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Pete Townshend on the Who’s Uncertain Future and the Legacy of ‘The Who Sell Out’

He says the Beatles copied him when they made Sgt. Pepper, and that he’ll agree to a Who biopic if it helps him “pay for my yachting”

"[Touring is] not something that I've ever really liked," Pete Townshend says. "Unfortunately, it does appear that I'm good at it."

Matt Licari/Invision/AP

A 15-minute interview with Pete Townshend is a near-impossibility. Not only is he one of the most eloquent and thoughtful figures in rock history, but he’s also one of the most loquacious. And even though we said that we’d limit this conversation — tied to the new deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out — to 15 minutes, per a request from one of his representatives, Townshend’s answer to our first question after a few icebreakers clocked in at seven minutes and eight seconds.

There was so much more we wanted to discuss at that point, including the impact of Sgt. Pepper on The Who Sell Out, his disappointment when “I Can See for Miles” failed to become a hit, and how he sizes up Sell Out next to latter-day albums like Who’s Next. Looking forward, we also wanted to hear about the status of the next Who record, the challenges of writing songs that Roger Daltrey will agree to sing, returning to the road after the pandemic, and the possibility of a Who biopic.

So we steamrolled past the 15-minute mark and didn’t wrap up until we reached 35 minutes. Had we not stopped, Townshend likely would have spoken for far longer, but we were determined to honor the spirit of our agreement. And as you can see, we crammed a lot into those 35 minutes.

How has your lockdown year gone?
You know, it’s been OK for me. I love being in my studio and I love working and I hate being on the road, away from home. And so I was happy for six months. But now, like everybody, I kind of yearn to be free and to see people. I miss people very much, and even fans, and even journalists [laughs].

I just kind of miss the humdrum of normal life. I drove back to my house in Richmond [London] recently to get some stuff, and I was amazed at how many people were there. And then I suddenly realized it’s because where I’m living at the moment, I just don’t see many people at all. It’s been very strange.

Are you vaccinated?

I’m sure that’s a big relief.
Yes. That’s one thing that seems to have gone very well here. The vaccination program has been staffed by volunteers. There are some nurses and doctors that do get paid, but the atmosphere at the place I went to was just fabulous. These people are seeing each other every day, and they’re doing good work. Everybody loves them. The atmosphere was terrific. I didn’t have any ill effects other than a little itch about two weeks after I had the prick, but that was all.

Mind you, I generally have a flu vaccination every year, and I’ve never had any adverse effects from any vaccination. I’m not a pregnant mother, so I don’t have to worry about that side of things. I do think there are legitimate concerns for people about vaccinations and I understand it. But my experience has been good so far.

I want to move on to The Who Sell Out here. The framework of the album is a mock broadcast from a pirate radio station, but I think a lot of Americans don’t have much context for the pirate radio stations in England back then. Can you explain what they gave music fans that they weren’t getting elsewhere, and what they gave you as an artist?
In 1967, when I first came with the band to America on tour, the thing that blew me away was the beginning of FM radio, which is now, of course, pretty out of date. But in those days, there was AM radio, which is where we heard the news and normal music in the USA. But FM radio was a kind of specialist mainstream playing classical music, jazz, and some drama every now and then. And some of the music stations started to dedicate an hour to music that was uninterrupted by adverts or even comments from the DJ.

Radio in the USA was groundbreaking. An album like Tommy, and possibly an album like Quadrophenia, would never have really broken without radio playing the albums in their entirety in the middle of the night. And I think the lack of that kind of radio is why there are no concept records anymore. It’s not just people not having the patience to listen. It’s just about the fact that they have to buy the stuff before they can listen to it in its entirety. They can hear snatches of it online.

Anyway, in the U.K., we had just one radio station, which was the BBC. It was called the Light Programme. [When I was young,] it very, very occasionally played something that was a bit like rock & roll. They played traditional kind of jazz, like Louis Armstrong. They played skiffle with artists like Lonnie Donegan. They would occasionally play a track by Elvis or Bill Haley or Brenda Lee, early Carole King perhaps, since she started so young.

But it was really, really boring. What we did as kids was we listened to what was called Radio Luxembourg. It was a station that broadcast in the evenings from Europe, from Luxembourg, and they played pop music. They played the Everly Brothers. They played Ricky Nelson. They played Elvis. They played some black artists, but it was mainly the white pop artists of that era, which would have been 1959, 1960, 1961, that period.

So there was this incredible hole in the world for us to get ahold of music. We had to buy albums, which we got from specialist music shops. In those days, you could take an album into a booth to see whether or not you liked it. That was how I was indoctrinated into the early jazz and blues I liked from the age of about 12, 13, 14.

When pirate radio happened, what it meant was, different stations could play whatever they liked. They funded their playlist with advertising and commercials in the American manner, which was something that we really were not used to. Even Radio Luxembourg didn’t have commercials. It was sponsored, so you had a sponsor talking about the product before the music started. And then the music would start.

A lot of it was also un-curated. They often had no DJs. Pirate radio was like American radio. That’s what it was modeled on. That’s what it copied. It wasn’t like American FM radio that we came to know and love. It was more like American AM radio. It was more like Dick Clark, more just whatever was high in the charts, whatever was super cool, I suppose. But nothing too adventurous, nothing too wide.

Of course, the legal issue here is that it was banned. It was banned because the BBC had an absolute mandate, which was a hangover from the war, to control what the people heard. It was very, very carefully curated and very, very carefully governed. There were four stations, or maybe just three. There was what we called the Light Programme, which was literally light music, the kind of music my dad was playing at the time. He was in a swing band.

Then there was Radio 3, which was classical music, almost entirely. There was very, very little else. It was orchestral classical music. Then there was something called the Home Service. That was comedy, very, very light music. Sometimes you’d switch on the radio and you’d hear someone in a cinema playing a Wurlitzer organ. God knows why anyone would want to hear that on the radio, but people would do their ironing and their laundry. Housewives would listen to it during the day.

Those were the three main stations. And what pirate radio did was challenge the BBC. When they eventually made pirate radio illegal, they had to replace it. What they replaced it with was Radio 1, which was a pop station. They also made Radio 2 based on the Light Programme a little bit less restrictive, a little bit less old-fashioned.

A couple of the pirate stations, I think, were running until very, very recently. And of course radio here, like it is in America, is taken over by the internet and by DAB, digital audio broadcasting, satellite radio. There’s a big choice now. But when I was growing up, there was nothing. There was just Radio Luxembourg. We used to record it on our tape machines with a microphone in front of the speaker. That’s how we heard great American music. That’s how we were encouraged to engage it.

The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper at the beginning of the Who Sell Out era. Did that inspire you at all? They framed their songs around the Sgt. Pepper idea and you framed yours around a pirate radio station.
No, no. Come on. The Beatles copied us! Paul McCartney came up to me at the Bag O’Nails [music club], which we mention in the album artwork. He was always very, very sweet to me. I should say that first. But he said to me that he really loved our mini-opera, which was called “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” That was on the album that preceded The Who Sell Out. And he told me they were thinking about doing similar things.

I think anybody that was even a little bit art school back then, a little bit adventurous — and, of course, the Beatles were encouraged to experiment to the max in the studio — would have thought about doing something which was a concept.

In this case, of course, it wasn’t a concept. [Laughs] It wasn’t a concept until the day that we walked in to get photographed in tubs of baked beans. It was only at that photo session that we learned that the name of the album was going to be The Who Sell Out, which is a brilliant title, of course.

It was only on that date that we learned what the cover was going to look like. Things moved very quickly in those days. Days before that, [Who co-manager] Kit Lambert sent me Side One of the album to approve that had all of these wonderful commercials, and some of the jingles that we’d recorded.

My idea had been much more restrained, much less complete a vision. It was simply that we’d have some jingles on the album, that was all. I didn’t think of actually adding radio jingles. I just wrote “Odorono” and a couple of other songs about products. We did a few goofy, fun things in the studio. We did that because we didn’t feel that we had enough strong songs for a complete album. Our managers owned and ran Track Records and they wanted another album out. They were going to put it out, whatever we said.

And so me and Chris Stamp, the other Who manager who was involved with Kit Lambert, who was our producer then, we had this brainstorming session to turn it into … like a day’s chapter from a radio station, to give a framework to what I thought was a too-varied bunch of songs.

It was a very strange time, and the Who’s live performances from this period would have been brutal, verging on heavy metal. Despite the fact that we were dressed like Christmas trees, it was still pretty brutal. And yet the songs I was writing were very, very light. It was before I got an interest in Meher Baba or any sort of metaphysical ideas. But they are romantic and slightly mystical, a bit hippie-ish I suppose. But we felt the album was weak and it needed a framework.

But getting back to Sgt. Pepper, there isn’t much of a concept to that record. But to this day, whenever I sit down and get the vinyl out, stick it on, something always leaps out that I’ve never noticed before. I think the same is true with Pet Sounds. Those two albums are seminal changes in what we all believed was going to be possible if you were in a band making records, just extraordinary leaps of faith that the audience would accept it.

You were famously crushed when “I Can See for Miles” didn’t become a hit. I was just looking at the U.K. charts for that very week that it peaked, and the top songs were things like “The Last Waltz” by Engelbert Humperdinck and “Zabadak!” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich. This was a schmaltzy time for the charts. Do you think people just weren’t ready for something like “I Can See for Miles”?
That’s a possibility. I often say to people that are my age and bemoan the fact that everything they hear on the radio sounds formulaic, “It may be formulaic, but for heaven’s sake, what we have today is a pretty amazing formula. You may not like everything you hear, but it’s all incredibly well-crafted. There is some extraordinary talent out there and very few people make a living, let alone get rich.”

And listen, we were knocked off the top by some comedian [Joe Golce] whose song was called ‘Shaddap You Face’ that went [sings], “It’s-a not so bad, it’s-a nice-a place/Ah shaddap-a you face!” and it was on Top of the Pops every week, which was a major pop music show. I’d think, “This isn’t music. This is just garbage.”

There was another song that was Number One coming up to Christmas in the U.K. that I think knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. I can’t remember the exact context, but it was by a comedy act called “Granddad” and it went [sings], “Grandad, we love you …” I remember thinking, “Jesus, this stuff just shouldn’t be in the charts.” [Laughs.]

But that wasn’t the thing about “I Can See for Miles.” It was really that … I don’t know, I suppose I was fooling myself. I thought, “This is a masterpiece and it will be treated as such. It will become the biggest selling record in music history.” [Laughs.]

I don’t know if you know the story about Kit Lambert, who was our manager and my songwriting and composing mentor back then. His godfather was William Walton, the English classical composer. And when he heard “I Can See for Miles,” he wrote Kit a letter thinking that Kit had written the song, of course, because he didn’t think any of us goons could have done anything like that, praising him for the adventurous harmonies.

Kit graciously shared that letter with me and I went off to tool up on William Walton. I don’t know. Maybe I just got carried away with how clever I thought I was.

I was disappointed. It wasn’t just disappointed that we didn’t get a hit. It was that I was worried that I couldn’t do any better. And that I had exhausted my sense of humor, my sense of irony with songs like “Pictures of Lily,” “I’m a Boy,” and “Happy Jack,” all of which did very, very well in the U.K., and “Happy Jack” even did well in America, particularly in Detroit. I just wondered, “What do I do now?” And that led to concepts and to Tommy.

The Who Sell Out is a pretty eclectic and arty album. Just four years later, you’re doing Who’s Next, which has a very different sound. It almost sounds like a different band. Do you prefer one version of the group over another?
What’s interesting is that yesterday or the day before, I listened to some early recordings for Who’s Next that we did in New York. This was straight after one of the workshops we did at the Young Vic theater in London. And, again, what’s interesting is that although the songs were treated with great care in the studio, we also did a warm-up version of “Baby, Don’t You Do It” by Marvin Gaye. I’ve used the word already, but it’s brutal. It’s absolutely brutal. It’s mind-numbing. It’s a huge sound. It’s Live at Leeds with knobs on.

What’s extraordinary is to realize that I’m trying to write songs for this AC/DC-stye heavy rock band where I’m obviously an important component as a rhythm guitar player. And at the same time, I’m trying to deal with these … it’s hard for me to say this without sounding vain, but visionary arty-farty ideas that I imagined would give us a framework for something that would be the equal of Tommy, which preceded it.

I had incredible help and support from the members of the band, but sadly, not a lot of support from Kit Lambert, who was the one I really needed to deliver the idea in its absolute integral sense.

For me, the arc of what the Who did, I tend to see it from my point of view as a writer, rather than from an outsider’s point of view, as a series of albums. And as you know, we made very few, compared to many other artists.

Trying to measure the Who’s significance in terms of albums isn’t very useful. I know that when the Who stopped working for long periods after 1982 and later when we came back for Quadrophenia as a touring unit, I didn’t see myself as not making music. But of course, from a fan’s point of view, there was nothing released. But I wrote a song a week. I just kept working and kept doing what I normally do. And so my own view, my own arc, my own creative process has been very different.

That said, the [upcoming] Who’s Next collection, which was inspired by the response we had to The Who Sell Out, which is very affectionate and very positive … It’s a fun project. It’s not one anyone will tear to pieces in respect to quality control, but I think the Who’s Next project will be challenging.

It’s going to bring up the whole conversation of autocratic control and virtual reality, the internet, the Grid, the way the internet promises a metaphysical experience and fails to deliver it as a rule, but nonetheless does shape people and shape ideas and brings them together and separates them. Behind all of that was a really quite floppy thesis from me that music would solve all these problems, and it quite clearly hasn’t. [Big laugh.]

I’ve read that you’re working on the next Who record. What’s the status of that?
I’m not working on the next Who record. I think what happened is that when I did an interview for Uncut about The Who Sell Out, I was asked whether or not I was preparing any material or writing anything. I said, at the time, which is where I was since I did this interview before Christmas, that I had an idea for a series of songs. I’d written a series of essays and I was working on it.

And subsequently, I had a conversation with Roger and flew the idea past him, and he half-liked it, and said it would be interesting to hear when the music comes. And then I started to read things that he was saying in the press, which were very much at odds with the conversation that we had face-to-face. I think we really need to have another proper conversation. Until we have that conversation, I don’t think there’s any real prospect of a Who album developing because it’s all in my hands and I tend to do it, and then Roger comes along and sings the songs.

I need to know that I’m … what’s the word? I don’t want to use the word “servicing.” But I need to know that I’m facilitating Roger’s needs as a singer. There’s only two of us now. And these days, he insists on having music to sing, which he believes in, completely and utterly, that he can get inside. Unless he can inhabit the story of the song, he can’t do a good job. And so it means that I have to, in a sense, work as as tailor. I’m not really that free to write whatever comes off the end of my tape machine.

And so that’s where I am at the moment. I do a have a number of ideas. For the last year, I’ve been working on a variety of things. I did some work with some other artists. I’ve been working on my own piece for The Age of Anxiety based on the novel. I don’t know whether there will be another Who album. It needs Roger to be on it. And I think he was even complaining that he didn’t make any money out of it. I was like, “Who does make money out of fuckin’ records anymore?” I don’t know who does. Maybe two or three people, but not many.

Why not just make a solo record and avoid all these issues with Roger?
The issues are very similar. I did make a few solo albums and I enjoyed the process, but I didn’t tour behind them. I didn’t do what the Who has always done and I found myself wondering why that was, why I didn’t get behind my music? I might do a video or one or two shows. And it’s because I don’t like it. [Laughs] I don’t like doing it.

In the Who, it’s easier. We have a band and I just get up there and strum along on the guitar and I sing a couple of songs. It’s much easier. To do a solo album and to properly support it … The idea of writing maybe 40 songs and picking 12 and doing the interviews and the videos and all that stuff and going on tour around the world for six months and then if it’s a hit, getting a call from the record company immediately asking, “Are you working on the next one?” That’s what happens. I don’t know that I will ever do that again.

Rock biopics are a big deal now because of the success of the Queen one and the Elton John one. Are you able to envision a Who biopic?
No. I can’t. But I think other people can. I think our manager, Bill Curbishley, fancies himself as someone that might come up with something.

Are you opposed to that?
I’m not opposed to anything that might help me pay for my yachting. [Laughs] Quite broadly, I wouldn’t object to anything that created spirit around the music that we’ve worked on all our lives. We had maybe seven to 10 really profoundly productive years. And then, pretty much nothing. We’re living on and living off those years, to a great extent.

The story is … interesting, but I don’t think it’s … I don’t know. Roger, as you probably know, has been trying to create a film around the life of Keith Moon for I think what is now … the first script that Roger sent me for approval was in 1993. I was in New York working on the Tommy show on Broadway. It’s been a long time in the making and I think Roger has rejected at least 10 scripts. It’s not an easy story to tell.

Are you hopeful that the Who are going to be back on the road in the next six months to a year?
It’s kind of inevitable, isn’t it? Because Roger has nothing else to do. When I speak to him, he just goes, [angry Roger Daltrey imitation] “I just wanna get out there and sing! I can’t use my voice! It’s my instrument! If I don’t use it, I’ll die!”

But also, there are so many people around us that we love and care about and we love to see, and we only see them when we’re touring. It’s kind of inevitable that we will. We had two tours set up for the beginning of last year, and then Covid hit and the lockdown happened.

For me, it was all coming too soon. There was a U.K. tour of 10 shows and then an American tour starting at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in April. It felt to me like I needed a rest. And so I re-arranged the universe, brought in this thing called Covid-19 and then a year off! [Laughs]

I was relieved, in a sense, that I didn’t have to tour. I would have done an OK job, I’m sure. But I felt like I needed a break, but I think everyone else did, too. You know, if rock & roll had a model, it would probably be AC/DC or ZZ Top.

My best story about ZZ Top, which has been confirmed by them, [is] that they once did so many shows in year that their family made them come home for Thanksgiving because they had missed four Thanksgivings in a row. When they got there, they didn’t know where they lived. They booked into a Holiday Inn.

I think, for me, it was getting a bit nightmarish. My dad was in a band. They mainly did one-night stands. He’d be gone at 2 p.m. on a bus towards the North of England. He’d be back at 4 a.m. He wouldn’t get up until long after I went off to school. And so, quite often, I didn’t see much of him.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t like this idea of going off on tour. It’s not something that I’ve ever really liked. Unfortunately, it does appear that I’m good at it. [Laughs.]

I would agree with that. And whether you like it not, I hope to see you back out there soon.
The rumors here … I don’t think it’s any kind of scoop. Everything is in the air and nobody knows what’s going to happen. I heard that Live Nation usually has 25 acts out between April and August in America. Next year, they have 48. And so that means there’s a lot of competing for venues. Of course, we have to compete with the usual sport events.

The other interesting thing is that younger people are buying tickets and selling out concerts by younger artists. But our demographic, which is between 30 and 70, I suppose, are not buying tickets at all. [Laughs.]

That’s a problem.
That’s a Live Nation interview. You should probably try and get a quote on it. It’s sort of devastating, the idea that older people, because of their conservatism and life experience, will wait until a tour is 100 percent certain. Remember that these big promotion companies have sat on their cash for as long as they possibly could. In some states in America, they have to return the money back. But insurance has been keeping them afloat.

The finances of it are worrying. But we’re hoping to kick off in the States in New Orleans [at Jazz Fest], which is 4 million people and 400 stages and, I think, 20 cities. [Laughs] It’s probably the biggest superspreader event in the world. High temperatures, lots of booze, lots of drugs, lots of people walking around from stage to stage.

Who knows? We don’t really know. But if an opportunity is to come up, I will come. [Laughs.]

From Rolling Stone US