Who's Next: Townshend Prays, Writes New Opera

'Tommy' was everyman; the new opera is everyWho

Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey during the stage version of Tommy at the Rainbow Theatre, London.
Michael Putland/Getty Images
Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey during the stage version of Tommy at the Rainbow Theatre, London.
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PARIS — The Who have had a slow summer. A new album was scotched in favor of more operatic dreams from Peter Townshend; now, they are on a leisurely tour of Europe, starting a few weeks ago in Scandinavia and moving, with breaks in London in-between, to Italy.

Early on the tour Peter Townshend was sitting in a hotel bar in Paris getting ready for an open-air performance at the annual French Communist Party "L'Humanite" festival. "Actually," says Peter, hardly breaking the rhythmic movement of his hand from a bowl of potato crisps to his mouth and back again, "I didn't know it was for the Communists until we got here. Well, it's our first chance to exploit the Communists, eh?"

Also sitting at the bar was Eric Clapton, rarely seen in public these days. He was, everybody was told, out of bounds and not to be spoken to. He looked very young and boyish, just chatting to his lady, pretending the cluster of French photographers wasn't there. Peter had invited him along for the ride. Later, watching the Who's performance from the stage, a French roadie hustled him off. He shrugged and left without saying anything.

The Who's next album had a false start. "We did half an album," explains Peter, "all very good, but put together it sounded like shades of Who's Next, so I said, 'Fuck this' . . . well, everybody did unanimously. We decided to have one side of the album just good tracks, and the other side a mini-opera. So I went off and started working on that, and really got excited about an idea I had, put about 14 or 15 songs together, and went rushing back and said, 'Listen, I'm not going to play this stuff, but I can tell you that what I've got knocks shit out of what we have already done, so let's shelve all that, put a couple out as singles, and I'll incorporate some others and we could do a new opera.' So that's basically what I'm working on at the moment.

"I would like to see the next thing that we do recorded far more loosely, because there are some people . . . there's Todd Rundgren, there's Roxy Music, there's the Electric Light Orchestra, and there's David Bowie who are all still pushing recording experimentation to its limit. And every track gets a sound on it that freaks you out. And we stopped doing that. We said, 'We are the Who. Everything has got our stamp and so we don't need to experiment,' which is what the Beatles never ever did. They never, ever stopped. So the next time we do work in the studio I'd really like to do some crazy things – because at home I'm always doing crazy things.

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"The theme is a mixture of the history of the group and the story of a kid who's going through adolescence, and then becoming very spiritually desperate and then finding the secret to life. When he's a child he doesn't suffer from schizophrenia but from quadrophonia. The album will be quadrophonic and each different part of the guy's character will be a reflection of one member of the group. So one part of his character will be the good part, which is me. One part will be bad, which is Roger. The other will be insane and abandoned, which is Moon, and the other . . . surprise, surprise . . . romantic, which is John Entwistle. There will be various themes and they will all mix together. The whole thing is hopefully going to be one of the most powerful things that I have ever managed to organize, because I have really got faith in the basic idea."

Meanwhile, there's Peter's current project, his solo album. "I had the music finished in March, the music. I didn't have to do anything new for it, it's all old stuff, either material that's been released on albums for the Meher Baba organization – like limited edition things – or it's bits and pieces of material that I've had knocking about my studio which the Who have never used and which I thought would fit into the general mood of this album, which is basically an album in a way dedicated to Baba, but mainly dedicated to the people who want to know the way I feel about him. I find that when I try to talk about Meher Baba and being in a group and trying to sort the two things out, I can't put it into words. So I thought maybe I should use my talent – with a small 't' – as a musician and try to put the feeling and the mood across that way, instead of continually talking.

"There's one song that's an old Jim Reeves number, the sort of thing I'd never do, though I really enjoyed doing it. It was one of Baba's favorite songs. He heard someone playing it outside where all the disciples were, and he said that song, that guy's voice, are really amazing. He listened to the record, and he always used to like it. It's called 'There's a Heartache Following Me.' He said that the words of it were very much the words that the Messiah would sing.

"There are three songs that the Who have actually done; like 'Let's See Action.' I included that because I felt that when the Who did it, it felt as if it was about politics or the revolution or something, whereas when I did it, I felt it had more to do with spiritual revolution. Then there's 'Time Is Passing,' which is another track the Who recorded for Who's Next that was rejected. There's also two songs by other people on the album. One called 'Evolution' by Ronnie Lane, also a follower of Baba, and one by Billy Nichols, another guy who used to be on Immediate Records. On his track I didn't play, I just engineered, and on Ronnie's track I just played acoustic guitar along with him.

"There's even a prayer on the album called 'Parvardigar.' One of the managers of the group, Chris Stamp, tried to get me to take that track off because he said, 'People aren't going to be able to take it from you,' so I said, 'Well, they are going to have to fucking live with it.' I don't actually say this prayer, I just happened to put it to music, but a lot of other people do say it. I think it's an important one, which Baba dictated; it's like the replacement for the Lord's Prayer that he had dictated as the New Messiah. Preposterous as it may sound, I thought that by putting it to music a lot of people would just be saying it without thinking about it. It's an amazing piece of music, and the words are pretty amazing – as a prayer, it is the most unbigoted, unbiased prayer, it is praising everything in a very abstract way, so that anybody can get off on it. Even if you're an atheist you could still dig this, because it's in praise of life.

"In a way, the album is less important than say John Entwistle's solo album – that was necessary because so few of his songs are used by the Who, and he's a prolific writer. This record hasn't let me do things musicially that I hadn't done before, because it's music that was already in existence. If I were doing a proper solo album, I would probably show off more – how well I can engineer, or how well I can play the piano. In a way we're using chuck-outs. But then, I do like the idea of people hearing what I do at home.

This story is from the October 26th, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 120: October 26, 1972
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