Pete Townshend Talks 'Quieter' 'Tommy' Concert, the Who's Future

Pete Townshend Talks 'Quieter' 'Tommy' Concert, the Who's Future

The Who's Pete Townshend teases the band's upcoming "quieter" 'Tommy' performance and what could be in the store for the future. Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA

Guitarist and songwriter on recapturing the joy of playing live, Roger Daltrey's health and more

Guitarist and songwriter on recapturing the joy of playing live, Roger Daltrey's health and more

For the past two years, the Who have been on what they've called their "last big tour," performing some of their most wide-ranging sets in decades with a renewed energy. The tour has been especially reinvigorating for Pete Townshend, who has for years found playing live increasingly dull. But in the last few weeks of the run – originally dubbed "The Who Hits 50!" and later revised to "Back to the Who Tour 51!" when they had to reschedule some dates due to Roger Daltrey contracting meningitis – he made an about-face, as he saw more and more millennials in the audience.

"It's much nicer to play our music to younger audiences, who really haven't grown up with it," he recently told Rolling Stone. "That's what struck me about the last five weeks of the tour; we were playing to a much larger number of younger people. I just feel, like, 'Wow. I'm alive to see a new generation of people really get this stuff.' It's just a real kick."

Although the Who have only a handful of U.K. dates booked for next year, Townshend is looking forward to getting back on the road and, for at least two shows, changing up the set list. On March 30th and April 1st, the Who will present the rock opera Tommy live in its entirety for the first time since 1989 at a benefit gala for Teenage Cancer Trust. The band's website claims it will be acoustic but, as Townshend says below, that may not be the case. Additionally, the band will be making up a number of British dates that were canceled this year. The guitarist and songwriter tells Rolling Stone in a wide-ranging chat that these shows could be a sign of more gigs to come, though he has many projects, from a novel to an archival project possibly similar to the recent, stellar My Generation box, to keep him busy if decides to stay off the road.

Next year, you've announced that the Who will be performing Tommy in its entirety, acoustically. How will you be presenting it?
We got no idea.

You haven't begun arranging it yet?
We've talked quite a bit about it, but we haven't settled on anything. We were hoping to do a play through in the studio between the two Desert Trips, and then we went to Mexico. Although it was great fun going to Mexico, it kind of wiped us out and we didn't get to do our rehearsal. So we really don't know what we're gonna do, but we will come up with something.

How did the idea for the performance come together?
It's the hundredth show of our Teenage Cancer Trust concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Roger wanted the Who to do two nights there, which I agreed to and then I suggested we need to do something a little bit different.

I was worried about how loud it is in the Royal Albert Hall when we do a standard rock show. It's terrifying. I usually feel like I'm blowing out the last little range of what's left of my hearing when we play there. So I said, "Can we do something a little quieter?" He suggested we look at Tommy, and I thought about it. So we're gonna do it, but we're gonna do it in a new way. It will be quieter. Whether it will be unplugged, as it were, is another story. There's certainly part of it that will work very well that way, but we need to play it through and see how it lands.

Will you be bringing the presentation to the U.S. at all?
I don't think so. Certainly not soon.

You're also doing a run of spring dates in the U.K. with the Who. Your website previews these dates as having set lists similar to Live at Leeds. Have you discussed how you'll be presenting that?
You're asking the wrong guy. I don't know what you're talking about [laughs]. We've got five shows that were scheduled for this year and apparently Brexit stopped all ticket sales across London in a hiccup and they panicked and they moved them 'til next year. Now those shows will probably be a little different from the show that we're doing at the moment, but I hope it's not too different because we haven't got much time to rehearse it. The other thing is that the show we're doing at the moment is really good, and I tend to like to get into a groove with a show so I can not have to think too much when I'm performing.

Is that all you have planned for next year?
Yep. Roger and I had lunch with our manager last week and it was very pleasant. We talked about the future and what we might and might not do, but I don't think we're finished doing what we're doing. Certainly, we're finished with the so-called "52nd-anniversary tour" [laughs]. Desert Trip in the U.S.A. was a good place to close that. And we were all really happy about that.

Did you run into get a chance to talk to any of your fellow performers at Desert Trip?
No, I didn't run into anybody. We flew in and out. It was a really heavy gig to do. I wanted to make sure that I concentrated on what I needed to do. I got a very sweet message from Mick Jagger as I was about to walk onstage for the last one, just saying, "Sock it to them," or whatever it was he said in a text. But no, I didn't meet anybody.

One of the performers was Paul McCartney. Roger told me a story earlier this year about how you opened for the Beatles and John Lennon watched you from the side of the stage, and then later they did "I Feel Fine," which had some feedback in it. He thought they were watching you closely.
Well, we knew the Beatles liked us. Paul McCartney expressed it to my face, but John Lennon didn't [laughs]. I think Keith Moon hung out with John Lennon a few times and really liked him. He said he was good fun, but he was always very cool with me and I could never quite work out why.

Getting back to the Who, how did you enjoy the Who Hits 50 tour? You appeared to be having fun.
For me, the last five weeks of the tour we did, before we came to California to do Desert Trip, everything felt very different. I'm notorious for being I suppose the word is blasé but also a bit diffident about performing. We'll do a good show and afterwards, people will say, "Were you having fun?" And I'll say, "No, not really." They'll say, "Isn't it great?" And I'll say, "Well, glad you think so but it's just what I do." That kind of thing. I'm a little bit detached and I put it down to the way that I grew up: My dad was in a band, and I grew up on the road with my dad, and I feel safe on the road. I don't get nervous on the road. I get a little bored on the road [laughs]. I don't have a lot of those kind of starry buzzes that a lot of people get when they perform. Well, this last couple of months, maybe it's because I can see the end in the distant misty future or maybe it's something else, I started to feel like what I'm doing is of greater consequence. It means more to me, anyway.

Why is that?
In Germany and Italy, and Bologna specifically, at least 65 percent of the audience were under 30. Now, when we went to Coachella, we were also playing to an audience that was about 50/50 millennials on the one hand – fuck knows why they were there but they were there, and I'm not gonna try and explain it – and people of our age and younger. But in the middle, we played in Mexico, and that was like Bologna turned up four; the audience was very, very young, but they knew the words of every song and they sang them the whole way through.

And on both nights, when I went to bed, I couldn't sleep. I'd try to sleep and I couldn't sleep. I was tired, but I couldn't sleep, and I wondered why. And I think it was because the little artist inside me was excited. I feel I'm still riding on a bit of that now.

I feel that Roger and I probably can work together and make music together in the future, maybe even do new recordings, I don't know. But I certainly don't feel like I did when I started on this tour at the end of 2014. I thought, "Well, we'll do a 50th-anniversary tour. It will revitalize our catalog, and when it's finished I can get back to doing whatever it is that I'm going to do for the rest of my life." And I imagined that what I would do for the rest of my life would be certainly to work with Roger occasionally but not touring. I don't think either of us really want to go and do long intensive tours anymore. Roger was the one that was ill, but I didn't get ill, but it was a wake-up call when he got ill because of the insurance issue, you know; it came so close to the beginning of a tour that we were very, very worried that we couldn't reschedule, and if we couldn't reschedule, we would've had a horrific share of the insurance burden.

So I think, you know, we don't particularly want to go and do heavy touring again but the future is looking good. It feels good to me. It feels optimistic and hopeful, and I feel better about the future than I have for a long time, with respect to the Who. I've never had any worries about what I might do myself. I'm always fiddling about doing what I want to do, but we both feel that there's a chance that we could find some way to do stuff.

So you want to do more touring?
Probably, we will do something. Whether it will be next year, I don't know. We may do something towards the very end of next year and I imagine that might be in the USA but I don't know yet. We had a meeting, and it was a good meeting and that's about as far as I got with it. I don't know what's gonna happen next.

How is Roger's health now?
He's great. He's in good shape. He never missed a moment on this last bunch of shows. Parts of it were quite tough, but he was in good shape, good form, good spirits. A few years ago, he was finding trouble with his voice and it got him really upset. It was making him angry or frustrated, but he's been terrific.

When he got sick, I think it was a wake-up call for all of us, the manager, me and of course Roger himself. It's not that we take this time for granted but as long as one has one's health, it's that you can do stuff. It's quite possible he's been taking better care of himself, by which I mean probably taking less care of himself, maybe taking less Chinese quack medicines. He's always been keen on all kinds of dietary stuff and extreme medicine and I think he was just whipped into shape by a nutritionist and a doctor and told how to look after himself and he's been great. He looks really well.

When I saw you live earlier this year, he hit that high note in "Won't Get Fooled Again" perfectly.
Are you sure it wasn't on tape?

I don't know. Was it?
I don't know either. Who knows? It could be on tape. When anybody says to me, "That's a fucking great solo you played tonight." I say, "Dear, well, could it have been on tape?" You never know.

Are you saying you record your solos?
No, no, of course not. When we did the Super Bowl, right in the middle of it, I make a deliberately disastrous bum note just to show that I'm playing live [laughs]. Anyway, no. And Roger doesn't use tape either.

I didn't think either of you did. What do you have planned for the future, personally?
I've got a novel coming out next year and I'm working on a number of other projects. One relates to the book and that will all unfold when the time comes.

What is the novel about?
I don't want to talk about it too much. I'm still in the editorial process and meeting with my editor next week. It's changing as I work. Also, I don't know whether it will be published next year. I've got no idea.

You said last year that you're working on a project that's "half rock opera, half art installation." Does this tie into the book?
Yes. But I've done about four major swerves, as we call them in the U.K., and a couple of them have been the kind where I've swerved and hit a wall and decided not to go ahead, which is what I did with a project called The Boy Who Heard Music. I was working on that in 2005 and just dumped it. I retrieved some of the themes for a mini-opera for the Who's album Endless Wire, but in this case I really want to see it through to its conclusion, but I'm not sure what the conclusion will be. I'm not sure how it will be performed or if it will be performed. I don't know whether the art-installation part of it will work. I've got some experiments coming up. So it's all in the air at the moment.

When we were talking about the My Generation box, you spoke about how important it was to bounce ideas off of your manager, Kit Lambert. Do you have somebody like him now, who you can play things to, now?
No, I don't. I don't think I need it now the way I needed it then. I'm very, very sure of myself and my talent and skill at the craft of writing. I also now know my limitations better. I don't waste as much time on crazy experiments or trying to do things which are new. I know this [music] is not the current thing anymore, but I can't rap. I'm pretty good at making beats, but if I make beats, all I can really do is play electric guitar over the top.

You also recently hinted at working on an archival project. Does that involve going through your demos, as you did with the My Generation box?
Yes, it is. I've been talking with Johnny Chandler at Universal, who does the catalogue releases, and we talked about where I was with my demos. I've also been looking into grand-rights projects. "Grand rights" is a legal term to describe a theatrical piece with a musical component. It goes back all the way to the Who's very first mini-opera ["A Quick One"] and then "Rael," which was a very ambitious piece but turned out to be seven minutes long. Then Tommy and Lifehouse and Quadrophenia and a number of others. White City was a failed opera, in a sense, and then Iron Man and Psychoderelict. Even The Boy Who Heard Music still exists as an ambitious piece. So I'm getting scores made of my works, and I started working with arrangers and other composers to collaborate on a much wider basis and realize all these pieces.

So when I look at my box-set career as it was as a solo artist, I've got a very interesting storeroom to delve into. I've got a lot of original handwritten lyrics. I've tended to save everything. I wasn't always good at saving contextual stuff, which would've helped me place things in the exact time, but around 1970 I started to date things. So I have lyrics and I have my demo tapes and I have various different versions of some of those demo tapes. And I was taking photographs for a long time, so I have studio pictures, which have never been published. So there's an interesting range of stuff. The problem with it is it's a lot of work [laughs]. It's a huge amount of work but I've got people that are willing to help. I just have to get to a place to trust them to do it well. When you let somebody into your filing cabinets, there's a sense of, you know, being violated. There are parts of me that think, "Oh, fuck. I'll just wait 'til I'm dead and then they can do it."

For example, I've got lyrics for songs written at some point in my career and you flip them over and there might be a note that I left to my wife or a shopping list, that kind of thing. I've started the work of gathering that stuff together. The other thing is a lot of this would be very interesting to hardline Who fans, but I don't know how much interest it would be to anybody else. So what Johnny Chandler's been looking at is adding value, adding interest to box sets built around each of my solo albums, including the "Scoops." I think they could be made very rich and very interesting and very collectible.

Do you see yourself doing something like Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series?
Yeah, in a way. But I think in his case, that was inspired by the "white album" [the Great White Wonder bootleg, which later came out as The Basement Tapes]. I think that began in London, didn't it? He'd done some sessions and when it was re-released it just wasn't as good because the original sounded as though it was coming over the wire. It was very compressed, very thin. You could really hear the songs, and there are some fantastic songs on that album, just amazing songs. But I think that's what kicked him off.

I've still got my copy of the white album. It's vinyl and it's a fantastic record. I think when they remastered it, it lost a lot of the mystery, although it was good to have it.

Do you enjoy listening to these demos from so long ago?
Are you kidding? Yeah, yeah.

I actually did a few podcasts [about the songs], as well, that I may release at some point. There's one about a party that I was having all on my own in my apartment, in Belgravia, in London, and that was in late 1964, and it was actually called "Instant Party." It's easy to confuse with another track that the Who did with that title, but this was a track that I did all on my own. Anyway, I did a podcast explaining why some of the lyrics were the way they were, and one of the themes of the song is that this party's going very, very well because everybody's getting stoned. And there were two or three things that were illegal still in 1964 in the U.K. – marijuana was definitely seriously illegal and so was being gay, which seems just beyond conception now. It was an offense which would see you put in prison. So the song is a funny song about a bunch of people getting stoned and a few of the people that I'm impersonating in the party are just a little bit gay [laughs]. Anyway, so I did a podcast based on that, and that is probably something that I'm going to try to find some way of releasing in the next couple of years.

How do you want to put these recordings out?
It's difficult to know the best way to release this stuff, whether just to put it out and let it go out into the online ether and allow it to ... You know, I'm getting old now, and I just feel like I'm sitting on so much stuff. I must have about 450 demos, but quite a few of those have been bootlegged. Quite a few have been tracked down in various ways. I don't know how people get hold of them, but they do. I must have made copies for guys in the band and then they got left behind or somebody's picked them up. I had a few demos stolen from me by a writer that I was working with once on something, so there are various times tracks have gotten out.

Since you've been reflecting, what have you learned about yourself as a songwriter from listening to those early demos?
We were young. And a lot of the work that we did was good because we were young. You sit down to write a song when you're 71 years old and ... I was trying to write something this morning about the Million March that we had here and all I could think about was, "You threw fireworks at the horses." It's very, very fucking difficult to come up with another "Won't Get Fooled Again." "Won't Get Fooled Again" is an anti-revolution song and I don't think there's been a revolution worth the paper it's been written on. Ever. But maybe I haven't read enough history to get that right. I don't know that I would indict anybody who would want to revolt against the establishment today, but it's interesting. I did it and I said it then and I stood by it and I can stand by it today.