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Who's Next At Tanglewood? Pete Townshend

Classic Quadrophenia
Classic Quadrophenia

Routinely cited as an essential entry among the very best rock albums, The Who's Quadrophenia will sound a little different this weekend at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. Pete Townshend, joined by punk legend Billy Idol and the opera star Alfie Boe, will present Classic Quadrophenia on Saturday night at 8. The Who's principal songwriter since the band's founding in 1964, Townshend tells the story of mods, rockers, alienation and youthful longing in the rock opera released in 1973. At this date, they'll be joined by Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops. Townshend is performing Classic Quadrophenia at a handful of concerts this summer.

Thanks for having me. It's great to be here to talk to you. And thank you.

Well, The Who were at Tanglewood in '69 and 70. I was wondering, what you remember of those dates?

You know, I remember ‘70 but of course, I remember ‘69 because I think we were on our way to Woodstock, isn't that correct?

Yes. It was about four days before.

Yeah. And I had my young wife with me with our firstborn child. She was only about six months old. I tried to get out of playing at Woodstock because Emma was just been born, but was bullied into doing Woodstock. And of course, probably a good thing that we did do it. Then I went to Tanglewood. And I remember hearing “The Soldier's Tale” by Stravinsky and loving it. I think the second time around we did a show with Jethro Tull.

And I think it was the last date of the summer before you went on to Europe on that tour in ’70.

Yeah, quite possibly. The heart link for me with Tanglewood and Boston Pops and all that that represents was that when we played “Tommy” in New York for the first time at the Fillmore for a week, two very, very influential people came to see us. One was Bob Dylan, who said absolutely nothing. And the other was Leonard Bernstein, who came with his daughter and he was rapturously encouraging to me, and really rapturously encouraging such a wonderful man. So for me, whenever I think of Tanglewood, I think of him and just what a great energy he was. And, you know, absolutely the opposite of snobbery. So a terrific connection for me.

And classical music was around your life, your father played the saxophone. So you were already aware of that world even as you were blazing this path with rock music, right?

You know, I was. My father was actually in a dance band, but and we didn't know any classical musicians, but we certainly listened to it too. He was a big fan of Tchaikovsky, but I think he if he if he wanted me to listen to classical music, he probably would have gotten me to Tchaikovsky, but he was a fan of people like Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, the Basie band.

It was at school that I felt was first at, I don't know what you call it in grades, but I was 11 or 12 years old. It was at school that I went to my first live concert, which was Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall and I had a seat in the choir stall. So it's right behind the orchestra. And it was very, very, very transported by that and subsequently by a really deep immersion in the Disney film Fantasia, which I didn't realize until many years later was my first exposure to surround sound because it had been recorded in 70 mil I think, with I think a six or eight track soundtrack. So whenever I went to see I would hear it at a theater in London and I loved all of that music.

Well, speaking of classic Quadrophenia, at the time you were writing the rock album, you're already experimenting with different instrumentation. John Entwistle played a lot of horns, I believe, on the on the album and you had synthesizers coming in. So my question is, is the classic Quadrophenia closer to the sound that you're originally going for on the album?

No, no. It was always an implementation. I think if I'd have had synthesizers, and if we'd have had more tracks to work with with Tommy, we would have used more orchestral textures. We just ran out of tracks. With Quadrophenia, I had a multitrack system at home so that I could do a lot of the very torturous work of building up tracks of synthesized strings complemented by real violin in some cases. And John was also very good at layering whole kind of choirs of brass, you know from tuba, right the way up to Bach trumpet, he could play everything. And was a good reader so he would write his own scores, we would , record them and end up layering them. That was an album that I produced, of course, and I think I wanted a hybrid. I wanted to have the power of The Who.

The whole idea of Quadrophenia was to rescue The Who from pomposity, and but not, not orchestral pomposity, it was the pomposity of what was starting to happen in rock and roll. You remember, we were only three or four years away from punk. We'd certainly lost contact with our neighborhood audience in West London. So when I wrote the story, you know, on a scrap of paper for Quadrophenia, what I was trying to do was to give myself a brief to write some songs, which would reconnect The Who with the audience. Not so much reconnect the audience with The Who: the audience was there. It's just that I think we'd lost our roots. And Quadrophenia did that. So when I listen to the orchestral version today, what is gratifying is how good the music is because it's actually unadorned. The Quadrophenia album was pretty audacious really for its time. It was very, very heavy rock with a lot of orchestral overtones, but it was still rock.

The ending of the album is very much open to interpretation. Do you have an idea for yourself of where Jimmy finishes at the end of ‘Love, Reign O’er Me?’

No, and I don't I don't think that that's from for me to — I think the best rock music, the best pop music, the best modern rap music, electronic music dance music, EDM, doesn't matter what it is, is music which we can immerse ourselves in and find ourselves. I think, the kind of music that I grew up with the romantic music, the postwar music of the age of Broadway musicals, in particular, the kind of song sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, that music was about losing oneself in romance.

Pop music, at its best, is about finding ourselves in the music somehow. And in Quadrophenia I didn't want people to imagine that Jimmy was a kind of composite in a sense, a jigsaw puzzle of the four members of The Who. Neither did I really want anybody to identify too much with Jimmy, although a lot of people have, including Eddie Vedder, and quite a few other people. The actor Ben Kingsley said that he thought he was Jimmy at one point. You know, quite a few people have said that to me. What am I saying? I'm saying that at the end of Quadrophenia, I wanted you the listener to decide where to take Jimmy next or where to take what you had received from Jimmy, as it were, from his journey. And I think you know it ends with, you know, a young man who's very, very distressed and unhappy and it starts to rain and the boat drifts away and he's had an absolutely awful few days and he's coming down off drugs. He's in withdrawal. And the idea I suppose, the inference is, that he learns you know, in adversity he learns to pray he looks up at the sky and he asks for love to rain down on him and to overcome him and to give him an answer, but we don't know what that answer is. There are a number of people who believe that they know what happened to Jimmy next, and I'll leave it to them to finish it off.

I want to follow up on something you said a moment ago about how you didn't necessarily want the audience to see the four members of The Who in Quadrophenia. But isn't that how you explained it to the other members of the band to sort of get them to buy in?

It certainly is. I knew that they wouldn't go for a piece that was about a punk kid from Shepherd’s Bush who was a complete washout. And you know, our problem at the time was not that we were grand egos. We probably work were grand egos. I think everybody in the rock business that were big stars at the time, like Led Zeppelin and Electric Light Orchestra and Rolling Stones, I think we were all far too big for our boats, ego-wise. But the problem for The Who was is that we still delighted in the caricatures that we had become, and we each had our own little caricature to play out.

Unlike, say, a band like Kiss, where everybody looked the same. With The Who there was Keith Moon, Moon The Loon, banging every drum he could get at. John Entwistle standing statuesque and quiet, but his fingers flying like a virtuoso. Me jumping as high as I could in this boiler suit. And what do you call it, a jumpsuit. And Roger with his long blonde hair and his bare chest looking like a rock god. Singing, you know, like an R&B star. You know, those were the caricatures and it was very difficult for us to break out of that mode that works so well for us. I tried quite a few times to do concerts in the 70s when I was pursuing a solo album, career, and doing shows where I didn't swing my arm. I just thought, you know, I only do that arm swinging thing when I'm in The Who. And it's true. I do. I do. You know, when I perform a solo show, I don't run around the stage swinging my arm. Roger, funnily enough, what he does show those shows does swing his microphone.

So I think what I was trying to do was not to kind of be deceitful to the band, but to give us a back door to making a reconnection with our audience. You know, it worked. The great thing about it was is that it worked. You know, we first played it in the UK to a London audience, and they got it straightaway. We got very, very good reviews from critics who were ready to tear us to pieces. And, you know, it was it was it was it was a bit of a kind of a business plan I'd put together; it was a little bit backroom, but it worked. And there were some wonderful surprises along the way. For example, I thought that “Love, Reign O’er Me” would make a great “ See me, feel me, touch me heal me” moment for Roger. But he took a completely different approach. He bawled it out from the very bottom of his heart and soul. And it works incredibly well done in that way. You know, Keith Moon was in a very, very crazy period of his life and he moved to Miami shortly after the album was made, but he was at the top of his game, as a drummer, and joyful to work with. And of course, John was in every single day in the studio with me. John was every day, you know, he was there all the time. He loved not only being in the studio, but he loved sitting around telling stories. We used to do our day's work and then get through a couple of bottles of cognac and tell stories. And then God forbid I used to drive home but in a boat. I'd lost my license.

With Alfie Boe singing the lion's share of this production, it's definitely different from Roger Daltrey, and I'm wondering how much you direct him in terms of interpreting the vocals?

Well, not at all. The interesting thing about his approach is that he's an uncut classical tenor, you know, there is no adornment whatsoever. He's not in a theater musical. It's not even an opera. It’s a concept performance. He just has to sing the songs. What I love about it is that as soon as we sat down with him, and rolled the tape, it felt to me as though the music had landed in an entirely new way that was completely authentic. Unadorned funnily enough, and very, very straight cut. So no, I haven't ever made any suggestions to him at all.

I think the comparison of course with Roger is kind of absurd. I mean, funnily enough, I think I did a charity concert recently in London for Parkinson's disease and with an orchestrator that I know and, and I sang “Love Reign O’er Me” in front of a symphony orchestra. And I think I sound a lot more like Alfie Boe than Roger Daltrey. If you're a Who fan, it might be worth looking it up. I got very, very good reviews from Who fans for that, by the way. But I think the comparison is really not like and like. Funnily enough, you know, I think if we'd have one day, if I ever was able to persuade Roger to give it a try, if I brought him in and got him to sing the whole piece with the orchestra. I think it would be wonderful. I think he would do an amazing job. I think he would do it very, very differently, though. And he did it with The Who. So it's kind of obvious. I know, Roger has got a lot of scores in his possession because he did a tour back in 1994 with Michael Kamen, a solo tour, which began in Carnegie Hall, where he did a lot of Who shows with a big orchestra. He loves it, so I think he would do amazing work, but in this case, I think we felt that because Quadrophenia was still very much alive and still is, I don't know whether we'll ever tour it again, but it's certainly still alive as a Who piece. I felt that we it would it would be wrong to have Roger take the role. I don't think he's particularly comfortable about the fact that Alfie is singing it. They were friends before but you know, he's perfectly OK. I think about it all.

Well, when I wonder what the fans will be actually. I wonder whether the fans will come and kind of sit there and think this isn't Roger Daltrey. But then you know, there's no electric guitar, either.

So do you have to wear a tuxedo for the show?

No, I don't think so. We just heard the other day that we think that uh, one of the shows they've got some of the members of the orchestra to wear parkas, so nothing to do with me. I'll probably wear a suit. I think when I did my piece in the Royal Albert Hall where we premiered it live, I did wear a suit. It doesn't feel appropriate to go on in skinny jeans and a working man's t-shirt, which is what I wear with The Who.

I have another question about Roger. I saw your Who concert at Canandaigua near Rochester this summer and at the end of the show, you introduced the band and then you said something that stuck out to me as a Who fan, which is that if you ever wrote more who songs there's no one you'd rather have singing them than Roger Daltrey. So that leads me to ask, are you working on anything for The Who?

You know, I've been working on stuff for The Who says that who stopped making records you know. The fly in the ointment is Roger Daltrey. And not for a bad reason, I think. We got together in 1996 after a long hiatus to tour Quadrophenia. After the first tour, which was in America, Roger took it over. And he rejigged it, he redesigned it, he did the video. He completely reshaped the show as it was performed by the band. And you know, I think from that day onwards, he's been a very, very different person. He has never had much luck with songwriting. He would love to be a songwriter, he would love to be able to sing songs, write songs, sing songs that he'd written himself. But that that process for him gave him a creative — it sounds very patronizing. And I don't mean it to be. But I think it gave him, I was a witness to it, so I think I can get away with it. I saw him grow from somebody who was just a singer, frustrated because he didn't have a creative role and was so used to me telling everybody what to do, to having a real creative role, from doing something which took the work that we've done back in 1973, and made it more effective and in a sense also brought it into the modern world, but also linked back to those days. He put almost a documentary of footage into the video, which he played a huge part in creating and designing.

So where are we now? We're in a place where Roger Daltrey as a singer is looking to find music, which is uniquely designed for him as a human being and a singer and as a social commentator. If you see how effective he is, as a public speaker, for example, on the subject of the difficulties of being a teenager with cancer, you realize that this is a man who is extremely smart, and extremely socially aware. But on stage with The Who, I'm not going to say he's he was my puppet. But certainly all of the songs are written by me. So I think today what, in order to make a Who album, I would have to come up with a material that I felt strongly about, that I felt were new, and innovative, and expressed want to express and songs which work for Roger. And there's a very great difficulty here. I believe in God, and Roger doesn't. And neither of us are particularly dogmatic about it. It's not like, you know, Richard Dawkins meets the Pope. But it does make it a bit difficult sometimes.

So I've presented Roger with a number of songs even this year. And he's sent them back to me saying, you know, yes, they're very nice, but I can't get inside them, or yes, they're very nice, I think that one might work if you let me change a few lines. And there's a bit of me that kind of goes, Oh, you can't change my lines.

So we're in our dotage now. So I don't know whether it really matters that there's another Who album, but we know it's certainly not, you know, it's on the cards, if we, if I can manage to come up with some good stuff that works for him, we will record it. The other thing that I'm doing is, you know, I'm trying to encourage Roger to write. And I'm helping him, you know, create studios at home. And I'm introducing him to people that he might call co-write with, but he's doing a lot of that himself too. He's definitely very active. He's got a solo album, coming out next year, and I'm going to play on it. I haven't got any songs on it, but I'm gonna play on it. I'm playing on it, so.

Is the trouble that the two of you really can't sit in a room together and write?

Well, I can't sit in a room and write with anybody. So the only person I've done any sort of co-writing with in the last 20 years has been my wife, Rachel. And it always felt to me like if I was sitting, noodling around, she would say, Can I have that? And I'd say, OK. Or she might say, I've got a piece of music here. Do, you know, do you have any words and I might give her a couple of ideas. And, you know, that's as close to co-writing as I've got. I've done a few collaborations. I did one we show Jean-Michel Jarre for his new album and I did some music with night bar for the Americans. I like collaborating but I don't these days, we tend to do it by wire, you know, over the internet. I don't. I'm not very good at sitting in a room with somebody. A story that I tell that exemplifies this the best was in my memoirs, in in my book.

“Who I am."

Yeah. With John Sebastian, back in the late 60s. And he came and he said, Do you want to hear my new song? And I said, Yeah, and he sang me a song he was working on called “Welcome Back.” And he was only about a foot away from my face, looking at me as though I was a TV camera, and sang the whole song without a blink. And when we finished, I said, John, it's a very nice song, but I want to say something to you. Please don't ever do that to me again. I'm English. I'm kind of embarrassed by working on material with other people until it's right. I don't like the creative process in, although you know, I'm OK in a team with a band. It's that kind of nakedness of sitting with a blank sheet of paper. And the first line that you write for is, for example, you know, the sheriff walked into town, took his gun out and flicked the chamber, switched it back in again, when looking for Black John. And the person that's sitting with you kind of goes, that's fucking clichéd. Hold on a minute, at least it's something, what have you done? You know, I'm not very good at that process. I'm not very good at being in a room with anybody else. You asked if Roger and I could sit in a room. We once did try it. I think it was in 2005. We went to my studio, and we got two stools out and our two guitars. And after an hour and a half, we looked at each other and we said, it's not gonna happen. But we tried.

One last question. You're coming up on the end of two years of touring for the 50th anniversary of the band, which finishes this fall. A lot of dates, a lot of countries and I'm just wondering what you hope the future of The Who is at this point?

You know, I don't think Roger or I or our managers, funnily enough, or promoters or anybody or even the fans have a clear idea of what might be in the future. After South America, I'm taking a year sabbatical it. So it's not a holiday, people keep saying to me, are you going to go sailing, I just mean a sabbatical in the in the religious sense, I'm going to not do what I've been doing for the last two years. It doesn't mean that I won't see Roger or work with him or socialize with him. But I won't tour, I don’t think. I might do some writing, I might do some acting, I might do all kinds of things. But I won't be doing what I normally do. But I think at the end of that period, I think, you know, hopefully, with a bit of distance and perspective, I might be able to come back and look at what The Who actually means. By that time, Roger will have published his own autobiography, which is he's doing with a writer. That is his own story. And he will have released his own solo album, I very much hope, because the tracks that I'm working on amazing and he's singing fantastically well. So that time we'll be able to kind of review things. But you know, I think one of the things is that we're, you know, we're getting old, and what we do on stage with The Who is pretty athletic. So, you know, I don't know how long I won't be doing that stuff.

I'm not saying there's an end to it. I just don't know, you know, when back in 1982 I would never work with The Who again… and you know, I kind of wish looking back I never ever said that because it just looks so dumb. It seems so arrogant to say Oh, we'll never do that again because you just don't know how circumstances are gonna change, your life is gonna change.

Pete, I can't thank you enough for spending all this time with us. And most of all, thanks for the songs.

Oh, you're very, very welcome. And I can't wait to do this show. It's our first of the series at Tanglewood. I'm looking forward to being back there and yeah, it will be it will be an interesting evening.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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