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

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"Puritan morality is right, but for the wrong reasons. You don't burn in hell, but in the fires of life. You reincarnate again and again until you're sorted out. One way to do this is to attain a balance in your existence until you've exhausted all the possibilities and found your way to the goal. It lies in a lot of old religious laws – an eye for an eye and turning the other cheek mean exactly the same, but people don't realise. An eye for an eye means that if you poke out someone's eye, that person – in this life or in a billion lives from now – will eventually take the eye out of your head. But that Karmic retribution can be balanced. And this happens at a spiritual level too. You might as well turn the other cheek and get it slapped because that way you're taking both slaps for yourself and therefore balancing it. But people have this on a million levels. Possessions loading, lust loading, a thousand things which hang people up and drag them down."

Do people naturally incline towards suffering because it leads to self-realisation?

"Yea, well that's like Arthur Brown's 'suffer the fire' thing. Every individual has a load. You can tell by the way people ruthlessly live their lives that they're fulfilling some sort of destiny. On minor levels it can be astrological; on other levels it can be evolutionary or environmental. Biggest of all is the feeling that there's something really latently powerful driving every man, and I think it's Karmic Law. Each man has a load he's trying to shake off, to find . . . peace. As he drops one bit, he picks up another and so on. You just feel that everyone's desperately getting things done while never getting to grips with their individual problems. People do need this suffering; when it's meant to stop, someone will stop it. But you can't sit back and let things roll, because man is the mediator, he's the one that caused the fucking problems in the first place."

And so on to a summing up of the work on the album.

"The singing is better than ever on this album – there are some incredible performances of diction from Roger, aggressively sung but perfectly phrased. And it was an incredible surprise to find that we could do it all live. Such a relief!

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Roger Daltrey

"It would have been tedious but simple to have run the whole album into one great big long kybosh, but I wanted to retain track-by-track action. I was really pleased that it had a musical form from beginning to end; separate tracks with separate action and separate musical strength and, at the same time, track-to-track unity, links across time and shunt-backs, all going smoothly. Though I do think the action on Side Two is a little slow.

"I think that, despite the fact that the album is my own little thing and the motivation is not completely understood by the rest of the group even, it's still the first group effort really, since so much of the other stuff we did was gimmick-laden advertising schmatter. This is working toward a far more unified project.

"It was approached in exactly the way anti-intellectual rock people would hate. We went into it in depth before we worked out the plot; we worked out the sociological implications, the religious implications, the rock implications. We made sure every bit was . . . solid. When we'd done that we went into the studio, got smashed out of our brains and made it. Then we listened, pruned and edited very carefully, then got smashed and did it all again, all the time playing gigs and grooving. And somehow it came out as if we'd done it all in one breath.

"It's wrong to talk about who played what part in the album, because it's so much a product of the Who. Definitely. I'd been dreaming about getting it together for such a long time, all the time worried about their end and never worrying about my part of the bargain until I actually got to grips with the problem.

"Keith's playing has never been better, John's playing has never been better, Roger's singing has never been better – my bit, the art bit, was where the problems lay. They were so incredibly true to form, and as a member of the Who, I was true to form. The sound was so easy to come by. It was great to do it. I thought I was going to have to make concessions, but not once did I have to. I mean, ideas were made much more powerful than they were originally.

"It really does show how flexible rock and roll is, and what a lot of bullshit is talked about what it can and can't do. Although the sound itself has limitations, it has flexibility and malleability . . . four musicians totally involved with one another's limitations, lives and emotions . . . I mean, what other three musicians would have put up with all my bullshit in order to get this album out? It's my apple, right. It's my whole trip, coming from Baba, and they just sat there, let it come out, and then leapt upon it and gave it an extra boot. It's an incredible group to write for, because you know it's going to work out right. And though I've written other songs, which I won't mention, I've only ever had hits with the Who. And hit records are very near and dear to me."

This story is from the July 12th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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