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Townshend On 'Tommy': Behind the Who's Rock Opera

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Is this a metaphor for pop music, which at one time was an unconscious thing and now is taken on a serious religious level?

"I dunno. "Pinball Wizard" is a very groovy time but it doesn't compare with divinity in any way at all. I happen to be at that stage, so I operate better at that stage. I don't happen to be divine at the moment. I can't express the magnificence of divinity in music, but I can express the grooviness of being a pinball champ because I'm a pop star which is very close. The absurdity of being a pinball champion!

"Pinball's more rewardingly obsessive than something like golf where the obsession can be sidetracked – 'Well I just do it for the fresh air' – and all that bollocks. You can't escape from the basics; it's just getting a ball into a hole. I mean, it's a machine simply made to be a match for man. A very important process.

"People play their own pinball in other ways, like I muck around with tape recorders all the time. It's the same fascination with machines, and it'll show itself far more in the future when machines get even better. Most people's pinball machines are their cars. The car obsession is overwhelming, but it's there and I imagine it can only increase. I think it's groovy – why not? I thrive on modern things – good hifi, amplifiers, tape recorders, colour television. A lot of them look like they're all padding, but there's far less than you'd imagine."

The pinball wizard wins by intuition; what part does intuition play?

"People talk about the bulge, the youth of today, acid, all this. I feel that intuition is taking over, that education is becoming pointless because of its failures . . . and when classes and groups like negros do eventually get their pride back and nations do resolve their petty problems . . . it's a hard road but it will happen, you know . . . intuition is going to start taking over as a mental process.

"There's going to be so much scientific information that unless you're a ruthless specialist you might as well leave it to computers. Like when you throw a cigarette butt into an ashtray on the other side of the room, you can judge the rake, the height and angle because you have the equipment to do it. It often goes in without thinking. That's no accident, because the arithmetic went on. That's what man's about; intuitive magnificence on legs. But as a mathematical machine, man's a waste of time."

"Sensation" is the song Tommy sings after he's regained his senses. He realises who he is and becomes totally aware. The sound of the song is like the Beach Boys; the moment is that of divinity. Tommy is worshipping himself, knowing what he is and speaking the truth.

Exclusive Audio: Jann Wenner's 1968 Interview with Pete Townshend

"I really dig the Beach Boys. Their incredibly architectural control of music is as powerful as the Who anyday. "I Can Hear Music" has one of the most powerful musical backings I've ever heard . . . they're another group I dig because they aren't afraid of saying what they feel they should, like the Beatles . . . well, John Lennon at least. Or Dylan, though I think he tends to close himself . . . I don't know.

"I used all the sensation stuff because after all this time where Tommy's just been getting vibrations, now he's turned the tables. Now you're going to feel me! I'm in everything; I'm the explosion; I'm a sensation. Our influences in the Who are often directly attributable to certain things that certain groups have done at certain times. But "Sensation" is indefinable for me. I can't really put my finger on where it came from.

"'I'm Free' came from 'Street Fighting Man.' This has a weird time/shape and when I finally discovered how it went, I thought 'well blimey, it can't be that simple' – but it was and it was a gas and I wanted to do it myself . . . but some of them are quite remote. I listen to a lot of music so I'm open to a lot of influences.

"People say that music is cyclic. Well, rock is like a flat spin. It repeats itself every ten seconds where music might repeat every hundred years. This is what makes rock so exciting; the flat spin is cyclic and the cycle is cyclic and there it is, all very compressed . . . like one of the most omnipotent cyclic sounds is Hendrix. It's hard to know why, but he is definitely rock and not something else like blues. Cream are definitely rock, too."

"Compositions come out so fast in rock because there's a demand created and contracts have to be fulfilled. I mean, who ever put Beethoven under contract. Prince Charming may have asked him to do this and that but there was none of this six records a year. The pressures of the pop industry are part and parcel of it all."

Many people think that the commercial side is the bad side of pop?

"It's about the only fucking healthy thing about it! (laughs) It is like . . . teenagers getting screwed up because their parents won't change for them. The commercial market refuses to change at the speed musicians and composers might wish. It has its own pace, adjusted by the mass, which is to me absolutely the most important thing on earth.

"There are levers in the commercial market to be pulled, but if people buy a record, they were moved in some way to do so. You can't swing it that far. Things like the competitive press, competitive American radio stations, these things are all important. They keep the pace fast but steady.

"Huge musical personalities like Clapton and Hendrix can get the machine to do what they want, but it's still the machinery that does the work. What people find oppressive is the dependence on the system, but the commercial system comes halfway to pop, but pop won't come halfway back. Anything that does is classed as bubblegum and chucked out. But some of the world's best music is bubblegum. I mean I really dug Yummy Yummy Yummy but some people spew over it. And there's a lot of other stuff, real shit, that I dig. And the machine created Cream. It really did."

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Song Stories

“Vicious”

Lou Reed | 1972

Opening Lou Reed's 1972 solo album, the hard-riffing "Vicious" actually traces its origin back to Reed's days with the Velvet Underground. Picking up bits and pieces of songs from the people and places around him, and filing his notes for later use, Reed said it was Andy Warhol who provided fuel for the song. "He said, 'Why don't you write a song called 'Vicious,'" Reed told Rolling Stone in 1989. "And I said, 'What kind of vicious?' 'Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.' And I wrote it down literally."

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