The Who's Pete Townshend on Raiding Vaults for 'My Generation' Box Set

Guitarist/songwriter reflects on how post-art-school loneliness led him to create a masterpiece

Pete Townshend reflects on the making of the Who's debut album, 'My Generation,' and how his post-art-school loneliness inspired a masterpiece. Credit: The Visualeyes Archive/Redferns/Getty

In the past couple of years, the Who have found themselves between generations. They've been playing songs from throughout their 50-year career on the road, but the audiences, by Pete Townshend's estimation, have been skewing younger and younger.

"When we started this tour, we were pleased that maybe 20 percent of our audience was under 30," he tells Rolling Stone. "And the numbers have just increased. It just means we're playing music to a new audience. Sometimes they're familiar with it but mostly, if they're familiar with it, they're certainly not jaded by it. They're not bored with it. They're not looking for something new from it. They're just taking it at face value and fitting it into the modern world in whichever way is pertinent, and that is fantastic to me as a performer but also fantastic to me as a writer."

This surge of interest from millennials has come at a surprising time for the group, which has, in recent years, been shining spotlights on particular points in its past. The Who have put out reissues of albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia with heaps of bonus tracks and performed concerts dedicated to particular LPs, such as their Quadrophenia and More tour a few years ago. Their latest endeavor is an expanded, super-deluxe box set of their debut album, My Generation, which came out in the U.K. in late 1965.

The five-disc set, out this week, presents the most detailed portrait yet of the Who's formative years as recording artists. It contains the original LP in both mono and stereo, as well as extras ranging from outtakes and B sides to Townshend's fascinating home recordings of early versions of the songs. The demos feature two distinctly different takes on "My Generation," a twangy, country-leaning version of "A Legal Matter," a jazzier interpretation of The Who Sell Out's "Sunrise" and, most exciting of all, three whole songs from the period that Townshend never released: the rocking, boastful "The Girls I Could Have Had," the Tommy-esque "As Children We Grew" and the folkish and catchy "My Own Love." It's a side of Townshend he has kept hidden for half a century.

But being open is what's keeping the guitarist and songwriter going these days. In a lengthy, wide-ranging conversation with Rolling Stone about the box set and the makings of the Who, he looks back on what that period of his life means to him now.

You didn't describe the My Generation recording sessions in your memoir. What were they like?
Well, they were fucking brilliant from what I remember. Kit Lambert had taken us into a rehearsal room and we had played through all the songs on the album several times. We probably did a couple of sessions, which ran all day so that when we went in with Shel Talmy, we didn't make any mistakes. He just rolled the tape and we played all the songs. Then he rolled the tape again and we did the overdubs and that was it; we were out. I think the whole album was recorded in about three hours. And the second overdub session took maybe about four hours. And that was simply because he was trying to work out what to do as overdubs. We just literally, like, played a gig.

That live sound stands out on the album, especially on a song like "The Ox," which has a live feeling.
We made "The Ox" up in the studio. We didn't rehearse it at all. I don't know that we even knew that the tape was rolling. That was the kind of thing that we were doing on the stage live. Roger was saying to me at lunch that he'd heard a couple of recordings that we'd done at the Marquee in the later stages of our time there, and he was saying that what I was doing on the guitar was incredibly innovative and interesting. I was experimenting a lot. I was doing all kinds of goofy things with the guitars and we didn't have enough material to do a show that lasted an hour and 20 minutes or whatever it was that we needed to do in those days, so a lot of the time was spent on long drawn-out auto-destruction solos – crazy noises and feedback and wild stuff, and I think John Entwhistle's playing was a part of that as well. Certainly, Keith was. So "The Ox" was just kind of noise that we made then. I just started to make that [sings riff] and Keith started that [drum roll] and away we went [laughs]. Very cool.

Let's talk about the box set's demos disc. How is it that you have three whole songs from the My Generation era that you've never put out before?
Well, there are quite a few more [laughs]. The ratio of songs written to songs on albums is probably about 25, maybe 30 to one. So I've got lots of unreleased stuff.

What struck you about finding these songs?
I was already going through the demos. All of my demos have been pillaged at some point because of my Scoop recordings. But what's happened is I've never worked through them and remastered them. This time I decided to do it myself and I started about 18 months ago.

I thought I needed to release them for copyright reasons. It turned out I didn't have to do that. There was a copyright ruling in the U.K. But anyway, I had them ready to go. So when they asked me if I had anything to add to this box, I had these. I wanted to put in something that was novel. I only found a few that fit the 1964 prerogative. Everything for the album was written before something like April of 1965. So I was just looking at that window.

What do you think about when you listen to these demos?
What I remember about that time was mainly being lonely. Kit Lambert, the Who's manager, had hauled me out of my art-school flat with my best friend Barney. In college, we used to get stoned and listen to jazz and blues and run after girls and just have a good time, but Kit hauled me out of there and put me in this little flat in [the London neighborhood] Belgravia. So I just had the band, who were horrifying – I mean they really were fucking horrifying as people – and my little studio. Kit had helped me equip it. I had a couple of semiprofessional machines.

What is Belgravia like?
I have a little studio there too still. And I work there in the same way. On a weekend, Belgravia is like – I don't think there's anywhere quite like it in New York – but it's like the Upper East Side in a sense. It's quieter on a weekend than any other time. There's hardly any traffic. Very few people actually live there. Most people rent their homes there, and they're often people that live in the country if they're British, and if they're not, they're people who come from Russia, China, Italy and France. So it's very peaceful.

How did you workshop the song "My Generation"?
The interesting thing about that song is it was just another song, one I'd tossed off a couple of times. I'd had a version of it that was a little bit inspired by "Young Man Blues" by Mose Allison. And, very interestingly, when I spoke to Chrissie Hynde a few years back, she said that Ray Davies' demo for "You Really Got Me" was very similar, a bit like a Mose Allison jazz song. And it was only when Dave Davies came in and started thrashing away with his distorted electric guitar that it became the record that we know. Well, interestingly enough, my first version – I did three – of "My Generation" was very much like that. [Sings first verse of "My Generation"] It was a real Mose Allison rip. Mose was a huge, huge crush of mine. I just loved him. I loved everything he did. I did exactly the same thing. We went into the studio with it and beefed it up with Shel Talmy, who produced "You Really Got Me."

The box set features the second and third demo versions of the song. The second has a bit of an R&B feel, and the third introduces a spitting noise where Roger Daltrey would later be stuttering.
The stuttering was definitely something that [Who co-manager] Chris Stamp and I talked about. I'd played version two to Kit Lambert and he didn't like it. He just picked up on something else; I think I'd done a demo of "Magic Bus" or something. He always felt "Kids Are Alright" would be a big hit for the band, and that was in the can before I wrote "My Generation." Time has proven that "Kids Are Alright" is a really popular song with our audience, so he was probably right.

But Chris Stamp, his partner and our manager, was a little more streetwise. And he really liked it and what he said to me is that I should do another demo and make it more Kinks-y. He said I should do some key changes. So I forced in one, two, three key changes upward. The last key change was thrown in so I could do feedback in the studio with my guitar. Anyway, when Kit Lambert heard that, he really got it.

Anyway, what you hear on my demo is me kind of spitting, rather than stuttering. That was meant to be a take on a kid who was pilled up, who was on amphetamines and unable to get his words out properly. By the time we got into the studio, the instruction to Roger was to stutter and that came from Chris Stamp.

Earlier this year, Roger Daltrey told me, "The song doesn't need the stutter so much as it needs the anger." I thought that was an interesting take on it.
Well, I don't know. I think Roger was always kind of tapped into some actual, real rage in him and some real anger. He was a very angry young man, a really quite violent man around that time.

Well there was a brief period in 1965 where he was out of the group because of his anger.
Well, that was justified. We were doing a lot of amphetamines. It must've been driving him fucking mad.

How did you go about writing songs for him in the early days?
I wanted to give him what he needed. I was very aware of that. I was often writing words and songs I felt he would be able to get his teeth into, as it were. At the same time, I was trying to balance out the fact that both John and Keith were really keen on much lighter music. Keith was a big Beach Boys fan – like a surf fan, not so much the stuff that came later from them but the Jan and Dean stuff. And John also was into really quite light music, Duane Eddy and music like that; he liked twangy guitar music. So I had to find a middle way.

With a song like "My Generation," you have the lyrics, which give Roger his chance to stutter and to spit and to shout from deep in his belly and then you have the three-part harmony. So it was pretty difficult writing for Roger.

When did it become easier to write for him?
It was only really when we got to Tommy that Roger decided to dig deep and find some other way of performing and singing. I think I had sung "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me" on the recordings, and one day, Kit took me aside and he said, "Do you mind if I ask Roger if he can sing that?" And I said, "No, of course not. It feels very strange and he's playing the role of Tommy, but I'm kind of singing the inner child here, and I'd just prefer to be the narrator at the beginning; it's clearer." And I went in to IBC studios and Roger had found this new voice. And it wasn't exactly a choirboy, but it was a new voice and I think from then on, Roger realized that he had a full range of sensibilities that he could tap into as a singer.

But prior to that, he was tapping into mainly anger and maybe something bigger than that. I don't really know where it came from to be honest, but I think the thing about the dynamic behind the Who and its audience at the time in '63, '64 would have definitely been rooted in some post-war disaffection. We felt disenfranchised and we felt useless but I don't know quite what drove Roger. He was a fighter and not much of a performer either. He didn't let rip on the stage in the way that Keith and I did. I think with when you listen back to the vocals on the actual multi-tracks, Roger was trying to go for a voice somewhere between Wilson Pickett and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, a real growl. And he did it brilliantly.

The demos disc features a version of The Who Sell Out's "Sunrise," which is jazzier. How did that come about?
That's right. I wrote that when I was still living at home with my mom and dad. I had been living with my friend Barney in a flat near college, then we lost it and before we got another one I lived at home. I had a simple tape machine, and I recorded that song. I remember I played it to my mom and she was really shit [laughs]. I said, "I wrote a song for you." And she went, "Oh, very nice, dear. Anyway, what do you want for dinner?" That kind of thing [laughs]. I think that happens to a lot of young musicians, I'm afraid to say.

You also included a take on "A Legal Matter" where you play a lot of country licks.
Yep. A few people have picked upon that, even from the Who's version. Nick Lowe was doing the Meltdown Festival a few years back in London, and he wanted to do a version of "Legal Matter" kind of like a Johnny Cash song.

I think Roger and I have occasionally done it that way for fun [sings guitar riff]. It fits very well [laughs].

Many of the songs on My Generation are about failed relationships or are sour about love – "A Legal Matter," "The Kids Are Alright." Why is that?
I wasn't ready to give a relationship the kind of time that it needed. I'm not gonna get into my personal issues of self-esteem, but that was pretty low as well at the time. But those were raised to the stratosphere when the beautiful Karen [Astley, Townshend's eventual wife] accepted my plea for a date. But prior to that, there were some great girls that I hung out with and, I don't know, nothing happened. It came late to me. The kind of stuff that was happening to me between ages 19 and 20, most men or boys had started when they were 15 or 16 so they were all finished with that shit by then. And I wasn't.

I started when I was about 18. Probably about halfway through my 18th year, I had sex for the first time, kissed a girl for the first time. So for me, it happened late. And I was still struggling also to balance where I saw myself in the band.

Both Kit and Chris were interesting because Kit Lambert took me into his life. And that was in around August or September of 1964. I'd been very upset about being dragged away from my high school buddies, but there was another world out there. When I got to hang out with Kit and Chris, I realized that life was exciting and full of incredible things, of theater and music and ballet and orchestral music and art and gaiety and great food and good wine and all kinds of things that suddenly came into my orbit. It was a revelation.

It sounds like you were a late bloomer.
Yeah, or whether I bloomed at all, I don't know [laughs]. It certainly came late.

Your experience with romance seems to be reflected in the newly released song from the period "The Girls I Could Have Had."
Yeah. You know, I certainly wouldn't've thought of offering that to Roger. Because he was having a girl every night.

It was a private song and I'm brave enough now to put it out. But it's funny, too, because there's a swagger in it, as well: the idea that if I'd have wanted, I could've fucking had all of you [laughs]. And that really was not the case. What was going on for me is that really terrific girls were offering themselves to me and I had no machinery by which to even fucking notice. I'd be so up my own ass thinking, "Oh, poor me, I just can't do this boyfriend-girlfriend thing." And I think women don't have a lot of patience for that. If they flash their eyes at you, they expect you to see and I wasn't seeing it.

How did you go about making these demos in 1964?
I used a lot of strange techniques. I had very, very limited facilities. I had a bass that was a guitar tuned down. I had a zither, an autoharp that I used to make a kind of banging noise that was a bit echoey. And I had some claves and a shaker, but mainly I had an acoustic guitar and a microphone and that was it.

They sound multitracked, which seems unusual for home recording at that time.
That's right. It would be wrong to call my equipment professional, but Kit and Chris worked in the film business as assistant directors so they were going to buy me two Nagras, which was the type of field recorder used on film sets up until the digital age, around 1995. People use still use them today. They are an absolutely studio-quality, superb, Swiss-made tape machine. The machines I had were kind of a British version of that.

They had this built-in echo effect, kind of like a tape delay. And I would use that in abundance to create a phony stereo. It was great. I used to play these demos to Kit Lambert through two Marshall stacks [laughs]. God knows what the neighbors thought.

Something that strikes me about listening to your My Generation demos is that within a year, you were doing "A Quick One." And a couple after that, you did Tommy. Why do you think you were moving so fast, stylistically?
A lot of it was the help I got from Kit Lambert. He was such a terrific mentor, but I also just loved the studio process and I still do. I'm sitting here in my house talking to you and I can't wait to go back down and fiddle with a few new toys that I've got in my studio. It's what I love to do. My first flat in Belgravia at Chesham Place was a studio. My second flat in Chelsea was a studio, and so it went on. I always feel that if I have an inner artist, as it were, I'm always ready to provide that inner artist with a medium by which we can get stuff down and freeze it, because those moments do pass.

I was able to produce a lot of ideas and play them to Kit and Chris. It was interesting because often it wasn't played to the band. We would go into the studio and I would start to play and I would tell the band what they had to do and they would do it. When the demos got better, I started to play them to the band. But originally, Kit and I just coached the band through the rehearsals.

A few years ago, you and Roger re-recorded parts of My Generation for the stereo version, which are in the box set. Why was that?
When we made the album, [producer] Shel Talmy did a three-track recording and bounced down to mono. As he did so, he added various things, and those were of course left off the mixes because they happened in the air. So although the mono mixes could be revived, the stereo mixes couldn't. So I was adding feedback guitar, backing vocals and odd things like that that were left off of the stereo version.

How did you go about recreating the sound?
I did my overdubs here at my studio at home. It took me a long time to match what was on the record. I finally got it a bit by accident. On "My Generation" there's a bit of feedback where it starts to sing, and I used exactly the same guitar that I used on the session and exactly the same amplifier and microphone and recorded down to tape. I did about four or five takes and finally got it. I think Roger did his vocals with our sound man, Bob Pridden.

Do you play with that guitar and amp setup much?
Nah. The only part of my studio musical world where I have absolutely no reverence is the guitar [laughs]. I'll pick up any old thing. And in the last 20 years, I've started to gather guitars that are good, but I just tend to use whatever's around and plug it into whatever I can plug into and it makes the sound I want to make. And if it doesn't, I tweak it until it does. It's pretty straightforward stuff.

Was it weird playing the same guitar from 50-some-odd years ago?
Well, I do have an identical Rickenbacker. It's the same age. It's not one that dates back to that time because all of those I broke. I smashed seven of them, and I would really like to have them back, so whoever's fucking got them, I wish they'd give them back to me. So I had the same guitar and the same Marshall amp that I used in the studio. Funnily enough, it behaved in a very similar way. It was very easy to get the sound to match the sound.

So it sounds like you do regret breaking some of those guitars.
No, I don't.

You just said you wished you had some of those Rickenbackers back.
No, I meant I want the broken ones back. They're worth more broken than they are intact. They're epochal. There's a photo of me when I was about 20 or 22 with five of them on the wall behind me. Some bright spot said to me, "Give them to me, and I'll take them to my dad in Liverpool and he'll fix them." And I've never seen them again [laughs].

Getting back to the My Generation box set, what do you think about when you look at the album cover. There's a great shot of the band and John Entwistle is in his Union Jack jacket.
My Union Jack jacket. He's wearing my Union Jack jacket. [Pauses] Um, I don't think very much. I never liked the photos from that photo session. I don't quite know why but I never liked that cover [laughs].

But what about just seeing the four of you at that age?
We were young. One of the things about being in this band, I have to tell myself, "Yeah, Pete, you were really clever." And, "Yeah, Pete, you did some stuff when you were very young that was very brilliant." And, "Yeah, it's worth doing again."

But I have to say, it's much nicer to play this stuff to younger audiences, who really haven't grown up with it. And 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.