The Who Reunite for 25th Anniversary Tour - Rolling Stone
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The Who Reunite for 25th Anniversary Tour

Seven years after its “Farewell Tour,” the band is back

The Who, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Pete TownshendThe Who, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend

The Who (L-R) John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, and Pete Townshend on circa 1989.

Gabor Scott/Redferns/Getty

Right off the bat, Pete Townshend wants one thing understood. It’s about that image he’s got: You know, the guy who rips out power chords at a volume that put the Who in The Guinness Book of World Records, who thrashes it out toe to toe with Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle onstage, who leaps into the air kicking his legs in midchord, who windmills his arm frantically as he slashes at his guitar strings, who sometimes ends the show by smashing a guitar to bits.

What Townshend wants you to know is that he doesn’t do that shit anymore. He can’t: If he plays too hard or too loud, he gets a sharp ringing in his ears. It’s called tinnitus, and it’s also brought on by stress, including things as seemingly minor as being handed a telephone when he doesn’t know who’s on the other end. And it means that if you’ve bought tickets to see the reunited Who celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary on the road this summer, you’ll see a different Pete Townshend.

Take the windmill. “They won’t get it,” says Townshend. “I warned ’em before, and I’m warnin’ ’em again. They won’t get it, for a number of reasons.”

Townshend pauses for a second, then elaborates. “There are two ways to windmill,” he says. “There’s the way I windmill, and there’s the way that every other asshole windmills. When I windmill” – he starts speaking slowly and emphatically – “I . . . break . . . off . . . the . . . ends . . . of . . . my . . . fingers. Flesh flies off. Blood runs under my fingernails. When I windmill, I fucking windmill, right? And I can’t do that to myself. I really can’t. I don’t care enough about the audience, and I don’t care enough about the music anymore. I care more about the state of my fingernails.”

Townshend stops, and for a second he looks even sadder and more morose than usual. “I mean,” he says quietly, “that’s a terrible thing to happen to somebody in rock & roll.

Who are they? On the face of it, the answer seems clear: They’re the Who. Standing in a cluttered second-floor rehearsal room on a quiet residential avenue just down the street from one of London’s toniest shopping districts, there’s Pete Townshend strumming his guitar and John Entwistle cradling a bass and Roger Daltrey sitting on a stool and singing some familiar lines: “That deaf, dumb and blind kid/Sure plays a mean pinball” and “It’s only teenage wasteland” and “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” and, of course, “Things they do look awful c-c-cold/Hope I die before I get old.”

The tall, sad-eyed guitar player with the big nose, his thinning hair tied back in a ponytail; the bearded (and now completely gray) bassist, a metal spider around his neck; the athletic-looking, curly haired, blond singer: Here is the Who, rehearsing for its first tour in seven years. Something, however, is amiss in this small room. The Who has always been four guys making as much noise as they could, but on this sunny London afternoon the band is fifteen strong. Besides Townshend and Daltrey and Entwistle, there’s the drummer Simon Phillips, a recent replacement for Kenney Jones, the former Faces drummer who joined the band in 1979 after Keith Moon’s life of excess ended with an overdose of pills he was taking to combat his alcoholism. And there’s also a keyboardist. And a new lead guitarist. And a percussionist. And a five-piece horn section. And three backup singers.

All the while the man responsible for most of this music is off by himself, isolated in a glass booth at the side of the studio. Not only can Townshend no longer hear well enough to play lead guitar, but his ears are so damaged by years of exposure to loud music that he has to be in a quieter setting. So the band has hired Steve “Boltz” Bolton, a tall Scotsman with a mountain of hair and a rockabilly wardrobe. Rumors that Joe Walsh would handle these chores were started, Townshend says, when Walsh said he’d step in if Boltz didn’t work out and Walsh’s and the Who’s managers decided they might as well draw up a contract just in case.

Nobody’s made any calls to Walsh lately, but as the band runs through a cross section of Who classics, a certain fire is missing. Though the songs still sound tough, this outfit is too busy learning the new arrangements to cut loose the way the old four-piece band would have done. Everybody’s expecting that sense of abandon to come in time – but then again, it could be tough to manage without Townshend in the thick of things.

“The confidence isn’t there yet,” says Roger Daltrey. “And with Pete by himself, that’s making it very difficult Although he’s in the same room, it feels like he’s not there. I bet if you took the wall away, the music would improve 100 percent. It’s insane, innit?”

For now it’s also making for some unsettling moments. There’s the time, for example, when the big band somewhat tentatively plays “My Generation” while the backup singers try to work out a vocal arrangement for what was once a slice of unadulterated rock & roll grunge. Or the run-through of the dramatic ballad “Love, Reign o’er Me,” during which it is Daltrey who windmills his arm in the style of the Townshend of old. The Townshend of today, meanwhile, cradles an acoustic guitar, motionless as he leans against the wall of a booth that’s been decorated with a cheesy painting of a big-eyed puppy and several flowered curtains.

So once again: Who are these guys? Or rather: Are these guys the Who?

“Well, I feel like the Who,” says Townshend later. “The three of us, when we work together, have part of the magic that the early band had. I think, in a sense, Keith’s death had a kind of compounding reduction in that magic, and Roger, John and I add up to about fifty percent of the old Who. But it’s there.”

Townshend begins circling the subject, the way he often does in conversation. “In a sense, the name refers to the audience’s feeling about what the band means to them,” he says. “And that’s got very little to do with what the band actually does these days, which is nothing. The band has done nothing in years. There is no band. It’s wrong, really, to call it the Who, because it isn’t the Who. It’s a bunch of session musicians brought together to play Who material. It’s kind of authenticated because of our presence, but that’s all, really.”

One of them died. The other three got old, at least by rock & roll standards. In 1982 they made It’s Hard, their last album, which none of them liked. Then they did their last tour. And then they went their separate ways: Pete Townshend successfully battled alcoholism and drug addiction and became a moderately successful solo performer and, on the side, an editor for the Faber and Faber publishing house. Roger Daltrey embarked on an odd career, sporadically releasing indifferently received solo albums and taking on film-acting roles, including a recent one in a version of The Threepenny Opera. And John Entwistle, who says he didn’t even see Townshend for several years after the band broke up, tried to interest people in his new music and grew frustrated that they never let him escape the shadow of the Who.

They never thought they’d get back together, though they hooked up every once in a while. They played Live Aid, though Entwistle calls the appearance “a disaster.” They did a short set at the British Phonograph Industry Awards ceremony in 1988. And they celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary in Great Britain last year by posing for photos together on London’s Wardour Street, but Townshend says nobody ran the photos. And then the rumors started: Townshend had reconsidered . . . Entwistle was broke . . . The Who might make an album and was looking for outside songs . . . The album was off, but a tour might be in the works . . . The tour was on, and they stood to make a lot of money . . .

“There’s no way I’m broke,” says Entwistle of one of the more prevalent rumors. “I’ve got a house that’s worth 3 million, I’ve got a hundred and fifty grand in cars, and I’ve still got 200,000 pounds worth of guitars [though he auctioned off 100 of his 266 basses not long ago]. But cash flow is always difficult to maintain, because whenever I earned any money, I spent it on something I could look at . . . So yeah, I need the money from this tour very much. Everybody needs more money.”

There’s another reason, Entwistle says, for the tour: “Because they won’t let me do fuckall else. The only way I can play in front of a big audience is with the Who.” And playing for big audiences was always the real home for a band that made eleven studio albums in twenty-five years while contemporaries like the Kinks and the Rolling Stones made upward of two dozen. Onstage the Who’s music took on enormous power, Townshend’s windmills and kicks only part of one of the flashiest, ballsiest shows in rock. Onstage the band helped develop the sound that became heavy metal, documenting it on Live at Leeds well before it became, as Townshend puts it, “immortalized in the gross, disgusting object that was Led Zeppelin.” Onstage the Who made a lot of its money, routinely selling out stadiums. And sometimes the band’s presence caused havoc (most notably in Cincinnati in 1979, when eleven fans were killed in the crush to get in the doors to a Who concert).

So even though Townshend decided against a tour late last year – preferring to devote his time to Iron Man, a theatrical show and album based on a British children’s book – he eventually reconsidered. “It’s very difficult, when you’ve changed your mind, to explain why you’ve changed it,” he says, running a hand through his thin beard as he sits in an upstairs office between Who rehearsals. “But this is an anniversary year for the band, and I desperately wanted to do something. I wanna see the Who’s catalog out there, I wanna see people buying the early records.

“I’d spent an immense amount of time thinking about the negative aspects: the trouble that I might have with my hearing, the fact that the Who are a spent force creatively and so couldn’t ever go into the studio and produce a decent record. And we’re too old, and this group kills people, and music does not belong in stadiums. But it’s what the audience feels about the band that’s important.”

The self-examination is typical of Townshend. Long acknowledged as one of rock & roll’s most expansive – and often as one of rock’s most articulate – talkers, he’s always ready to tell lengthy tales or look at his own work frankly and philosophically. Certainly, he can come up with justifications for just about every thing he does. His droopy eyes and long face make him look sad much of the time, but his conversation is often self-critical.

At the moment, though, Townshend is grinning as he tells a long, drawn-out story about why he changed his mind. He talks about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner in New York City last January, about how he was moved by some of the induction speeches and stunned by his first exposure to the music of the seminal gospel group the Soul Stirrers. He began to think about how rock & roll is America’s music.

“It’s a rich, valuable inheritance of the only thing America has indisputably done right in its couple of hundred years, which was the emancipation of black religion,” says Townshend. “And I just felt that this is the music I was partially responsible for bringing back to America when the Who came over in the Sixties with a catalog of R&B songs. And I suddenly thought, ‘This is shit. They want us to come back and tour, and this is their music. It’s not my fucking music.’ And I suddenly felt that I’d been obstructive, obdurate and obstinate. All the obs. And I thought that I should get my shit together.” (Of course, he admits, this didn’t stop him from delivering a biting speech that welcomed the Rolling Stones into the Hall of Fame but also slammed them for burying personal differences and planning their own big-money reunion tour.)

With many asides, the story continues. Townshend went to the airport to return to London, looking forward to flying club class – “no creepy people, none of the bullshit of traveling first” – but switched to tourist class when his flight was delayed by fog. Trying to find a way to cope with his unfamiliar, claustrophobic surroundings in coach, he decided to pass the time by figuring out how much he’d saved by downgrading his ticket. It turned out to be about $165 an hour.

And then, after twenty minutes of a story that seems to be getting increasingly far afield from the basic question – Why are you touring? – Pete Townshend grins and brings it all back home. “By the time we landed,” he says, “I suddenly realized that the whole nub of the thing, the other thing about coming back to America and touring, was that America was gonna insist on sending me home very, very rich. And that’s a good feeling.”

So Townshend arrived home and told his wife, “Listen, I’ve procrastinated a lot about two things: one is whether or not to do this tour, and the other is whether or not we should adopt children [Townshend and his wife, Karen Astley Townshend, have two grownup daughters, Emma and Arminta]. And you know, I think I’m gonna do both. Let’s get some kids, and let’s do this tour.”

A couple of weeks later, he adds with a laugh, the tour was being booked, and his wife was pregnant.

When we first contemplated this tour,” says Pete Townshend, “I knew it was gonna be especially hard. We’re that much older, we haven’t toured for a long time, and I’ve got a hearing problem which will prevent me from playing lead guitar, so we’re gonna need to go out with a big band in order to get the same kind of harmonic richness. That’s gonna be expensive to do, which means we’re gonna have to tour longer, and we’re gonna have to play a longer set to squeeze in all the stuff. That’s why I procrastinated for such a long time, I think.”

But now procrastination is over and rehearsals are underway. At the moment the members of the Who have slightly more than a month until the tour begins in Toronto on June 23rd. Then they move to New York City on June 27th, when they’ll perform the rock opera Tommy in its entirety (minus the song “Welcome,” which they simply can’t stomach anymore – although, for that matter, none of them is too fond of the rest of Tommy, either). Then they’ll hit stadiums for two months, pausing only for another Tommy performance in Los Angeles (an all-star performance featuring Robert Plant, Elton John and Billy Idol that will be telecast on pay-perview cable television). They’ll come home with about $30 million, maybe more, considering explosive ticket sales that have shocked everyone, including the Who.

The Who will also be giving out about $6 million to charity. Most of the money will come from the two Tommy performances, which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is presenting largely for the benefit of the Nordoff Robbins Foundation, a charity for autistic children. Another $1 million from two shows in Texas to be sponsored by Miller Lite will go to the Texas Special Olympics. Townshend knows corporate sponsorship is a minefield for a band trying to retain integrity, but he has no qualms about using the Who to funnel corporate money into charities. Says Townshend, “It seems that charity in the music business has come to consist of the same half a dozen people – me and Peter Gabriel and Sting and Phil Collins and a few others – calling each other on the phone and saying, ‘You owe me a favor.’ And I’ve had enough of that bullshit. This way we’re taking money from these corporations and making sure it goes somewhere where it can help.”

So as the members of the band gather in the London rehearsal studio, the first order of the day is figuring out what they’ll play. Roger Daltrey is trying out one possibility at the moment, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing “Love Hurts.” The mournful Boudleaux Bryant ballad has been recorded by everyone from the Everly Brothers to Nazareth. But it’s Roy Orbison‘s version that’s most on Daltrey’s mind as he sings the song and the horn section works out a quick arrangement – that is, until the final bars, when the song suddenly becomes more syncopated and Daltrey changes his phrasing.

When it ends, Townshend leans toward the microphone in his booth. “I thought we weren’t gonna do that part,” he says.

“No, let’s leave it,” says Daltrey quickly. “I’ll do it Staxy. Like Otis would do it.” Townshend shrugs and turns away as Daltrey leads the band back into the song; a minute later, he puts down his guitar and leaves the room. “Roger did a vocal on that song the other day in rehearsal, and it was spine chilling,” Townshend says a few minutes later, again settling into an upstairs office. “He did it completely on his own, just played a coupla chords on the guitar and sang it. He had us all spellbound, and then he kind of laughed and said, ‘Okay, let’s go on to something serious.’ And everybody said, ‘Listen, that was the most serious thing we’ve done in four weeks.’ So we persuaded him to try and do the song again.”

He leans back in his chair and shakes his head. “But when I walked out just now,” he says, “it was starting to sound like it was gonna go somewhere else.”

Still, Townshend wants the song in the set – because, he says, “I’m anxious that the traditional Who set doesn’t sound or look or feel like a traditional Who set.”

Partly that means he wants other people’s songs alongside the expected Who classics, like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” “My Generation” and “Magic Bus.”

“I’m sounding a bit like a cracked record on the subject,” Townshend says with a frown, “but I just feel that the audience needs a little bit of perspective. I want people who listen to Prince to know why he is there. I want the Who to lead irrevocably to Cream and to Jimi Hendrix. I want people to understand the fucking context. ‘Cause, you know, if you’re just presented with Prince out of context, he’s not so much a genius as a weirdo.”

His voice suddenly gets louder. “What I don’t want to do, with the Who, and I think it would be fatal if we did it, is feed radio and reinforce what radio has done to music,” he says. “Radio is unbelievably important, but it has become too much of a slave to ratings and demographics, and we tend to become too much of a slave to that response. You go out and play a song like ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ ‘Pinball Wizard,’ any of the tracks that get a lot of FM airplay, and the crowd immediately responds.”

But can the Who really avoid feeding radio? After all, it’s unlikely that the band will omit “Won’t Get Fooled Again” just because it’s an overplayed “classic rock” staple.

“Well, we certainly can’t not play it,” says Townshend. “In fact, in the set list we’ve got at the moment, we play it twice. I suppose that basically what we’re dealing with is an unbelievably low bottom line in our stadium shows. We’re really just trying to use the crude tools that we’ve got to give people some enjoyment and raise them up and try to give them a good day out in the sun. And if we want to do anything on a purer level, I don’t know if we can actually do it as the Who.”

As a result, Townshend plans to open the second set with about forty minutes of solo material: acoustic versions of more obscure Who tunes like “Mary-Anne With the Shaky Hands,” from The Who Sell Out, three songs from his new Iron Man album, full-band versions of his solo hits and covers like Robert Parker’s “Barefootin'” and the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.”

But that still leaves the Who’s own set – and at the moment, nobody’s thrilled with it. “The set list is boring,” says Townshend, who adds that he drew it up for Entwistle and especially the “tremendously conservative” Daltrey. But Daltrey – the Who’s acknowledged leader in the early days, before he resigned himself to being a voice that sang tunes written by somebody else – says that he’s not as conservative as Townshend thinks he is and that the current set list is not the one he would have made up.

And Entwistle, who’d rather play raw rock & roll songs that would let the band improvise, puts it bluntly: “I don’t think any of us are happy with the set.”

In other words, these guys still don’t agree. That’s certainly no surprise: From the start the members of the Who have been nearly as legendary for their friction, onstage and off as for their music. Says Entwistle, “We have got different ideas about the music, different ideas about how the Who should sound and what the Who should play, and well never, ever agree on that.”

By now, they all say, they’ve learned to talk instead of fight. Now, instead of Townshend drawing up the set list he wants to play, he draws up what he thinks Daltrey and Entwistle want to play – and if nobody wants to take credit for the list and everybody’s equally unhappy, at least they’re still friends. “There’s something spiritual about it,” says Daltrey. “I mean, I’ve missed ’em over the past few years. Even someone like John, who I’ve got nothing in common with, I’d do anything for the geezer. I never had a brother, but I should imagine maybe it’s like that. You can be totally different, but there’s something underneath it all which bonds you together.” That’s not to say there’s no longer any tension – but these days, perhaps, they can joke about the tension. When Daltrey leaves the room to make a phone call about a movie role he’s trying to sandwich in between rehearsals and the tour, Townshend leaves his booth and approaches Simon Phillips.

“Hey, Simon,” he says, “have you asked Roger about putting ‘Boris the Spider’ in the set?”

“No,” says Philips hesitantly. “I haven’t had a chance.”

“You haven’t had a chance?” asks Townshend in a mocking tone. “Right. You’re a fucking coward, that’s what you are. C’mon with me. We’re gonna find him, and we’re gonna tell him together.” He grabs Phillips by the arm and begins dragging him toward the door, looking around at the musicians and staffers in the room. “Anybody know where Roger is?”

“I think he’s on the phone,” says one staffer.

“Oh,” says Townshend, who does an abrupt about-face as his exaggerated determination dissolves into exaggerated relief. “He’s on the phone? Never mind, Simon. We certainly can’t disturb him now.”

Do we have a chart for this song?”

Behind his bank of keyboards, John “Rabbit” Bundrick leafs through a stack of sheet music – and in me middle of the room, Roger Daltrey rolls his eyes. “This is ‘My Generation,'” he says. “It’s dead easy. You don’t need a chart for this.”

They rip into the Who’s first real anthem, Daltrey singing from his stool and the band doing a reasonable job of capturing the record’s passion. As me final chords fade away, the door to the studio opens, and Pete Townshend walks in. “That sounded good,” he says as he walks over to his booth and picks up an acoustic guitar.

With Townshend on hand, the band plays the early hits “I’m a Boy” and “Pictures of Lily,” the latter a song Townshend once described as “merely a ditty about masturbation and the importance of it to a young man.” The backup singers, though, can’t quite figure out what they should contribute to this ditty, and the part they’ve worked out threatens to drown out Daltrey’s vocals.

“I don’t think we need any vocals on the last chorus,” Townshend says when the song ends. “It makes it a bit sugary – and we don’t want to make this powerful rock classic in any way sugary.” He fiddles with his guitar, then mutters into the microphone, “Why can’t I write tear-jerkers like this anymore? That’s what I wanna know.”

At this, Roger Daltrey turns, eyes Townshend and lets out a short laugh. “Tear-jerkers?”

Townshend shrugs. “Hey,” he says, “it’s genuinely moving.”

But if spirits are high while the band rehearses theo oldies, they flag a bit when they get to more recent material. At the end of the 1982 song “Eminence Front,” for example, Daltrey shakes his head. “You know,” he says quietly, “we gotta do that one before we do the Quadrophenia songs. Because if we don’t, it’s gonna sound really weak next to the other stuff.”

Today the Who is playing just about everything: half a dozen early songs, chunks of Tommy and Quadrophenia, plenty of Who’s Next and four post-1978 tracks. But Townshend, for one, says the last Who album he was proud of was 1973’s Quadrophenia. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with the records that followed,” he says, “except that they just didn’t hit the mark. ‘Who Are You’ is a useful song, but it’s only an echo of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ ‘Sister Disco’ is a useful song, but it’s an ancient sentiment, and it’s musical snobbery. ‘You Better You Bet’ is okay . . .

“You know,” he says, “I think the Who stopped two albums too late. I think if I’d stopped two albums earlier, when Keith died, I would never have ended up with a drinking problem, and I would never have ended up creating the kind of emotional havoc that I played not only in my family’s life but in the life of loads of others.”

So why did they recruit Kenney Jones and continue when Moon died shortly after the release of Who Are You? “We were on a treadmill,” says Daltrey, “and when Keith died, we stayed on the treadmill. We should have taken the time and thought about what we were. But we just buried our heads in the sand and pretended that we were the same band. And we weren’t.”

In fact, they were a far different band with Kenney Jones, a solid timekeeper whose straightforward style contrasted sharply with the frenzied way in which Moon used to attack the drums. Jones played on the last two Who albums and the “final tour” in 1982, but he finally quit the band, tired of waiting for the Who to do something and angry at Townshend because Jones felt Townshend was taking the best songs for his solo albums. (“My response,” says Townshend, “was ‘Tough shit, the band’s finished.'”) Now Simon Phillips has taken over, bringing with him an assaultive drumming style reminiscent of Moon’s. But these days the acrimonious split with Jones is rarely mentioned; Moon is the drummer who haunts this band.

“It’s not that there’s any such thing as real ghosts, and if there was, it wouldn’t matter in this particular context,” says Townshend. “But the fact of the matter is, there is a ghost. There’s the ghost in the gap, the ghost of the gap. There’s the ghost of the void which is left when the person is gone.” He waxes biblical. “When we three gather in his name, he shall be there. And he is there.”

Chances are, though, that the three won’t gather in anybody’s name much after this tour. “I don’t think we have any future past this,” says John Entwistle. “That’s a good thing, in a way, because we haven’t got any of those pressures that we used to have. At the moment we’re just looking at it as if there’s nothing in the future at all. And if something happens because of the tour, great But, I mean, even if we do an album, there’s still gonna be no future after that. We’re not a permanent band.”

Instead, they’ll go back to their own projects: Entwistle to a solo album, Daltrey back to the movies and Townshend to his current passion, Iron Man. Taken from a children’s book by England’s poet laureate, Ted Hughes (who was once married to the writer Sylvia Plath), Iron Man is a fairy tale about an initially threatening but ultimately friendly huge iron creature; in addition to the album, Townshend has also written a dramatic scenario, a libretto, an overture, recitatives and lots of songs that aren’t on the record.

“I tried to construct a complete musical work which I could put into the Library of Congress and then anybody who wanted could do it,” says Townshend. “It seems mad to spend two and a half years making a record which is in and out of the American shops in three months, so I just thought maybe I could write something which had a chance of having a long life. And I thought maybe I could make it have a longer life by giving it more depth, allowing it to touch a wider audience, allowing it to live in different ways and by not being so central and fundamental to it as an artist myself.”

Townshend, however, is hardly peripheral to the Iron Man album. His name is on the cover, after all, and he sings the lead role in the varied, only occasionally rock-oriented musical. But veteran bluesman John Lee Hooker and pop singer Nina Simone also play major roles, and Townshend assembled a supporting cast that includes many musicians on the current Who tour and even – at the urging of his manager Bill Curbishley – the Who itself, doing a newly recorded version of “Fire,” the Crazy World of Arthur Brown classic.

Townshend is deliberately keeping himself out of the first Iron Man video, which he checks on at a nearby animation studio after rehearsal. Director Matt Forrest is working painstakingly on the “Friend Is a Friend” clip, which will be part live action, part animation, part slow, laborious work with models. Townshend pores over the storyboards, examines a tiny model Iron Man and a series of small sets and looks at a videotape of the boy cast in the lead.

He’s thinking, he tells Forrest, of showing the entire video on the big screens the Who will be taking with it on its stadium tour. “I can’t wait to see the show,” says Forrest in an exuberant Scottish brogue. “It’s gonna be fantastic. It’s gonna be brilliant.”

Townshend frowns and studies his fingernails intently.

“Well,” he says with a sigh, “it’s gonna be long.”

It’s Pete Townshend’s forty-fourth birthday, and in the hallway outside the Who’s rehearsal hall, the strains of “Baba O’Riley” and “I Can’t Explain” are mixing with a lighter, sunnier sound coming from the next studio. It turns out to be the Style Council, a band that in some ways parallels the Who: Style Council leader Paul Weller’s first group, the Jam, was the most successful band to come out of the second great flowering of England’s mods, and like Townshend and company, Weller now makes music using more people and fuller arrangements than he ever did with the three-piece Jam.

Hearing the Style Council play, Pete Townshend remembers a story. Not long ago, he says, Weller’s father tried to persuade the Who to play a show at a soccer stadium in Ipswich, where he worked. But since the Who had no plans to tour in Britain – where, Townshend says, his band is “a dead duck” – the Who’s leader had another suggestion.

“I said to Paul, ‘Why don’t you do the show?'” recalls Townshend. “And he said, ‘We could never fill Ipswich.’ I said, ‘Well, you could if you re-formed the Jam.’ And he said, ‘Oh, man, I’d never do that Fucking hell, man, that would be going backwards! I’d never, ever, do that. I’m a modernist! Forward, forward, forward!'”

Townshend laughs. “When Paul said that,” he says, “I suddenly felt that yeah, maybe that’s what I’m doing: I’m moving backwards. But they, sometimes it takes a lot of courage to go backwards.”


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