- 07 Feb 20
On this day 51 years ago, The Who recorded ‘Pinball Wizard’ at Morgan Studios in London, for their classic album Tommy. To celebrate, we’re rewinding it back to to 1993, when Hot Press's Liam Fay got up close and personal with Pete Townshend.
I know so little about art that I don't even know what I like, but, as is the case with most people, I pride myself on being able to smell pretension a mile off.
Pete Townshend stinks of the stuff, and always has. As primary architect of The Who, he preferred to describe most of the band's LP releases as "concepts" rather than mere albums. Later, in 1968, he treated the world to the first ever "rock opera" in the shape of Tommy and, later still, his solo career became synonymous with the creation of "song-cycles" like 1989's The Iron Man.
Along the way, of course, he's made some great, occasionally even sensational, music but too much of his work has been sunk by the ponderous weight of his high art affectations. He set out to broaden the boundaries of rock but ended up bequeathing only new terms of musical abuse.
Townshend himself insists, however, that he wouldn't have it any other way. "I've never had a problem with people calling me pretentious," he says. "I don't regard it as an insult. I had my moment of courageous pretentiousness jumping in with Tommy. That felt pretentious at the time but I still felt I had to do it. So if being pretentious is what I have to do, that's fine by me."
Pete Townshend has never been comfortable with rock stardom and only sporadically comfortable with rock music. The 1975 album, The Who By Numbers, for example, was a savage attack on his own celebrity and status as youth hero. Throughout his career, Townshend has been on a constant search for new and more "mature" contexts in which he can say what he has to say. But now that middle age has arrived (he turned 48 last May) that search has become even more intense.
Alone among the rest of that generation that didn't die before it got old, Pete Townshend believes that he's a man with a mission.
"There are a few people from the old guard left and everybody's watching," he smirks. "The way I see it, David Bowie's got a shock of blond hair, Mick Jagger's got a flat tummy, Ray Davies is neurotic and I've got a brain. We've all got to use whatever we've been left with."
All of which explains the background to why, today, I'm sitting in a theatre in London's plush Mayfair Hotel amid a raft of music journalists from throughout Europe who are all getting quietly monstered on Buck's Fizz while listening to Pete Townshend unveil his latest project, Psychoderelict. This one, Pete tells us, coining yet another musical sub-genre tag, is "an album in the form of a radio play."
Up close, the first thing you notice about Townshend is how ravaged he looks. These days, he may be all cleaned up but the years of fearsome battle with booze, smack and pills have indelibly etched their legacy on his already craggy features.
That infamous beak is no longer the most striking architectural construct on the Townshend visage now that deep, dark pools have been sunk beneath his eyes and his cheeks have sorta collapsed down around his jawline. In the harsh stage lighting, his complexion is also eye-catchingly distraught, his forehead, in particular, speckled with blotches the colour of a raw steak and the texture of a fried one.
The second thing you notice about being up close to Pete Townshend, however, is how relaxed, confident and even happy he appears. Here he is, a notoriously insecure artist who feels that he's been grievously mistreated by the media, preparing to reveal the contents of his new "album in the form of a radio play" in front of a hundred odd rock hacks, many of whom have been dancing on the grave of his solo career for over a decade, and he's casually chatting with some of them and cracking jokes, even at his own expense.
Townshend is clearly a more contented person now that he's managed to kick his various addictions and patch up his relationship with Karen, his wife of twenty-five years. During the past two decades, he says, he's been hooked on about a half dozen different substances, but primarily alcohol and (briefly) heroin.
He insists that he's straight as a die now and that he even monitors his coffee intake. Four years ago, he adds, he decided to "do a John Lennon." He and Karen opted to have another child and Pete became a full-time house spouse who just wanted to watch the wheels go 'round.
Creatively though, the real boost to Townshend's confidence has been the phenomenal success which the U.S. revival of Tommy is currently enjoying. In the summer of '92, the production opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in California for a limited run and then transferred to Broadway where it became a box-office smash. This spring, Tommy received five coveted Tony awards including one for Townshend himself for Best Original Music Score.
His Psychoderelict project, however, came about as a result of an accident, literally. By the summer of '91, he had recorded a whole batch of new songs and had delivered an entire album to his record company. But, then on Friday, September 13th, he was cycling near his holiday home on the Isle of Wight when he fell from his bike and shattered his right wrist into a dozen fragments.
"I think if they'd invented a nylon wrist joint I'd be wearing one because my wrist is very, very bad," explains Townshend. "For a long time, I thought I'd never be able to play the guitar again. I didn't think I'd be able to type. One doctor even said that I might have difficulty writing, even holding a pen. But gradually with the help of a lot of physical therapy and a lot of perseverance my wrist began to get better.
"I've been extraordinarily lucky with some of my bad luck," he adds. "The accident meant that I had another year of being housebound. It gave me time to take stock, to clear my desk, to sort out my direction. I didn't feel entirely confident about the album I'd done. They're very simple songs, not what I'd call great songs and I felt they needed something more. It became a process of rediscovery for me and I went at the project like it was the last thing I would ever do, which if my wrist hadn't healed up it would've been."
The "something more" which Townshend eventually decided his songs needed was a "story structure with dialogue" and it's this that transforms Psychoderelict from a mere album into an "album in the form of a radio play." The storyline centres around the relationships between an ageing, drink-sodden rock has-been called Ray High, his corrupt manager, Rastus Knight, and a young superbitch journo, Ruth Streeting. Townshend insists that all these characters are based on composites of himself and others that he's encountered during his career, but adds that the plot itself is meant to be less important than the cautionary messages contained therein.
"Psychoderelict is about honesty in relationships," he proclaims. "And the societal equivalent of that which is honesty in newspapers and in what is handed down to us as fact. But what I think Psychoderelict really is, is a warning. I'm saying watch out: we've been down this pathway before. There was a revolution in the seventies. It was driven by psychedelic drugs. It changed society and a lot of those changes were fun and a lot of them have been quite lasting. But most of them were really, really quite horrible.
"It produced wonderful music for a short time, certainly. But in the end it produced this undermining of what I believe was great about early rock 'n' roll. The fact that it gave people who were inarticulate and frustrated and who felt lost and isolated, it gave them a voice. And I'm asking is the character Ray right to long for that revolution and to want it back. I don't long for it or want it back."
Pete Townshend has always fancied himself as a literary sort. A conspicuous dropper of authors' names in interviews, he subtitled his 1985 solo album, White City, 'A Novel'. A little later, he actually published a collection of fiction pieces entitled Horse's Neck (a book so universally trounced that it had more than one critic likening Townshend's own neck to the contents of a jockey's jockstrap for his audacity in having it published at all) and he was offered a position as commissioning editor with Faber and Faber, an occupation he continues to pursue to this day.
On the basis of Psychoderelict, however, Pete Townshend is no playwright. The dialogue is clumsy, often downright silly, and the overgrowth of "themes" and "messages" completely chokes any sense of clarity. What is interesting about the project is that it reveals a great deal about Townshend's own feelings about how treacherous 60's and 70's rock 'n' roll ultimately proved to be. In his eyes (and ears), the music betrayed not only those who made it and became entrapped by it but also those who listened to it and believed in it.
"We had a dream, a creative vision that somehow got lost in the sequins and nonsense and glitter of the '70s," he avers. "It was a dream that was rooted in the '60s, a good dream, a good idea, a good take, a good feeling about what rock 'n' roll was gonna do, what young people were gonna do in that first flush of excitement. But that was somehow forgotten in the '70s.
"You only get one opportunity to do something for the first time and somehow we blew it, not just me, not just The Who but all of us. We blew it, I don't know how. When I look back at the '60s and '70s, I see how vital and necessary punk was. If it hadn't have come along we wouldn't have any rock 'n' roll today, I'm convinced of it."
'English Boy', the current single and one of the better songs on Psychoderelict is Townshend's clearest expression yet of this sense of failure but it's also a song that seethes with rage at another of Pete's old hobby-horses, the British class system. It's not that he's trying to pass himself off as an Angry Middle-Aged Man, he insists, it's just that he's not very impressed by Brit rock's current generation of Angry Young Men.
"We have Public Enemy come to the U.K. and do very, very well, and Ice T and people like that, but what we don't have at the moment is a rock 'n' roll voice that is loud enough to protest about this," he states. "A voice to protest about how boys, young boys, are put up on soap-boxes so that the establishment can say 'There you are, that's what's wrong with society, these boys with their woolly hats and their habit of causing trouble on the terraces or nicking cars - that's what's wrong with society'.
"It's society that's wrong with society. The boys are just a product of it. But this kind of scapegoating goes on all the time and it doesn't just offend me, it makes me unbelievably angry because I know that if there's a war next week all these 'scum' will be trawled up and packed off to Iraq to be blown to pieces.
"What was so great about the generation I was brought up in, why we were so lucky, was that we were the first people to loudly protest and they had to listen. But they've stopped listening now."
And then, there's Pete's nose. Townshend's unhappiness with his physical appearance was one of his earliest motors for rock 'n' roll revolt. In 1968, he told Rolling Stone: "When I was in school the geezers that were snappy dressers and got chicks, like years before I ever even thought they existed, would always like to talk about my nose. This seemed to be the biggest thing in my life, my nose. It was huge. At that time, it was the reason I did everything. It was the reason I played the guitar - because of my nose."
Reading between the lines in Psychoderelict, it seems that all these years (not to mention wrinkles, eye-bags and liver spots) later, Pete Townshend is still sensitive to shouts of 'Hey, schnozzle snout'. At one point, he has alter ego, Ray High, complain bitterly to his manager about the fact that journalist, Ruth Streeting, had described him in print as 'ugly'. This has led some to suggest that Streeting is actually based on Townshend's old nemesis, Julie Burchill, a woman who devoted a lot of space in the NME during the punk wars to pointing out that Pete has, well, a profile like an Austrian ski slope.
Townshend denies that this is so but doesn't seem particularly amused by the question.
"I have no difficulty with Julie, certainly not now," he says. "The thing that Julie did that did really hurt me a bit was that when she became a book reviewer and she reviewed a couple of the books that I'd commissioned for Faber, she reviewed me as the editor rather than the book as the book which seemed a bit of a waste of space. But no, (icy grin) in all other respects she's entitled to her opinion."
As the Buck's Fizz starts to run dry in the Mayfair Hotel so too do the assembled hacks' earnest questions about the (ahem) layers of meaning reposing beneath the surface of Psychoderelict. People start to ask instead about when we can expect to see The Who's next final tour.
"I haven't really considered any Who projects for a long time," states Townshend emphatically. "I have a lot of conversations with Roger Daltrey about what he and I might do together but I'm not really interested in The Who very much. I'm interested in its history and I'm glad of it but I don't see a future for it."
By all accounts, the 1989 reunion world tour was not a happy experience, especially for Townshend who says he hated the whole sense of circus that went with it.
"It wasn't really my idea in the first place and it grew and grew and became something far too big," he explains. "I thought it was remarkable that when the three of us got back together, very controlled, mature, grown up, aware that The Who was finished and that we were merely celebrating past glories, we still went straight back on that big rock 'n' roll stadium wheel which is what really destroyed us in the first place. I thought it was remarkable that we should allow that to happen. We didn't play one small theatre. There was no intimacy, no real rock 'n' roll. It was pointless."
Right now, Townshend is putting the finishing touches to a much smaller, more intimate rock show with which he plans to tour Europe later this year. Psychoderelict (complete with actors) will form its core but the performance will be topped and tailed with material from the rest of his solo canon. Onstage, the plan is that the performers will be enshrouded in a series of back and front projections featuring "psychedelic images brought up into the present day."
He's really looking forward to this tour, he says, particularly now that his fabled hearing difficulties have cleared up and that his wrist has healed to a point where he promises he may even essay the occasional but "tentative" windmill.
"The Who was always an ideas band, an image band, rather than a music band. As a writer, I was always serving a project rather than the group. That's how I still like to work," Townshend expounds, winding up today's presentation as I get another whiff of that pungent old pretension.
Someone reminds him that MTV are hoping for a brief interview. "Fuck MTV!," he shouts, with a smirk on his face. "Un-fucking-plugged! If I hadn't fallen off my bike they were gonna ask me to do Unplugged and not Eric, but I dunno if I could've managed to do that quietly masterful Bossa Nova version of 'Layla!"
Pete Townsend heads off to deliver his MTV soundbite but before he disappears a woman from one of the tabloids raises the biggest laugh of the day by posing a question about the psychoderelict's mother. For those who missed the headlines, Mrs. Townshend Snr., who is now pushing seventy, recently shocked her friends and family by announcing plans to wed her Argentinian toy boy who is only in his twenties.
"How about reforming The Who with your mum on drums?" asks the female journalist.
"It's a thought," chuckles Pete Townshend. "When people used to wonder how I managed to get on with the eccentrics in my life like Keith Moon and Kit Lambert I used to say, ‘Go meet my mother'. She was really valuable to me in hardening me up for the crazy world I live in. But I don't think she could replace Keith Moon, however young she thinks she is."
Listen to ‘Pinball Wizard’ below: