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

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Musical snobbery is the trouble.

"There's a difference between discerning and snobbish. I think that a lot of people listening to, say, John Peel are snobbish. They don't know why a record is good and why it appeals to Peel. Though he sincerely digs it, they'd like it for another reason. There's so much good music in this country that's unacceptable. I thought the Kinks' last album was great, and the Zombies' too. But they don't even get into the record shops. A discerning listener is one who defines his own taste; he wants something that comes from somewhere inside.

"There have always been classical snobs, people on whom record companies thrive. You know: 'We'll put this one in a big thick package and we'll put a really heavy name on, a picture of the violinist on front, we'll put a lot of very heavy sleeve notes on and we'll charge seventeen quid for the box. All we need is four people and we've made a profit'."

"People here are doting on snobbery, like in the blues scene. But this is OK for me because bands like Fleetwood Mac and Ten Years After have a lot of potential in other directions, though they got in through a blues backdoor. They're very anxious to communicate direct, devoid of hangups. It's hard to say why I like any of them; like I enjoy some soul singers but not others, and can't go overboard on soul for the sake of soul . . . and I don't like a lot of the West Coast groups. Some new American groups make it and some somehow don't. Steppenwolf make it for me, yet they can be incredibly pretentious. "The Pusher" is a terrible song, loaded with bullshit, yet "Born To Be Wild" was fantastic. But . . . they're still caught on the seesaw. Like the Moody Blues; such incredibly produced albums, but they're religious snobs. You're getting vicars' tea parties thrown at you".

But if Townshend believes so strongly in the commercial market, why is the top ten such a disgrace?

"It's got nothing to do with what people like. What made the charts good once was pirate radio. As soon as they get commercial radio again in this country the whole thing's going to throb back into life. Now, Top of the Pops is the only programme on and it's controlled by the charts. The BBC only play what's in the charts; until a record gets in they don't play them and once they do, they play them till they're fucking dead.

"It's based on a complete lack of faith. Nobody's trusted to decide. The public knows what it wants. They decide! Does that follow? No – someone has to give them the full spectrum. The shops are the same; we're only going to give the public what it wants/no we ain't got that/we've only got the dead certainties in stock.

"So what does a new group do? And fuck knows how we got on Top of the Pops. That's why our record is in the charts; people saw us on TV . . . oooh, they're still a group then! and it's a powerful record and it went. But the basic ingredients are who gets the TV spectaculars? Tom Jones. Who gets the number ones? The middle classes want TV shows by Tom Jones and Val Doonican so they get them. But the rest of the record audience don't get their barrage."

Photos: The Who's 10 Greatest Songs

"On radio they won't take chances. Despite the fact that there was a readymade market for the world's best rock when the pirates went off the air, Radio One still wouldn't play records by established artists like the Kinks, like us, like the Stones, like lots of people. And they still don't. The programmer for the BBC must be an old dear."

"You can laugh at it, but listen to the DJs, having heard them a few years ago. The saddest case was Johnnie Walker who'd been publicly, in the press, decrying Radio One. And eventually, you know, he had to give in. I heard him the other day introducing a tape of the NDO playing 'Quando Quando.' Swing to this, kids."

The teachings of Tommy to his hordes of disciples run parallel to practically any other religious leader you can name.

"Rama Krishna, Buddha, Zarathustra, Jesus and Meher Baba are all divine figures on earth. They all said the same thing; yet still we trundle on. This is basically what Tommy is saying. But his followers ask how to follow him, and disregard his teaching. They want rules and regulations; going to church on Sundays – but he just says 'live life'. Later on he smashes rules to them."

Townshend is much involved with the teachings of Meher Baba. How did this affect his writing?

"The process of writing was controlled by my direct involvement with Baba. His stuff is completely self-contained, and it's a good point to start fucking-up from. On a basic working level, songs like 'I'm Free,' 'Pinball Wizard' and a couple of others are very much Baba, songs of the quiet explosion of divinity. They just rolled off the pen.

"But I don't mean divinely inspired! You get a lot of crap from the close devotees of Baba, stories about people rushing up to him and saying, 'My daughter was dying in Poona and I said a prayer to you and you came in a vision and she was well again.' Baba says, 'I'm sorry mate, I don't know anything about that.' It's obviously their faith, their love for him that did the trick. It's like Jesus saying 'it's your faith that made you whole.'

"The institution of the church comes up in 'Welcome.' The followers want to know how to follow him and he tells them very simply what to do. He's telling them what they want to hear – 'It's going to be all smooth and fun and we're never going to speak, we're going to drink all night and have the time of our life. You can do good things, go out and get new people, and for this you'll win gold stars.'

"He knows they're completely off the track and is trying by his very presence to make them aware of what they should be doing – coming in to the house and then getting out again. Instead of that they want more action, so he gets the bright idea of extending the house into a huge holiday camp where he can accommodate thousands who want to come and be brainwashed.

"It's supposed to represent the perverting of what he's been saying. He says 'you can follow me by playing pinball and doing things my way' – but when he says here's Uncle Ernie with your very own machine, it's like they're being led back to their very own life and way which is already built-in. All the time they demand more and so he starts to get hard: 'Well if you really want to know what to do, you've got to stop drinking for a start. You've got to stop smoking pot.' And he starts to lay down hard moral facts – like Jesus did – but nobody wants to know. (Baba actually gives the reasons: a stable, moral life is a good one because it doesn't hang you up).

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