LONDON — Did you know that the Who made Who’s Who?
Not quite the whole band, but Pete Townshend, the one that elevated a minor Shepherds Bush band called the High Numbers into a full-scale Mod crew, the one that smashed guitars, wrote Tommy and was just about to destroy the entire rock world with a new character named Bobby.
Bobby? Directors are still vying for the movie rights to Tommy (Fellini even said he might be interested), performances are being staged in various cities, and now Townshend comes along with Bobby. He’s a man of no small plans, that Townshend.
Talking with him is like being thrown into a science fiction film of rackets and conceptions. He’s really a one-man band as he sits in his three-story Twickenham house, equipped with a recording studio, a thousand guitars and as many portraits of Meher Baba.
Townshend’s demo records are legendary. He not only writes a song, he makes a tape of it with voice, bass, drums and guitar, then plays it for the studio. And those demos are hot. Blessed with a luminous and lucid mind, he is subject to brain-storms, and science fiction bleeds into reality, strategies into superwigs.
Last March, the Who booked London’s Young Vic theater (a contemporary version of the Shakespearian Old Vic) for a massive concept assault on rock. As suddenly as it came, it disappeared.
“A lot of things are overdue now, right?” Townshend asked, speaking from beneath a wall-sized painting of Meher Baba. “The Who really had to be involved with something that was accelerating. After Live at Leeds we had just planed off, we had cliched ourselves incredibly. I said, ‘Fucked if I’m going to write another pop opera.’ God knows what would have happened if I did. I mean, I look at things like Jesus Christ Superstar now and, well . . . we got in enough trouble over Tommy as far as rock history is concerned. I figured we needed acceleration, and the only possible area left is film.
“I was hoping that the Who could be involved in the next big exciting rock boogaloo that could change the whole rock movement. You know, things have been very sad lately and groups are doing the same old thing. In order to change the face of rock as much as the Beatles did, this new group, or entity, has to completely alter the rock theater. In other words, this group couldn’t go to the Fillmore and do their debut. And it’s not going to happen in two hours; it’s going to be a six month thing.
“So it had to be a film, right? I started to build this thing, in fiction, about a guy who is It. The next big superstar, the Supersuperstar. The one who does it all. And around this I’d build up a new technology.
“If I could get a couple million dollars from some movie company, then I could get a thousand people and literally live and work with them in this theater environment for six months. The whole thing was taken on a sweeping scale of having them mirror the next big fucking incredible rock event in a film. It would be saying, ‘This is it, this is the way we’re going to live from now on, this is going to be society.’
“We got approval for the money from Universal Pictures and I went ahead, rapping to the group, writing the script. We got the quadrophonic PA. We developed some tape systems, I went into synthesizer things on how to get music out of personalities and this sort of thing. We changed the acoustics of the Young Vic so that we could have a level of entertainment day and night.
“I didn’t want to invent a hero, obviously, but for the purpose of the script, I wrote him in and called him Bobby, as a gag.
“We developed an amazing set of hardware. I spent £12,000 [$30,000] on synthesizers alone. You know in FM radio they have cartridges where, as soon as you hit the button, out comes music? We’ve got this system where I’ve got a row of foot pedals, and when I hit one, something just comes out. It might be a brass band, a full orchestra, a plane going by, an explosion, whatever.
“The other thing I was working out on a synthesizer was to mechanically reflect the basic information about an individual, like height, weight or astrological detail, in music. My friend would make up a chart, then I would set the synthesizer up to certain parameters, then feed the eight-track into that and the synthesizer would mix the tapes on its own.
“Well, the next thing you know the bottom starts falling out all around me. I find that I can’t have the Young Vic every day of the week, only Mondays.
“It bombed out incredibly because it was too far out.”
All this mind you, from tough rock’s most stalwart proponent. All mixed up in what sounds like Jesus Christ starring in Satyricon. The Who’s next album, entitled The Who Next, will be released soon, after they find a “suitable pornographic cover.” (A dry run had Keith Moon done up in a girdle.) It’s a straight LP, possibly their first ever with nothing hanging off the end. The only track that has anything to do with the new boogaloo is “Barbra Ann,” which uses as rhythm somebody’s heartbeat – via a synthesizer – via an eight-track.
Another project in the works is Townshend’s soundtrack for Joad, a film based on the novel Guitar Farm, which is based on the antics of Adolph Hitler and Glenn Miller wheeling around in a Lincoln.
“The reason we got involved in this concept thing is because we were on a hump. When this happens to most other groups, they just break up. We knew we weren’t going to break up, so we faced it with less panic. The idea . . . I think, was to hurry everything up and make this boogaloo happen, because I so desperately want to see it happen. But you can’t do that. That’s a power trip as much as anything else, and very easily corrupted.
“I figure it’s best for the Who to keep on doing the Who until this boogaloo happens. But I shouldn’t be surprised that when someone does make it happen, it should fit pretty well into my script. I should demand royalties.”
Do you know you’re bootlegged next week?
“Yeah, I know about that, and it’s about fucking time.”
This story is from the August 5th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.