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Pete Townshend Talks Mods, Recording, and Smashing Guitars

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Were you happy about it?
Deep inside I was very unhappy because the thing had got broken. It got around and the next week the people came and they came up to me and they said "Oh, we heard all about it, man; it's 'bout time someone gave it to a guitar" and all this kind of stuff. It kind of grew from there, we'd go to another town and people would say "Oh yea, we heard that you smashed a guitar." It built and built and built and built and built and built until one day, a very important daily newspaper came to see us and said, "Oh, we hear you're the group that smashes their guitars up. Well we hope you're going to do it tonight, because we're from the Daily Mail. If you do, you'll probably make the front pages."

This was only going to be like the second guitar I'd ever broken, seriously. I went to my manager, Kit Lambert, and I said, you know, "Can we afford it, can we afford it, it's for publicity." He said "Yes, we can afford it, if we can get the Daily Mail." I did it and of course the Daily Mail didn't buy the photograph and didn't want to know about the story. After that I was into it up to my neck and have been doing it since.

Was it inevitable that you were going to start smashing guitars?
It was due to happen because I was getting to the point where I'd play and I'd play and I mean, I still can't play how I'd like to play. Then it was worse. I couldn't play the guitar; I'd listen to great music, I'd listen to all the people I dug, time and time again. When The Who first started we were playing blues, and I dug the blues and I knew what I was supposed to be playing, but I couldn't play it. I couldn't get it out. I knew what I had to play, it was in my head. I could hear the notes in my head, but I couldn't get them out on the guitar. I knew the music and I knew the feeling of the thing and the drive and the direction and everything.

It used to frustrate me incredibly. I used to try and make up visually for what I couldn't play as a musician. I used to get into very incredible visual things where in order just to make one chord more lethal, I'd make it a really lethal looking thing whereas really it's just going to be picked normally. I'd hold my arm up in the air and bring it down so it really looked lethal, even if if didn't sound too lethal. Anyway, this got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until eventually I was setting myself incredible tasks.

How did this effect your guitar playing?
Instead I said "All right, you're not capable of doing it musically, you've got to do it visually," I became a huge, visual thing. In fact I forgot all about the guitar because my visual thing was more my music than the actual guitar. I got to jump about and the guitar became unimportant. I banged it and I let it feed back and scraped it and rubbed it up against the microphone, did anything, it wasn't part of my act, even. It didn't deserve any credit or any respect. I used to bang it and hit it against walls and throw it on the floor at the end of the act.

And one day it broke. It just wasn't part of my thing and ever since then I've never really regarded myself as a guitarist. When people come up to me and say like "Who's your favorite guitarist?" I say "I know who my favorite guitarist is, but asking me, as a guitarist, forget it because I don't make guitar-type comments. I don't talk guitar talk, I just throw the thing around." Today still I'm learning. If I play a solo, it's a game to me because I can't play what I want to play. That's the thing: I can't get it out because I don't practice. When I should be practicing, I'm writing songs and when I'm writing songs, I should be practicing.

Do you find it funny that people regard you as an excellent guitarist?
I find it astounding and I find it hard to believe if anyone ever says that they rate me as a guitarist at all. Although I dig my guitar playing, I think it's kind of an obvious situation, I play what I want to play within my own restrictions. I like to play like [Steve] Cropper. I like to play simply and tastefully and when I make records at home, you know, I play simply and tastefully and I don't play like I do on the stage. I don't play big chords and I don't smash the guitar around. I just do the things which I feel are well within my capabilities as a rhythmic musician.

With the compliment I immediately think of the people I dig. Someone compliments me and I think I must move the compliment around to somebody that I really dig like Hendrix and would say I'm nowhere near someone like that as a guitarist and so the compliment feels out of place. I think, "Well, okay the guy's not saying you're a good guitarist, he's saying what you play you put over well," or "What you want to put over comes out." If I look like a good guitar player it's because that's my whole thing, to look like I'm playing the guitar, but really I'm not.

You said you spend most of your time writing songs in your basement.
A lot of writing I do on tour. I do a lot on airplanes. At home, I write a lot, obviously. When I write a song, what I usually do is work the lyric out first from some basic idea that I had and then I get an acoustic guitar and I sit by the tape recorder and I try to bang it out as it comes. Try to let the music come with the lyrics. If I dig it, I want to add things to it, like I'll add bass guitar or drums or another voice. This is really for my own amusement that I do this.

The reason "I Can See For Miles" came out good was because I sat down and made it good from the beginning. The fact that I did a lot of work on arrangements and stuff like that doesn't really count. I think that unless the actual song itself is good, you know, you can do all kinds of incredible things to it, but you're never gonna get it. not unless the meat and potatoes are there. Although I do fuck around in home studios and things like that, I think it's of no importance; I don't think it's really got anything to do with what makes the Who the Who.

Does what you write in your home studio ever come out on records?
Most of it gets out, but the recordings I make myself in my own studio, don't. They might in the future, but they would only come out if they had the Who on them. To put out a record of me banging away on guitar or bass drums collectively and generally being a one-man band wouldn't be a very good idea. I'd like to use my studio to record the group because interesting things happen in small environmental sound recording stiuations like Sony tape recorders, for example, which don't happen in studios. It's a well known fact.

When you work out an arrangement and figure out the bass line and the various voices, is that just directly translated onto a record that would be released?
More or less, but then we don't really take it that grimly; I mean what happens is I will suggest the bass riff on the demonstrations record, John takes up and goes from there. But the bass (line) I would suggest on the demo, as I said earlier, would be very simple, it would be economical, tasteful and just a vehicle for the song, making the bass line, and if I use them the piano or drum, as simple and effective as possible in putting the song across to the group.

Instead of me hacking my songs around to billions of publishers trying to get them to dig them, what I've got to do is get the rest of the band to dig my number. If I've got a number that I dig I know that I've got to present it to them in the best light. That's why I make my own recordings so when they first hear it, it's not me stoned out of my mind plunking away on a guitar trying to get my latest number across. It's a finished work that might take me all night to get together, but nevertheless it's gonna win them over.

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