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Pete Townshend: On the Who, the Solo Albums and Not Being Misunderstood

Re: Masters is a monthly interview column dedicated to exploring a veteran artist's body of work

March 1, 2007

It might seem like a strange time for Pete Townshend to be revisiting his solo work. After all, last year's "Endless Wire" reunited him with Roger Daltrey for the first album of new material from the Who in 24 years, and the band is currently in the middle of a lengthy, worldwide tour.

"I Am Afraid," (included on "Definitive") a song about fear for our children's future, and our constant abnegation of our duty to change, and thus our despicable hypocrisy, went as deep as I could go as a writer ...

Yet, the incomparable guitarist and songwriter recently released two retrospective projects -- "The Definitive Pete Townshend" compilation and a CD/DVD Dualdisc reissue of "Rough Mix," his outstanding 1977 collaboration with former Faces bass player Ronnie Lane. In a series of e-mail interviews, Townshend said that it wasn't difficult to switch gears from working with the Who to thinking about his own back catalog. "With music, once you get rolling, the problem is to try to keep rolling," he wrote. "When you slow down or stop, it's very hard to get going again."

Townshend, 62, has long taken an active role in curating his music. The three volumes of the "Scoop" series collect demos, outtakes and alternate versions of his songs. He is now working through his albums to update the sound and add rare tracks, which began last year with an expanded version of his 1972 "Who Came First" solo debut. Meanwhile, he maintains an extremely active website, www.petetownshend.co.uk, which offers his online diaries and the complete versions of some of his musical and fictional narrative works; participates in his girlfriend Rachel Fuller's web-based music performance and chat show, "In the Attic" (www.intheattic.tv); and, continues to make plans for Who material, both present and future.

As he explains below, the distinctions between these different outlets make little difference. This rock and roll visionary sees a common purpose that runs throughout all his work. "I have always tried to release the listener at some level," says Pete Townshend. "That's what I think I'm good at when I do my job properly."

MSN MUSIC: How involved were you in these re-issues? It seems that you work closely on all decisions regarding the Who catalog -- are you equally scrupulous with your solo work?

PETE TOWNSHEND: I elect producers and archivists and let them get on with it. On my "Scoop" collections, I was facing sifting through over 1,000 recordings for each CD. I left that job to Helen Wilkins, and always loved the selections she made -- and feel sure I would not have made the same decisions. Matt Kent and Jon Astley have revisited most Who and solo projects, and have famously encountered fans as allies and activists in this role. It can be a thankless task. I listen to the final collections, check the liner notes, but that's as far as it goes.

What do you think the "Definitive"/"Best Of" construct means at this point? Presumably, most fans are digitally selecting and assembling their own favorite songs from your work, so do these still serve the same function they used to? And, since so many of your albums have been so driven by narrative and theme, how do you feel about the ability of listeners to mix and re-assemble your songs?

You're right, it is becoming less important in the digital age. However, this is commercially-driven output, intended to appeal to collectors (hence extra tracks), but mainly to allow new fans to travel through a catalog with relative ease. A CD is a quicker way to do this than downloading, believe it or not.

Narrative themes or not, the narratives serve a single purpose for me -- to generate songs. Once written, they should stand alone, as well as in sequence. Perhaps, brought up as I was on a tradition of standard songs written for Broadway musicals, sung by great singers like Frank and Ella, I long for the tangential songs, the ones that stand alone. But when the narrative context is well known -- as it is with "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" -- I can get away with scene specific songs like "5:15," about a train journey, or "Pinball Wizard," about a pinball competition.

Some of the songs I wrote for "Psychoderelict" are among the most profound I've written. "I Am Afraid," (included on "Definitive") a song about fear for our children's future, and our constant abnegation of our duty to change, and thus our despicable hypocrisy, went as deep as I could go as a writer -- I could never have written it for my own voice, but my screwed-up hero could sing it.

Do you think your solo work has been misunderstood or undervalued?

Not sure why I would think that. In one sense, all my songwriting has been misunderstood because what has been taken to be personal often is not. One song I wrote for a solo project, but eventually gave to Roger for one of his solo albums, was "After the Fire." This song was interpreted as being a song about an old rocker who yearns for the good old days. Roger was teased about it -- "Oh, the Who were a fire, were they? More like a damp squib!" In fact, the song was written about the collapse of Apartheid.

A song like "I'm One" from "Quadrophenia" is a song we can all identify with -- that proud, but slightly futile idea that each of us is special enough to mean something, just as we stand. In fact, we know that is not enough -- each of us must fight for recognition, we must submit to (an)other's power, we must sensibly fear our enemies, we must be prepared to battle for our children's safety, etc. The song, though, hangs on to an idea that just being "one" -- being unique -- is enough. That is not what I believe. And yet the song is universal.

You've spent more years making Pete Townshend albums than Who albums, but when I looked in the "Rolling Stone Album Guide," for instance, there wasn't even a listing for "Pete Townshend."

Once upon a time, the album I made with Ronnie Lane, "Rough Mix," was in the top five albums selected by "Rolling Stone" critics. In any case, I've spent very few years making Townshend albums. I've spent far more years working at Faber and Faber, running recording studios, bringing up children, making and archiving films about Meher Baba, producing six stage versions of "Tommy," sailing, cycling and walking dogs.

Ronnie affirmed my sense of myself as a useful musician, not just a good pop songwriter who happened to play scary guitar.

Shifting to "Rough Mix," tell me about your relationship with Ronnie Lane. It seems he's been forgotten a bit by rock & roll history.

Let's keep this about me. He was among the first musicians I respected to urge me to do solo work. He was not a Who fan. Eric Clapton may be another in that category -- he respects me, but isn't certain the Who are about music. That's because, in so many ways at the beginning, we were not about music, we were about everything but. Ronnie affirmed my sense of myself as a useful musician, not just a good pop songwriter who happened to play scary guitar.

One thing really striking to me is the guitar playing on "Rough Mix." I remember reading an old interview with you in which you spoke of Steve Cropper's influence on your playing, which seems especially audible here. And, of course, on the title song, there's you and Eric Clapton going side-by-side. What do you hear in your playing on the album?

I can play guitar. I've always been able to play guitar. What can I say? With people like Steve Cropper and Eric in the world, why try to compete? I used the guitar, both as a stage performer and a songwriter. I have to say that today I am beginning to play at last -- and it's great for me when players I admire say they enjoyed my playing at a Who show. I still think my most interesting and varied playing happens at solo events or non-Who shows.

In retrospect -- and maybe at the time, too -- it seems a bit surprising that, though you were such an advocate of punk in its early days, this album from 1977 is so free of that sound and spirit. Was that a conscious decision? ... coincidence? ... or was it just a different sort of project?

Punk style couldn't be visited by the old guard. It was not our province. I think as I begin to answer this, you will, of course, see your question is ill-founded. Punk went back to basics, to three chords, a racket, a scream. We had done all that, of course, and moved on. Punk required the old guard to stand and take it. So we stood and took it. Those of us who embraced the phlegm survived. Strangely enough, a number of punk writers loved "Misunderstood."

"Misunderstood" does stand out as a little closer in spirit to the Who songs of the era -- "I wanna be obscure and oblique/Inscrutable and vague" is a pretty wild line in a rock song. But most of the album is so loose, contemplative, sometimes melancholy. How do you think these songs relate to your work with the band in the mid-'70s?

Of course "Misunderstood" was offered to the Who. All the songs had been offered to the Who. The Who was an editorial filter, and Roger still does that today. On "Endless Wire" he filtered a lot of odd songs you will one day hear, and hopefully love, and ask me why I "kept them from the Who." Whatever I have at any given time, I throw into the current project. What we recorded of my songs was simply what was left over from "Who By Numbers."

It's interesting to hear you say that -- especially since, as I understand it, "Endless Wire" was a conscious decision to present material to Roger for the first Who album in so many years. Was there a point at which you started to differentiate between "Townshend material" and "Who material"? How does that distinction actually manifest itself?

This is a question for Roger. You see, I have always hoped for songs I write to work for Roger, but I am unable to target him -- he is too fugitive, wriggly, as an artist to be able to pigeonhole. So he's the one who makes the decisions, acting more like an editor, in a sense. He surprised me hugely on this collection by choosing to sing songs like "Man In A Purple Dress," "2000 Years" and "Tea & Theatre." Take note, though, he did not sing "Trilby's Piano" -- even though, if he was taking part in a Broadway show, he would do it brilliantly.

He does still have some preconceptions that prevent him from going too far away from the tried and tested, but this time he took huge risks, and they came off. At the end of the Who's recording career he was taking such chances -- "One Life's Enough" is a good example, on the "It's Hard" album. That was one I thought I would have to sing, but he did a great job on it.

Is there anything you still really hope to see done, either with the solo work or the Who catalog? How are you approaching the soundtrack for the Who documentary that's in the works, or are there plans around the "Tommy" 40th anniversary next year?

I plan a "restoration" of the original "Quadrophenia" masters. This requires a number of tracks that were combined to mono or stereo submixes to be "exploded" or even replayed, to bring the sound back to life in a remastered form. I am not involved in the Who documentary at all. That is Roger's baby with our managers, and I kept out of it to concentrate on songwriting for "Endless Wire." I would love to do something special for "Tommy's" 40th -- but it may be we turn to another direction.

We don't finish this phase of touring until July 2007, and we still have to decide if and when to take in the Pacific, and also whether to ever visit South America to build an audience there. I'm just putting one foot in front of the other at the moment.

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.