Pete Townshend,
The TVD Interview

The way I see it, there was rock music before Pete Townshend got hold of it, and rock music after he got hold of it, smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it, and smashed it again. 

Townshend spent his musical life wresting respectability from critics, pushing the boundaries of convention, and simultaneously giving too many fucks and not giving any fucks at all. I think that’s where his greatness resides, in that duality of trying not to care too much while at the same time caring more than anyone else. Newly 70, he still moves the bar and lives to contradict. He remains both brutally honest and colorfully vague. So hard to pin down. (Our interview was no exception.) 

How else could the man write such perfect two-minute-fifty pop songs and nine-minute-plus suites? Pen the most memorable, gritty proto-punk and masterful latter-day operas? Be lauded as an electronic music pioneer and perform with his four-piece rock band, entirely without irony, in front of audiences at the Met? 

And now, he and partner Rachel Fuller have reimagined The Who’s finest work (no arguments, please; you are wrong) into a classical piece worthy of being immortalized alongside the original album. This isn’t a let’s-add-some-strings-to-a-rock-arrangement thing; it’s wholly respectful of its source material, and it’s damned impressive.

While Quadrophenia is entirely Townshend’s (it’s the only Who album written by him alone), what Keith Moon and John Entwistle brought to The Who’s masterpiece is irreplaceable. They, along with Townshend and Roger Daltrey, were the heart, soul, brains and brawn of that album, and there’s no escaping that. 

That’s not what Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia is trying to do. This “symphonized” Quadrophenia brings forth the immortal soul of a rock album that continues to matter. While fans will appreciate the involvement of Quadrophenia touchstones like Phil Daniels and Billy Idol, Classic Quadrophenia is as classical as it gets: Deutsche Grammophon, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a real live opera singer (the wonderful tenor Alfie Boe), and the London Oriana Choir. 

What made Townshend’s work matter to me at nineteen and why he continues to matter to me in my thirties is why, I suspect, even those less familiar with The Who will find beauty and solace in this presentation of one of the last masterworks of rock music. It’s on a different artistic level, and it’s what his fans should expect. Or maybe it isn’t.

I still work myself to death just to fit in. Fortunately for us all, Townshend doesn’t.

Quadrophenia has always been an immensely ambitious, unwieldy thing. What has been the most satisfying result of committing it to a classical arrangement? 

That I had to do absolutely nothing!

In 2001, you held workshops for a potential stage production of Quadrophenia. What stalled that process at that time? 

That was a good workshop. I put up some of the music on my website at the time. The band was entirely acoustic. Joe Penhall—who wrote a number of good plays and has lately done the book for The Kinks’ musical—was working on the book. Everything was going well until Joe realised there is no proper ending. He was the one who stalled. At that workshop I met John O’Hara who went on to be the arranger and music supervisor on the 2009 UK theatre tour of Quadrophenia conceived with the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. That was a planned six-week run that lasted for six months. It had a great young cast, many of whom have gone on to great things.

You’ve been tinkering with Quadrophenia since its original release. When The Who toured behind it after the album was first released, you spent a lot of time explaining it to audiences, and it took twenty-five years to perform it in concert to your (reasonable) satisfaction. Do you still feel the need to explain what Quadrophenia is all about? 

It isn’t really about very much…. its loose story and its non-ending are what need to be explained. The function of rock music is not to tell tidy little stories that work like soap opera episodes but to provide music for the internal story of the listener. Of course there is also the function of live congregation: gathering to join together to listen to music that a group of people feel reflects all of their unspoken feelings and emotions. Rock is different in this respect to conventional opera and theatre musical.

When you wrote Tommy, the album’s instrumentation was incredibly spare and obviously meant to be performed live. With Quadrophenia, while the songs were spare, the album was filled with synthesizers, horn arrangements, your field recordings, and, obviously, the rhythm section is such a massive feature of the original album. Could you describe how you and/or Rachel decided to stick to purely orchestral percussion for Classic Quadrophenia

We both agreed to avoid rock drums. We felt that they would overpower the subtle power of the orchestra. Also, Quadrophenia is relentlessly rhythmic, having drums all the way through would make it sound like rock with orchestra added.

You’re known as someone who explored the cutting edge of electronic and digital music. What, then, made you decide to release Classic Quadrophenia on vinyl? 

Good quality vinyl offers full-range, perfect analogue sound. The CD is a good medium, but rather harsh sounding I feel. (I believe the brain has to work a little harder to listen to digital music, but that’s just my pet theory.)

There is only one downside, and that is that all the very low bass has to be centered into both channels—but that is rarely noticeable in the domestic space. What completely sank vinyl was the record companies using such low quality vinyl in the years leading up to the first CD releases. They wanted the improvement to be noticeable. Nowadays most vinyl is pressed onto pure stock, it is low on surface noise, and is very sturdy.

I imagine you must have an incredible collection of vinyl records. Do you still listen to them? 

I got up to about 15,000 vinyl albums in 1984, I now have around 4,000 I have daily access to. They are a mix of jazz and classical with the rest of the categories thrown in. I do listen to vinyl. It is really the only way I can listen for long periods, to a whole opera or jazz concert, or to long experimental pieces. The break after 17-25 minutes is a perfect time to rest.

You’ve written two new songs for your new album, Truancy, one of which is very personal (“How Can I Help You”) and the other very political (“Guantanamo“). You’re known for writing intimately personal songs, but haven’t really written anything overtly political. What inspired this creative shift? 

Both these songs speak for themselves. “Guantanamo” is just another “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was actually written for a new opera but didn’t fit in the end. I love the sound of it—recorded on the old analogue Yamaha and Lowrey organs I am so fond of (like Garth Hudson of The Band).

Are these just the tip of an iceberg that might turn into one more SCOOP album? 

In the past I have possibly exaggerated how much unreleased music I have. What I do have is a huge amount of work-in-progress. I did plan a SCOOP for this year, but The Who tour has made that impossible, but I am halfway through investigating what is in the archive and there should be a good album there.

When I first starting going to Who shows in 2000, the audience was mostly middle-aged men and maybe a handful of their kids that got dragged along. Today, your audience seems to skew much younger. Have you noticed the change in your audience in recent years? 

Yes, the age range has widened. We are lucky to find our music still palatable to such young listeners. We are a bit of a curiosity now in some respects. We were innovators in many ways, especially of the rock anthem, and much of what we created has become pillars of rock and pop live shows—now with Kanye West claiming a rock crown it seems it’s also a part of R&B.

What’s been surprising you most about THE WHO HITS 50 tour? 

I’m surprised I still don’t find performing to be enjoyable. But I have stopped fighting that feeling. But I did think at some point I would start to enjoy it. I don’t think I ever will. There are moments on stage I smile and laugh, but I’m afraid I am often laughing because it all feels so ridiculous. I don’t mean we are absurd because we are old (although of course we probably are). I mean we have always been absurd. I laugh because I can’t believe how seriously I take it all—and I do. It seems to be important to do good work on stage.

Do you know the story about me being hypnotised as a young man? I was about twenty years old. My father’s best friend was a dentist who wanted to use hypnotism to help patients who were frightened by dental treatment. I was one of his first subjects. I turned out to be a very good hypnotic subject, and one of his post-hypnotic suggestions was that “……whenever you perform Pete, you will do your absolute best, whatever mood you are in, whether you are happy or sad, or healthy or sick…”

It does seem to have worked. I often remember it just as I run on stage.

What is making you happy right now?

Answering these interesting questions and not having to run on stage and work until my limbs ache.

Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia is in stores now via Deutsche Grammophon Records. On vinyl.

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