After bassist John Entwistle died suddenly in June 2002, Pete Townshend says he wasn't sure the Who would ever tour again. "I had been shamed by Roger [Daltrey] into doing quite a few tours to help John, who then promptly fucking dies on us," says the guitarist, seated in a trailer outside Bray Studios in London, where the Who are rehearsing for a European summer tour that will hit the U.S. in the fall. "I decided if I were to ever go back on tour with Roger, it has to be for honorable reasons. I had to lead with the creative work – do something I really believe in."
Townshend says he found that motivation with Wire and Glass, a nine-song "mini-opera" EP (out July 10th), to be followed in October by the Who's first studio album since 1982's It's Hard. The new material's closest kin is 1971's Who's Next, where the band first paired roots-tinged anthems with the synthesizer sounds that came to define hits such as "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." In fact, two of the new songs, "Pick Up the Peace" and "Sound Round," are based on lyrics Townshend wrote for Who's Next.
Conceptually, Wire and Glass is based on The Boy Who Heard Music, a novella Townshend wrote last year about the rise and fall of a band called Glass Household from the perspective of a man Townshend says "is like me but is not me."
"I've been carrying this around for years," he says. "And when I started to loosen up the flow of ideas, they came very, very fast."
In addition to arena concerts, the Who – with John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards, Pino Palladino on bass and Zak Starkey on drums – will play an assortment of smaller shows where they perform "a coherent version" of Tommy, Quadrophenia and the new mini-opera. For the bigger shows, they're adding some thirty rarely played tunes into their repertoire, including songs like "Relay" and "A Quick One While He's Away." At rehearsals, however, Townshend jokingly dismissed the idea of playing "I'm a Boy." After stopping a run-through of the song, he announced, "I don't think a registered sex offender should be playing a song called 'I'm a Boy.'" (In 2003, Townshend received a police caution for accessing a child pornography Web site while doing research for his autobiography.)
The tour began on June 17th, when the Who returned to Leeds University for the first time since recording their historic Live at Leeds there in 1970. As with all the shows on this tour, a portion of the Leeds gig was webcast in real time at thewholive.tv for a fee of ninety-nine cents; all revenues will be donated to charity. "There's a sense now for me that the stage chemistry between Roger and I is still developing since John's death," says Townshend. "How often do you put a band together in school and forty years later you're still trying to learn how to have a conversation with each other? Roger and I are just completely different energies and spirits, but where we join together is under this brand name. We have the right to call it the Who, and our fans have the right to hope it will create a continuity to the legacy. But it is a legacy. It's a legacy: It's dead."
This story is from the July 13th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.