Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy: Pete Townshend on 'Tommy'

"I quickly realized that it was really the brilliant, untapped writing talent of our lead guitarist that held the key to our success."

December 9, 1971
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Nevis Cameron

On listening to this album, it's very easy to imagine that the whole Who world has been made up of singles. Where Tommy and his lengthy and finally expatriated self come in, it's hard to say. Probably nearer the time of the second album, A Quick One, or Happy Jack, as it was called in the States. Before we even approached the idea of making an album that was an expression of our own feelings, or in the case of the Happy Jack, an album expression of our own insanity, we believed only in singles. In the top ten records and pirate radio. We, I repeat, believed only in singles.

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In England albums were what you got for Christmas, singles were what you bought for prestige. It was the whole recreation of the local dance hall cum discotheque in your own sweet front room. You had to have the regulation tin speaker record player, tin, not twin, housed artistically in a vinyl covered box under a lid with a two-watt amplifier worthy only of use as a baby alarm, and a record deck on which the current top 20 singles could be stacked 12 or 15 high for continuous dancing of the latest dance – which differed only from last week's in the tiniest possible hip-waggling details. A long sentence, but a single sentence. One sentence and you have the truth about singles. We made them tinny to sound tinny. If you made them hi-fi to sound tinny you were wasting your time, after all.

Shel Talmy, who produced our first three singles, was a great believer in "making groups who were nothing, stars." He was also a great believer in pretending the group didn't exist when they were in recording studio. Despite the fact that I go on to say that our first few records are among our best, they were the least fun to make. We only found out recording was fun when we made Happy Jack and the ensuing album with our later-day producer Kit Lambert. However, dear Shel got us our first single hits. So he was as close to being God for a week as any other unworthy soul has been. Of course it was a short week; I quickly realized that it was really the brilliant untapped writing talent of our lead guitarist, needless to say myself, that held the key to our success. Talmy and all following claimers to Who history are imposters.

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As you can see, I feel pretty good about my own contributions to this, the greatest of Who albums. John Entwistle's contribution should have been a single too, that's why it's here. Without a hint of guilt I shout aloud that singles just could be what life is all about. What Rock is all about. What the Spiritual Path is all about! Ask Kit Lambert about shortening a song two hours long with 24 verses, six choruses and 12 overdubbed guitar solos down to two minutes fifty or preferably shorter. Ask him how he did it without offending the composer. Deceit. Lies. Cheating! That's what Rock is all about.

It really is the most incredible thing that after two years of brainwashing himself into being a producer of singles for Top Ten radio play, Kit Lambert actually turned his brain inside out and came up with Rock Opera. Enigmatic paradox. But good thinking for a group who stopped getting hits. Listen to "Magic Bus" and "I Can See For Miles" and tell me why those cuts weren't hits. Tell me why Tommy was. Kit Lambert knows some of the answers, and perhaps because this album covers not only a huge chunk of our English success record-wise, but also our evolving relationship with Kit as our producer, it is, in my opinion (doubly prejudiced, and tainted by possible unearned royalties helping to pay for the tactical nuclear missile I am saving up for) the best collection of singles by the Who there is.

It's all our singles, and it includes all our earliest stuff, excluding "I'm The Face" which might be released soon on the Stones label. "I'm The Face" was our very very first record on an English label called Phillips. It was "written" by our then manager Pete Meadon, fashioner of our mod image. He pinched the tune of "Got Love If You Want It" by Slim Harpo and changed the words to fit the groovy group. That is another, even earlier story, which if ever told, would banish Who mystique forever.

"Can't Explain," more than any other track here, turns me on. We still play this on stage, at the moment we open with it. It can't be beat for straightforward Kink copying. There is little to say about how I wrote this. It came out of the top of my head when I was 18 and a half. It seems to be about the frustrations of a young person who is so incoherent and uneducated that he can't state his case to the bourgeois intellectual blah blah blah. Or, of course, it might be about drugs.

"Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," our second record, was written mainly by myself, but those were political days in late '64. Or was it '65? Roger helped a lot with the final arrangement and got half the credit. Something he does today for nothing, bless him. I was laying on my mattress on the floor listening to a Charlie Parker record when I thought up the title. (It's usually title first with me.) I just felt the guy was so free when he was playing. He was a soul without a body, riding, flying, on music. Listening to the compulsory Dizzy Gillespie solo after one by Bird was always a come-down, however clever Gillespie was. No one could follow Bird. Hendrix must have been his reincarnation especially for guitar players. The freedom suggested by the title became restricted by the aggression of our tightly defined image when I came to write the words. In fact, Roger was really a hard nut then, and he changed quite a few words himself to toughen the song up to suit his temperament. It is the most excitingly pig-headed of our songs. It's blatant, proud and – dare I say it – sassy.

Musically it was a step forward. On "Can't Explain" we had been fully manipulated in the studio, the like of which hasn't been seen since (aside from my darstardly treatment of Thunderclap Newman). Jimmy Page played rhythm on the A side and lead on the B, "Bald Headed Woman." He nearly played lead on the A, but it was so simple even I could play it. The Beverly sisters were brought in to sing backing voices and Keith has done poor imitations on stage ever since. "Can't explaaaain," he screams, hurling drumsticks at the sound man who turns the mike off because he thinks it's feeding back.

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