Tea with Townshend: A Post-'Tommy' Chat on Rock 'N Roll, Recording

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Sometimes there's three of you in a room, it happens very rarely, three or four people maybe, and you get to a certain state, you might all be on completely different trips but what you really want to do is like hug one another. But you know it wouldn't do any good, all you want to say is, "You know, I think you're really a great guy." You know that drunken thing that you might go through when it makes that come out. Makes a stranger your friend. It just was a good way of expressing it. Tom Wright was going, "It's gotta be your next single." It is. And they carried on to do the rest of the verses. By some miracle I remembered it all.

Was "The Seeker" done here or in – ?
I did a version of "The Seeker" which appears on an album which we did for Meher Baba's birthday celebrations, which I still dig more than the version done by the Who. But I normally do, in an egotistical way I always prefer my demos to what the Who does. But. this is just my own trip. Usually you find that when the Who does it, it's completely heavier, whereas with "The Seeker," I felt that the group was just being whipped into shape, and that what I really want to do when we record in the future is to allow the song to emerge as we're actually recording it, something which I've threatened for years and years and years.

You see, recording is really, it's the recording of a process of discovery. It's shifted, it shouldn't be just a performance going down on the tape, it should also be people discovering lyrics for the first time or maybe a song evolving. It's like when I listen to something like, say, the very first demo of "My Generation," the second demo of "My Generation," the third demo of "My Generation," the group's first try at it, the group's second try at it, and then the final try, you know. Then the reduction of that try and then the cut of that try, and then the pressed recording of that try, and you listen to the two things together and they're worlds apart. One has class; it's ridiculous, but I mean the finished thing is kind of polished and slick and it hasn't got too many bum notes in it, that kind of thing. But the demo, it's scruffy, it's hissy, it's lousy, it's distorted, and nobody would be able to listen to it; but none the less, it's got something which the finished one hasn't, and vice versa. The thing is to bridge that gap.

And I mean, no matter what people say about the Band – I know a lot of people really think they're kind of frigid – but I think the reason why so many people dig them is because they've done that. I mean, while they're making sounds they're discovering things, they're practically writing as they're going along, and it's all being recorded as they're doing it. It's like someone picking up a guitar in a room and playing something. Well no, it's not like someone picking up a guitar in a room at all, I mean they're conscious of a heavy performance trip.

Have you ever thought of putting out one side of a record with all the takes of a particular song? You'd put it in free as a bonus record.
Yeah, I tried it once. I did this thing with a friend of mine who's a lecturer at an art college, he – said come down and play some tapes. And everyone was on holiday. I took a system down and I took a load of tapes, and I was going on about the thing that I've been going on about, the difference between the finished thing and the demo, and trying to bridge the gap, just talking about the difference in generations, as it were, in copy dullness that you get between an artist having his work printed and a musician having his work recorded and then fucked about with and perhaps copied and then buggered about with in other countries and so on. And I was playing them this song that's on the Thunderclap Newman album, it's called "Accidents." The original demo's just a guy with a twelve-string going and someone was hitting a cardboard box in the background. But I mean, the first time I heard it, it completely blew my mind. I just knew it was incredible. Then it went into another phase and then into another phase and then a kind of a crisp recording, and I played them all three. And they flipped for the finished thing. Nobody even mentioned the early one.

It sounds like they're brainwashed to me – terrible. Maybe you're right: Maybe if you did allow people the time to digest – no, that's wrong, it's wrong, it's not true. The thing is, if you give them three versions, they're going to make a choice. If you give them the one version, let's face it, I was lucky, because first I heard the first version, got hip to that; then I heard the second version, got hip to that: then I heard the final version, so now I'm hip to them all. You play them all bang-bang-bang – like that – and it doesn't happen. There's no evolution there, because you're not working towards anything, it's all finished material. I don't think it would work. Young musicians would find it interesting, maybe, to see how songs evolved.

How much interested are you in the effect your songs have? Like the effect of Tommy on people listening to it?
I'm very worried about the effect of Tommy because we wanted to avoid so many of the things that actually happened with people. I don't mind, for example, a kid coming up and saying, "Something very incredible happened to me while I was listening to Tommy and I felt a spiritual awakening" or anything – I mean, that's cool, because if I could have got at someone like Dylan or the Beatles in the past, or in my case it would probably have been the Stones, I probably would have said similar things to them, particularly to Brian Jones, whom I used to see a lot, who used to come and look at me with boss eyes and wonder what I was talking about. I don't mind that, but what I do mind is a situation when people hear about that kind of thing and expect it to happen part and parcel with the music. I don't think kids take that kind of journalism seriously, but you've got to admit that most of the stuff that was written about Tommy was fantastically unbalanced, without exception, it was all unbalanced. I think the thing is that there was nothing real about the criticism of it. but there was something very real about what we were trying to do; we were trying to fuck the criticism from the word go, so that the whole thing was watertight.

But because the structure was loose, a lot of things could be read into it, too.
Exactly, I mean, this is what I suddenly realized. The thing was we wanted it to work on lots of levels. We said, well, you know, we want to turn on the spiritually hip, we want to turn on the fuckers and the streetfighters and everyone, we just want to turn on the whole gang. We want to turn on the opera lovers but also we want to turn on other people as well. And we succeeded in turning on a lot of people that weren't included before, but what we also succeeded in doing was confusing a lot of people. Let's face it, the Who were the Who before they did that, and that's the key, that's where the thing clearly went out of balance. It's very strange to be talking about something like Tommy as a kind of a failure, but I think the thing itself, everything we intended to do, we did.

I believe rock can do anything, it's the ultimate vehicle for everything. It's the ultimate vehicle for saying anything, for putting down anything, for building up anything, for killing and creating. It's the absolute ultimate vehicle for selfdestruction, which is the most incredible thing, because there's nothing as effective as that, not in terms of art, anyway, or what we call art. You just can't be as effectively self-destructive if you're a writer, for example, or a painter, you just can't make sure that you're never going to fucking raise your head again; whereas if you're a rock star you really can. And of course, all this choice is always there. There's always musicians who say, "Well, I've had enough." There's always somebody there saying, "Really?"

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