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

Page 3 of 3

There are a few cuts on this album that are good because they are as simple as nursery rhymes. "Legal Matter," for example, is about a guy on the run from a chick about to pin him down for breach of promise. What this song was screaming from behind lines like, "It's a legal matter baby, marrying's no fun, it's a legal matter baby, you got me on the run," was "I'm lonely, I'm hungry, and the bed needs making." I wanted a maid I suppose. It's terrible feeling like an elegible bachelor but with no women seeming to agree with you. "Pinball Wizard" is, quite simply, quite pimply, from Tommy. It's my favorite song on the album and was actually written as a ploy to get Nick Cohn, who is an avid pinball player to be a little more receptive to my plans for a Rock Opera. Nick writes on and off for New York Times. I know which side my Aronowitz is buttered, mate!

From the superb production of 'Pinball" it is hard to imagine that anything produced by Kit Lambert with the Who before "Pinball" could stand up. There are two songs that do. "Pictures of Lily" just jells perfectly somehow. Merely a ditty about masturbation and the importance of it to a young man. I was really digging at my folks who, when catching me at it, would talk in loud voices in the corridor outside my room. "Why can't he go with girls like other boys." The real production masterpiece in the Who/Lambert coalition was, of course, "I Can See For Miles. "The version here is not the mono, which is a pity because the mono makes the stereo sound like the Carpenters. We cut the track in London at CBS studios and brought the tapes to Gold Star studios in Hollywood to mix and master them. Gold Star have the nicest sounding echo in the world. And there is just a little of that on the mono. Plus, a touch of homemade compressor in Gold Star's cutting room. I swoon when I hear the sound. The words, which aging senators have called "Drug Orientated," are about a jealous man with exceptionally good eyesight. Honest.

Photos: The Who's 10 Greatest Songs

Two of the tracks here are produced by the Who, not Kit Lambert. One is "Substitute." We made this straight after "Generation" and Kit wasn't really in a position to steam in and produce, that honor being set aside as a future bunce for Robert Stigwood. God forbid. A blonde chap called Chris at Olympic studios got the sound, set up a kinky echo, did the mix etc. I looked on and have taken the credit whenever the opportunity has presented itself ever since. Keith can't even remember doing the session, incidentally, a clue to his condition around that period. The other Who-produced cut was "The Seeker." "The Seeker" is just one of those odd Who records. I suppose I like this least of all the stuff. It suffered from being the first thing we did after Tommy, and also from being recorded a few too many times. We did it once at my home studio, then at IBC where we normally worked then with Kit Lambert producing. Then Kit had a tooth pulled, breaking his jaw, and we did it ourselves. The results are impressive. It sounded great in the mosquito-ridden swamp I made it up in – Florida at three in the morning drunk out of my brain with Tom Wright and John Wolf. But that's always where the trouble starts, in the swamp. The alligator turned into an elephant and finally stampeded itself to death on stages around England. I don't think we even got to play it in the States.

The only non Townshend track on the album is also a non single. Politics or my own shaky vanity might be the reason, but "Boris the Spider" was never released as a single and could have been a hit. It was the most requested song we ever played on stage, and if this really means anything to you guitar players, it was Hendrix's favorite Who song. Which rubbed me up well the wrong way, I can tell you. John introduced us to "Boris" in much the same way as I introduced us to our "Generation": through a tape recorder. We assembled in John's three feet by ten feet bedroom and listened incredulously as the strange and haunting chords emerged. Laced with words about the slightly gruesome death of a spider the song had enough charm to send me back to my pad writing hits furiously. It was a winner, as Harry would say. It still is, for the life of me I don't know why we still don't play it, and the other Entwistle masterpiece, "Heaven and Hell," on the stage anymore. There is no piece for the wicked, John's writing is wicked, his piece here is "Boris."

Of interest to collectors is "I'm a Boy." This is a longer and more relaxed version of the single which was edited and had fancy voices added. The song, of course, is about a boy whose mother dresses him up as a girl and won't let him enjoy all the normal boyish pranks like slitting lizards' tummies and throwing rocks at passing cars. Real Alice Cooper syndrome. Of course Zappa said it all when he wrote his original Rock Opera. Nobody noticed, so he had to write a satire on the one Rock Opera people did notice. "I'm a Boy" was my first attempt at Rock Opera. Of course the subject matter was a little thin, then what of Tommy?

We get right down to the Who nitty gritty with "Magic Bus." Decca Records really smarmed all over this one. Buses painted like Mickey Mouse's first trip. Album covers featuring an unsuspecting Who endorsing it like it was our idea. "Magic Bus" was a bummer. For one thing, we really like it. It was a gas to record and had a mystical quality to the sound. The first time ever I think that you could hear the room we were recording in when we made it. The words however are garbage, again loaded with heavy drug inference. For example, "thruppence and sixpence every way, trying to get to my baby." Obviously a hint at the ever rising prices of LSD.

When I wrote "Magic Bus,' LSD wasn't even invented as far as I knew. Drug songs and veiled references to drugs were not part of the Who image. If you were in the Who and took drugs, you said "I take drugs," and waited for the fuzz to come. We said it but they never came. We very soon got bored with drugs. No publicity value. Buses, however! Just take another look at Decca's answer to an overdue Tommy; "The Who, Magic Bus, On Tour." Great title, swinging presentation. Also a swindle as far as insinuating that the record was live. Bastards. They have lived to regret it, but not delete it. This record is what that record should have been. It's the Who at their early best. Merely nippers with big noses and small genitals trying to make the front page of the Daily News. Now Peter Max – there's a guy who knows how to use a bus! They pay him to ride on them.

Tea with Townshend: A Post-'Tommy' Chat on Rock 'N Roll, Recording & The Man Who Died Every Day

To wind up, this album is a piece of history that we want you to know about. It's really a cross-section of our English successes, and when in the States, and we get compared to come and go heavies who, like everyone else, influence us a little, we get paranoid that a lot of American Rock fans haven't heard this stuff. They might have heard us churn out a bit on the stage, but not the actual cuts. As groups, Cream, Hendrix & Zeppelin etc. have gotten bigger than the Who ever did and a lot quicker. But they don't have the soild. Rock solid foundation that we have in this album. This album is as much for us as for you, it reminds us who we really are. The Who.

This story is from the December 9th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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