Pete Townshend has met the enemy – and recognized the bleary eyes staring back at him across the chasm of the last two decades as his own. Townshend and his band, the Who, were the subject of a story in the first issue of Rolling Stone, and over the last fifteen years, the magazine has published at least a half dozen substantial interviews with the guitarist (as well as such self-penned pieces as “The Punk Meets the Godmother,” RS 252). This is Pete’s third full-fledged Rolling Stone interview; in the two years since his last one, he has suffered something very much like a middle-age breakdown. With the Who typically adrift in the wake of their awkward 1981 album, Face Dances, Townshend moved out on his family (wife Karen and daughters Emma, 13, and Minta, 11) and plunged into London’s heady new nightlife. He made the scene with the New Romantic kids at a Club for Heroes. He raved all night at the venerable Venue. And he found himself gravitating – naturally? – toward the society types at the Embassy Club. The nights became a blur of booze and cocaine and pills, until one sobering day he realized he had become an alcoholic and a drug addict. He nearly died.
Townshend says he survived his two-year binge with some help from his family and friends, and that he has now started a new life. The Who may not be a major part of it: the group will probably continue to record, but Townshend will increasingly occupy himself with outside projects (such as “Ball and Chain,” the track he worked on for Elton John‘s new Jump Up! album, and the duct version of “That’s Why the Lady Is a Tramp’ he recently produced for New Romantic avatar Steve Strange and a frog-voiced French female singer named Ronny. He hopes to complete a book of short stories, and he’ll continue turning out solo albums. His third, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, is his most explosively kinetic – and personally revealing – to date and features some of his strongest, most assured singing. Its visceral power would seem to confirm Townshend’s contention that he’s over whatever private horrors precipitated his extended bout of dissipation. But traces of pain and even confusion are apparent in the album’s lyrics, and in the interview that follows.
Popular on Rolling Stone
It was conducted a few weeks before Townshend’s thirty-seventh birthday and four days before he and the other members of the Who – Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Kenney Jones and perhaps a second guitarist, Andy Fairweather-Low – were to begin work on the band’s next album, due out later this year. We met in a softly carpeted art-deco suite in the St. James’s Club, a discreet sanctuary tucked into the cul-de-sac of Park Place, a few minutes’ stroll from St. James’s Palace, but very far indeed from the rock & roll streets of Townshend’s youth. Pete sat on a pale blue velour sofa looking very English-eccentric in hound’s-tooth bow tie, brown-and-beige saddle shoes and baggy checked trousers with a long, looping key chain. An Oriental waiter brought a luncheon trolley topped with a single, perfect pale pink rose. Townshend ate a small, grilled beefsteak. Wine was poured, but Pete drank milk.
The title of your new solo album, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes – what’s that mean?
Basically, it’s about the fact that you can’t hide what you’re really like. I just had this image of the average American hero – somebody like a Clint Eastwood or a John Wayne. Somebody with eyes like slits, who was basically capable of anything – you know, any kind of murderous act or whatever to get what was required – to get, let’s say, his people to safety. And yet, to those people he’s saving, he’s a great hero, a knight in shining armor – forget the fact that he cut off fifty people’s heads to get them home safely. Then I thought about the Russians and the Chinese and the Arab communities and the South Americans; you’ve got these different ethnic groups, and each has this central image of every other political or national faction as being, in some way, the evil ones. And I’ve taken this a little bit further – because I spent so much of my time in society, high society, last year – comment on stardom and power and drug use and decadence, and how there’s a strange parallel, in a way, between the misuse of power and responsibility by inept politicians and the misuse of power and responsibility by people who are heroes. If you’re really a good person, you can’t hide it by acting bad; and if you’re a bad person, you can’t hide it by acting good. Also – more to the point, really – that there’s no outward, identifiable evil, you know? People spend most of their time looking for evil and identifying evil outside themselves. But the potential for evil is inside you.
I think the album is fairly cathartic in some ways. The writing ranged over the last two years, which have been very, very peculiar for me, ’cause I’ve been through a lot of really weird things. I went through the normal, continuing heart-searchin’ over the Who, and I lived away from my family for quite a long time as well; we have a house in the country, and I was living there, mainly. I made a lot of deliberate pleasure trips to New York and L.A. I spent some time in Paris, a lot of time in the country working on a book of short stories and other times just knockin’ about with some of the London club-scene people.
I enjoy a lot of that life, in a way. But all the time, behind the scenes, I was writing songs and recording in fairly long spurts. Then, late last year, I had to abandon recording the solo album because I couldn’t work. I was quite capable of spending all night doing nothing, but as soon as I actually tried to apply myself to something, I seemed to get physically exhausted. And very much unlike me, I had sort of drifted into the drug scene, because it’s so much part and parcel of the club life, you know – taking cocaine to keep going all day, things like that.
That really drains you.
Yeah, and I hadn’t realized quite how much. Because what happened was that I decided that it was a drinking problem, that I was an alcoholic. And I went to several doctors who confirmed that. So I stopped drinking, and I spent five days in a clinic, initially. A lot of hypnotherapy, individual therapy with various people. But I carried on with the drug thing a little bit. And then I realized that both things were really affecting me, that in order to assist me gettin’ off alcohol, I had used a lot of tranquilizers. One in particular: a drug called Ativan, which is of the Librium-Valium variety. And I became addicted to it. So in January, I went to Meg Patterson in California; she’d helped Eric Clapton get off heroin. And she said that Ativan is more addictive than heroin.
Anyway, once I stopped taking everything – not just drinking, but doing anything at all – and started to be careful about my diet and got into a routine of regular exercise, the transformation was instant. Now I feel superhuman. Also, I had managed, with a lot of assistance from my wife, to reestablish myself in the family, and that’s great for me. I mean, it’s something I desperately missed.
Had drugs and drinking been the central causes of your family problems?
No, no, no. I’ve always had a drinking problem. Like every writer, in a way. But the family thing mainly had to do with work pressure – with my inability to stop working. Filling in time, when I had spare time, instead of working on relationships with my close friends and building up a solid, day-to-day empathy with my wife and family. After a long tour, say, I would tend to immediately immerse myself in something else, you know? I was always avoiding the main issue. And I think a lot of that comes out in the material on this album. Unfortunately, a lot of unhappiness comes through. But there’s also a great feeling that I seem determined to win, somehow. You can feel it in a lot of the songs, that there’s a determination to overcome. And I managed to do it.
Were you able to explain to your daughters what you were going through?
To some extent. I mean, it’s early for me yet. You know, it’s interesting you should say that – that’s the kind of thing that never occurred to me, to ever even sit down and talk to my kids about the kinds of things I go through in my work. I’ll sit down and talk to Paul Bonnick, my driver, about everything from my latest case of VD to the way I feel about the isolation of me kids. But I’d never sit down and talk to them directly. To a great extent, I suppose a lot of things that they know about me, they’ve read in newspapers. So I do have to start to deal with that.
During this period, did you also feel removed from the members of the Who? Did you see them a lot?
No, I didn’t. The English tour last year was just too much to take. We weren’t playing well enough. And a lot of that was because I was pretty peculiar most of the time. I think we all were, though. And Roger was really having serious doubts about whether or not we should go on.
How did you feel about that?
I suppose under normal circumstances I would have felt, hey, this is my opportunity to get out of the band and all the responsibilities it entails. But I didn’t. I did the reverse – I really lammed into Roger, and I said, you know, we should really think seriously before we make any rash moves. I raised some of the points he’d raised to me in the past, when I’d felt the band had gone past its prime. I also told him I didn’t feel that I could write for the band if it was just gonna go into a recording studio. I felt that we had to perform live. I need that live feedback as a writer. There were also rumors about Roger’s being unhappy with Kenney, and Kenney’s being unhappy with the fact he couldn’t communicate with Roger. And there was a bit of communication breakdown. I think Roger felt very strongly that we really were missing Keith more than we knew. And . . . that I accepted. But he also felt that some of the changes we’d made – like bringing in Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards – had kind of disguised what was really wrong; which was that the heart of the band wasn’t the same. And I have to agree with him – the heart of the band isn’t the same. But that’s not to say we still can’t achieve a lot, in a different area, and continue to celebrate the magic that was there, but not get preoccupied with it. Anyway, everything’s fine now. Roger got everyone at it, as usual, and it was all for the good.
How did the band feel about the last album, Face Dances, for which you brought in Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk?
Kind of mixed. It’s not improvin’ with age, either [laughs]. I think the chemistry was wrong, and it wasn’t just Bill Szymczyk. I don’t think we were really quite working together. Roger says that you could feel on Face Dances that the band wasn’t a band. And what I’d like to see happen on the next album is for the Who to feel like a band, and work as a band.
Do you see the Who doing extended works in the future – not like Tommy, necessarily, but other large-scale projects?
Well, first, I don’t see the Who going on for very much longer. I think that with this next album, and with the next protracted period of work we do, we’re really gonna throw ourselves into it 100 percent. And then we’re gonna stop. I’m pretty sure of that. It’s not because we want to, but because we’ve come to the point where we don’t really want to go through all these periods when the public and our fans and the record company and even we don’t know what the fuck’s gonna happen next. The tension is just too much. And this period when we work on the band, I’m gonna really think about very little else. I’m worried about it, because I’ve become accustomed to doing lots of other things. And I like the richness of what I do in other areas. That’s become almost as important to me as being in a band. And I think when you get to that point, you have to think very seriously about what it is you’re doing it for. Because it’s always been too important for us to do just because we enjoy one another’s company. And I think basically one of the reasons we’re working together at the moment is that we enjoy one another’s company. It’s as simple as that.
If the Who did break up, wouldn’t there be something missing in all of your lives?
Yeah, I would say about a million dollars a year.
Nothing else? Are you all beyond that?
I think that, far from there being something missing, the very fact of not being involved in it anymore would allow us to take a different stance on what we’ve done – to enjoy it, to luxuriate in it, to celebrate it, to cherish it and to draw the best from it. Rather than always see the past as something that threatens our future – which is something that seems to be an irreversible feature of the band today. I don’t know: I think the Who will break up – not break up, but stop working – before the Stones do.
What’s the difference between the two groups that would allow that to be so?
The Stones have got fuck-all else except rock & roll. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But that’s all they’ve got. And we have got a lot more. Nothing as important as what we’ve achieved, but we’ve got a lot more. Enough to allow us, I think, to even consider a last waltz, as it were. As far as our recording career, I don’t know how many more records we’ll do together or whether I’ll continue to work with Roger the rest of me life. I don’t really know.
Will the Who still tour to support the next album?
Yeah, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do a certain amount of work. But after that, I really think we’ve had enough. At least for now, we seem to have to know that we’re asking one last big effort. We have to feel that there is an end to it; otherwise, I don’t think we could really go in with the right mood.
Would you personally approach touring with a new attitude this time, trying not to get wiped-out on the road?
Yeah, I would have to, because I’m never gonna drink again. In a way, I’m quite looking forward to it as a test. I’m happy to have sorted out my family problems once and for all. I always felt and hoped that it was possible. I didn’t want to be a rock casualty in any sense, because I’ve always felt that one more rock casualty is just another headline for a couple of weeks, and then everybody gets really . . . not only bored, but everybody feels betrayed. Because although rock casualties make good copy in the NME Book of the Dead, they don’t make good copy in the lives of rock fans, who have a slightly higher emotional involvement in the musical form than its just being, you know, like a circus, full of Berlinesque, decadent assholes who don’t know how to spend their money, et cetera.
Your wife must be a remarkable woman, bearing up under all this public trauma.
Well, she doesn’t like me to talk too much about us, but we met at art school in 1963, started going out together in 1965, when the group was established, got married in 1968, had our first child in 1969 – and really, apart from a few ups and downs, we never suffered any major problems until the last couple of years. And we both feel that one of the problems was that I did over commit when I took on a solo career. It was a great strain. And living in the same house and everything, we literally became estranged – we were like strangers. And it was only when I actually became so ill that I couldn’t work that we had the time to sit down and talk. And then we stopped being strangers and we became friends and lovers again, and life is back to the way it was. Our marriage was made in heaven, there’s no question about it. But you’ve got to work at marriage, and it’s a different kind of work from what you do normally, and it’s got a different end product. I’m sure this stuff is familiar as hell to everybody else, but it’s all new to me.
You spent some time at Steve Strange’s Club for Heroes, which was a mecca for London’s New Romantics. What did you make of that scene?
I loved it. The only thing was, I nearly died there one night. The first night I went, I was with a couple of friends, and I ended up goin’ blue – my heart practically stopped. I thought at the time that I’d probably gotten so drunk I didn’t know what I was taking, and that I took some terrible drug. But I think I actually drank so much brandy I gave myself alcohol poisoning. I just went black. And that was my hero’s entrance to a Club for Heroes: a seven-foot bouncer carried me out like a sack of potatoes.
But I did get to know Steve Strange quite well as a result of that, ’cause I went back later to apologize. And he turned out to be an absolute sweetheart. Very, very egoless, in a real sense. Superficially, totally preoccupied with image and everything, but underneath, not like that at all. And just stupidly vain like – for Christ’s sake – every woman on the planet, every Western woman, is stupidly vain. We let them get away with it, you know: “Listen, the bomb’s gonna drop in five minutes, but I can’t go into the fallout shelter until I’ve done my makeup.” That’s okay from a woman, but for some reason, if Steve Strange says it, he’s criticized.
I think people sometimes see you as one of the last of the great loons. With Keith Moon gone, and Kit Lambert, your former manager, having died last year, have you felt this image bearing down on you – a sort of compulsion to go out raving all night?
No, I actually feel torn in a number of directions. The thing I feel most conscious of is the responsibility to stay alive. Take Mick Jagger, for example. Mick is just bein’ great at the moment. I think it’s incredible to see him facin’ up to who he is: workin’, stayin’ fit, living the kind of life he wants to live and still being involved in rock & roll. And never compromising on one single issue. And stayin’ alive.
I don’t think people really care if you loon or not, but they wanna see that you’re enjoyin’ life. It’s no good staying alive if you’re gonna be suicidal. But I have been taught the intricate techniques of looning, and most of them I didn’t get from Kit or Keith; I got them from my mother. Weaned by a loony!
Your mother, a musician herself, must know about the looning life.
She was actually the person who made me think about starting to treat myself as an alcoholic. I had gotten to the point where I was taking a drink in the morning just to feel normal. That lasted for about a month, and I was very worried about that. Then, a guy in our road crew, who’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, showed me a book written by an amazing guy named Max Glatt, who ran an enormous clinic here and did a lot of work with alcoholics. And I read immediately that I was alcoholic. There was absolutely no question about it. And when I was in Paris working with Elton John, I got to the point where that glass of brandy in the morning was not makin’ me feel normal anymore, it was makin’ me feel ill, So there was no way I could get my fix. And in a brief period of panic, I tried just about everything else in the world to try to feel normal again. And none of them worked. Nothing.
But then my mother suddenly decided to go into a clinic to stop drinking. She decided she’d had enough and she stopped. And I knew, this time, that she’d stopped for life. They said it probably would be a good idea if she didn’t go home straight away, so she came to live with me. And two things happened: first, I was really inspired by her, and I wanted to show solidarity by stopping myself, once and for all. But also, a lot of my excuses were taken away. There’s absolutely no question of it being genetic, anyway; I couldn’t really say, “Oh, it’s because everybody in my family is a drunk, that’s why I’m a drunk.”
One of my main excuses for getting drunk all the time was that I really do feel shy and uncomfortable in large gatherings and on social occasions, and I’d need it to relax. But the problem was that that first drink never really relaxed me. Neither did that second drink, and neither did that third drink. Tranquilizers weren’t doin’ it. Nothing was really doin’ it. And then I suddenly realized: why do you have to be relaxed? What’s so great about being relaxed? You know – why not feel tense, and just get used to it? Some people have to live with much worse situations than just feeling tense. So this time, I just know I’m not gonna drink again.
You spent quite a bit of time hanging out with the aristocracy, didn’t you? Are they good company?
People are very quick to say, “Oh, that crowd of shits.” I don’t think I met one shit, not one single real shit – and yet in my business, I could introduce you to a thousand. I was comfortable at the Embassy Club because those people all knew exactly what I was going through. They were all very sympathetic. They fucking kept me alive.
It was a meander, a groping. But you know the answer to your problems. It’s an inability to commit to things that you sometimes find you’re embarrassed to commit to. Like when I think of myself as a rock & roll star, perhaps I feel a bit embarrassed about committing to take my kid to school every day. Because I don’t want to be recognized, or I don’t want my kid to be ostracized for coming to school in a big car. But I’m sorry – the daughter is the daughter of the father. And the father has a big car. And she’s gotta live with it, and I’ve gotta live with it, and so do all her friends. That’s unpleasant to have to deal with sometimes.
I suppose the irony of mingling with titled people – who would sympathize with this sort of problem – is that in a way you’ve transcended the British class system. Maybe it’s changing . . .
I don’t think Britain is ever gonna change. I’m afraid it’s part of our tradition, and always will be. There’s a lot of things that could change, and there’s a lot of things that need to change, but I don’t think that the aristocracy needs to change. You know – why? What harm are they doing? They’re a minority in this country. They’ve not got the power they used to have. They might have a few misappropriated possessions, but nothing I’d want. My house in the country is too bloody big anyway, and it’s about a quarter of the size of most of these mansions.
Keith Moon has been dead nearly four years now. Do you think he’d be the same if he were still alive?
I don’t know. It would have been a shame to have seen his obvious unhappiness increase. I think that’s really what got to us, that he was never really happy. And with him, it wasn’t a matter of doing what I’ve done – doing a U-turn and picking up the pieces – because I don’t think he ever knew happiness. He was one of the most difficult people to return love to. Because he was such an expansive guy, and you had to act in such a sensational, larger-than-life manner, you know? I mean, you didn’t say hello to Keith: it didn’t matter if he’d only been out of the studio for five minutes, when he came back in, he insisted on kissing everybody on the lips.
Have you ever felt that you must be unhappy in order to create?
I’ve read that’s Roger’s impression. He once said, “God forbid the day that Townshend hasn’t got any problems, because he won’t write.” I think if you’re miserable, you write about things that are close to you. And if you’re okay, you look a bit wider afield for subject matter. There’s always plenty to get miserable about temporally.
So just because you’re happy, it doesn’t mean you become John Denver.
No. I mean, if you’re unlucky enough to be born John Denver there’s not much you can do, really. But there are moments when I’ve listened to John Denver and he has actually gotten across to me the joy he feels from standing in the Colorado mountains. It’s just that he does it in every song, and I get a bit bored with hearing about the mountains and the spring flowers and the trees and everything. I think they’re going to look just as black as New York City when the bomb drops.
I gather you actually like New York quite a bit.
I love it. I’ve got a lot of friends there, like David Bowie. But there’s something weird about it. I mean, I’ll go to New York and ring Mick up, and I’ll go and see David Bowie. But they’re both over here now, and I wouldn’t even dream of ringing ’em up. It’s peculiar; it’s a different kind of life for me. I like New York, but I don’t see a hell of a lot happening. You know, the AM/PM club is just full of the same old musicians who’ve come from the same old gig, doing the same old thing. David Byrne has got the weight of the whole thing on his shoulders, as far as I can see, and the last time I saw him, he looked it, you know?
I read the piece you wrote about the Jam in Time Out magazine. I know they’re loved in Britain, but I’ve never been able to accept them as the heirs to the Who – I just don’t think they deliver the sonic punch that the Who did. They’re not that strong a group.
Well, I politely said that toward the end of the article. That there’s not much music I don’t like, but I don’t like theirs. I like the image they’re trying to put across, and I like their commitment. But somewhere, it’s falling short. I think they’re starting to realize that now, and maybe their new album gives an indication that they might be trying to improve . . . . I think I’d go further and say one thing I didn’t say in that article, which is something my publicist said: “The Jam lacks a sense of humor.” That’s the thing.
Julian Lennon, John’s son, is another young London rocker of whom we may have a pretty jumbled image in the States. Is he okay?
I saw him last night, and he was extremely morose and arrogant, which is very unlike him. I think maybe he feels he’s been used a lot. And I think, to some extent, he has. Particularly by all the flighty young girls on the make. I think that must be very strange for him. I mean, I was very flattered by it, when I had gotten onto the club scene, to suddenly be surrounded by beautiful blonds of seventeen years old. Then you suddenly realize that, basically, they’re just standing next to you in the hope that there’s going to be a photograph, or that you might give them a million pounds or something stupid. And five weeks later they look like they’re dying. There’s something very tragic about it, and I think Julian is too intelligent to go through that and not become a bit scarred by it.
Have you heard any of Julian’s music?
No, I haven’t. But Zak, who’s Ringo‘s son, seems to think he’s all right. And Zak’s a very, very harsh critic.
Were you close to John Lennon during his five years of seclusion? Or did you grow close to his music?
No, I didn’t, really. I liked the Rock ‘n’ Roll albums a lot, and the Imagine album. But I didn’t particularly enjoy his solo stuff. One of my favorite records of all time is “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But I’ve always had very strange feelings about the Beatles, because for me they were too remote, as stars, and possibly always will be. I know the remaining members very, very well. I have a good relationship with Paul and Ringo, and I see George occasionally; he’s a bit of a recluse, but I see him and I feel perfectly relaxed with him. We’ve got a lot in common, particularly the interest in mysticism, and gardening, and we live close to each other in the country. But John never . . . . I spoke to him once on the phone. I was staying at the Pierre in New York – he had a suite there – and he came on the phone and we had a quick chat. I said, “Do you fancy a drink?” Not meaning. “Let’s go get drunk.” And he just said, “No, no, no. I’m just not into any kind of scene like that at all.” And I said, “Well, what kind of scene?” You know? I wasn’t suggesting a scene, I was suggesting getting together for a drink. And I thought then, you know [croons]: “Goodbye, John . . .” Perhaps I, like many others, was never meant to know him. And I wonder whether his chosen form of remoreness wasn’t actually slightly instrumental in his eventual tragic death. In other words, can you really be Greta Garbo? You know? I mean, what an idiot that woman was. She becomes a great big star and then says, “I want to be alone.” Why didn’t she just stay where she was in the first place? I know my unique status causes me a lot of problems, but nothing that I want to run away from. I know things can get out of control – you look at somebody like Andy Gibb at the moment, who’s sort of lost in space, and you feel very sorry for him. But I feel Lennon belonged to the people. And the irony, of course – the tragic irony – was that he seemed to be coming to terms with that and starting to work again.
How different is Lennon’s sort of seclusion from that of someone like Eric Clapton? He seems pretty inaccessible, too.
I don’t know what Eric really wants out of life anymore. I know that some of the things Eric finds very important, I don’t give a damn about. You know, he was very hurt when he stopped being voted number-one guitar player in various guitar magazines. And I thought, “Well, how shallow.” But that was important to him. I think he thinks of himself far more as a musician then as a “star.” He’s self-conscious of his image, I think, and, to a degree, his responsibility. But he’s much more complex than appears on the outside.
Clapton duets with Jeff Beck on the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball album, and although neither of them seems to be trying too hard, Beck seems to walk all over Clapton. I think Eric’s admirers wish he would step out and play a lot more.
Yeah, I do think Eric’s made some fundamental mistakes that he can’t reverse. You can’t change the past, unfortunately. He was a heroin addict for two years. He lost two years of his life and career. And, unfortunately, a lot of the effects of heroin are irreversible, as you can see by reading William Burroughs. You know; Page one, crap. Page two, more crap. Page three, more crap. And the more the disciples gather ’round and read the crap, the more of that crap comes out of the man.
I really do love Eric a lot, otherwise I wouldn’t have involved my life with him so much. And I don’t see him doing anything wrong at all. I really enjoy what he does. I don’t think it’s necessarily the maximum of his potential, but then I don’t see why he should work at the maximum of his potential, because that’s not what he’s pursuing. He’s pursuing a kind of music that has more to do with finding a groove or expressing an emotion. Jeff, I think, is a much more troubled individual, much more torn, because he’s capable of expressing anything, practically. Without doubt, the finest expressive rock player we’ve got – and yet, he seems to have nothing to express [laughs].
Robert Fripp once told me he admired Jimi Hendrix because Hendrix had it all inside and his struggle was to get it out, whereas Fripp has all the technique to get it out but has a problem finding it inside.
What a wonderful thing to say, because it would hurt me to say it about somebody as nice as Robert Fripp, but, I mean, it’s true. And I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten to the bottom of what happens when I play the guitar.
More and more bands, particularly English ones, are dispensing with guitars in favor of synthesizers.
Yes. I think the guitar will be gone within ten years, myself. Microchips.
I’ve been listening to Tug of War, Paul McCartney’s new album. It may be the best thing he’s done in a while – it sounds real nice. But it seems to have virtually nothing to do with rock & roll.
Do you think he ever really had anything to do with rock & roll?
Well . . . .
No, he never did. You know, I could sit down and have a conversation with Paul about rock & roll, and we’d be talking about two different things. He’s got a couple of years on me, but it could be ten years, we’re so different. If he talks about rock & roll, I think he is talking about Little Richard. Whereas I don’t think Little Richard mattered, you know?
But one of the reasons I’m excited about Paul’s latest project is because it’s him and George Martin working together again; because he’s making a conscious effort to really get into serious record-making, rather than pissin’ about in home studios – which I, for one, think he’s terrible at. When “Ebony and Ivory” came out, everybody was saying, “Christ, have you heard it? It’s terrible.” Well, I heard it, and I thought it was fuckin’ amazing! I thought, “That’s it, that’s McCartney!” He’s actually taken black and white, put a bit of tinsel around it, managed by hook or by crook to get Stevie Wonder to sing it, sit on black and white piano keys on a video . . . . It’s wonderful! It’s gauche! It’s Paul McCartney!
I’ve always said that I’ve never been a big fan of the Beatles: to me rock was the Stones, and before that Chuck Berry, and before that, maybe a few people who lived in fields in Louisiana. But I can’t really include the Beatles in that. The Beatles were over with Herman’s Hermits. That’s not rock & roll. I was always very confused about the American attitude of thinking that the Beatles were rock & roll. Because they were such a big pop phenomenon. I’ve always enjoyed some of their stuff as light music, with occasional masterpieces thrown in. But with a lot of their things, you can’t dig very deep. Either you come up against Lennon’s deliberately evading what it is that he’s trying to say, so it’s inscrutable, or Paul McCartney’s self-imposed shallowness, because he sees music as being . . . I mean, he’s a great believer in pop music, I think. But I wonder whether McCartney, perhaps, rests a little bit on the laurels of the Beatles.
Even an ostensibly glitzy group like Abba seems to me much more tied to rock & roll.
Absolutely. I remember hearing “S.O.S.” on the radio in the States and realizing that it was Abba. But it was too late, because I was already transported by it. I just thought it was such a great sound, you know – great bass drum and the whole thing. They make great records. Also, what’s quite interesting is that Abba was one of the first big, international bands to actually deal with sort of middle-aged problems in their songwriting. And it was quite obviously what was going on among them – that song, “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
Are you familiar with any of the Oibands, the postpunk skinhead groups? Some of them have apparently been co-opted by the neofascist National Front, and Oi fans played a part in last summer’s youth riots in Brixton.
Possibly, but who would you call an Oi band?
Cocksparrer, Infa-Riot, any of those bands on Strength Through Oi!
Yeah, see, I probably just haven’t heard any of that. I mean, if somebody gave me an Oi record to play, I probably just wouldn’t play it. Because I object a little bit to . . . . I know that there are a lot of little kids with their hair shaved off who wouldn’t know who Hitler was if you put him to bed with them.
Yeah, that’s what’s so insidious about it: the music grabs you viscerally, but the message – not always, but sometimes – is horrifying.
This is the thing. There’s a lot of people who are unfortunately putting into practice what Jerry Rubin and John Sinclair and Abbie Hoffman were talking about back in the late Sixties. Which was: “We’re gonna use music for the revolution.” And they believed that they were right, and that rock music should be used for what they thought needed to be done. But rock can be used for anything. It’s a very, very powerful and potent force, and it can also be used for fairly distasteful purposes. I remember being hortified seeing Alice Cooper beheading live chickens on stage. And it didn’t really redeem him that I had smashed guitars, you know? Somewhere, there was a line. I don’t know whether it was just because it was live, or because it was real blood. But the fact that he later went on to make some great records didn’t redeem him, either. He’s sick, tragic, pathetic – and will always be that way. I’ll say hello to him in the street, but I’ll never tip my hat to him.
The pathetic thing about Oi music is that if it’s supposed to be helping their cause, then I’m afraid it isn’t working, folks. Because there you go, I won’t even play their records. If I see an interview in the paper, I flip past it. So they’re not gonna get to me with their bullshit, because I just don’t even read it.
Simon Napier-Bell, who managed the original Yardbirds and also John’s Children – Marc Bolan’s first band – has been shopping a book around New York recently about the British music business in the Sixties. It’s sort of strange – Bell’s thesis is that many of the managers in those days were actually homosexuals who were in it for the unending supply of young boys.
I think there’s an element of truth in that. I’ve always liked Simon Napier-Bell, but his gay side is probably the least wholesome part of him. As it was with Kit Lambert. And just for the record, if Kit Lambert was gettin’ into rock music ’cause he was looking for boys, there was certainly no approach made to any individual in the Who – ever, under any circumstances. Maybe we weren’t his type. And I only know of one boy who was seduced by him, in the very early part of our career, and that was a boy from Shepherd’s Bush who was gay anyway. I mean, Simon Napier-Bell, mind you, is a different story – a very different story. Because I think Marc Bolan had a very suspicious history. A lot of the early mods – which Marc claimed he was – used to stand outside the Scene, used to be homosexual prostitutes to raise money to buy leapers [amphetamines]. And if Marc was there at the time he said he was, then it’s unfortunately inevitable that he was one of those prostitutes.
I thought John’s Children were a bit shallow. But Simon Napier-Bell is probably one of the few people who really did understand what Kit was going through, and the fact that Kit, as a homosexual in a very macho area of rock & roll, couldn’t really display his homosexuality, couldn’t find that very, very important person, that opposite, to fall in love with. Which, more recently, Elton John has publicly professed has been one of his problems.
In the fiction that you’re writing, do you hope to reflect your time at all, your period?
Yeah, very much. I feel that I’ve woken up from a bit of a dream, with all my faculties operatin’ and my sixth sense operatin’, and I do know that there’s something very wrong going on. And it has to be talked about and dealt with, and I think, as always, writers are the first people to start to express that.
Do you think it’s a political or a spiritual malaise?
It’s a combination of things. I really feel a disconcerting feeling that, suddenly, the responsibility for the planet is in my hands. Not mine exclusively – mine and yours and everybody’s.
Yeah. It’s like it’s not somebody else’s problem. Suddenly, it’s mine. I realize that I can’t work in a capsule anymore. I’ve got to be conscious of what’s happening in the world, I think it’s never too late – and never too soon – to start something like that. I’m not just talking about the need for a global, intuitive reaction against nuclear weapons, or the need for a kind of global stance on ecology. They’re important issues. But it’s something else, in a sense. I feel something else happening. I feel like there’s an opportunity out there at the moment that mustn’t be missed. I don’t know quite what it is, it’s just something I feel in me bones.
What about the European antinuclear movement, which argues that the presence of American missiles here could turn Europe into a battleground between two remote superpowers – that the battle itself might have little to do with Europe. Why not just forbid America to put any more missiles in Europe?
Now how can you do that? America is our ally. How can we forget what happened in the last two wars? Can we suddenly turn around and say, “Sorry, we don’t need you anymore”? You know, people came all the way over from America on ships and got shot in the hundreds of thousands to save Europe. People have got too short a memory. A lot of the people who are out doin’ these disarmament parades and things are two generations away from that. They don’t realize – particularly the German nuclear campaigners – that Europe is only there by the grace of God and America. I don’t want to be too passionate and patriotic about it, but I think so much shit is spoken about America and American politics. America is responsible for the free world and continues to be. I mean, however socialist I take myself to be, I also enjoy my life as it is, you know? I enjoy living in the West. I was born here, and I like it the way it is. I don’t mind if it changes slowly, and I’m not averse to the idea of creeping socialism or creeping communism – but slow, slow, slow. Let life and let the world evolve. Eventually, of course, everybody will have to be living at the lowest common denominator – I think communism is absolutely inevitable.
But it’s time to start really working on this buildup of global consciousness. This is not gettin’ cosmic, or hippie-spaced-out, man. Everybody’s got to start thinkin’, I mean, start with prayer and work downward, you know? Because there’s not very much else that’s in our hands. I just say that I do not like what I see. It’s not to say that I can put it right. Not only do I not know how to put it right, but I’m impotent – completely impotent. Really, what our generation has suddenly woken up and realized, I think, is that we are the generation with no balls. And I’m gonna keep repeatin’ that until somebody shows me differently.
How could that be demonstrated?
Well, I don’t know. I suppose by everybody acting as one, for once. Perhaps Europe’s preoccupation with its own security is drawing people together in a way that should be taken advantage of. To end with a nice epigram: this song on my album, “The Sea Refuses No River,” has not got anything to do with my preoccupation with oceans. It’s the Townshend family motto. My daughters Emma and Minta and I went to see a friend called Mark McCauley, who’s a London socialite, runs the Embassy Club. Minta was fascinated with his posh accent and all that, and asked him whether he had family portraits on the wall, and whether he had a family crest. And he said, “Why, of course I do. Everybody has a family crest, don’t they, Pete?” I said, “Yeah, yeah, of course.” And she said, “Where’re our family portraits, and where’s our family crest?” So I said, “Well, our family portraits, are in the desk cupboard, third drawer down – you know, the Kodak Instamatics. And the family motto is in the Book of Proverbs. All you have to do is look it up.” So Emma looked in the Book of Proverbs, and with Karen’s help came up with, “The sea refuses no river.” Which I loved. I though it was great. It’s just what this family’s all about. And I got very involved in the idea, the true expression of the proverb and turned it into a song.
Later on, I had forgotten where it came from, and Emma went back and found it for me – in the Oxford Book of Proverbs, I think. And this bloody book opens up with “Wise men make the proverbs, fools repeat them.” Which is a suitable epigram for the whole thing, really.