Fifty years ago The Who came screaming out of London with a sound for the ages. Lead singer Roger Daltrey acted out the aggressive youth anthems written by guitarist Pete Townshend, songs that reflected the band’s status as the public face of the fashion conscious, R&B loving hipsters who called themselves Mods. The anthems were “Can’t Explain,” “The Kids Are Alright” and “My Generation,” in which Daltrey stutters the infamous line “I Hope I die before I get old.”
For drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, the line was prophetic, but Townshend and Daltrey have survived, and both have grown as artists over the years. They’ll bring their current version of The Who to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival April 25.
The 50th anniversary tour, which began last year, is an overview of the band’s career, touching on most of the hits and some deep tracks. I’ve been watching The Who carefully since 1966 (I wrote one of the first books on the band’s history in 1979). From what I’ve seen of the shows so far, Townshend is in vintage form, really carrying the band’s sound with his guitar playing, and Daltrey continues to set the standard by which all rock vocalists must live up to. They are ably backed up by great drummer Zak Starkey, who holds up his end admirably by ignoring the fact that there’s no replacing Keith Moon and not letting that stop him, and the virtuoso player Pino Palladino, whose mastery of Entwistle’s brawny, melodically intricate bass lines is a fairly astonishing accomplishment in its own right.
This is anything but a nostalgia show. The Who are, I’m extremely happy to say, still able to peel the paint off the wall in live performance. It’s the band’s first American festival appearance since Woodstock, when Tommy was still in the news. It very well may turn out to be their last if we’re to take Daltrey’s words that it’s “the beginning of a long goodbye” to heart. Outdoors in daylight, the show will not be required to synch with the elaborate visual accompaniment that enhances the band’s arena performances, so they’ll be able to let it rip and, as Townshend suggests below, add some content specifically designed for the occasion.
I’ve interviewed Pete Townshed numerous times over the years and he always proved to be a good conversationalist. This time around, the interview that follows took the form of an email exchange. I highly recommend that you read a copy of Townshend’s memoir Who I Am in order to better understand what went into The Who and the events that shaped the music of the era.
You and Roger enjoy one of the most remarkable relationships in popular music history, a creative partnership that has endured over the course of 50 years. Of course you’ve had some famous dust ups, but not the outright splits in direction that the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Kinks, etc. have experienced. Does that longevity surprise you in any way? How do you account for it? Has the fact that you’ve survived your dear friends Keith and John brought you closer together?
I think I’ve changed more than Roger, but that’s because he didn’t need to change. He made the most important changes in our early days when he stopped throwing his weight around. It was tough for him, because it’s easier to scare people into doing what you want than to argue your case. Now he argues, and he is often very clear, and very right. I have come to value his input so much more in the past 15 years. It is a surprise that we work together still, and do it so well, and it’s easy to talk about love or familiarity. But in fact, each of us has had to travel a long way and make real concessions and compromises to get where we are today. Losing Keith was something I didn’t handle properly, but when John died I was determined not to make the same mistakes again, and to dramatize what was quite normal: some people die when they are relatively young, and whatever the circumstances of John and Keith’s deaths, my reaction must always be that of a friend and ally, and be totally accepting and forgiving. That doesn’t mean I don’t get angry about losing Keith and John, I do. But if they were alive today Roger and I may well have taken different pathways.
As we grow older our friendships evolve in different ways. How has your friendship with Roger changed?
We still don’t see much of each other socially. It’s in our work that it’s changed. Roger feels he can be completely honest with me, and does so without needing to feel he has to play any games. I’m not sure he completely trusts me as a thinker, or even as a creative, but he trusts that I will listen to him. He has spent a long time being ignored, I think—that doesn’t happen anymore.
Do you still feel the “Vacant Chair,” to borrow Steve Winwood’s beautiful sentiment? (Winwood wrote the song about his close friend Keith Moon after Moon died.) Do you ever dream of fallen partners?
No. But it is a lovely way of expressing that loss…
How do you and Roger consult on set lists and arrangements? Has his (or your) voice changed over the years to the point where you have to adjust the keys in certain arrangements to make them easier to perform?
We consult very little. Roger’s voice and his physical journey through a show come before his emotional needs as a singer. So he works out the list. I don’t mind what we play but there are some things we play that I could do without. Not keen on “A Quick One While He’s Away” for example. We’ve been playing that in the UK, and Roger loves it. But he seems to think it’s funny, which of course it isn’t. His childhood was very different to mine.
When The Who was in its early stages, you played a number of songs by New Orleans artists, like Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” And of course you recorded Benny Spellman’s Allen Toussaint-penned “Fortune Teller” (although you might have picked that one up from the Stones). At one point, there were some YouTube videos of this stuff circulating. How did you come to know these records? Were you aware that this was specifically New Orleans R&B, and it had its own unique musical genealogy? Do you think the Afro-Caribbean rhythms are deeply ingrained somewhere in your writing, or Roger’s singing?
New Orleans music was something I found first, but Keith’s friend Ray Tolliday had quite a few tracks. The Mods heard these songs at The Scene Club. I had albums by New Orleans R&B stars. I always felt it was nice and slow… by the way I first heard “Fortune Teller” by a band called Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders.
When you started out, were you aware of the impact New Orleans music had on early rock ’n’ roll?
Yes. I grew up in Acton, and heard Ken Colyer’s band locally near Hounslow where my friend Jimpy lived. His band was called the Crane River Band, and they played all the Louis Armstrong marching songs. Ken had actually gone to New Orleans in the Merchant Navy, and come back with stories about Louis Armstrong. Before The Who, John Entwistle and I had a jazz band called The Confederates, and we played all those songs. Later, when I made the connection that a lot of skiffle (that grew out of Trad Jazz in the UK) was based on country blues, I started looking further, and found Snooks Eaglin and a few others from New Orleans itself.
Your father was a big band leader, so I’m assuming he was pretty well versed in traditional jazz as well as swing. Did he communicate that to you at all? Did you have a strong sense of the music he was playing? Do you think this informed your artistic conception? Obviously, rock ’n’ roll began as a kind of cultural alternative to jazz, but really they share a lot of common roots, especially as dance music.
I think rock ’n’ roll related to, and grew partly out of New Orleans jazz, but not the beautiful sophisticated music my father played. That was music for smooching. He did like Louis Armstrong, but when I later started to go back a few steps to Bix Beiderbecke, I left him I think. He and I loved Wes Montgomery, and listened to his albums together. But R&B was hard to listen to. Some of the New Orleans artists were unschooled and sang out of tune. Neither my father nor I liked that much. Later, and these days of course, I came to love that rawness and naivety.
I seem to remember you making mention of trad jazz players in passing, and it’s something that I think shows itself in some of your solo work. Then there’s the sort of “Cobwebs and Strange” bit where the bunch of you are playing trombones and such in the studio on a lark. Am I making too much of this, or is there a trace element of traditional New Orleans music in your creative well?
Oh yes, if I had been able to blow anything other than a mouth organ I would have written more jazz-like material (I love what my old friend Robert Wyatt does when he adds sax to his albums).
When you first read about New Orleans, did you fantasize about the city and its history? When you came here, did the city live up to your vision of it? Ray Davies was obviously fascinated by the place and even came to live here. He was shot during that stay, but the experience made for a fascinating book, Americana. Have you read it? Have you ever talked to him about New Orleans music, especially in its relation to English Music Hall music?
I’ve read Americana, and loved it, but I am a Ray Davies fanatic. I’ve never spoken to Ray about anything at all. I’m not afraid it would burst a bubble, but he is a little shy I think. And I am a bit star-struck around him—more than I am with Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. I have had some fun times in New Orleans challenging the place to weird me out, but I always won… it was always me that was the weirdest. It will be great to visit the city and be sober.
Your memoir Who I Am was tremendously revealing, and made me think of some of the self-reflective writing on The Who By Numbers and your solo albums. The letter to your eight year old self is an awesome idea. There’s a real literature developing among the rock culture writings that you, Keith Richards, Ray Davies, Patti Smith and others have produced. Was it difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out? As a former editor, are you happy with the result? Did the project offer you perspective on your work and how it fits into a larger whole?
I think I included everything and my editors decided what to leave out! I am happy with the result but some friends were hurt either because they were left out, when others were included, or because the sections I wrote about them were cut down and our stories were at odds. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make amends.
Michael Cerveris has become an important contributor to New Orleans cultural life in recent years. I first saw him in the Broadway production of Tommy, which I wasn’t sure I was going to like, but I was really impressed with his performance. It seems like Roger really came into his own as a vocalist on the Tommy album, and it’s hard for me to separate him from the role, but Michael brought something of his own to it. Did you select him for the role? If so, how did you find him?
I didn’t find him. He was in the La Jolla cast when I first went to see a rehearsal. He responded incredibly well to my idea to try to get him to do a kind of Stanislavsky version of a rock star. We did a lot of gigs together in clubs and dives. We had great times together when the show was on in New York and he introduced me to a lot of new music. He’s a real musicologist, as I’m sure you know.
I was really impressed with the recent production of Quadrophenia, which I saw on Cable TV. I’ve always thought this was your greatest work, something that encompassed your storytelling ability, social commentary, symphonic aspirations and the essence of each member of The Who really effectively. To say it holds up is an understatement. In fact it was obviously difficult to perform live at the outset and has only grown larger through the excellent film and subsequent Who stage productions, even without all the original members. John Entwistle’s bass lines still sound incredible even though he’s no longer playing them. It’s an extraordinary thing.
Thank you. It has proved to be easier to perform than expected, but to answer your question above we do lower the keys of some songs here and there. Roger is a scream. He will never lower the key of the really hard songs. He feels the need to strive, and I think it works even if there is the occasional vocal crack.
Obviously you and Roger are The Who, but the supporting players in the band are hardly anonymous entities and really bring new life to the arrangements. Please tell the readers about what you ask from them and what you think they bring to the stage.
Oh dear, at the moment I allow our musicians to do what they like, really. We do rehearse, and I expect them to know the music, but we don’t jam any more. I miss Rabbit on stage. We used to stretch out, but he has been lost along the way. Pino and Zak are real hot-shots, and the band members brought in from Roger’s touring solo band are excellent. If I ever do a solo tour you will see all the old Pete Townshend lags come out—Jody Linscott, Billy Nicholls, Rabbit, Pino, Simon Phillips, Peter Hope-Evans, Jon Carin… these are some of the best people on the planet and some of them are as irritating as hell, but they have a magic about them that sets me on fire.
How much preparation is required to mount a tour of this scope? Are you planning anything specific or special for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival show?
We’ll play something, not sure what… we are rehearsing next month.
I’m guessing you must have many unfinished ideas or bits of inspiration that have been floating around. Do you archive this kind of work-in-progress material? Do you have a regular working method that you try to adhere to when you’re not on the road? Has that changed much over the years?
I use studios. This is where my process comes together. I record myself, with no rules and little discipline. I don’t care what I sound like. This has not changed since I made my first demo (“Can’t Explain”) on an old tape machine back in early 1964. I am archiving at the moment. It’s funny listening to my demos from 1965. Sometimes I record absolute rubbish because I wanted to try out a new microphone, or tape machine. Sometimes that rubbish turned out pretty well.
You have always been able to articulate the struggle for spiritual enlightenment in your writing and performance. Do you feel a difference in how the audience has responded to that aspect of your art over the years?
Spiritual enlightenment is really a posh way of saying ‘live life.’ I think I always knew that, and left our audience to go its own way. But my personal journey has been a circle. I am now living every day looking for the daily message, and sometimes it comes in very strange forms. I think the audience has an investment now in whether we are happy, not whether we are spiritually landed or fit and well. The good news is that I am happy.
For Life House/Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, you developed a way to use synthesizer technology to expand your musical vocabulary. Most of the other uses of that technology back then sounded mechanical, or perhaps a better word is inhuman, but you were able to use the technology with a warmth and emotional expressiveness that not only enhanced your work, but charted a way forward. Today, EDM has actually eclipsed rock in popularity, and I think you were a pioneer in showing the way forward with electronics. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of your influence?
I’m proud of what I did, but I was hugely supported, and guided. Tim Souster, Roger Powell, Ron Geesin and many others steered me when I started with electronics and rapid tape editing in 1971. My father-in-law, the orchestral composer Ted Astley, bought himself an EMS synthesizer (I think he bought two in fact), so I saw quickly how effective synthesis could be utilized to emulate orchestral textures. Today I love how broad the spectrum of electronic music is, so much that is now software I used to dream about—I still have my old gear, and I love it, but I also love KYMA, MAX, REAKTOR and other software synth and sound manipulators. Years ago I learned to write some code (for the Fairlight CMI) and later wrote Hypercard code for my little Mac computer. I’m not great at code, but if you do even a little you quickly see how amazing it is that skilled coders are able to do almost anything one can imagine. I love the concept of “The Internet of Things.” I can see now how music–visual–installations could be controlled and modified from anywhere in the world. I’ll be able to tour from my bed. So expect more interference….