The Who are the best known and most brilliant expression of the most influential “youth movement” ever to take Great Britain, the Mods. Their career began in Shepherd’s Bush, a lower-class suburb of London, and took them through such places as Brighton-by-the-sea, scene of the great Mod-Rocker battles several years ago. Their first recording was “My Generation.”
Peter Townshend is the well-known guitarist in the group, but he is also the group’s main driving force, the author of most of the material, the composer of most of the music and the impetus behind the Who’s stylistic stance. It was he, for example, who is credited with initiating the Union Jack style in clothes, something he did by draping Keith Moon in them.
The Who’s generation has gotten older and the change is seen in their records: “The Kids Are Alright” to “Happy Jack;” and from “Happy Jack” to girls and boys with perspiration, pimple and bad breath problems. And, as can be seen from the interview, the changes continue.
Peter Townshend is the group’s spokesman, and by extension, the spokesman for whatever has become of the Mods. Whatever they have become, they are at least the most substantial part of the rock and roll army, a ‘movement’ which is as much American as it was English. Apart from the significance of what he says in relation to the Who as one of the best, most creative and influential rock and roll groups in England, Townshend, perhaps more than any other single figure in music – and because of the Who’s unique relationship to the accompanying social movement – understands and articulates the “meaning of it all.”
This interview began at 2:00 A.M., after the Who’s recent appearance at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Nobody quite remembers exactly under what circumstances the interview was concluded.
The end of your act goes to “My Generation,” like you usually do, and that’s where you usually smash your guitar. You didn’t tonight – why not?
Well, there is a reason, not really anything that’s really worth talking about. But I’ll explain the pattern of thought which went into it.
I’ve obviously broken a lot of guitars and I’ve brought eight or nine of that particular guitar I was using tonight and I could very easily have broken it and have plenty more for the future. But I just suddenly decided before I went on, that if there was anywhere in the world I should be able to walk off the stage without breaking a guitar if I didn’t want to, it would be the Fillmore.
I decided in advance that I didn’t want to smash the guitar, so I didn’t, not because I liked it or because I’ve decided I’m going to stop doing it or anything. I just kind of decided about the actual situation; it forced me to see if I could have gotten away with it in advance. And I think that’s why “My Generation” was such a down number at the end. I didn’t really want to play it, you know, at all. I didn’t even want people to expect it to happen, because I just wasn’t going to do it.
But Keith still dumped over his drum kit like he usually does.
Yea, but it was an incredible personal thing with me. I’ve often gone on the stage with a guitar and said; “Tonight I’m not going to smash a guitar and I don’t give a shit” – you know what the pressure is on me – whether I feel like doing it musically or whatever, I’m just not going to do it. And I’ve gone on and every time I’ve done it. The actual performance has always been bigger than my own patterns of thought.
Tonight, for some reason, I went on and I said “I’m not going to break it’ and I didn’t. And I don’t know how. I don’t really know why I didn’t. But I didn’t, you know, and it’s the first time, I mean I’ve said it million of times before and nothing has happened.
I imagine it gets to be a drag talking about why you smash your guitar.
No, it doesn’t get to be a drag to talk about it. Sometimes it gets a drag to do it. I can explain it, I can justify it, and I can enhance it, and I can do a lot of things, dramatize it and literalize it. Basically it’s a gesture which happens on the spur of the moment. I think, with guitar smashing, just like performance itself, it’s a performance, it’s an act, it’s an instant and it really is meaningless.
When did you start smashing guitars?
It happened by complete accident the first time. We were just kicking around in a club which we played every Tuesday and I was playing the guitar and it hit the ceiling. It broke and it kind of shocked me ’cause I wasn’t ready for it to go. I didn’t particularly want it to go but it went.
And I was expecting an incredible thing, it being so precious to me, and I was expecting everybody to go, “Wow he’s broken his guitar,” but nobody did anything which made me kind of angry in a way, and determined to get this precious event noticed by the audience. I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar. I pounced all over the stage with it and I threw the bits on the stage and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really meant to do it.
Were you happy about it?
Deep inside I was very unhappy because the thing had got broken. It got around and the next week the people came and they came up to me and they said “Oh, we heard all about it, man; it’s ’bout time someone gave it to a guitar” and all this kind of stuff. It kind of grew from there, we’d go to another town and people would say “Oh yea, we heard that you smashed a guitar.” It built and built and built and built and built and built until one day, a very important daily newspaper came to see us and said, “Oh, we hear you’re the group that smashes their guitars up. Well we hope you’re going to do it tonight, because we’re from the Daily Mail. If you do, you’ll probably make the front pages.”
This was only going to be like the second guitar I’d ever broken, seriously. I went to my manager, Kit Lambert, and I said, you know, “Can we afford it, can we afford it, it’s for publicity.” He said “Yes, we can afford it, if we can get the Daily Mail.” I did it and of course the Daily Mail didn’t buy the photograph and didn’t want to know about the story. After that I was into it up to my neck and have been doing it since.
Was it inevitable that you were going to start smashing guitars?
It was due to happen because I was getting to the point where I’d play and I’d play and I mean, I still can’t play how I’d like to play. Then it was worse. I couldn’t play the guitar; I’d listen to great music, I’d listen to all the people I dug, time and time again. When The Who first started we were playing blues, and I dug the blues and I knew what I was supposed to be playing, but I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t get it out. I knew what I had to play, it was in my head. I could hear the notes in my head, but I couldn’t get them out on the guitar. I knew the music and I knew the feeling of the thing and the drive and the direction and everything.
It used to frustrate me incredibly. I used to try and make up visually for what I couldn’t play as a musician. I used to get into very incredible visual things where in order just to make one chord more lethal, I’d make it a really lethal looking thing whereas really it’s just going to be picked normally. I’d hold my arm up in the air and bring it down so it really looked lethal, even if if didn’t sound too lethal. Anyway, this got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until eventually I was setting myself incredible tasks.
How did this effect your guitar playing?
Instead I said “All right, you’re not capable of doing it musically, you’ve got to do it visually,” I became a huge, visual thing. In fact I forgot all about the guitar because my visual thing was more my music than the actual guitar. I got to jump about and the guitar became unimportant. I banged it and I let it feed back and scraped it and rubbed it up against the microphone, did anything, it wasn’t part of my act, even. It didn’t deserve any credit or any respect. I used to bang it and hit it against walls and throw it on the floor at the end of the act.
And one day it broke. It just wasn’t part of my thing and ever since then I’ve never really regarded myself as a guitarist. When people come up to me and say like “Who’s your favorite guitarist?” I say “I know who my favorite guitarist is, but asking me, as a guitarist, forget it because I don’t make guitar-type comments. I don’t talk guitar talk, I just throw the thing around.” Today still I’m learning. If I play a solo, it’s a game to me because I can’t play what I want to play. That’s the thing: I can’t get it out because I don’t practice. When I should be practicing, I’m writing songs and when I’m writing songs, I should be practicing.
Do you find it funny that people regard you as an excellent guitarist?
I find it astounding and I find it hard to believe if anyone ever says that they rate me as a guitarist at all. Although I dig my guitar playing, I think it’s kind of an obvious situation, I play what I want to play within my own restrictions. I like to play like [Steve] Cropper. I like to play simply and tastefully and when I make records at home, you know, I play simply and tastefully and I don’t play like I do on the stage. I don’t play big chords and I don’t smash the guitar around. I just do the things which I feel are well within my capabilities as a rhythmic musician.
With the compliment I immediately think of the people I dig. Someone compliments me and I think I must move the compliment around to somebody that I really dig like Hendrix and would say I’m nowhere near someone like that as a guitarist and so the compliment feels out of place. I think, “Well, okay the guy’s not saying you’re a good guitarist, he’s saying what you play you put over well,” or “What you want to put over comes out.” If I look like a good guitar player it’s because that’s my whole thing, to look like I’m playing the guitar, but really I’m not.
You said you spend most of your time writing songs in your basement.
A lot of writing I do on tour. I do a lot on airplanes. At home, I write a lot, obviously. When I write a song, what I usually do is work the lyric out first from some basic idea that I had and then I get an acoustic guitar and I sit by the tape recorder and I try to bang it out as it comes. Try to let the music come with the lyrics. If I dig it, I want to add things to it, like I’ll add bass guitar or drums or another voice. This is really for my own amusement that I do this.
The reason “I Can See For Miles” came out good was because I sat down and made it good from the beginning. The fact that I did a lot of work on arrangements and stuff like that doesn’t really count. I think that unless the actual song itself is good, you know, you can do all kinds of incredible things to it, but you’re never gonna get it. not unless the meat and potatoes are there. Although I do fuck around in home studios and things like that, I think it’s of no importance; I don’t think it’s really got anything to do with what makes the Who the Who.
Does what you write in your home studio ever come out on records?
Most of it gets out, but the recordings I make myself in my own studio, don’t. They might in the future, but they would only come out if they had the Who on them. To put out a record of me banging away on guitar or bass drums collectively and generally being a one-man band wouldn’t be a very good idea. I’d like to use my studio to record the group because interesting things happen in small environmental sound recording stiuations like Sony tape recorders, for example, which don’t happen in studios. It’s a well known fact.
When you work out an arrangement and figure out the bass line and the various voices, is that just directly translated onto a record that would be released?
More or less, but then we don’t really take it that grimly; I mean what happens is I will suggest the bass riff on the demonstrations record, John takes up and goes from there. But the bass (line) I would suggest on the demo, as I said earlier, would be very simple, it would be economical, tasteful and just a vehicle for the song, making the bass line, and if I use them the piano or drum, as simple and effective as possible in putting the song across to the group.
Instead of me hacking my songs around to billions of publishers trying to get them to dig them, what I’ve got to do is get the rest of the band to dig my number. If I’ve got a number that I dig I know that I’ve got to present it to them in the best light. That’s why I make my own recordings so when they first hear it, it’s not me stoned out of my mind plunking away on a guitar trying to get my latest number across. It’s a finished work that might take me all night to get together, but nevertheless it’s gonna win them over.
Do you ever think of using the demo version instead of the group version?
A lot of the demo’s have been so good in fact that it’s scared us out of making recordings. “I Can See For Miles” and “Magic Bus” both had demo’s which were very, very comparable to the finished releases. They were just so exciting and so good that for a long time we didn’t ever dare attempt to make singles because it was blackmail. I’d made this demo and I was more or less blackmailing Kit Lambert, our producer, into doing better. So we always put it off until Kit was very sure of himself. One night he just turned around and he said to us “Let’s do ‘I Can See For Miles.'” I had the demo there and we put it on and we dug it again and he just seemed like he was going to do it and he did it. He got it together.
The same with “Magic Bus” – we didn’t want to do it. I listened to the demo and I thought that demo was good but that we’re never gonna catch it on record. It’s gonna bring us all down. Let’s forget it, let’s do something else; and Kit was going, “No, we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it, you’re going to learn every line, every little detail, every little precious thing in the demonstration record, you’re gonna catch and you’re gonna copy it if necessary.” What happened is in the end we gave up and we thought, “Oh we’ll do it,” and we went down and we did it completely differently, but it all came together and we went up and we thanked him for making us do it.
What approach do you use?
The only way I can describe it is to go through it: We walk in, we set up our equipment and through the talk-back will come, “Can we hear the bass guitar, please?” And then for quarter of an hour it’s clang, clang, where the bass guitar microphone is corrected and so on. Then “Can we hear the bass drum, please?” and clang, clang, another quarter of an hour and “Can we hear the top kit?” and Keith plays the top kit and “Can we hear the guitar,” the guitar’s always good. The guitar really is good the first time.
But by this time, of course, you’re pissed off at the whole proceedings. All you want to do is go out for a drink so that’s usually what happens. We all go out for a drink and come back in and we seem to have screwed up the balance a bit. So “Just a quick check on the bass guitar” and a “quick check” on bass rhythm and you go through the whole proceedings again. “Okay, we’re ready to go!” Then you find that the number’s only half routine, that you’ve forgotten something, and so by the time you’re worked the routine out, the balance is lost again and you have to start all over again. And this is the way The Who record.
How would you do it?
The way I would do it is set up the amplifers, and the drums in a kind of a fairly separated manner, but as they would normally appear on the stage, in the same stereo picture. I’d set up one stereo microphone up in the air above the lot and I’d record a backing track. That’s the way I’d record The Who’s backing track and on top of that I’d add voice or whatever went with it.
That’s what you want: you want that action – walk in, set up, play. That’s what you build music on, that instant thing of like having a lyric and just seeing it, and being given some words and having to play guitar to them in front of a tape recorder. This is a recording and it’s going to be used and it’s gonna be our next album. The music has got to be good and it’s got to be immediate and it’s got to be exciting, it’s got to be now.
Why aren’t you already recording in that fashion?
We’re gonna, we hope. I’m working on the lyrics now for the next album. When we get through that, all the lyrics cleaned out, we’ll start to work through the album. We’ll probably have to do it in short sections, like 15-minute sections. Ideally, I’d like to record one backing track for the whole album whether it lasts for two hours or two days. We sit down and we do it in one go and then okay, we spend the next two years adding tarty voices or whatever it is that it takes to sell the record. But at least you know that what’s happening in the background is real meat and immediate meat and it’s part of the present.
The whole thing about recording is that man feels slightly cheated anyway, because he’s getting a recording of something which has happened, so he feels like he’s getting something secondhand. If he thinks he’s being fucked around already, this is a whole different thing. A lot of people, I’m convinced, that buy records don’t realize what happens when a group records on an eight-track machine. They don’t realize that they record half of it one time, and then another eighth of it another time. They record it in eighths at different locations and this ceases to become music to me.
What’s happened when you’ve tried spontaneous recording so far?
We’ve made tapes of a backing track for a song called “Now I’m a Farmer,” which is a song I wrote. We were going to release it as a single in England instead of this one we’ve just released called “Dogs.” We made one backing track mono the first time. And it sounded okay. It was exciting, but what it needed was voices. Only it didn’t stand out much as a backing track. And then we recorded it segment by segment as I recorded it on the demo disk: guitar first, then drums, then bass, then tambourine or whatever it is we wanted on it. Of course, the one we did separately fell apart. It was gonna need someone to say, “Set one of those metronomes by it,” in order for everyone to keep together. It wasn’t music, it wasn’t a happening, it wasn’t an event, it wasn’t a musical situation, it wasn’t a beginning and it wasn’t an end. It was just roughly parallel musical statements. There was none of the constriction of thought or anything, it was all analytical. And if a thought went along a song, it came in “A” and went out a “Z.” With grooving or jamming or whatever you want to call it, you just pick up your guitar and – okay you might have a very complicated lyric in front of it – you just play the lyric out. The music becomes far more realistic. In today’s time sequence, you got to make something which adds up like the present. Albums are only going to be played once or twice.
What other ideas in this field do you have?
Well, the album concept in general is complex. I don’t know if I can explain it in my condition, at the moment. But it’s derived as a result of quite a few things. We’ve been talking about doing an opera; we’ve been talking about doing like albums, we’ve been talking about a whole lot of things, and what has basically happened is that we’ve condensed all of these ideas, all this energy and all these gimmicks, and whatever we’ve decided on for future albums, into one juicy package. The package I hope is going to be called “Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy.” It’s a story about a kid that’s born deaf, dumb and blind and what happens to him throughout his life. The deaf, dumb and blind boy is played by The Who, the musical entity. He’s represented musically, represented by a theme theme which we play, which starts off the opera itself and then there’s a song describing the deaf, dumb and blind boy. But what it’s really all about is the fact that because the boy is “D, D & B,” he’s seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That’s really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play.
And the whole album is about his experience?
Yes, it’s a pretty far out thing actually. But it’s very, very endearing to me because the thing is . . . inside, the boy sees things musically and in dreams and nothing has got any weight at all. He is touched from the outside and he feels his mother’s touch, he feels his father’s touch, but he just interprets them as music. His father gets pretty upset that his kid is deaf, dumb and blind. He wants a kid that will play football and God knows what.
One night he comes in and he’s drunk and he sits over the kid’s bed and he looks at him and he starts to talk to him, and the kid just smiles up, and his father is trying to get through to him, telling him about how the other dads have a kid that they can take to football and they can teach them to play football and all this kind of crap and he starts to say, “Can you hear me?” The kid, of course, can’t hear him. He’s groovin’ in this musical thing, this incredible musical thing, he’ll be out of his mind. Then there’s his father outside, outside of his body, and this song is going to be written by John. I hope John will write this song about the father who is really uptight now.
The kid won’t respond, he just smiles. The father starts to hit him and at this moment the whole thing becomes incredibly realistic. On one side you have the dreamy music of the boy wasting through his nothing life. And on the other you have the reality of the father outside, uptight, but now you’ve got blows, you’ve got communication. The father is hitting the kid; musically then I want the thing to break out, hand it over to Keith – “this is your scene, man, take it from here.”
And the kid doesn’t catch the violence. He just knows that some sensation is happening. He doesn’t feel the pain, he doesn’t associate it with anything. He just accepts it.
A similar situation happens later on in the opera, where the father starts to get the mother to take the kid away from home to an uncle. The uncle is a bit of a perv, you know. He plays with the kid’s body while the kid is out. And at this particular time the child has heard his own name, his mother called him. And he managed to hear these words: “Tommy.” He’s really got this big thing about his name, whatever his name is going to be, you know “Tommy.” And he gets really hung-up on his own name. He decides that this is the king and this is the goal. Tommy is the thing, man.
He’s going through this and the uncle comes in and starts to go through a scene with the kid’s body, you know, and the boy experiences sexual vibrations, you know, sexual experience, and again it’s just basic music, it’s interpreted as music and it is nothing more than music. It’s got no association with sleeziness or with undercover or with any of the things normally associated with sex. None of the romance, none of the visual stimulus, none of the sound stimulus. Just basic touch. It’s meaningless. Or not meaningless, you just don’t react, you know. Slowly but surely the kid starts to get it together, out of this simplicity, this incredible simplicity in his mind. He starts to realize that he can see and he can hear, and he can speak; they are there and they are happening all the time. And that all the time he has been able to hear and see. All the time it’s been there in front of him, for him to see.
This is the difficult jump. It’s going to be extremely difficult, but we want to try to do it musically. At this point, the theme, which has been the boy, starts to change. You start to realize that he is coming to the point where he is going to get over the top, he’s going to get over his hangups. You’re gonna stop monkeying around with songs about people being tinkered with, and with father’s getting uptight, with mother’s getting precious and things, and you’re gonna get down to the fact of what is going to happen to the kid.
The music has got to explain what happens, that the boy elevates, and finds something which is incredible. To us, it’s nothing to be able to see and hear and speak, but to him, it’s absolutely incredible and overwhelming; this is what we want to do musically. Lyrically, it’s quite easy to do it, in fact I’ve written it out several times. It makes great poetry, but so much depends on the music, so much. I’m hoping that we can do it. The lyrics are going to be okay, but every pitfall of what we’re trying to say lies in the music, lies in the way we play the music, the way we interpret, the way things are going during the opera.
The main characters are going to be the boy, and his musical things, he’s got a mother and a father and an uncle. There is a doctor involved who tries to do some psychiatric treatment on the kid which is only partly successful. The first two big events are when he hears his mother calling him and hears the word, “Tommy” and he devotes a whole part of his life to this one word. The second important event is when he sees himself in a mirror, suddenly seeing himself for the first time: he takes an immediate back step, bases his whole life around his own image. The whole thing then becomes incredibly introverted. The music and the lyrics become introverted and he starts to talk about himself, starts to talk about his beauty. Not knowing, of course, that what he saw was him, but still regarding it as something which belonged to him, and of course it did all of the time anyway.
It’s a very complex thing and I don’t know if I’m getting it across.
Because I don’t feel at all together.
I know you don’t look it, but you’re coming on very together.
This theme, not so dramatically, seems to be repeated in so many songs that you’ve written and The Who have performed – a young cat, our age, becoming an outcast from a very ordinary sort of circumstances. Not a “Desolation Row” scene, but a very common set of middle class situations. Why does this repeat itself?
I don’t know. I never really thought about that.
There’s a boy with pimple problems and a chick with perspiration troubles and so on.
Most of those things just come from me. Like this idea I’m talking about right now, comes from me. These things are my ideas, it’s probably why they all come out the same, they’ve all got the same fuck-ups, I’m sure.
I can’t get my family together, you see. My family were musicians. They were essentially middle class, they were musicians and I spent a lot of time with them when other kids’ parents were at work and I spent a lot of time away from them when other kids had parents, you know. That was the way it came together. They were always out for long periods. But they were always home for long periods, too. They were always very respectable – nobody ever stopped making me play the guitar and nobody ever stopped me smoking pot, although they advised me against it.
They didn’t stop me from doing anything that I wanted to do. I had my first fuck in the drawing room of my mother’s house. The whole incredible thing about my parents is that I just can’t place their effect on me and yet I know that it’s there. I can’t say how they affected me. When people find out that my parents are musicians, they ask how it affected me. Fucked if I know; musically, I can’t place it and I can’t place it in any other way. But I don’t even feel myself aware of a class structure, or an age structure, and yet I perpetually write about age structures and class structures. On the surface I feel much more concerned with racial problems and politics. Inside I’m much more into basic stuff.
You must have thought about where it comes from if it’s not your parents. Was it the scene around you when you were young?
One of the things which has impressed me most in life was the Mod movement in England, which was an incredible youthful thing. It was a movement of young people, much bigger than the hippie thing, the underground and all these things. It was an army, a powerful, aggressive army of teenagers with transport. Man, with these scooters and with their own way of dressing. It was acceptable, this was important; their way of dressing was hip, it was fashionable, it was clean and it was groovy. You could be a bank clerk, man, it was acceptable. You got them on your own ground. They thought, “Well, there’s a smart young lad.” And also you were hip, you didn’t get people uptight. That was the good thing about it. To be a mod, you had to have short hair, money enough to buy a real smart suit, good shoes, good shirts; you had to be able to dance like a madman. You had to be in possession of plenty of pills all the time and always be pilled up. You had to have a scooter covered in lamps. You had to have like an army anarack to wear on the scooter. And that was being a mod and that was the end of the story.
The groups that you liked when you were a mod were The Who. That’s the story of why I dig the mods, man, because we were mods and that’s how we happened. That’s my generation, that’s how the song “My Generation” happened, because of the mods. The mods could appreciate the Beatles‘ taste. They could appreciate their hair-cuts, their peculiar kinky things that they had going at the time.
The mods seemed to have graduated from “My Generation” and “The Kids Are All Right” to very ordinary people, with very ordinary problems.
When you look at the people who were mods, the people I am talking about, they are now ordinary people and I mean I’m also going through the same changes. I’m becoming more and more ordinary as I go along. This is the natural progression, this is the natural progression of boring maturity and boring spirituality and boring ascendance of the evolutionary path. The thing is that you become simpler and simpler and more and more down to the simple ways of life, to be able to blunder through life without getting anybody uptight at all.
When I write today, I feel that it has to – this is incredible, man – I feel that it has to tell a little story. Seriously. And I can’t shake this. Like “Orodono,” I dug because it was a little story and, although I thought it’s a good song, it was about something groovy, like it was about under-arm perspiration. I still did make a story out of it, didn’t I? It had a beginning and an end, just like it was a literary piece and there’s no need to make “Odorono” a story. There was no need to have any lyric at all really, other than perhaps, you know, some type of Mother’s of Invention-type under-arm deodorant noises, whatever they might be. “Tatoo” is a story, and “My Generation” is a story; in fact, I’m getting storier and storier until now, as I just told you, the next album is just a huge, complicated, complex story, with lots and lots of aspects which I hope are gonna come out in the future.
We were talking about Mods and the army of Mods, the rock and roll army. Obviously you’ve thought about it a lot and obviously it’s connected with music some way. You said that the group you liked was The Who, and you could did the Beatles and music, styles set in music, fashions set in music. What is the role of rock and roll in this youth movement?
Music was as much a fashion as the fashion it created. It was an incredibly flippant fashion. It was as flippant as the girls in the group drinking liebfraumilch in the 1920’s. It was as flippant as that. Music was just a feather. You went from record to record and you went from group to group, but you always dug The Who, because they were always down at the local dance. They were mods and we’re mods and we dig them. We used to make sure that if there was a riot, a mod-rocker riot, we would be paying in the area. That was a place called Brighton.
By the sea?
Yes. that’s where they used to assemble. We’d always be playing there. And we got associated with the whole thing and we got into the spirit of the whole thing. And, of course, rock and roll, the words wouldn’t even be mentioned; the fact that music would have any part of the movement was terrible. The music would have come from the actual drive of the youth combination itself.
You see, as individuals these people were nothing. They were the lowest, they were England’s lowest common denominators. Not only were were they young, they were also lower class young. They had to submit to the middle classes’ way of dressing and way of speaking and way of acting in order to get the very jobs which kept them alive. They had to do everything in terms of what existed already around them. That made their way of getting something across that much more latently effective, the fact that they were hip and yet still, as far as grandad was concerned, exactly the same. It made the whole gesture so much more vital. It was incredible. As a force, they were unbelievable. That was the Bulge, that was England’s Bulge; all the war babies, all the old soldiers coming back from war and screwing until they were blue in the face–this was the result. Thousands and thousands of kids, too many kids, not enough teachers, not enough parents, not enough pills to go around. Everybody just grooving on being a mod.
It seemed to find its highest form of transcendence in music.
I don’t think that’s so. I think it found its highest form of transcendence in the actual event of being a mod. It’s difficult for you to know because you weren’t one. I know where I’m at now, I know what it’s like to be a member of a successful group. I know what it’s like to be a member of a group that it’s difficult to be a member of. It’s a great feeling to be in a group that’s happening of any kind.
But I also know the feeling of what it’s like to be a mod among two million mods and it’s incredible. It’s like being, it’s like being – suddenly you’re the only white man in the Apollo. Someone comes up and touches you and you become black. It’s like that moment, that incredible feeling of being part of something which is really something much bigger than race and much bigger than – it was impetus. It covered everybody, everybody looked the same, and everybody acted the same and everybody wanted to be the same.
It was the first move that I have ever seen in the history of youth towards unity, towards unity of thought, unity of drive and unity of motive. Youth has always got some leader or other, some head man. The head man was Mr. Mod. It could be anyone. Any kid, you know, however ugly or however fucked up, if he had the right hair-cut and the right clothes and the right motorbike, he was a mod. He was mod! There was no big Fred Mod or something. You could get all the equipment at the local store, you get the haircut at the barber’s; there was nothing special. You just needed a job in order to get you into the stuff, and that was the only equipment you needed. It was an incredible youthful drive. It really affected me in an incredible way because it teases me all the time because whenever I think “Oh, you know, Youth today is just never gonna make it.” I just think of that fucking gesture that happened in England. It was the closest to patriotism that I’ve ever felt.
How do you think that compares with what’s called today the American hippie scene?
I think it compares. I think the hippie thing compares favorably, but it’s a different motivation. There are beloved figures. There is pot, there is acid, there is the Marharishi, there is the Beatles, there is being anti-the-U.S.A., there are a whole lot of red herrings, which aren’t what it’s all about. What it is all about is the hippies, you know, that’s what it’s all about. The people, the actions, not the events, not the tripping-out or the latest fad or the latest record or the latest trip or the latest thing to groove to. The thing is people.
This is what they seem to overlook. You see this is the thing about the media barrage – you become aware only of the products around you because they’re glorified, and so that when somebody gets stoned, what they do is that they don’t groove to themselves really, they just sit around and they dig everything that’s around them. They perhaps dig other people. They dig the way the room looks. The way the flowers look, the way the music sounds, the way that the group performs, how good the Beatles are. “How nice that is,” they never say “how fantastic am I.” This is the whole thing: they’re far too abject in outlook, they’re far too concerned with what is feeding into them and not so much with what they are. This is the difference between the mod thing in England and the hippie thing over here. The hippies are waiting for information, because information is perpetually coming in and they sit there and wait for it.
This is the incredible thing about the states, man. To get stoned in England is an entirely different trip. I’m not saying that you get stoned and you dig yourself or anything. What you would do is you would get stoned, perhaps you’d walk out and look at a tree or a matchstick or something and come back and have a cup of tea and then go to bed, man. But over here, you just carry on regardless. You go to Orange Julius and you have an Orange Julius and you watch TV and then you listen to some records, played very, very loud, and you know, it’s a whole different pattern, a whole different way.
The acceptance of what one already has is the thing. Whereas the mod thing was the rejection of everything one already had. You didn’t want to know about the fucking TV. “Take it away,” you know. You didn’t want to know about the politicians, you didn’t want to know about the war. If there had been a draft, man, they would have just disappeared. If there had been a draft there wouldn’t have been mods, because something like that – the thing was that it was a sterile situation, it was perfect. It was almost too perfect.
Over here it’s imperfect, it’s not a sterile situation. The group themselves can’t become powerful because they can be weakened at so many points. They can be weakened by their education, by their spirituality, by their intelligence, by the sheer fact that Americans are more highly educated. The average American and the average Englishman and the Englishmen I’m talking about are people that probably left school when they were fourteen or fifteen. Some of them can’t even read or write. But yet there were mods, they were like–you see something nearer, I suppose, in what it’s like to be a Hell’s Angel, but not as much flash, not as much gimmicking, much less part of a huge machine.
A lot of people, in a lot of new groups–not necessarily good ones at all–have tried to imbue rock and roll with a tremendous amount of spirituality and transfer on to it very deep meaning. What do you think of this tendency?
I don’t want that record to dictate to me, to say, well, “this is where your head should be while you’re listening to this record, you should be a in a spiritual groove.” The thing is that you can take anything – you can take “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” at any spiritual level if you want to. It is, in effect, a spiritual song, and it’s effective on every spiritual level and it’s a complete and wonderful musical effort because it can’t be criticized; it’s got to be accepted for what it is, it’s a piece of pure existence. It’s a piece of wonderful existence, so you get beyond it and when it gets down to justifying music or preloading it, saying “this is going to be a spiritual thing,” or “this is going to have any kind of color,” what you’ve got to do is work from the lowest level, and let, let the spiritual people get the spiritual bag out of what you’re doing.
Primarily, by itself – it’s going to seem incredible – but the record’s got to entertain; it’s so simple and so beautiful. That’s the whole thing: It’s just a piece of entertainment, like life itself. If life ceases to entertain, what do you want to do? You want to commit suicide. It’s got to entertain. Whether it be badly or nicely, it shouldn’t dictate, it should never dictate.
What do you think are the implications of the so-called rock and roll revival – the songs like on the Stones‘ new album. Are people now fed up with the bullshitty pretentious phenomena of the last year? Are they getting back to the values of rock and roll?
Let’s hope so. To me, what is really happening is that rock and roll is being completely mischanneled. The whole effect of pop music was being followed though. What pop music was doing to people was something incredibly big, and so all the musicians that were creating rock and roll are saying, “Wow, it’s doing something incredibly big, we’re gonna follow this through.”
And they were incapable of following through anything as big as rock and roll. You can’t create something as huge as rock and roll and then come along and say, “Well, I’m going to do the follow up, now, which is going to be spirituality.” You can’t do it, rock and roll is enormous. It’s one of the biggest musical events in history. It’s equal to the classical music. It’s equal and it’s transcending slowly but surely because of the impetus, the weight of the feeling.
It’s like saying, “Get all the pop music, put it into a cartridge, put the cap on it and fire the gun.” You don’t care whether those ten or 15 numbers sound roughly the same. You don’t care what periods they were written in, what they mean, what they’re all about. It’s the bloody explosion that they create when you let the gun off. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is. That is why rock and roll is powerful. It is a single force. It is a single impetus and it’s a single force which threatens a lot of the crap which is around at the moment in the middle class and in the middle-aged politics or philosophy.
It blasts it, out of its sheer brashness, it’s sheer realisticness. It’s like suddenly everybody getting hung up on a bum trip: mother has just fallen down the stairs, dad’s lost all his money at the dog track, the baby’s got TB. In comes the kid, man, with his transistor radio, grooving to Chuck Berry. He doesn’t give a shit about mom falling down the stairs. He’s with rock and roll.
That’s what rock and roll says to life: It says, you know, I’m hip, I’m happy, forget your troubles and just enjoy! And, of course, this is the biggest thing it has to offer, the biggest single thing it has to offer. At the same time it can have content if, if one desires content in something as incredible as it is already. The rock and roll songs I like, of course, are songs like “Summertime Blues,” man that’s beautiful. It says everything: don’t have the blues, it’s summertime; summertime, you don’t get the blues in summertime! There is no such thing. That’s why there’s no cure for them.
Can you pin down some of the elements that make rock and roll what it is, starting with the basic elements . . . it’s got the beat.
It’s a bigger thing than that. The reason it’s got to have a beat is the fact that rock and roll music has got to have that bounce; it’s got to have that thing to make you swing; it’s got to swing in an old-fashioned sense; in other words, it’s got to undulate. It’s got to have a rhythm which undulates. It can’t be a rhythm which you count down in a long drone like classical music. It doesn’t have to be physical because when you think of a lot of Beatles music, it’s very non-physical. Like Sgt. Pepper’s is an incredibly non-physical album. If I hear something like the Electric Flag album, I jump up and dance and I hardly get to hear the music because I’m so busy jumping up dancing.
But when I hear something like “Summertime Blues,” then I do both, then I’m into rock and roll, then I’m into a way of life, into that thing about being that age and being this age and grooving to that thing that he’s talking about which is, like, summertime and, like not being able to get off work early and not being able to get out in the sunshine and not being able to borrow the car because dad’s in a foul mood. All those frustrations of summer so wonderfully and so simply, so poetically, put in this incredible package, the package being rock and roll.
There’s the package, there’s the vehicle. Not only is it about some incredible poignant experiences, but it’s also a gas. The whole thing about rock and roll dynamism, in many ways, is the fact that if it does slow down, if it does start to review itself, if it takes any sort of perspective on life at all, it falls. As soon as someone makes any comment, for example, musically on something they’ve done before, they collapse.
Is it because you start to take yourself seriously?
Obviously, this is what happens; it is what we desperately try to prevent all the time. One way to stop taking life seriously is to go out on the road. A prime example is people like Paul Revere and the Raider’s, resulting in complete insanity. And every group that you can name, man, the Beach Boys are a completely insane group, completely insane. The Beatles they stopped going out on the road–they’re sober as shit; they’ve got it together. The Rolling Stones are just going out on the road again; it’s taken them ten years to get over the hang ups they got from being on the road last time.
This is where you forget, you don’t want to take things seriously, you just let things pour out, often they are the wrong things. You might be thinking that you’re keeping things light and you’re keeping things groovy and you’re just making your own musical statement and having a groove and everybody’s grooving to it and life’s a ball. But on the outside they think it’s probably fucked up, screwed up, loaded with meaning, obviously a nostalgic bit, obviously the story has got something to do with your first sexual relationship; you know, obviously it’s got some spiritual significance: “does Pete Townsend think he’s Jesus?” or whatever the hang up is man. It can all be read into it. I’m sure a lot of it is there, but one doesn’t know because one is trying to avoid this. We, of all people, have got to be afraid of seriousness in The Who, because if we were serious, we’d admit that we don’t like each other. But because we’re not serious, we don’t have to admit it.
You said you write best when you are on tour.
What I was going to get into when I was saying that sentence was that I write a lot of songs on airplanes but they sound just like songs written in airplanes.
Like which ones?
Let me see: “I Can’t Reach You” – “our love was flowing, our life was soaring” and “I can’t reach you; I’m a billion ages past you and a billion years behind you.” It’s all spacy, cloudy, you know; sun glinting on the wings, big massive jet engines silently soaring through the quiet skies, you know all this stuff is great for lyrics. The billowy clouds get you, that’s the way you think, you think in these kind of adjectives.
I never regarded myself as a person afraid of traveling by air. When we did the Herman’s Hermit tour in an old charter plane, I wrote so many songs about plane crashes, it was incredible. I did a song called “Glow Girl,” which Kit Lambert wanted to release as a single, which was about – you see again, it became spiritual, what you were talking about earlier, unconsciously spiritual tune this was. I wrote it because we were talking off in a plane which I seriously thought was going to crash (you know how that feeling is) and as I was going up I was writing a list, I thought, that if I was a chick and I was in a plane that was diving for the ground and I had my boyfriend next to me and we were on our honeymoon or we were about to get married, I know what I’d think of. I’d think about him and I’d think about what I am going to be missing. So I went through this list, you know how women get screwed up about their purse, about what’s in her purse. I just went through a big list of what was in this chick’s purse–cigarettes, Tampax, a whole lyrical list and then holding his hand and what he felt and what he was gonna say to her. And he is a romanticist. The man, he’s trying to have some romantic and soaring last thoughts. Eventually what happens is that they crash and they are reincarnated at a very instant musically. What I wanted was the list getting franticer and franticer, she’s going through her handbag, ballpoint pen, cigarettes, book matches, lipstick and Excedrin and he’s going “We will be this and we will do this and we will be together in heaven and don’t worry little one, you’re safe with me,” and all this kind of bullshit. What happens is The Who do an incredible destruction as the plane hits the ground, explosions . . . then this little tune comes out which goes, “It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl. It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl.” That was supposed to be the end of the thing and you sus out that they’ve been reincarnated as this girl.
Continued in the next issue right here.
This story appeared in the September 14, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.