind? 

We had performed Tommy in its entirety many times and I felt Quadrophenia would blow it away in live performance. But we got sidetracked by the complications of the necessary technology. We were highly pressured by deadlines, so we didn’t perform the complete work until 1996. I wanted to have a quadraphonic PA system like Pink Floyd, but have a dramatic reason for using it. I wanted a great album and a great vehicle for our live shows. In the end only a few of the songs survived to be played regularly as part of The Who set.

What do you most fondly remember about developing Quadrophenia? There’s so much – the experimentation with sound, the exploration of the themes (via the story and the music) and the film to be proud of…

I loved all the technological innovation, there was a lot of fascinating research involved. The film was different because it happened in the final years of punk. We actually tried to cast Johnny Rotten as Jimmy at one point and he and I became friends. I didn’t have much to do with the film. John Entwistle was music director and I concentrated on providing one or two pieces of incidental music that was required. I was personally on a big drinking jag when the film was made.

To achieve what I’d managed to achieve as a writer and performer in the years from 1964 to 1976 required full-time work from me. When the other band members were resting between tours, I was working, writing, or researching; I didn’t get a break. By 1979 when the film was made, shortly after Keith Moon’s death, I had taken on a solo record deal as well. I had been much encouraged by my managers and advisors who thought it would help me feel more fulfilled. In fact it was the last straw. So the film passed me by in a bit of a haze, but when I came round from my stupor I was deeply impressed.

How did you feel watching it for the first time? Did director Franc Roddam et al interpret the story in line with your vision?

I didn’t feel the script went deep enough into Jimmy’s psychosis and I was sad that it didn’t precisely follow the song-cycle structure. However, I also knew that there was no story in place on the album, just a journey that was deliberately left vague and open so that people listening could get inside it. The film needed a story, and Franc and his writer came up with one. I was delighted with the film when I saw it, truly, but I didn’t feel it was my work at all. The response to the film from the public was good – and within a month the mod movement seemed to have enjoyed a revival.

Why do you think that the subject matter of the film (and indeed the album) is so lastingly popular?

The mod period was a very special one.

This story is set in the 1960s at a time where society is still struggling after a recent war, as its liberated youth reasserts itself. Historically, the conflicts on the beaches are remembered, but only because they fit the language understood by the older generation of that time and its tabloid press. They were a small part of the mod happening. In fact, the assertion of new values by the mods was different and simpler to the one espoused in a more conventional story like West Side Story.

While to an observer it was clear Mod kids wanted to be a part of something, it was also clear that the choices they made as a group were rebellious as seen by the old order. The mod girls looked like boys, the mod boys were soft and didn't mind looking fey, dancing alone, wearing eyeliner.

Meanwhile, what the older generation missed was the enormous inner struggle many of the mods were going through. Repudiation of the old ideals of the war years meant that even conventional methods of courting were defunct. Certainly the notion of ‘uniforms’ within the mod movement was absurd because the charismatic individuals - the so-called Faces - were always trying to change their influential look over a single weekend and thus restore some sense of their very temporary leadership and individuality.

Suddenly, around the time of the mods, young people were aware of individual responsibility, especially for their own emotional safety and sense of security, and for their sense of belonging. There were terrible cases of conflict where children and their parents really could not understand each other at all – this is echoed today: a black mother is writing about black gang culture using her son's stories as her research base. However, the mod years also repudiated that the issue of ethnicity was important. There weren't many black mods, but the ones there were had real influence. In the parallel black community of the times, the Blue-Beat movement, the fashions often overlapped under and over those of the mod groups.

Today, all these issues seem to be relevant and significant again, but with new shades of course.

How will Quadrophenia be staged for this production? What can audiences expect from this adaptation? Will it resemble the film?

We are hoping for a new kind of musical. That is probably dangerous, but that is what we want. It will not resemble the film, except that I believe the girl will be more important in this play than she was on the album and more pivotal than in the film. On the album we only observed the girl from Jimmy’s screwed-up point of view. In the film, and more so in our play, we see her as real person, with her own story to tell and her own frustrations about what mods did and did not achieve.

 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month! 


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