When we phoned up Pete Townshend last week at his new home in the English countryside, our only real goal was to talk about the Who’s upcoming American tour where the band will be paired with local symphonies. Before we knew it, an hour had passed and we’d covered everything from the Neil Young–Joe Rogan spat to the inflation crisis, the unlikelihood of a new Who record or solo LP, the brilliant use of his music on Freaks and Geeks, and his hatred of NFTs.
In typical Townshend fashion, the guitarist gave long, thoughtful answers to every one of our questions, often taking fascinating detours along the way and divulging minute behind-the-scenes details of the live music industry that few other artists discuss in public. He also name-checked Wes Anderson, Dave Davies, Rod Stewart, Luke McCallin, Christopher Plummer, and many others. Every talk with Townshend is a wild ride, so enjoy this one.
Are you looking forward to getting back out on the road?
[Hearty laugh] Let’s just leave that one in the air. Next question! [Laughs.]
Tell me about the show. Sounds like it’ll be similar to the one you did in 2019.
Yeah. We were interrupted by the pandemic. We had a bunch of shows that had been postponed, a couple because of illness with Roger, and also a Vegas stint that should have been tacked on to the end of the tour. And also a visit back to Cincinnati to, at last, close the loop on the disaster that happened back in 1979. We’ve done a lot of work on that. There’s been a documentary [The Who: The Night That Changed Rock] about it. That’s been in the air.
Those shows only amounted to five or six shows, including a postponed New Orleans Jazz Festival, and one at the Hard Rock. They were in the air and needed to be done at some point because they were contracted and they were part of a tour that, financially speaking, it was necessary for us to do since we didn’t get insurance payout for them. We had to do them sooner or later. We just built a tour around that.
We were intending to do a U.K tour after our last tour in America with the orchestra. And we hope we will reach new people with it. And listen, two years of pandemic have kind of aged me, I think. I was getting old anyway. I feel that working with the orchestra is a good way to work.
I have loved working with the orchestra. It is something that I resisted at first. I didn’t think it would be very good. … I’ve always had this belief that when you work with orchestras, you shouldn’t try and bring a rock drummer on the stage. It just doesn’t work. In this particular case, Zak Starkey was the one that suggested maybe acoustically he could make it work by using an electric kit. Indeed, it works. That was my main objection to it, so I was really pleased it worked so well.
Tell me about working with the orchestra and what new elements they bring out of your songs.
A lot of the Who’s music is already fairly heavily decorated and dense harmonically anyway, so we’re not like the Stones or the Kinks. With an an album like Quadrophenia, for example, there was brass and there was violins. There were lots of synthesizers on it. On subsequent albums, I’ve always used a lot of synthesizers and keyboards. We kind of cruised through the 1980s, even though our recording career ended in 1982, but we cruised through that period with our music sounding really quite rich.
If you take a couple of hits from that era like “Athena,” “You Better You Bet,” and “Eminence Front,” they’re all very rich. They have a lot of orchestral harmonics in them already. For me, having the orchestra, what was amazing about it was that it actually gave me space.
Two things happened to me over the years. One was dealing with Keith Moon’s death [in 1978] where everything suddenly changed and we needed to replace him not with just another drummer, but with a keyboard player and a brass section. He was actually playing orchestrally, in a sense, as a drummer.
And then when John Entwistle died [in 2002], there was another space left. That was because he was filling up so much of the musical spectrum with his bass sound, which was not a traditional bass sound. And so when he was gone, there was suddenly space for me … not so much to try and fill up the void he had left, but a space where I could have a different approach. I started to solo. I had to learn to practice the guitar [laughs], which I hadn’t done much of before. I’ll never be a famous shredder, but I can play better than I could when we were in the Live at Leeds years, for example.
With the orchestra, it’s a similar effect. It’s almost like I could stand there for a good 50 percent of the show and play nothing at all. What’s interesting about that is that it gives me a chance to make sure what I do play, what I do do, where I look, how I behave on the stage, is more connected with the people around me, with the audience, and with, I suppose, to get prosaic about it, an inner sense. In other words, I don’t lose myself the way I did when I used to jump around, have a big adrenaline rush, and then come off the stage and someone would say, “Great show,” or someone would say, “Terrible show,” and I wouldn’t really know what I had done, to be honest, since I was like someone running a marathon. So the orchestra gives me space.
You say you’ve aged a bit in the past few years. What do you need to do to get ready to go back on tour?
I’m not doing anything. [Laughs] That’s not true. I’m having a couple of medical things. I’m looking after some medical stuff that I’ve needed to do. A few years back, as you probably know, I got hearing aids, which revolutionized my life. I’ve had my eyes done. I had lenses put into my eyes when I started to get cataracts. That was like a miracle. I’ve been making sure I’m in good shape health-wise. My health is very good. I’m lucky in that respect.
I don’t exercise. I walk quite a bit, but my hobby of choice is sailing, and that’s not very physical. It’s mainly looking at the wind and trying to figure out where to steer. But that’s my main sport hobby, which I do and I love doing it. I do it as much as I can.
Also, my wife and I have moved to the countryside. We sold our home in Richmond[London] and we live out in the country. We walk every day. We have a much more, I suppose, everyday, countryside lifestyle. I’m more active in that respect.
How will Covid impact the way you tour? I know that Elton John and the Rolling Stones have been forced to basically create a traveling Covid bubble. Will you be doing something similar?
We have no choice, unfortunately. The insurers are the ones making these dictates. This is not the Rolling Stones or Elton John [making these calls]. This is the insurers. They are insisting that they won’t pay out if you cancel because of Covid. That’s the first thing. And secondly, if they do pay out, they only pay out 85 percent. And thirdly, they up their charges from 2.5 percent to 5 percent and now to 8 percent of the gross income on a tour. It’s absolutely brutal.
I have to confess here that our insurance company here in the U.K., our agent as it were, Robertson Taylor, is a kind of friend. [Laughs] We’ve been working with him since the very beginning. I’ve got no sympathy with the insurance companies, but there you go.
We did get paid out for our U.K. tour, which was fabulous since we were able to pay some of the debt that we had to people around us and help some of the crew and help some friends and family, and just generally charity stuff that we would normally do as a part of what we do every time we go out on tour. We were able to cover some of that in a period that was otherwise totally dead.
I’m happy that they paid us, but one of the stipulations is that when we travel, we’re not allowed to leave our hotel rooms. We have to travel in a very small bubble. And when we’re at the show, we’re not allowed to leave our dressing rooms.
I’m hoping that by May that those restrictions will have been eased a little bit. That’s because your first question was the obvious one: “Are you looking forward to this?” I laughed because this has never been something I love to do, but one of the things that I do greatly enjoy about touring is that people know where you are.
We’ve been in the business now for 60 years. People see our name on a billboard. If they have a phone number of a friend or someone in the crew, or they can get to my PA, they can arrange to meet me. On some occasions, we can fit in a dinner or a family visit. On other occasions, other celebrities or other band members, people I’ve never met, can come backstage and come meet me and talk about music and stuff. The social side of it is really, really valuable to me. I’m not very sociable and I’m not very active socially, so I love it.
Having that taken away from me is a bit saddening. Unlike quite a few people that tour, I don’t spend a lot of time out of my hotel room anyway. I tend to go into a hotel, build a small recording studio, and try to write songs. That’s how I spent my time in hotel rooms. For me, that part of it won’t be too different. But I’ll miss that. I’m hoping, hope against hope, that I can have that back
The idea that I won’t be able to have conversations with the orchestra members that we tour with would be a bit sad. That’s been so great to talk to people about what they do. They might be musicians working with symphony orchestras. They might be session players. They may be half-amateur/half-professional. And we all share that we’ve been stranded on an island for two years. Suddenly we’re back out there. We’ll have a lot we’ll want to share, and these restrictions mean that we won’t be able to.
On the other hand, I don’t want to be Moaning Minnie here. Neither do I want to be a Pollyanna. I think it’s going to be tricky, and I’m very, very keen to make the best of it. We are very lucky, Roger and I, to have a band, what’s left of the band, to take out. We’re lucky that we have what we have together. After two years, I love being at home. I love being at home since I spend so much time in the studio. I love it. I’ve had a very good time during lockdown.
But I work with quite a few other artists. I haven’t just been kicking me heels and feeling frustrated. This is something that … it feels as if the door is opening again. It’s a significant time, and quite strange for everybody. The way that everyone has been turned into pawns of, dare I say it, the politicians, the scientists, the pro-vaxxers, the anti-vaxxers, the people in between.
We live in a very polarized society. As musicians, we really sincerely hope that music brings the two sides together. If we can do that, that would be great. If we can’t, so be it.
You’re not thinking of this as your last tour, or anything, are you?
We’re not saying that, but what’s interesting is … I had a conversation with Roger. I said to him, “I don’t want to be like one of these guys that dies on tour.” I do want to retire. And by “retire” I don’t mean retire from being a musician or artist or creator, but retire from the idea that it requires me to say yes to touring for a load of people to get a smile on their face and go home to their wife and go, “Hey, honey! Everything is fine! The Who are going back on tour!” [Laughs.]
To be relieved of that responsibility, in a sense … because Roger is of the opinion that he wants to sing until he drops. That’s not my philosophy of life. There are other things that I want to do, still want to do, and will do, I hope. I hope I’ll live long enough to do them.
No. It’s not a farewell tour. Apart from anything else, we still have people who have tickets for the U.K. 2019 tour. We’re very, very keen to do that tour and we’ll be doing that tour in 2023. By the way, the reason we weren’t doing that tour in the U.K. now is because our insurers insist that we couldn’t do it because they had to pay out on it. They didn’t want us muddying the waters until 2023.
In other words, they wouldn’t insure us again until the pandemic was very, very behind us. We’ll do that in 2023, I think … I’m talking about stuff I don’t really know about. I don’t have any guarantees, like everybody else. I don’t really know what’s going to happen next month or the month after.
I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the end of Covid-19. I’m pretty sure that it’s behind us now. And the other thing, without getting into deep politics, this is something I’m sure you guys as journalists know far more than I do, but what we’re dealing with now is rising inflation. You go onto Bloomberg and you watch them, all they talk about is what’s happening with inflation, what the Fed are going to do, what they’re not going to do.
Inflation is a killer. I remember back in the late Seventies. Inflation in the U.K. was such that a bank loan that I had for my company that was doing rentals of rock gear for rock groups and book publishing and stuff, my bank loans were 26 percent. It was brutal. Inflation in the U.K. was running at 15 percent to 17 percent. You have to remember that World War II happened because of inflation.
Yep. That’s what broke Germany and allowed Hitler to rise.
Yeah. In a country like Nigeria, if you get 100 bucks today, spend it because tomorrow it will be worth less. So inflation is a killer.
Funnily enough, when you’re on the road, a lot of people don’t get their final pay packet, we don’t certainly, until about a year after we finish because the accounting process is so complicated. By the time we get paid … and by the time everyone else gets paid, I want to make sure that the money they’ve committed to make is worth, at the end, what it was on the beginning.
So there’s lots of stuff going on. We’re really looking at the way the pandemic has hit the country. And in the U.K., we’ve also had the effect of Brexit, the political upheavals, and all kinds of stuff. But the big news in the U.K. at the moment, and I’m sure you’re conscious of it in America even though you’re farther away, is what’s going to happen in Russia and Ukraine.
Page-turning, we’re just a band. We’re just a bunch of musicians. We can do odd charity projects and try to squeeze ourselves in the edge of society in some useful way, but hope ultimately that we can get to the gig, show up, and do our show, and nothing stops us from doing that.
I’ve been reading about a Keith Moon biopic for about 20 years. It seems like it’s finally happening now.
Bring it up with Roger. He’ll know more about it than I do. But it’s Spitfire films. They are the producers. I’m working with them on a few other things. It looks like it will probably happen soon. When you talk about it as a Keith Moon biopic, it’s going to be the first semi-fictionalized, dramatized Who story. It will be a Who biopic. Somebody is going to have to play Pete Townshend. I’ve read some very, very varied opinions about what my relationship was like with Keith. I view it one way, and another people view it another way. I certainly was never at war with Keith, but neither was I his puppy.
He was a great manipulator, and a great character, a great showman. He brought a lot of joy, but he also brought a lot of hardship and difficulty. I’ve always been honest about that. It will be interesting to see how that evolves.
I certainly don’t see a position where if I didn’t like the way the story was being told, I’d block it. I don’t give a fuck, to be honest. I hope it happens because Roger has been working on it.
The first script I saw for a Keith Moon film, I was in New York in 1993 working on the Tommy Broadway production. I was sent a script by my friend John Lahr, the writer. It was just OK. I called him up and said, “John, where did you get this Who story from?” He said, “From Roger.” I said, “You really need to talk to me. You really need to talk to [our manager] Bill Curbishley. You really need to talk to John Entwistle. You really need to talk to his ex-wife. You really need to talk to everybody because what you’ve got here is just Roger’s almost fantastical adoration of Keith.” He’d turned him into a Rock God, in a sense. But how long ago is that? That’s over 25 years.
I’ve seen a lot of these rock biopics, and they always change history around a lot. They make up events, create composite characters, and just generally have no real regard for the facts. Are you going to try and make sure they don’t do that?
No. I don’t think I’m in a position to do that. I think if I felt I was being cruelly misrepresented, I’d step in and say, “This is a bit much.” But I trust the people that are putting the film together. It’s been managed by Bill Curbishley, the Who’s manager, and by Nigel Sinclair, who is the CEO of Spitfire. And Roger is somebody who would punch out somebody that said anything even slightly derogatory about me. I trust him.
And this is something he’s had close to his breast since 1993. He has to tell his own story; he has to have his own way. He sometimes crashes in sideways into my projects. [Laughs] But if I don’t like it, I will say so in the press. I might have a moan about it if there’s something I don’t like, but I will never go to war in the way that some bands have.
Are you working on new songs now for a possible new Who album or solo album?
I’ve been doing lots of interesting stuff. A lot of it is in development, so I can’t really talk about it. But I’ve been very, very busy. Some of it has been writing for myself, for a solo project which isn’t exactly a solo album. It’s music for the art installation of [my novel] The Age of Anxiety, which I’ve talked about a bit on Instagram. That is taking a long time since, for me, it has to be right, and it has to be good, but it’s new to me. It’s all new to me. It’s the life that I should have led had I not been in the Who and came out of art college in 1966 and pursed a career as an artist.
I’ve been working on that. I’ve been working with three different bands. I’ve been working with Wild Things, who are supporting the Who at the Royal Albert Hall in March at our Teenage Cancer Trust gig. I’ve been working with another artist called Reg Meuross, who is a folk artist in the U.K. He and I are working on a podcast about Woody Guthrie called Fire and Dust — a song cycle and a podcast.
I’ve been working with a very interesting group called the Bookshop Band. They write songs about novels and fictional books. They’ve done a couple tours of America playing bookshops.
I’ve just done the score for Robin Robin, which is an animated film. I think it’s up for a couple of awards. Their work is just fabulous.
I’ve been enjoying working with other musicians, and we’ve been doing that work in my studios. I’ve got two studios in the U.K. I’ve kept myself busy musically.
I’ve been supporting my wife [Rachel Fuller] too. She’s been fuckin’ gung-ho with creative work. She’s still battling with her solo project [a musical based on Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha], which was The Siddhartha Project. It’s now called The Seeker: Based on the Life of Siddhartha. It should have come out in 2019 and the pandemic stopped it. She’s working on a number of other projects, which are all fabulous, and I’m assisting in whichever way I can.
Essentially, in the past month, two months, I’ve been working on a charity project for Teen Cancer America, which will be announced in a couple of weeks. That’s hopefully going to produce a big chunk of money for them, and possibly a podcast and some … not new music, but old music that’s been re-recorded.
With respect for new music for the Who, one of the issues is that when we did … this is quite touchy stuff, so I don’t want to be unkind to anybody. But when I said to Roger, “I’m not going to go on tour with you until you get in bed with me and we make a new album,” we were given a million dollars by Universal/Polydor to make it.
The idea was that I’d write the songs and record them in my home studio. Roger would put on vocals and we’d put it out. And we’d have a million dollars to share between us. [Laughs.]
What happened was that everything went very well until the people at Polydor suggested that we need a producer. We got a producer [Dave Sardy] in and he spent a million dollars. [Laughs] He made a great record, of course. I think it was a better record than had I produced it because I certainly wouldn’t have done a lot of the things that he did. I’m very pleased with the record.
Anyway, the situation now is that Roger is diffident about the whole thing. He’s unsure. He’s on the fence. It’s not just about the money. It’s about whether or not it’s truly worth doing … I don’t want to end up complaining online about shares of the money and blah, blah, blah. It just gets boring hearing musicians complaining about it, particularly people that have been as lucky as we have, but I think there is a question about whether an artist like me, who spent their whole life in a home studio since I was 17, is it not better for me to work with new artists rather than sit with someone like Roger that isn’t really liking the record I’m making anyway? [Laughs.]
So why not just make a Pete Townshend solo record?
Because I don’t think, at the moment, I need to do that. I think I need to finish The Age of Anxiety … My original idea was the novel would come out, I’d put out an album, and then I’d do an art installation. What actually happened was I put the album out, and then the pandemic hit and there was no question of putting an album out. There’s been a big gap between the publication of the novel and the possibility of putting out an album of music. And so I need to find a new bridge, in a sense, and I’m still thinking that through, getting advice from various people.
I’m not really interested in making another solo album in order to prove I can still write songs or prove I still have something relevant to say. I suppose I can talk if I want to, or do interviews, or write books or essays. I think where I find myself really valuable is working with new musicians.
I’m also hoping to work with students at the university I went to when I was a kid. I was given an honorary professorship at my old college, and I feel at 77 years old, which I’ll be this year, it might be time for me to really knuckle down.
I did a chat. It was a group of people doing a thesis about Quadrophenia. The director of the class said, “Will you come in, Pete, and just sit with these 10 guys and tell them about the Mod movement?” I sat and started to talk about the Mod movement with these guys, and one of them came up to me and said, “That was just fuckin’ unbelievable.”
I thought, “All I was doing was talking about what happened.” In a sense, I suppose that’s one of the big things I’ve been working at, but I’ve also really enjoyed working with other artists. I’ve really enjoyed it. Funnily enough, working with other artists does get me to work on my own as well. It gets the juices running.
You turn 80 in about three years. Do you still want to be onstage then, or do you view that as a time when you might step aside?
It depends what being “onstage” means. Two days ago, my wife held up an old photo of me and she said, “Pete, you must be fuckin’ seven feet off the ground here.” I said, “Well, I’m sure I wasn’t. The camera angle helps.”
I know I jumped very high. I used to be able to kick my right leg over a mic stand without falling over. I also used to be able to jump up and down without my heart beating. I was very, very athletic. I spent more time bashing my guitar than playing it. Having spent my career doing that, I think now is the time to start thinking whether or not there is something else I can do with my stagecraft.
Rachel, my wife, suddenly decided with her Siddhartha project that she needed a narrator. Our friend Des McAnuff, who was the director and co-writer with me on the Broadway Tommy, was doing a version of Faust with Christopher Plummer. He said, “Chris Plummer might be keen to do this. He might do it for you.”
Rachel sent him the music. He fuckin’ loved it and said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” And he walked into the studio with her and spent two hours and just narrated the stuff that she’d written. He helped her with a few lines that weren’t quite right.
I’d done the demo, by the way. The difference between my demo and his was really the difference in age, the difference in experience, the difference in craft. It’s a masterpiece. It’s the last thing he did, sadly, since he didn’t live long enough to do Faust. He’d learned all the lines, apparently.
Anyway, I found myself thinking that I shouldn’t put myself in a box like, “I’ve just got Vegas” or “I’ve just got this” or “I’ve just got the ability to write songs or maybe get involved in movie production.” I shouldn’t put myself in a box, and I shouldn’t let anyone else do that either. Let’s see what happens.
Eighty is a strange number. I didn’t expect … To be absolutely brutal, I don’t deserve to be alive today. I have not been a perfect man. I think what I have done in the past 20 or 30 years has probably much more useful to society than anything I did as a young musician. I know I can continue to do good work in society as someone involved in public service and education and all those things. If that sounds pompous, then fuck you. It’s the truth. It’s a “fuck you” truth that I have to accept about myself.
When I sit in the bathroom and I’m thinking, “Yeah, yeah Townshend, you’re going to become a doctor, are you? You’re going to become a professor? What the fuck?” But I have to say, “Listen, if I live to be 80, that’ll be one of the only useful things I’ll be able to do.” [Laughs] I certainly won’t be able to jump seven feet in the air without wires.
I have somewhat of a random question, but I just re-watched Freaks and Geeks. They used a ton of your songs in really poignant and interesting ways. I’m wondering if you ever saw it.
Yes, I did. It was a real buzz. I remember being very moved by it and very honored. It was a dark comedy show with deep, swinging connotations about performance and education and all the things I’m talking about. The uses were very, very smart. In a sense, it redeemed and gave credence to the fact that I’ve always felt the worst person … Let’s get into real trouble here. The worst person to have control of Neil Young’s catalog is Neil Young. [Laughs] Give it to me. I just think there’s so much stuff there that could be just turned into joy. He’s such an incredible writer, and so much of his stuff is just unknown, partly because he keeps it tied so tight to his chest.
Of course, he didn’t have happen to him what happened to me, which is the the Who ended for a good 10 years. In 1982, the Who closed down, and we weren’t earning money. I started allowing my songs to be used for commercials, for film use, and not all of it was good. There’s no question. Some of it was embarrassingly bad. But it earned money. One of things that did happen, in a couple of places … with the use in CSI, fuck! It just hugely, dramatically, powerfully spread the word about the potential … These were some of the best songs that the Who had ever recorded. They were on TV over and over and over and over again. It just reminded people that we were still there. I think it probably helped us to come back.
Yeah. To come back to Freaks and Geeks, there’s an incredible scene where one of the dorky kids comes home from school by himself. He’s really lonely and he makes himself a grilled-cheese sandwich. But he puts on the TV and Garry Shandling is doing standup comedy. It makes him really laugh, and he finds real joy in the darkness of his life. They play “I’m One” the whole time. It made me see the song in a whole new way.
Yeah. I think you’re right. There are some great music supervisors that use music in a great way. I was just watching this bit on Instagram and it reminded me there’s this song that Dave Davies wrote for the Kinks [“Strangers”] that was used in a Wes Anderson movie, The Darjeeling Limited. They’re coming off the train and they’re walking down the tracks and they play this Dave Davies song. It was written about a suicide of a friend of his when he was a kid. He didn’t write many songs for the Kinks, and it’s so moving and so great to see these kind of wild, left-field uses of songs. Wes Anderson is wonderful at using music, and he uses great supervisors.
You brought up Neil Young back there. Do you think he was wrong to take his songs off Spotify to protest Joe Rogan?
That’s not really what I was talking about. [Laughs] The Spotify argument is another one. You have to remember I took my heart in my hands during the first John Peel lecture and I attacked Apple. This is before Spotify even got its roots in. My attack was based on what they’d done. They’d come along and imposed themselves on the music industry as it stood then. They extracted money from it. They diverted money from the record companies to themselves because they’d come up with a piece of smart and very useful software, can’t deny that, and didn’t support the music industry. They didn’t develop artists. They didn’t put money back into artists.
If I’ve got an argument with Spotify, it isn’t whether Joe Rogan is or is not right or wrong. It’s not for me to say. I think free speech is free speech. I don’t know where I stand on it. Whether or not Neil Young or Joni Mitchell removes their music from Spotify isn’t going to make a big difference … it’s the fact that Spotify are paying [Rogan] $100 million bucks! Jesus Christ!
This is after, in 2019, the boss [Daniel Ek] was saying, “We don’t pay musicians much, but we have to pay so much for our service base. If so many people use Spotify for free, we’re going to go bankrupt.” So maybe podcasts have saved online streaming, and who knows what’s around the corner?
I’ve made many predictions which have turned out right, and many that have turned out wrong. If what we’re going to have with the glory of artists having the right to control their own careers in the shape of non-fungible tokens is that we’re all going to buy fuckin’ videos of monkeys’ heads, then fuck it! Just fuck it, fuck it, fuck it! It’s just junk … Not that I’m not against people making a quick buck. [Laughs.]
The thing about Neil Young is that in 2003 or thereabouts, Elliot Mazer, who had done a lot of work with Neil Young, came to introduce me to ProTools. He’d done the album Harvest with Neil. He’d just done a 5:1 mix of it. I sat down and had these big speakers from JBL set up in a 5:1 setup in my studio. I sat and listened to it. I was already a huge Neil fan, huge fan. And I was just blown away by this record.
I thought to myself, “This was a record I had forgotten about. How could that happen? Is it because I don’t listen to vinyl anymore, I don’t take vinyl on the road? Is it because I don’t make my own playlists on cassette like I used to?” The answers to all that, even back then, was a definite yes. We had stopped listening to music the way we listened to it.
In some cases, we need musicians of the Joni Mitchell and Neil Young era, the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, and everybody to remember that there are loads of people that just haven’t heard anything that they’ve done. They are buzzword names. They don’t know.
If you go on YouTube, you’re likely to hear Neil Young at the Bridge School wailing away with his old Gretsch with a voice like an old lady. What we don’t know is that he’s written some of the most beautiful songs that have ever been written, and also some of the most rocking. That’s true of Joni as well.
By the way, when you’re 77 years old, whether you’re Pete Townshend, whether you’re Neil Young, whether you’re Joni Mitchell, we need the fuckin’ vaccine! [Laughs] Whether you need it when you’re a healthy 30 year-old is another story. That I just don’t know. My wife is on the fence with all this. But what we know is, we’re very glad I had all three vaccines.
To wrap up here, a lot of people have the feeling that we’re in triple overtime when it comes to classic-rock acts from your generation. The Who, the Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul McCartney are all playing now, but that probably won’t be the case in five years or so. Do you share that feeling that we’re in the end of an era?
Yeah. It’s interesting because I’m doing a recording session today. The engineer is a young Black guy and he was saying that so many young artists today cover music from the Eighties and Nineties, what are new artists going to cover, what are they going to sample, 20 years from now? I said, “What’s interesting is that we had this extraordinary stroke of luck, which is that all of us in the Sixties, and people that followed for the next 20 or 30 years … we had a 30-year span of access to the rich canopy of music, whether it was European, Scandinavian, Irish, Celtic music, country music, Black R&B, church music, gospel music, classical music, orchestral music, all that stuff right in front of us, right at the time that the stereo record was invented, when studios went from being a big building with a microphone … [Laughs.] You see pictures of Frank Sinatra, and the same microphone that he’s singing in is also recording the fuckin’ band! We’ve had this opportunity and we’ve been so lucky and we’ve just rode with it. We know how lucky we are, I can assure you.
IIf I meet a young rap artist today, I know what he’s going to say to me. He’s going to say, “I’m a big fan.” They all are. [Laughs] I’ve been battling for rap since the Stone were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [in 1989]. In my speech, I said, “Get the fuck out of the way. Get these guys deals.” But there was no support for rap in the early days … Maybe some of what we’ll see is that some of this poetry of the modern world, which seems to exist somewhere between what musicians and creatives do at home, what they do in the studio, what they do on paper, what they do when they’re developing their music, however they put it out, whether they go on tour or they just put it out online … What exists between that period and what they do as human beings in society and socially, that may we what we look back on.
In a sense, one of the things that my generation of musicians has has to cope with is the ground, the moral ground, the political ground, the legal ground, but particularly the moral ground, moving under us to such an extent that we have to accept that our rage against not being noticed after the Second World War was probably a little overdone.
Now it’s Sir Rod Stewart, Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Elton John. And Roger Daltrey has a CBE. If you try to jump 20, 30, or 40 years forward, I’ve got no idea how we’re going to listen to music, how we’re going to season it in our life, whether it’s going to exist in its own frame. I think most musicians, most people that work on music and love music and work to be able to play anything that’s put in front of them, I suppose trained musicians, will just argue that music probably needs to be written down, and what isn’t written down may not survive. We shall see.
That sums it up. I’ll let you go. I know you aren’t looking forward to the tour all that much, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the show when it hits New York.
You know, I think I laughed when you asked that first question because I knew it was going to be the first thing you’d say. I am looking forward to it, but I don’t like touring. I have to be honest with people. I’m not going to bark at people I meet. I like what happens when we tour. I like the whole feeling of it. I’m somebody that if someone says, “Do you want to go to a party? There are going to be a lot of your friends there,” my first response will be to say, “No.” [Laughs.]
I prefer to curl up with a book by Luke McCallin or the poetry of … whoever. And then somebody will say, “Oh, fuck it Pete, come!” And I go and go, “This is fuckin’ great.”
I’m sure it’ll be the same thing when you walk onstage at that first show back.
Yeah. I’m sure it will be … I always find myself apologizing for this, but also trying to reason it out. My life story is wound up in performing. When I was a little kid, I travelled with my mom and dad when they were together. And then I was ripped away from it for a really awful couple of years when I went to go live with my grandmother. It was fuckin’ nightmarish! It was unquestionably abusive, and darkly abusive.
And then being brought back to it at the age of seven or eight as a young teen boy, being brought back to show business and trying to reconnect the dots … and the joy of being a little boy around a big band like my dad’s band, the Squadronaires, playing to young people in the euphoria of the postwar years was not quite like coming out of a dark tunnel to a world where my dad was in a band trying to scrape a living with everybody … this is in the late Fifties, screaming for something like rock & roll to come along.
When I was about 10, there was a guy that came to the U.K. named Jonnie Ray. He was before Bill Haley, before Elvis. He came to London and he was onstage and he had a hearing aid. He cried on the stage. Girls went nuts. Then he went away. He didn’t come back again. The next thing that happened was rock and roll.
My dad probably played in the band that supported Johnnie Ray. It was that thing. For me, I’ve got really mixed feelings about going to a fuckin’ sports arena where the last decent thing that happened there was an ice-hockey game, and trying to play songs that were written in the mid-Sixties and Seventies. What’s it all about? Why do people need it? What’s the reason?
You have to kind of get philosophical about it. You have to get prosaic about it. You have to say, “It’s about abstracts. It’s about music.” It’s about, “Will this be about more than just one night for the people that come?” And you hope that it will. You know that it’s about more than just buying a ticket.
I remember when we performed in 1989. It was an anniversary tour. We played a big gig at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I think the tickets were $150, which in 1989 was just insanely expensive. But the parking was $85! Some of the people that were coming were driving 500 fuckin’ miles.
The whole thing about this is that it has to be more than just one night. It has to be something that adds up to something which touches your heart in some way. I just hope that when people do go and see artists perform, they get something a little bit more than just an ear-bashing.
I really think they do. I have very fond memories of seeing you play for the first time. It was a Who concert in Cleveland in 2000. It was meaningful for me on a very deep level. I think that’s true for a lot of people.
[Soft and sincere] Well, I’m glad. That’s fantastic. I’m really glad to hear it.