Pete Townshend On 'Tommy': Behind the Who's Rock Opera - Rolling Stone
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Townshend On ‘Tommy’: Behind the Who’s Rock Opera

After years of promising its completion, ‘Tommy’ is done, and Pete Townshend discusses its many aspects

Pete Townshend in the recording studio at his home in Twickenham, London.Pete Townshend in the recording studio at his home in Twickenham, London.

Pete Townshend in the recording studio at his home in Twickenham, London.

Chris Morphet/Redferns/Getty Images

At long last, Tommy is with us. Pete Townshend‘s been talking about doing his opera for years. And now we have a double album set that’s probably the most important milestone in pop since Beatlemania. For the first time, a rock group has come up with a full-length cohesive work that could be compared to the classics.

The central character is Tommy himself. Born during the First World War, he becomes blind, deaf and dumb after seeing a murder by his parents in a mirror, becomes a pinball champion, reaches a state of grace, regains his senses and starts his own religion, is eventually discarded by his disciples somewhere in the far distant future, finds himself as isolated as he was in the beginning. The opera is, apart from being some of the best rock yet, a statement of Townshend’s philosophy. “It’s about life,” he says.

Pete has often spoken of his opera in the past. Pieces from a projected bigger work appeared on A Quick One and The Who Sell Out, but Tommy, which took two years to complete, owes little to these. The germ of the opera in fact came from a single, “Glow Girl,” which was never released.

Glow Girl,” explains Pete, “led me to the idea of ‘It’s A Boy,’ ‘Mrs Walker’ (the first song on the album). But that would have been too blunt an opening, so I did the “Overture.” This clues you in to a lot of the themes and gives a continuity to the individual tracks – you think you’ve heard them before because they’ve been stated in the overture. It gives more of a flow and strengthens the whole thing.”

One of the central themes of Tommy is the play between self and illusory self. It’s expressed by Tommy (the real self) who can see nothing but his reflection (illusory self) in the mirror – “There had to be a loophole so I could show this. The boy has closed himself up completely as a result of the murder and his parents’ pressures, and the only thing he can see is his reflection in the mirror. This reflection – his illusory self – turns out to be his eventual salvation.

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“In general terms, man is regarded as living in an unreal world of illusory values that he’s imposed on himself. He’s feeling his way by evolution back to God – realisation and the illusion is broken away, bit by bit. You need the illusions until you reach very pure saintly states. When you lose all contact with your illusory state, you become totally dead – but totally aware. You’ve died for the last time. You don’t incarnate again; you don’t do anything again – you just blend. It’s the realisation of what we all intellectually know – universal consciousness – but it’s no good to know until you can actually realise it.

“Tommy’s real self represents the aim – God – and the illusory self is the teacher; life, the way, the path and all this. The coming together of these are what make him aware. They make him see and hear and speak so he becomes a saint who everybody flocks to.

“The boy’s life starts to represent the whole nature of humanity – we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb and blindness – but this isn’t something I’m over heavy on,” says Pete. “I’m more concerned about what actually happens in his life.”

Having lost most of his senses, Tommy feels everything simply as rhythms and vibration. Everything reaches him as music.

“He gets everything in a very pure, filtered, unadulterated, unfucked-up manner. Like when his uncle rapes him – he is incredibly elated, not disgusted, at being homosexually raped. He takes it as a move of total affection, not feeling the reasons why. Lust is a lower form of love, like atomic attraction is a lower form of love. He gets an incredible spiritual push from it where most people would get a spiritual retardment, constantly thinking about this terrible thing that’s happened to them.

“In Tommy’s mind, everything is incredible, meaningless beauty.”

The songs in the opera, then, have to convey an amazing amount. It’s possible that all that’s in Townshend’s mind won’t come across by simply sitting down and listening to the album. There’s too much, on too many levels, for a casual listener. But on the simplest level, the songs are magnificent, simply as rock.

“You see, each song has to capsule an event in the boy’s life, and also the feeling, what has ensued, and cover and knit-up all the possibilities in all the other fields of action that are suggested. All these things had to be tied up in advance and then referred back to. I can tell you it was quite difficult.”

Touch is the one sense that Tommy still has in the early part of the album. McLuhan says that touch is a combination of all the senses at once: “Yea, I read that. I went into McLuhan quite deeply once. For someone that can see, sight has an absurdly high percentage over the other senses in terms of mental concentration. But if you can’t see or hear, touch must come totally alive. The most excruciating thing known to man isn’t blazing light – it’s pain. The heights of pleasure are felt through touch – at least on a physical level – and the early part of the opera is on physical level.”

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All but three of the songs were written by Pete – one by Keith Moon and two being by John Entwistle, “Fiddle About” and “Cousin Kevin.” Says Pete: “I didn’t want to do them. I didn’t think I could be cruel enough. They’re ruthlessly brilliant songs because they are just as cruel as people can be. I wanted to show that the boy was being dealt with very cruelly and it was because he was being dismissed as a freak.”

One of the lines is: “There’s a lot I can do with a freak.” Pete explains, “I would have avoided that, but it’s nice to have it in.”

This leads to the general subject of freakishness, and Tiny Tim is brought into the conversation: “Seeing through the shit to the talent is the answer. Practically every talented person spends most of his time hiding his talent – or freakiness. This fascinates me. Some hide it behind the aura of being a superstar in glittering show business. The reason is the remoteness it creates – the more remote they become, the more powerful they are as star figures. Rock is built on it. I mean, I speak to Mick Jagger on the telephone all the time, and I still can’t be normal with him – well, because he’s him.

Does Townshend consider himself a freak? “I suppose so. I don’t know. I did very much so when we first started. But I don’t really want to talk about me and my freakiness.”

A recurring theme in Tommy is the boy’s repeated outburst: “Feel me, touch me.”

“We can’t play it on stage for laughing now, but when I first wrote it, it brought tears to my eyes. It’s meant to be extremely serious and plaintive; but words fail so miserably to represent emotions unless you skirt around the outside, and I didn’t do it enough there. You can circumscribe an emotion with a lyric – by telling of an event and leaving out one important chunk – and that can contain an emotion and put it across. This one fails because it actually comes out and says it. But there’s so much circumscribing in Tommy that I wanted to get to the crunch a number of times.”

Some people have read the album as being sick.

“That’s great! As far as Tony Blackburn’s concerned, forget it! But for the average intelligent person, that’s what it was meant to be. The kid is having terrible things done to him, because that’s life as it is, although perhaps not to the extremes that happen in the songs.

“Pop is a light medium. A pop song about the horrors of war is out of place . . . this means the sick things have a pre-emphasis. We hope that people’s preconceptions will get screwed around by this. This sick humour thing which John has got is so important to the album. The songs aren’t completely within the continuity of the album musically, but the perfection of the album lies in other areas. “Fiddle About” represents a whole feeling of family callousness and lack of respect for the kid because he’s not like they are.”

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There is a song called “The Acid Queen” – who may be another route to Tommy’s salvation. “The song’s not about just acid; it’s the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing, wrapped into one big ball. It’s about how you get it laid on you that you haven’t lived if you haven’t fucked forty birds, taken sixty trips, drunk fourteen pints of beer – or whatever. Society – people – force you. She represents this force. On a number of occasions I’ve got this sinister, feline, sexual thing about acid, that it’s inherently female. I don’t know if I’m right . . . it’s fickle enough.”

But once you know of the existence of these things – sex, drugs, drink, how do you resist?

“It isn’t built into man; it’s the dare or the challenge for most people. About acid: I feel that there’s a spiritual process going on in every person’s head that’s so overwhelmingly complex and so beautifully balanced, and acid just feeds on the distortion of that balance. People find pleasure in distorting the balance. But the human being is such a beautifully equipped piece of machinery that it’s very spiritually disturbing to topple it and think that it’s good.

“If you know you’re throwing yourself out of balance, like when you’re drunk, you hate yourself, so that’s alright. But when you trip, for some reason you love yourself. You don’t realise you were better equipped as you were. Each trip is just a sidestreet, and before you know it, you’re back where you were. Each trip is more disturbing than the one that follows, till eventually the sidestreet becomes a dead end. Not only spiritually, which is the most important, but mentally it can stop you thinking physically. It can fuck you up. People are falling out of trees and all this bullshit.”

But doesn’t acid turn a lot of people on to the spiritual side of life?

“Acid has happened and there was obviously a purpose for it – the acceleration of spiritual thinking – otherwise I believe it wouldn’t have happened. So I’m against what it has done. Actually, I did enjoy my trips . . . but the acid song is supposed to show the potential of acid as a spiritual push and knock it down as a danger in reducing the power of man in society.”

“Pinball Wizard” has already been notably successful as a single, though it wasn’t tailored for that purpose.

“The whole point of “Pinball Wizard” was to let the boy have some sort of colourful event and excitement. Side Three is supposed to be really explosive. Suddenly things are happening, it starts to move really fast. “Pinball Wizard” is about life’s games, playing the machine – the boy and his machine, the disciples with theirs, the scores, results, colours, vibrations and action.”

Does Townshend see games people play as negative or positive?

“Definitely not negative; and Tommy’s games aren’t games. They’re like the first real thing he’s done in his life. I play games – an incredible number. But I do real things as well. No . . . this is Tommy’s first big triumph. He’s got results. A big score. He doesn’t know all this; he stumbled on a machine, started to pull levers and so on, got things going, and suddenly started getting incredible affection – like pats on the back. This hasn’t happened to him before, and the kids are his first disciples.

“It’s supposed to capsule the later events, a sort of teasing preview. It’s meant to be a play off of early discipleship and the later real disciples. In a funny sort of way, the disciples in the pinball days were more sincere, less greedy than later on, when they demand a religion – anything to be like him and escape from their own dreary lives, do things his way and get there quicker.”

Is this a metaphor for pop music, which at one time was an unconscious thing and now is taken on a serious religious level?

“I dunno. “Pinball Wizard” is a very groovy time but it doesn’t compare with divinity in any way at all. I happen to be at that stage, so I operate better at that stage. I don’t happen to be divine at the moment. I can’t express the magnificence of divinity in music, but I can express the grooviness of being a pinball champ because I’m a pop star which is very close. The absurdity of being a pinball champion!

“Pinball’s more rewardingly obsessive than something like golf where the obsession can be sidetracked – ‘Well I just do it for the fresh air’ – and all that bollocks. You can’t escape from the basics; it’s just getting a ball into a hole. I mean, it’s a machine simply made to be a match for man. A very important process.

“People play their own pinball in other ways, like I muck around with tape recorders all the time. It’s the same fascination with machines, and it’ll show itself far more in the future when machines get even better. Most people’s pinball machines are their cars. The car obsession is overwhelming, but it’s there and I imagine it can only increase. I think it’s groovy – why not? I thrive on modern things – good hifi, amplifiers, tape recorders, colour television. A lot of them look like they’re all padding, but there’s far less than you’d imagine.”

The pinball wizard wins by intuition; what part does intuition play?

“People talk about the bulge, the youth of today, acid, all this. I feel that intuition is taking over, that education is becoming pointless because of its failures . . . and when classes and groups like negros do eventually get their pride back and nations do resolve their petty problems . . . it’s a hard road but it will happen, you know . . . intuition is going to start taking over as a mental process.

“There’s going to be so much scientific information that unless you’re a ruthless specialist you might as well leave it to computers. Like when you throw a cigarette butt into an ashtray on the other side of the room, you can judge the rake, the height and angle because you have the equipment to do it. It often goes in without thinking. That’s no accident, because the arithmetic went on. That’s what man’s about; intuitive magnificence on legs. But as a mathematical machine, man’s a waste of time.”

“Sensation” is the song Tommy sings after he’s regained his senses. He realises who he is and becomes totally aware. The sound of the song is like the Beach Boys; the moment is that of divinity. Tommy is worshipping himself, knowing what he is and speaking the truth.

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“I really dig the Beach Boys. Their incredibly architectural control of music is as powerful as the Who anyday. “I Can Hear Music” has one of the most powerful musical backings I’ve ever heard . . . they’re another group I dig because they aren’t afraid of saying what they feel they should, like the Beatles . . . well, John Lennon at least. Or Dylan, though I think he tends to close himself . . . I don’t know.

“I used all the sensation stuff because after all this time where Tommy’s just been getting vibrations, now he’s turned the tables. Now you’re going to feel me! I’m in everything; I’m the explosion; I’m a sensation. Our influences in the Who are often directly attributable to certain things that certain groups have done at certain times. But “Sensation” is indefinable for me. I can’t really put my finger on where it came from.

‘I’m Free’ came from ‘Street Fighting Man.‘ This has a weird time/shape and when I finally discovered how it went, I thought ‘well blimey, it can’t be that simple’ – but it was and it was a gas and I wanted to do it myself . . . but some of them are quite remote. I listen to a lot of music so I’m open to a lot of influences.

“People say that music is cyclic. Well, rock is like a flat spin. It repeats itself every ten seconds where music might repeat every hundred years. This is what makes rock so exciting; the flat spin is cyclic and the cycle is cyclic and there it is, all very compressed . . . like one of the most omnipotent cyclic sounds is Hendrix. It’s hard to know why, but he is definitely rock and not something else like blues. Cream are definitely rock, too.”

“Compositions come out so fast in rock because there’s a demand created and contracts have to be fulfilled. I mean, who ever put Beethoven under contract. Prince Charming may have asked him to do this and that but there was none of this six records a year. The pressures of the pop industry are part and parcel of it all.”

Many people think that the commercial side is the bad side of pop?

“It’s about the only fucking healthy thing about it! (laughs) It is like . . . teenagers getting screwed up because their parents won’t change for them. The commercial market refuses to change at the speed musicians and composers might wish. It has its own pace, adjusted by the mass, which is to me absolutely the most important thing on earth.

“There are levers in the commercial market to be pulled, but if people buy a record, they were moved in some way to do so. You can’t swing it that far. Things like the competitive press, competitive American radio stations, these things are all important. They keep the pace fast but steady.

“Huge musical personalities like Clapton and Hendrix can get the machine to do what they want, but it’s still the machinery that does the work. What people find oppressive is the dependence on the system, but the commercial system comes halfway to pop, but pop won’t come halfway back. Anything that does is classed as bubblegum and chucked out. But some of the world’s best music is bubblegum. I mean I really dug Yummy Yummy Yummy but some people spew over it. And there’s a lot of other stuff, real shit, that I dig. And the machine created Cream. It really did.”

Musical snobbery is the trouble.

“There’s a difference between discerning and snobbish. I think that a lot of people listening to, say, John Peel are snobbish. They don’t know why a record is good and why it appeals to Peel. Though he sincerely digs it, they’d like it for another reason. There’s so much good music in this country that’s unacceptable. I thought the Kinks‘ last album was great, and the Zombies‘ too. But they don’t even get into the record shops. A discerning listener is one who defines his own taste; he wants something that comes from somewhere inside.

“There have always been classical snobs, people on whom record companies thrive. You know: ‘We’ll put this one in a big thick package and we’ll put a really heavy name on, a picture of the violinist on front, we’ll put a lot of very heavy sleeve notes on and we’ll charge seventeen quid for the box. All we need is four people and we’ve made a profit’.”

“People here are doting on snobbery, like in the blues scene. But this is OK for me because bands like Fleetwood Mac and Ten Years After have a lot of potential in other directions, though they got in through a blues backdoor. They’re very anxious to communicate direct, devoid of hangups. It’s hard to say why I like any of them; like I enjoy some soul singers but not others, and can’t go overboard on soul for the sake of soul . . . and I don’t like a lot of the West Coast groups. Some new American groups make it and some somehow don’t. Steppenwolf make it for me, yet they can be incredibly pretentious. “The Pusher” is a terrible song, loaded with bullshit, yet “Born To Be Wild” was fantastic. But . . . they’re still caught on the seesaw. Like the Moody Blues; such incredibly produced albums, but they’re religious snobs. You’re getting vicars’ tea parties thrown at you”.

But if Townshend believes so strongly in the commercial market, why is the top ten such a disgrace?

“It’s got nothing to do with what people like. What made the charts good once was pirate radio. As soon as they get commercial radio again in this country the whole thing’s going to throb back into life. Now, Top of the Pops is the only programme on and it’s controlled by the charts. The BBC only play what’s in the charts; until a record gets in they don’t play them and once they do, they play them till they’re fucking dead.

“It’s based on a complete lack of faith. Nobody’s trusted to decide. The public knows what it wants. They decide! Does that follow? No – someone has to give them the full spectrum. The shops are the same; we’re only going to give the public what it wants/no we ain’t got that/we’ve only got the dead certainties in stock.

“So what does a new group do? And fuck knows how we got on Top of the Pops. That’s why our record is in the charts; people saw us on TV . . . oooh, they’re still a group then! and it’s a powerful record and it went. But the basic ingredients are who gets the TV spectaculars? Tom Jones. Who gets the number ones? The middle classes want TV shows by Tom Jones and Val Doonican so they get them. But the rest of the record audience don’t get their barrage.”

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“On radio they won’t take chances. Despite the fact that there was a readymade market for the world’s best rock when the pirates went off the air, Radio One still wouldn’t play records by established artists like the Kinks, like us, like the Stones, like lots of people. And they still don’t. The programmer for the BBC must be an old dear.”

“You can laugh at it, but listen to the DJs, having heard them a few years ago. The saddest case was Johnnie Walker who’d been publicly, in the press, decrying Radio One. And eventually, you know, he had to give in. I heard him the other day introducing a tape of the NDO playing ‘Quando Quando.‘ Swing to this, kids.”

The teachings of Tommy to his hordes of disciples run parallel to practically any other religious leader you can name.

“Rama Krishna, Buddha, Zarathustra, Jesus and Meher Baba are all divine figures on earth. They all said the same thing; yet still we trundle on. This is basically what Tommy is saying. But his followers ask how to follow him, and disregard his teaching. They want rules and regulations; going to church on Sundays – but he just says ‘live life’. Later on he smashes rules to them.”

Townshend is much involved with the teachings of Meher Baba. How did this affect his writing?

“The process of writing was controlled by my direct involvement with Baba. His stuff is completely self-contained, and it’s a good point to start fucking-up from. On a basic working level, songs like ‘I’m Free,’ ‘Pinball Wizard’ and a couple of others are very much Baba, songs of the quiet explosion of divinity. They just rolled off the pen.

“But I don’t mean divinely inspired! You get a lot of crap from the close devotees of Baba, stories about people rushing up to him and saying, ‘My daughter was dying in Poona and I said a prayer to you and you came in a vision and she was well again.’ Baba says, ‘I’m sorry mate, I don’t know anything about that.’ It’s obviously their faith, their love for him that did the trick. It’s like Jesus saying ‘it’s your faith that made you whole.’

“The institution of the church comes up in ‘Welcome.‘ The followers want to know how to follow him and he tells them very simply what to do. He’s telling them what they want to hear – ‘It’s going to be all smooth and fun and we’re never going to speak, we’re going to drink all night and have the time of our life. You can do good things, go out and get new people, and for this you’ll win gold stars.’

“He knows they’re completely off the track and is trying by his very presence to make them aware of what they should be doing – coming in to the house and then getting out again. Instead of that they want more action, so he gets the bright idea of extending the house into a huge holiday camp where he can accommodate thousands who want to come and be brainwashed.

“It’s supposed to represent the perverting of what he’s been saying. He says ‘you can follow me by playing pinball and doing things my way’ – but when he says here’s Uncle Ernie with your very own machine, it’s like they’re being led back to their very own life and way which is already built-in. All the time they demand more and so he starts to get hard: ‘Well if you really want to know what to do, you’ve got to stop drinking for a start. You’ve got to stop smoking pot.’ And he starts to lay down hard moral facts – like Jesus did – but nobody wants to know. (Baba actually gives the reasons: a stable, moral life is a good one because it doesn’t hang you up).

“Puritan morality is right, but for the wrong reasons. You don’t burn in hell, but in the fires of life. You reincarnate again and again until you’re sorted out. One way to do this is to attain a balance in your existence until you’ve exhausted all the possibilities and found your way to the goal. It lies in a lot of old religious laws – an eye for an eye and turning the other cheek mean exactly the same, but people don’t realise. An eye for an eye means that if you poke out someone’s eye, that person – in this life or in a billion lives from now – will eventually take the eye out of your head. But that Karmic retribution can be balanced. And this happens at a spiritual level too. You might as well turn the other cheek and get it slapped because that way you’re taking both slaps for yourself and therefore balancing it. But people have this on a million levels. Possessions loading, lust loading, a thousand things which hang people up and drag them down.”

Do people naturally incline towards suffering because it leads to self-realisation?

“Yea, well that’s like Arthur Brown’s ‘suffer the fire’ thing. Every individual has a load. You can tell by the way people ruthlessly live their lives that they’re fulfilling some sort of destiny. On minor levels it can be astrological; on other levels it can be evolutionary or environmental. Biggest of all is the feeling that there’s something really latently powerful driving every man, and I think it’s Karmic Law. Each man has a load he’s trying to shake off, to find . . . peace. As he drops one bit, he picks up another and so on. You just feel that everyone’s desperately getting things done while never getting to grips with their individual problems. People do need this suffering; when it’s meant to stop, someone will stop it. But you can’t sit back and let things roll, because man is the mediator, he’s the one that caused the fucking problems in the first place.”

And so on to a summing up of the work on the album.

“The singing is better than ever on this album – there are some incredible performances of diction from Roger, aggressively sung but perfectly phrased. And it was an incredible surprise to find that we could do it all live. Such a relief!

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“It would have been tedious but simple to have run the whole album into one great big long kybosh, but I wanted to retain track-by-track action. I was really pleased that it had a musical form from beginning to end; separate tracks with separate action and separate musical strength and, at the same time, track-to-track unity, links across time and shunt-backs, all going smoothly. Though I do think the action on Side Two is a little slow.

“I think that, despite the fact that the album is my own little thing and the motivation is not completely understood by the rest of the group even, it’s still the first group effort really, since so much of the other stuff we did was gimmick-laden advertising schmatter. This is working toward a far more unified project.

“It was approached in exactly the way anti-intellectual rock people would hate. We went into it in depth before we worked out the plot; we worked out the sociological implications, the religious implications, the rock implications. We made sure every bit was . . . solid. When we’d done that we went into the studio, got smashed out of our brains and made it. Then we listened, pruned and edited very carefully, then got smashed and did it all again, all the time playing gigs and grooving. And somehow it came out as if we’d done it all in one breath.

“It’s wrong to talk about who played what part in the album, because it’s so much a product of the Who. Definitely. I’d been dreaming about getting it together for such a long time, all the time worried about their end and never worrying about my part of the bargain until I actually got to grips with the problem.

“Keith’s playing has never been better, John’s playing has never been better, Roger’s singing has never been better – my bit, the art bit, was where the problems lay. They were so incredibly true to form, and as a member of the Who, I was true to form. The sound was so easy to come by. It was great to do it. I thought I was going to have to make concessions, but not once did I have to. I mean, ideas were made much more powerful than they were originally.

“It really does show how flexible rock and roll is, and what a lot of bullshit is talked about what it can and can’t do. Although the sound itself has limitations, it has flexibility and malleability . . . four musicians totally involved with one another’s limitations, lives and emotions . . . I mean, what other three musicians would have put up with all my bullshit in order to get this album out? It’s my apple, right. It’s my whole trip, coming from Baba, and they just sat there, let it come out, and then leapt upon it and gave it an extra boot. It’s an incredible group to write for, because you know it’s going to work out right. And though I’ve written other songs, which I won’t mention, I’ve only ever had hits with the Who. And hit records are very near and dear to me.”

This story is from the July 12th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.


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