The Who Come To A Fork In The Road

Months before Keith Moon's death, the band speaks with Rolling Stone

the who cover illustration
Illustration by Robert Grossman
The Who on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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This poor hotel,'' says Pete Townshend, gesturing at his spacious suite in the Navarro Hotel on New York's posh Central Park South. ''Mr. Russell, the bloke that manages this hotel, welcomes Keith [Moon] like an old friend. And yet, if any hotel has suffered at Keith's hands, it's this place.

''Keith actually picked a hole through the wall. Bobby Pridden, our road manager, had the group's record player in his room and he had a security bolt, a big hefty one, on his door. There was no way we could get in the door – we even got a key and couldn't get in.

''Keith said, 'I'm gonna fuckin' get in there.' He went into a closet and found a couple of loose pieces and started to pick. He sat there for two hours, picking at the bricks with a knife and his bare hands. And he finally got a brick out, and thrust his hand into the room. And started to pull other bricks out and finally got into the room – through the wall.''

This familiar tale belongs at the beginning, not because this is another story about the Who on tour, but because it isn't. Even though Who Are You, the band's first L.P. in three years, has just been released, they have no plans to go out on the road.

Nonetheless, Townshend, Moon and Roger Daltrey came to America in early August to promote the album. Only John Entwistle remained in England to wrap up the soundtrack for the first project produced by the Who's Shepperton Films studio, A documentary look at the groups career, The Kids Are Alright should be released around Christmas. But a film seems an inadequate substituie for a tour.

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A short clip shown during Townshend's and Moon's appearance on ABC's Good Morning America made it clear why touring is so essential for the Who. There was Roger Daltrey, his hair mod short, singing ''I Can't Explain,'' the group's first hit single, at London's Marquee club where the band got its professional start in 1964-'65.

The film clip is a perfect encapsulation of the spirit that has defined the Who for fifteen years, because, unlike any other band of its generation, the Who made their reputation performing, much more than recording. Partly this is because they recorded relatively few records: the Beatles made as many albums (fifteen) from 1964-'70 as the Who have made to date. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles are remembered for hit songs like ''Satisfaction'' and ''She Loves You.'' The Who are remembered for their performances: the early guitar-bashing in England, the climactic appearances at Monterey and Woodstock. Even Tommy, their rock opera, came fully to life only onstage.

Everyone recognizes this, from fans to the group itself. Moon and Daltrey speak as romantically of touring as other men do of licentious high-school dream dates. John Entwistle says frankly, ''It's just not in me'' to stop touring. Even Pete Townshend admits he'd love to find a way.

But Townshend, for now at least, remains adamantly against a tour. His reasons are complex, but in essence there are only two: his family and his hearing.

''The last three years [of relative inactivity by the Who] have been the happiest of my life as far as my family goes,'' Townshend said on Good Morning America. And while Townshend is not deaf (yet), ''Electric guitar hurts my ears, It's bad to the extent that if I'm subjected to really loud noise for a long time, I get a lot of pain. And, apparently, pain is the indication of further damage.''

(''Really loud noise for a long time'' is, of course, an apt definition of a Who concert. As Townshend says of his guitar style, ''To some extent, the thing about that sound is the pain of it. The thing I used to adore was the fact that it hurt.'')

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Still, the Who seem more like a band than they have in years. The conflicts between Daltrey and Townshend have been resolved – they speak of each other as friends rather than as enemies enjoying a temporary truce. Keith Moon seems on the way to recovery from whatever physical and mental demons have plagued him. And Who Are You points to greater musical integration as well: John Entwistle wrote three of its nine songs, and Daltrey sings two of those, although he has sung only two other Entwistle numbers in his career. The playing is grand in the way that Who's Next was, which makes it ideal for onstage interpretation.

''We're not perfectionists,'' Townshend said on TV. ''We're idealists. We think that rock & roll is more than just music for kids. Rock music is important to people because in this crazy world it allows you to face up to problems. But at the same time, to sort of dance all over 'em.''

Because they're a Sixties band, the Who feel a special sense of responsibility (shared, perhaps, only by the ex-Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones) not only about musical matters but about questions of lifestyle, image and ethics. For Townshend, these are especially weighty concerns: rock is not just a livelihood and a fantastic source of energy, it is so much a cornerstone of belief that he sees his spiritual master, Meher Baba, ''through two slits. R & R.''

This sense of responsibility is at the core of Townshend's determination to avoid a lengthy tour. ''The problem with rock & roll is it's the kind of thing that when you become involved with it, you become obsessed. If my old lady's jealous of anything, it's not the people that share my life when I'm on the road – that's my problem. To some extent, she's jealous of rock.''

The problem isn't Townshend's wife, Karen, who in any case might be more sympathetic than most to the problems facing a musician: her brother, Jon Astley, coproduced Who Are You with Glyn Johns. Her father, Ted Astley, did the record's excellent string arrangements. But the issue isn't what Pete Townshend's wife expects of him; it is what he expects of himself.

To a certain extent, the rock business forces a divorce from leading any sort of normal life. Describing his relationship with Who manager Bill Curbishley, Townshend says, ''You know, if he goes and puts his name on four or five contracts that's it: the Who tour OR the Who break up. So it's like being a big having-your-nappies-changed kid. And then going home and being expected to be some kind of stable barometer.''

It is Townshend's despair of ever becoming truly adult that plagues his conscience when he thinks of touring. The responsibility he feels for his audience and the rock ideal is outweighed, at least for now, by the responsibility he feels to his family.

''The worst thing is when you actually get back after a lengthy tour, feeling that you can then stop living, saying, 'Well, I can't really give, because I've done my gig.' Well, how does any guy feel when he comes home at the end of his working day that he does every day of his life from Square One to Square Ninety? I mean, he's expected to come home and be the father, and be the husband and be the lover and be everything else. And somehow that is something that modern men are very aware of, because women have sort of taken 'em and shaken' em and said, 'Listen, this is what I want from you. It's more than just the pay packet at the end of the day, and your feet up on the sofa, and wait for me to serve you your dinner. I wanna relate to you. I wanna be with you.'

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''The kids, too. You were recently a kid, and I was recently a kid, and I demanded a whole lot more of my fuckin' parents, in terms of their realness. I wanted them to be more real than they were capable of being, to a great extent. To then take all those things that we demand and want today – all of us – and say that you're excused all of that because you happened to go on the road for fifteen or sixteen weeks at a stretch . . . that that absolves you of all normality, that you don't have to be normal in any sense of the word, because you're not leading a normal existence.

''All the atrocities of war. why are they created? Why do men spear babies on bayonets? Why do they do it? Because they're not normal, they're not living a normal life. When I see rock & roll being guilty of that, you know, that hurts.''

Roger Daltrey is probably the person most concerned with the absence of stage work, for Daltrey's peculiar skills come completely into play only onstage (in the studio, he keeps considerable distance, acting as an objective observer/adviser on the instrumental tracks, and recording his vocals alone with the producer). And this setback has come at a particularly unfortunate time for, as he admits. ''As a singer. I think I've grown up. I used to feel intimidated by Pete's demos. And on this album I just went out there and done my thing.''

Townshend said last year in Rolling Stone that he sometimes felt he was pushing ideas down the throat of the group, particularly Roger. But Daltrey denies it. ''I'm sure people can think it sounds like Pete pushing his thing on the rest of 'em. It isn't like that. I've always felt in tune with what the songs say. I'm a Pete Townshend fan, believe it or not.

''I understand what Pete's going through,'' Roger says. ''And I sympathize with it. But I don't agree with him. I've just got a feeling if we stop touring now, I know I shall regret it, and I know Pete will. That's the one thing that's always worried me about it. I never want to not do something and say, when I'm like forty, 'Oh fuck, I wish I'd done that. Wish I'd gigged.'''

There is another reason Daltrey feels the Who must tour. ''I've seen some things on television since I've been here, like that California Jam II. Fuckin' hell, man. Who was it, Santana? I just thought. 'Someone get out there and mean it, please.' The Who should get back on the road if that's what's around.

''All it is, is realizing love for other people. I mean the first time you start loving someone else other than you – you're at that point. If you ever reach a full peace, I don't know. But you do reach a level where you cease being so selfish.''

Finally, of course, if there is anything on which Townshend and Daltrey are in complete agreement, it is that the Who is an idealist band. ''I'll back Pete up one hundred percent on what he said about it helps you dance all over your problems.'' He pauses, as if wondering how to convey the next part of his thought.

''But it's the dancing that's important as well.''

Since the early days of the Who, whether scuffling on tour in America or being expelled from airplanes in Europe, Keith Moon has had the reputation of a rock & roll demiurge. But lately, according to all reports, his excesses have begun to catch up with him. He has been rumored to be hopelessly alcoholic, as well as several other sorts of mentally and physically ill. Moon claims that all this has been ''amazingly exaggerated.'' Nonetheless, back at the Navarro after Good Morning America, the first bottle of wine was poured before ten a.m.

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Moon has only recently returned to London after living for the better part of the period between LPs in Los Angeles, which he hated. But now, he says. ''I feel I've got a sense of purpose. In the two years off, I was really drifting away with no direction, no nothing. I'd try to do things and get involved in projects but nothing ever came close to the feeling I get when I'm working with the guys. Because it's fun, but at the same time I know I've gotta discipline myself again.

''I accept that. And also, it teaches me to take it as well as dish it out – that's rock. It's something you learn quickly in the Who.''

At first, Moon remembers, ''We'd thrash it out in a physical way. I'd fantasize that it was Pete's problem, or John's problem or Roger's problem. And it wasn't. It was my fault, cause I couldn't take it. So I've grown up, a little, from learning that.''

And, saying that, he gets up and blasts ''Surf City'' by Jan and Dean from his cassette recorder. Then he traipses over to the window to raise the blind. He gives it a tug and it springs back at him, hits the floor and rolls back up. He looks at the mess and laughs heartily.

Some people just have the knack.

That's as close as we may ever expect Keith Moon to come to baring the dark side of his soul. Indeed, such disclosures are reminiscent of Pete Townshend's famous interviews, full of recrimination and brutal self-analysis. That mood now permeates the Who.

On the placid side street of rock, cronyism is the highest virtue. Yet the Who have always been, as Daltrey admits, ''the one family in the street that fucks up the neighborhood.'' But now this bickering has taken on a new aspect: if the members are still far from reluctant to criticize themselves, they are genuinely solicitous of one another's feelings. It's as if they've finally realized that, however strong the ties that bind them, they are also fragile. ''And there's a weird thing happening at the moment,'' Daltrey says, ''We're suddenly finding great, great joy in realizing that in essence we're all very much the same.''

Who Are You is the result of that realization, but not the source of the change in attitude. The key to the latter is The Who by Numbers. Shortly after By Numbers' release in 1975, the group seemed to disavow it. The product of despair, its dead-end perspective might easily have been the end of the line for the band. There was a sense that, at any moment, it all could fly apart.

''That's the thirty-one-year-old's feeling: one wrong move and I'm out the window,'' Daltrey continues. ''It's the first time you realize there's a fuckin' hole in the ground waiting for you. You feel that you're mortal and you really do reevaluate. Peter obviously went through it before I did, because when By Numbers came out, I didn't associate with it at all.''

Townshend says that 1975 was not a period of personal bitterness but one of apathy. It began with a riotous series of interviews in the British press, in which Townshend took potshots at the sorry state of rock in general, and what he saw as the Who's utter failure to come up with another project as profoundly popular as Tommy. Most of all, he laid into Daltrey and Daltrey responded in kind. Seen in this context, Daltrey's anger probably did save the songs and the group.

''Pete was having all kinds of problems after [the film] Tommy,'' Daltrey says. ''I mean, he thanked me for doing it in the end. But it was hard to live with. Fuckin' hell, I knew how it was gonna hurt him, and I didn't want to hurt him that much. But I wanted to say, 'Look, for fuck's sake, get off your ass and let's get it together or let's give it all up, because you can't pussyfoot around with a band like the Who.''' It was precisely at this moment that the Sex Pistols arrived on the scene. They agreed that rock was completely fucked up and blamed a great deal of the problem on war-horse Sixties bands like the Who. Who Are You's title song is an oblique description of Pete's initial meeting with the Sex Pistols. Originally written as a secularized Sufi chant, the Sex Pistols tale was meant to be simply a frame, but the experience overwhelmed the song's spiritual message.

Meeting the Sex Pistols (actually only Paul Cook and Steve Jones) was a watershed experience for Townshend. ''I was telling Paul Cook about the shit that I'd been through and the Who were fucking finished and everything was finished and rock & roll was finished, if this was what it was down to. They were the only band that had a chance. And that they had to fuckin' pick up the banner.

''And they weren't interested in rock ideals. I mean, all Paul Cook and Steve Jones were into was going around the world and making money and fucking birds. Really! To that extent. I've met them since and I've said that publicly and they haven't come up and sort of said, 'Hey no! It's not true. We do care about our music.' They just wanted to be in a band and be successful.

''I was preachin' at 'em and preachin' at 'em. And in the end I was so disgusted, and Paul Cook said to me, 'The Who aren't gonna break up, are they?' I said, 'What does it matter if the Who break up. We're destroyed . . . . We've compromised everything to bits anyway. We're prostitutes.' He said. ''Cause we really like the Who, don't we, Steve. Be a drag if they broke up.' Arrrgh!

''Since then, I've met Johnny Rotten and he is completely different. He's such a great guy – sort of like meeting a white Jimi Hendrix. I can't explain it. Just the feeling of being in the presence of someone that's really great. And who isn't gonna compromise.''

It is not as though, without touring, the Who have nothing to do. In addition to The Kids Are Alright, two other feature films are in the works: Quadrophenia, a dramatization of the rock opera, with music but no acting by the group; and Lifehouse, the science-fiction fantasy that was originally planned as the followup to Tommy. The best Lifehouse material instead formed the basis of Who's Next – ''Baba O'Riley,'' ''The Song Is Over,'' ''Won't Get Fooled Again'' – but certain songs on the new album (''Guitar and Pen,'' for instance) are also part of the story, about a world in which music does not exist and what happens when rock makes its first appearance. (John Entwistle scrapped his long-planned science-fiction solo album to incorporate some of its songs into Lifehouse; as a result, ''905'' which was to be that LP's title song, is included on Who Are You).

Additionally, the Who have a book-publishing company, which specializes in children's titles, music volumes and the occasional sponsorship of a Meher Baba publication. Townshend speaks of making a solo LP: he is making a musical film about a violent incident of his youth for a British arts festival and supporting his friend John Annunziato's New York-based film-production company. Nunzi Productions, which has already done several interview films with earlier Baba devotees. The group has a company which provides tour support and business counsel to young bands of merit (including one led by Simon Townshend, Pete's younger brother). Daltrey is preparing his fourth solo LP, with some material written by Townshend and Who protégé Steve Gibbons. Moon is acting as publicity director for Shepperton Films, the group's sound-stage venture. Still, everyone knows that all this activity is really only secondary.

Townshend admits that he entered rock & roll with a lack of self-esteem and that he still hasn't completely conquered his feelings of inferiority. While we talked, a few fans dropped by the hotel room, one of them particularly obnoxious. Townshend handled him gently, but later he remarked, ''I used to look at types like him and they used to turn 'round and sneer at me. 'Cause I didn't look right, 'cause I didn't act right, 'cause I wasn't right. I didn't have anything to offer. So what I've got to do now is learn to accept that, because to some extent I've reached where I wanted to arrive at in the first place.''

Does that require new motivation? ''No. Because if you've actually done what it requires to actually fit you into a place in life which makes you feel comfortable, then why do you have to make yourself uncomfortable, to keep getting back into that same place again?'' And still, the feeling persists that Townshend might feel a reluctance to tour, the thing he's clearly best at, precisely because there aren't any, or many, other obstacles to material happiness in his path.

Roger Daltrey clearly thinks this is the case. ''I'm gonna stick in there with him, and give him problems. Because if he solves all his problems he will stop creating. He's like all artists who create that way.''

But can Daltrey solve this latest problem? ''I don't know. If I say yes, y'see, he's gonna stick his nose in and say, 'You fuckin' bloody fuck.' But if I say no . . . . What shall I say? I'm workin' on it. Workin' on it.''

This story is from the October 5, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 275: October 5, 1978
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