On May 19th, a day before the Who’s 50th-anniversary tour arrives at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, Pete Townshend will celebrate his 70th birthday. “I’m not going to make a big deal out of it,” he says, before adding, somewhat mysteriously, “I’ve made a few promises to myself that I want to keep private. I think I owe myself quite a lot now.”
It’s two days before kickoff, and Townshend is calling from London, where he has settled into his comfortable pre-tour routine. Each morning, he gets picked up at his home in Richmond by his security man Mark Squires, who takes him to a rehearsal space at Pinewood Studios, a historic studio 40 minutes away. There, he is greeted by familiar faces. “When I walk in every day, I see Bobby Pridden at the sound board,” Townshend says. “He’s been with the Who for 45 years and is one of my oldest and dearest friends. Then there’s Alan Rogan, who looks after my guitars and the band, which includes my brother Simon, who I don’t see enough of.”
Townshend says he enjoys this camaraderie more than actually performing. “It’s like being back in a family,” he says. “People are happy to see me. They know I’m going to be no trouble and I’m going to make them a lot of money.” (Roger Daltrey, as he often does, has a more traditional view: “The shows are a joy.”)
The Who are billing this as their last major tour, an idea that Daltrey has repeated in recent interviews. But Townshend can’t seem to stop himself from undermining it a little. “I don’t want to badmouth [the tour’s promoters] AEG, because they gave us a load of money and they obviously want the tickets to sell,” he says. “But we’ve been in this place before. We must’ve done three fucking last farewell tours in our career. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” He did take close to two hours, however, to talk about the Who’s epic career, what fans can expect this time out and the future of his life in music.
This is a long tour. What is motivating you at this stage?
My first song that charted with the Who, “I Can’t Explain,” came out in December of 1964, but it didn’t get high in the charts until the beginning of 1965. That means this is the 50th anniversary of the band and for me as a songwriter. It feels to me like something that I couldn’t just let go by. Also, this isn’t just about me, and it’s not just about Roger. It was important to give some sense of the measure of the commitment, and I suppose the gratitude, that we feel to the fans. We’re still here, and so many people aren’t.
This week in the U.K., they’re showing a documentary about [early Who managers] Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who are both dead. Keith Moon is gone, and John Entwistle went. Roger and I — although we’re feeling our age — have a great sense of delight in the fact that we’re still here, a kind of relief. It’s possible that I feel a bit less sanguine about my health than Roger does. I’m very healthy, but I have to know that if I jump off a high wall I’m going to break my ankle.
In what sense does Roger have a different take?
I think Roger does have a tremendous sense of concern that he has been seen to be a youthful, good-looking, well-preserved man, and as he gets older, the way he feels about that is in question. But that is very much in his head. At rehearsal the day before yesterday, we listened to a recording of his performance of “Love, Reign O’er Me” in Liverpool, and it’s just fantastic. He’s singing so brilliantly.
On this tour, you’re playing songs like “Pictures of Lily,” “So Sad About Us” and “A Quick One,” which you’ve left untouched for years. What drew you back to them?
If it were my doing, I would have probably left them untouched. Roger’s been keen to dig into the band’s early career. The reason that those tracks may have fallen by the wayside is because they’re very backing-vocal-heavy. That was stuff that we used to do in the studio, and when we lost John Entwistle’s high voice, we kind of dropped it. But in the past few years, Roger’s put a band together and done a lot of work on backing vocals, and we’re using a musical director.
I realized that actually having the backing vocals was like having an instrument that had been missing for many years. The Who were so stripped down in their halcyon years. In the Live at Leeds period, which was probably our performing peak, it was just three instrumentalists and a vocalist. I’m not crazy about “A Quick One,” but Roger seems to thrive on it.
You’re also playing “Slip Kid” again, which sounds amazing.
It’s one of those songs I thought I would hate playing because it’s tricky, but I’ve been really enjoying it. It feels very new. You could put it into the voice of some young Islamic student who decides to go fight in Syria and ends up in ISIS being forced to chop people’s heads off, and it would fit.
While we’re on the subject, when you look at ISIS and Boko Haram — and even what Putin has been up to, to some extent — do you worry about the state of the planet?
Not as long as we remember. [Laughs] You know, I am not going to get fucking accused of being a neocon by Arianna Huffington again, that dimwitted woman. [Editor’s note: Huffington herself didn’t call Townshend a “neocon”; he was described as that in a 2012 piece on the Huffington Post.] But I do think it’s very important that we keep our ammunition ready. I do feel there is nothing to worry about as long as we’re willing to protect ourselves.
Had America not interceded in World War II, Germany would have taken over the whole of Europe. I think the most important thing is that we remember that. But also remember that we don’t need to act until this shit comes to our door. When that happens, whether it comes to our door in a Charlie Hebdo scenario or in a 9/11 scenario, we need to keep calm and to honor our own sense of values and justice and law and the way that we want to live.
Are you able to understand why a young person in America or the U.K. would go join ISIS?
I’m not particularly politically well-grounded, but from 1967 to the mid-Seventies, I was following Meher Baba and also considering joining a Sufi order. It’s not exactly Islam, but it’s very close. I kind of understand what they mean when they talk about what jihad is, but I don’t see how it helps anybody. I don’t see how it helps the people in the countries in which they live. They’re getting to a point where the so-called caliphate will be run by a bunch of bullies, basically. But then, I’ve seen this before — in my lifetime, I grew up with bullies at school, I grew up with bullies in the Sea Scouts, I grew up with bullies in my band!
Back to the tour. You say that you enjoy the tour routine and being with old friends more than you enjoy playing onstage. Is that really true?
I always feel very sad when I say this because I think I’m unusual in this respect. People don’t really believe me. But I don’t enjoy performing. I don’t feel uplifted on the stage. I rarely have moments these days onstage when I go into what jazz musicians call “the zone.” I rarely lose myself on the stage. But I kind of grew up backstage with my dad’s band, and so that’s always felt familiar. Most of all, it’s felt safe to me.
You said about 10 years ago that you do these tours as a favor to Roger Daltrey. Is that still a fair statement?
It’s probably the other way around now. When I went back to work with the Who regularly in the late 1990s, it was to help John Entwistle with money problems. Roger was the one who came to see me, and who said, “Listen, I can’t see any other way that John can get himself out of this hole he’s in. He spent too much money, he’s got no earning power outside of the Who. If you’re really the friend that you say you are — you always talk about how John’s your most important friend, that you were in a band together when you were in school — you should fucking help him.”
I said, “C’mon, Roger, this is also about you.” And he said, “Yeah, I’d be happy to do it too, but that’s not why I’m here.” And so I agreed, and in a sense that’s really where this second phase of the Who began, and it’s been rolling along ever since. It kind of gives people who don’t know the real history the impression that we’ve been going all along. But in 1982, I quit the band at the end of a tour. I went to go work at a publishing house in London for eight years. I made a few solo recordings, but I was really leading another kind of life. So when I came back to this, it was really for Roger, for John, and then I realized, as I’ve just said, in a sense for the greater good.
I don’t want to sound patronizing. I’m going to make a load of money on this tour. What I do with it is my affair. But with respect to the Who, there’s no question that when I do this, it makes a lot of people happy, and that’s where I look for my fulfillment. Doing a job that I find easy, that I seem to do very well, despite my age, comes back to me. I occasionally catch fire, and people like it.
You’ve said in the past that you see this lineup as sort of “The Who 2” or even your own tribute band. Do you still feel that’s the case?
This is probably The Who 3. I’m surprised at how good it is. I kind of miss the chaos of the old order. But we’ve got Zak Starkey in the band and he’s an explosive drummer in the Keith Moon tradition. It’s true to say that I miss my keyboardist [John] Rabbit [Bundrick] in respect to soloing, but there’s not a lot of soloing work in this show. He’s missed, and boy is he complaining as well.
Why isn’t he on the tour?
It was an issue between Roger and Rabbit. I think they didn’t really get on and they had a big bust up. I think it would be fair to say that Rabbit didn’t handle it particularly well and I don’t think there’s any coming back from that. I’m absolutely sure that Rabbit and I will work together again, if he doesn’t kill himself first.
“The Who were a terrifying band to be a part of for our children and our families. When you look back at the story, it was awful.”
How often do you work on new songs these days?
Every day. I just don’t do what Dylan does. I don’t drag myself around the world, and I don’t put out an album every six weeks [laughs]. But I’ve got loads of songs. I’m working on a big project at the moment, which might be half rock opera, half art installation. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m going to start with a book. I don’t want to talk too much about that now.
I’m also working on old songs, going right from the beginning. I missed a few songs at the very beginning — gave tapes to producers to listen to and never got them back. But from “My Generation” onwards, I’ve got tapes of every single song I ever wrote, and the supporting paperwork. Sometimes they’re silly little scraps and sometimes quite more. It’s interesting to go back. But I’m always working on new stuff as well, so I don’t have that feeling that I’m always luxuriating in the past.
What happens to the new songs? Are they just sitting on hard drives in your house?
They’re mostly at a home studio. I remember somebody saying, “The terrible thing about magnetic data is, of course, all you need is a big enough magnetron bomb and it would erase everything that we have stored” [laughs]. So I started to put stuff on paper. I don’t really give a shit whether it’s out there or it’s being heard. You know, I don’t write to get feedback. I don’t particularly write to feel that I’m contributing.
I haven’t done a new solo piece for a really long time. If I did, I think I would want it to be something that really addressed everything that’s going on in the world at the moment. I’m old enough and wise enough and stupid enough and have done enough dangerous shit to say pretty much whatever I like. It won’t be popular, but nobody can hurt me now, really. When it comes to doing that work, I have to live with it for a while. I’ve written a couple in the last five or six years. I don’t know whether I want to put an album out right now.
Some fans are getting a little frustrated. There has been one Who studio album in the past 33 years, and your last solo album was 22 years ago.
It’s really hard for me to talk to a journalist and be reminded there are people out there who are counting years and going, “The Who haven’t done this for so many years, and Pete hasn’t put out any songs in so many years.” For 30 years I had been working flat fucking out, until maybe the last two or three years, when I’ve given myself permission to take a holiday that’s longer than a couple of weeks. My family, my friends, my business partners, people that are involved with me in theater work and everything else will tell you my life is packed. I’m happy with that.
Do you ever think about touring solo? Your solo acoustic shows are terrific.
Again, it’s something that I’m really good at. I don’t know. The Who was a terrifying band to be a part of for our children and for our family. It was terrifying. When you look back at the story, the stuff that surrounded us, it was fucking awful.
In terms of the death and destruction you left in your wake?
Yeah. Prior to Quadrophenia and [manager] Bill Curbishley’s arrival, there was such chaos. The price that we all paid was incredibly high, and for me, when I look at touring now, whether it’s with the Who or on my own — we had a hard ride. That’s why I left the band in ’82. When Keith died, I tried to continue for a while. If you look at images and film of me onstage in 1978 and 1979, I’m fucking angry all the time. I’m stomping about, I’m sneering. I’m playing guitar solos in which I only play one note for 15 minutes. It’s punky and it’s cynical and it’s tough to see.
I’m in a better place now. But what I was going to say was: If I look at whether or not I would want to spend a year touring on my own, doing a Robert Plant, or touring with Roger, I would much prefer to go out with Roger. The reason is, we are a group. There are two of us, and we may divide the money, but we also divide the work. It’s easier for me, and there are so many other levels of payoff. I hesitate to use the word, but it’s a marriage. It’s not always been a good one, but it’s better now than it’s ever been. As we say in the U.K., Roger and I are a bit Darby and Joan — we’re an old couple who shuffle along. There’s something very special about that.
You mentioned Dylan. Are you amazed that he continues to do 100 shows a year?
It must be something that he needs to do. I can’t imagine that he finds it difficult. We met him a few times when our paths have crossed on the road, and he’ll often come backstage with his entire band. He’ll be sitting in the middle of the room. They surround him as though they’re going to be taking a photo.
I remember when he came to one of the shows in the Northeast. Rachel [Fuller, Townshend’s girlfriend] happened to be there, and he was very interested in the fact that Rachel had grown up as a classical organist. He’s very keyed in to what’s going on around him. He’s definitely come out of that place that he had been in the Sixties, when he was shy. Or, if not shy, afraid that every person he spoke to was gonna pin him down and say, “Tell me what that means.”
Are you a fan of Bruce Springsteen? Do you ever check out his shows?
I did in the early days, but not anymore. It’s a bit of blood and glory for me now.
In what sense?
Exactly the sense that sentence implies.
What do you think about Spotify and streaming? Is it good for the industry?
I’m a user of Spotify, so I feel like a complete hypocrite when I say: I think the guy that runs it is probably a fucking crook. Take me to court. I was reading about some artist who had something like 450,000 plays, and he got a check for [almost nothing]. It doesn’t make any sense. I read a thing today that it cost the average band $10,000 to go and play their first gig at SXSW. Jesus fucking Christ. You know, we used to get paid to do this kind of thing.
I’ve always loved The Who By Numbers. I know you’re doing “Slip Kid” at some shows on this tour, but mostly you don’t play anything from that.
I play “Blue, Red and Grey” quite a bit. I just think those songs are a bit difficult to play. I think it’s Roger’s favorite Who album. We rehearsed a couple of them. We rehearsed “Dreaming From the Waist” and a couple of others. They’re trippy. It was as fun album to make and a fun period, though we wound up sending a message that none of us felt entirely sure about.
A guy did a piece on me called “Pete Townshend’s Suicide Note.” I remember thinking, “I’m confused.” I just didn’t get it, but then I realized we lost that phantom voice we used on Quadrophenia. I linked the whole band with it’s audience and I could write songs for a kind of phantom Jimmy. There are a couple of really politically incorrect lines on Quadrophenia, but I thought I could get away with it because I was writing for a character. But on By Numbers, everybody took everything really literally. I don’t know. It’s interesting.
It just sounded so personal. “How Many Friends” and other songs sounded very confessional.
Well, isn’t that strange. When I’m doing when I write for the Who, pretty much what I do whenever I write, is try and keep me out of the mix as much as possible. If there’s anything in there, it would really be subconscious elements. I certainly didn’t feel a lack of friendship and I certainly didn’t feel suicidal. I think I may have been a bit angry occasionally. I think I need to go to the great journalistic psychiatrist and have it explained to me, why I was wrong and they were right.
Do you ever worry that CSI and all those commercials using Who music are blunting the impact of the songs?
No. Exactly the opposite. And seriously, do I give a fuck? I am 70 — I don’t know that the question really matters. Unless hiding behind that question is another question, which is, “Do you believe because you wrote this stuff that you own it?” That’s a kind of Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop question: “Do you have the right to take a song that I listened to when I was 16 and sell beer with it?” And I think that all you can really do is say, “Well, you know, you heard it when you were 16. I want to make sure some other people hear it when you’re 60, so it’s not only you that hears it.”
Rachel was working on a TV show with Jerry Hall, and we went to a stable just outside London where they were shooting a scene about polo, and there was a Romanian boy who was looking after horses. He barely had any English and he said, “I understand that you’re Pete Townshend?” and I said yeah, and he said, “I like your three songs.” And I said, “Oh, so you like the Who?” and he said, “The Who? I don’t know anything about the Who. I like your three songs.” Because he was a CSI fan.
I spoke with Robert Plant last year. He basically suggested that Led Zeppelin was something he did when he was younger and he has no desire to go back there. Can you understand that sort of attitude?
I completely understand that, of course I do, but I don’t want to say what leaps into my mind. Robert could probably do everything that he wants to do. He could do the occasional Led Zeppelin comeback and make a lot of people very happy. There’s a kind of churlishness to that [opinion]. But he’s his own man, and he has to make his own decisions.
The person that I’ve thought a lot about since John Bonham’s death is John Paul Jones. He’s a beautiful looking man and a beautiful musician. He’s a fantastic experimenter in modern electronic music and other things, and he’s sort of been sitting there. It would be interesting to see what he could bring to a new Led Zeppelin project. I think he was much more in the front line of Led Zeppelin music on keyboard work because nobody else in the band played it. It was a prog rock era in respect to him.
I get the sense that Jimmy really misses the band and is really frustrated with Robert for refusing to tour.
Well, of course Jimmy’s problem is also different because he spent so much time just literally shut away. I don’t know if he had come back in the earlier years if he would have survived. He did a short tour alongside the Who and eventually had to stop because he pulled his back.
It’s interesting because, of course, Robert is managed by our same manager, and Jimmy used to be as well. It must be very interesting for our manager to deal with me and Roger and Robert and mirror one artist against the other. Bill [Curbishley] seems to be delighted with Roger because he knows what he wants. I don’t think that I do. I grope around quite a bit. One day I’ll wake up, call Bill and tell him that I want to go on tour. He’ll say, “Listen, this is going to take eight months to put together.” By the time it’s together I call him up early in the morning and say, “I don’t want to go on tour.” But at least Robert knows what he’s going to be doing next. He seems to be very clear.
That’s true. Think of the money he’s leaving on the table by refusing to do a Led Zeppelin tour.
Well, I think there are other similar parties in the industry. The thing is, when you work on your own, you have control, and that must be important to Robert. I don’t want to talk too much about him — he’s a good friend and I really do respect him. But I wonder whether it would be possible for Robert to carry that sense of ironic absurdity that I feel I can carry with the Who.
Led Zeppelin were kind of a sexier band than the Who. We can still do what we do as old men. Our audience is about 70 percent male. We can get away with looking ridiculous, at least I think we can.
Do you think that you and Roger function better as a two-piece than you did as a three-piece when John was still around?
It was getting tricky, I have to say. I don’t want to infer that there was anything good about losing John. There was nothing good about it at all. But it was getting tricky dealing with the person that John had become. He shut himself away in his big house in the country. He used to have big heavy-metal sound rigs in his studio, he would sit and play night and day, go out on tour, go to clubs in L.A. and play really, really loud, and he developed this technique of playing where he sounded like a hundred people. It was quite difficult to find where one fitted into that, sometimes.
When he died, at first Roger and I sat together in a hotel room in California, and I could see that Roger was not just bereft, but also incredibly shocked and unable to function. I thought, “I’m going to have to make this decision, whether it stops or whether it goes on.” If you go forward a couple of years, what Roger and I have realized is that there was a gift in it, which was that it made us look again at we two, at me as a songwriter and Roger as a singer, without any of this sense of glorifying the group, glorifying the gang.
We found a way to work together, which turned out to be fairly simple. It was Roger telling me what songs he wanted to sing and me trying to find some way of providing the music that sustained him in doing that.
To wrap this up: Every night you begin the show by blasting into the opening notes of “I Can’t Explain.” It sure looks like you’re enjoying yourself—
[Laughs] You don’t believe me, do you! Nobody believes me. The best way to enjoy it is to laugh at it. It’s fucking absurd, isn’t it? It was absurd when I was fucking 20, it’s even more absurd now I’m 70.
Absurd in what sense?
It’s just absurd! It’s absurd to think that a song, written by some 18-year-old kid, about the fact that he can’t tell his girlfriend he loves her because he’s taken too many Dexedrine tablets, is gonna have any meaning whatsoever in the daily course of events. The first chord of “I Can’t Explain” for me kind of sets the tone for the evening. Is this going to be an evening in which I spend the whole evening pretending to be the Pete Townshend I used to be? Or do I pretend to be a grown-up? [Laughs] In both cases, I think I’m pretending. . . .
One of our best songs is “Baba O’Riley.” I spent three or four weeks in the studio cutting bits of tape up of this synthesizer-y, synth-processed organ, turning it into what felt like a replication of the electronic music of the future. When I took the tape to Glyn Johns, who was one of the finest sonic engineers at the time, he said, “Pete, we can’t improve on this, it’s fantastic.”
The guitar doesn’t come in until about maybe two and a half minutes into the song. So when I’m onstage with the Who, out comes the recording that I made in my home studio. There is this moment of standing there just listening to this music and looking out to the audience and just thinking, “I fucking did that. I wrote that.”
It plays, and then I deliver myself this amazing moment of being able to play this guitar. You talk about it as though it’s a song from CSI [laughs]. For me, the interesting thing is that it’s entirely mine — much more mine than anybody else’s.
I just hope that on my deathbed I don’t embarrass myself by asking someone, “Can you pass me my guitar? And will you run the backing tape of ‘Baba O’Riley’? I just want to do it one more time.”