On Sunday, the Who became the latest in a growing list of classic rockers — along with the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Prince — to play a Super Bowl halftime. Why did they do it, what was it like being onstage at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, and why a hits medley? For the answers, we went directly to the Who’s Pete Townshend the day after the performance. For more from Townshend, grab the next issue of Rolling Stone, on stands February 17th.
What was your first reaction to being invited to play the Super Bowl?
I really wanted to do it. I felt it would be easy to do [chuckles]. I felt that doing this would be a great thing to do at this particular time because it would let people know that we’re alive and kicking and that Roger and I still do stuff together and intend to do whatever we can in the future together. You feel part of something that’s bigger than you and you feel part of a huge team. It’s a monster gig.
How did it feel being onstage, in the midst of that spectacle?
A couple of people said to me they could have done with more Who and less football. But I suppose it’s best if I tell the truth. I felt nothing. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a great big football stadium or a little club somewhere. As soon as I get close to a stage, I feel very at home and very safe and secure. It feels completely normal. When the NFL started to talk to us about this, one of the things they started to talk about was the numbers. I looked at Roger and looked at them and I said, “I’ve done a solo show in front of 80 million people on TV.” The abstract numbers make no difference.
I heard that Roger and Simon Townshend [Pete’s brother and guitarist in the Who touring band] came up with the medley, not you.
That’s right. I thought we’d just do the CSI songs [“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Who Are You”]. My pitch was just to do three regular-length songs. We could fall back on what was very familiar. But Roger felt he needed something that gave him more narrative scope, as he described it. He and Simon and one of the lieutenants in the crew put together a track and surprisingly I thought it worked really well. Roger and I have a great relationship these days; it’s very warm and close. So I trusted him to do that job.
Were you wearing sunglasses up there?
No, I was wearing reading glasses. I like to be able to see the guitar.
What was it like finally experiencing an American football game?
English people still find the rules almost incomprehensible, like Americans finding cricket incomprehensible. It’s very difficult to understand how the game operates. But it’s a real sporting event and very exciting backstage and very dignified and serious. Some of my friends have been quite sniffy and said, “We watched it and it was like fucking Disneyland.” But when you’re on the inside of it, there’s a real sense of it being a job, a passion. I learned a lot about it yesterday, and it was all good.
What was the most surprising thing about it?
Not seeing a single cheerleader. Not anywhere. It was terrible. There are lot of girls who’ve said, “I used to be a cheerleader once.” But as hard as you try to persuade them, they won’t do it again.