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The Laird of Enfield

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The Who on a new album, ageing and artistic differences
« on: September 14, 2019, 01:18:21 PM »
Interview in the Times.

As they announce Who, their best album in decades, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend tell Will Hodgkinson how staying at arm’s length has kept the band together

Rock’n’roll taught a generation how to be young. It taught them how to grow up (a bit). But it hasn’t taught them how to grow old. The Rolling Stones are carrying on as though not much has changed since the early 1970s, the Beach Boys are surfing an endless summer wave, and no band has addressed what happens when you hoped you’d die before you got old, but you didn’t, and now you are. Until now.

Are we, as old people, allowed to play rock’n’roll, asks Pete Townshend, 74, from a basement room of the Sloane Club in Chelsea, west London, not far from the street where in 1965 his vintage hearse was towed away at the behest of the Queen Mother. She objected to its morbid presence, inspiring Townshend to write My Generation. Are we allowed to hang on to our legacy — is it even ours, is it our audience’s — can we still be angry? Can we be part of the activism on the streets and comment on the political subjects surrounding it? This is not an album about growing old. It is about being old.

The Who last put an album out in 2006. In the time since they have essentially been a stadium touring outfit, staging large-scale productions of Townshend’s rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia and giving everyone the chance to sing along to Baba O’Riley, Love, Reign o’er Me and other epics written 40 years previously. It turns out that the experience of playing those songs over and over was having a profoundly damaging effect on the man who wrote them.

“I did one concert of Tommy with Roger in 2017 at the Royal Albert Hall, and practically had a nervous breakdown,” says Townshend. “I got halfway through Cousin Kevin and Fiddle About and had to leave the building.”

Townshend went through a horrific ordeal in 2003 when he was falsely accused of accessing child pornography, but it was deeper memories that were stirred by Tommy’s darkest songs. When he was five, Townshend was sent to live with a disturbed grandmother who would spank him, withhold food and threaten him with gypsy curses. A few years later he was sexually abused by two Sea Scoutmasters. It all fed into Tommy.

“One of the people I talked to most about this stuff had been abducted by a predatory paedophile when he was six. He was kept for six weeks before being returned to his parents, totally brutalised,” Townshend explains. “At the Albert Hall he was right there, sitting next to the stage. After that I said to our manager, Bill Curbishley, ‘I’m not doing Tommy again. If I can write songs and record them this summer, then we can talk about touring.’”

Since then Townshend has come up with an album, simply titled Who, which is not only their best since Who By Numbers in 1975, but also a powerful attempt to make sense of life near the other end of the journey. It begins with All This Music Will Fade, which, with an opening melody borrowed from their early single The Kids Are Alright, is a blast of passion about the impermanence of things that also reflects the band’s 55-year legacy.

An incredibly powerful, blues-tinged epic called Ball and Chain is a protest at the continued use of torture at Guantanamo Bay, which shimmers with the same resonance as the classic Baba O’Riley. I’ll Be Back, one of the most tender and moving pieces Townshend has written, is a love song about death and reincarnation, although as the guitarist puts it: “The title is a threat as much as a promise.” Then there is Detour. It sounds like an upbeat, stomping R’n’B tune in the style of the early Who — the title refers to the band’s former name — but is actually a Me Too anthem.

“If men of my generation are lucky enough to be alive, they’d better change quick or they’ll keep putting their foot in it,” says Townshend on Detour. “Men have to retrospectively pray for forgiveness because they’ve been thinking the wrong way,” he explains. “I read an estimate once that it is doubtful there is a single East German woman of my age who hasn’t been raped because the Russian army raped everybody — under instruction. By contrast, I look at the relationship with my wife, Rachel. She’s younger than me, I earn more money than her, but she’s creative and smart and we’re equal. I have never been allowed to raise my voice to her, ever!”

The challenge Townshend faced, in writing an album that elsewhere revives the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire on Street Song and looks at the limits of free speech on Rocking in Rage, was to get Roger Daltrey on board, not least because the two surviving members of the Who have always been an unlikely alliance. “I’m a Remainer, he’s a Brexiteer. I believe in God, he doesn’t,” Townshend told me earlier this year. One also has middle-class roots while the other is staunchly working class, one is teetotal while the other likes a drink, and they have worked out an excellent way of getting on in a convivial fashion — not seeing each other at all.

“What do you need to see each other for? F*** that. I know what he looks like,” says Daltrey when I express surprise that not only do he and Townshend have separate areas backstage at concerts, they also recorded the album in separate studios. “We understand that what we create together is so much greater than what we create individually, and there is something about the way I take the songs he’s written and emote them that makes people feel, but it takes me ages to get the sound and balance I want in the studio, to relax enough to do my job, and I need space to do that. I’m also extremely deaf, especially in the John Entwistle

Townshend and Daltrey also do interviews separately. I’m speaking to the latter in the bar of Durrants Hotel in Marylebone, the day after meeting his bandmate a couple of miles down the road. Daltrey, 75, says he balked initially at singing an album of Townshend songs about death, reincarnation, torture and women’s rights.

“When I first heard the demos I said, ‘The songs are fantastic, but it is a Pete Townshend solo album,’” he says. “And it was like I had just insulted his children. You make one little comment, but artists are like that. What I realised is that this was a big, necessary album for Pete. He hates to be thought of as yesterday’s writer. And when you listen to this album he’s quite obviously not.”

Townshend says of making the album: “Last year Roger was doing the Tommy orchestral tour, he had his biography coming out, he had a bad throat infection and he blanked me out of his world. In September I delivered 15 songs to Roger and I remember saying to Rachel, ‘It’s not that I’m worried he won’t like these songs. I’m worried he won’t even listen to them.’” The album has its roots in a long-gestating novel called The Age of Anxiety, to be published in November.

Townshend and Daltrey did manage to have a meeting, four days before Christmas, only for Townshend to get angry and storm out when Daltrey mentioned only one song. The guitarist says: “I realise now that he was feeling uncertain and vulnerable, and worried that his hearing was going. At the time I just thought he was being a bit of a c***.”

Townshend and Daltrey’s issues go back to the beginning of the Who. The Detours started in 1959 as Daltrey’s band, which he ran between shifts at a sheet metal factory. Once Townshend joined, and early manager Pete Meaden aligned the fledgling group to the mod movement, it was no longer the straightforward rock’n’roll group the singer envisioned, but something far more eccentric and compelling. It was coming out of Townshend’s complex mind.

“I grew up with Roger the bully,” says Townshend, who alongside Entwistle went to Acton County Grammar School with Daltrey. “And what happened with Roger the bully is that in 1965 we sacked him. When he came back, there was no more punching people or threatening them with violence. Now Roger will say he acted that way because he was small, but what actually manifested was a rage-driven, vengeful, competitive side. What the Who then did, which the Beatles didn’t do, which the Rolling Stones didn’t do, was join the dots. You’ve got a male-dominated, macho, disaffected form of rebellion, which is rock’n’roll, and we joined the dots to vulnerability, to fragility. It meant a young man could listen to Quadrophenia and think, ‘This is me.’”

Townshend has also been grappling with spiritual themes since discovering the Indian guru Meher Baba, whose beliefs he still subscribes to.

“He was an unimpeachable man who won’t be exposed as someone who stashed away millions of pounds, bought loads of Rolls-Royces, and shagged loads of girls,” says Townshend, sounding as though he has been watching Wild Wild Country, the hit Netflix documentary on the once hugely popular cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “It is no coincidence that I began to follow Meher Baba in 1967 and my next big project was Tommy. It was my Siddhartha, my Idries Shah-style attempt to tell a spiritual allegory — with pinball. And Roger rose to the challenge. I arrived to the studio one day to hear him sing, “See me, feel me” [from We’re Not Gonna Take It] in that frail falsetto and thought, ‘Wow. Now Tommy can do it all.’”

Meanwhile, Daltrey was becoming the golden-haired rock god of early Seventies legend, Entwistle was developing a reputation as the unflappable bassist with a sardonic, somewhat cruel wit, and Keith Moon was becoming enshrined in legend as the wild man to whom all other wild men must aspire.

“Keith could have us on the floor, crying with laughter, but he could be a nightmare,” says Daltrey of his former drummer, whose antics included blowing up hotel toilets, dressing up as a Nazi, and driving around English villages to deliver bogus public service announcements, such as news of an incoming tidal wave. “We’re trying to get a Keith Moon biopic off the ground, and it’s hard because when you read about some of the things he got up to they sound horrible. It was his personality that made them work.”

Moon’s death in 1978 marked a turning point for the Who. They resolved to continue, but never again reached the heights of Tommy, Quadrophenia or Who’s Next, the 1971 album that came out of Townshend’s ideas for a third, aborted rock opera, Lifehouse.

“The tragedy of the Who is that I f***ed it up,” says Townshend, frowning darkly. “I ruined it by overthinking. Keith died and I thought, ‘Should we go on?’ We made a couple of albums that I thought were going down a slope, so in 1982 I left. I didn’t have faith in us as a band. I didn’t have faith in myself. The legacy is broken as a result.”

“It wasn’t Pete’s fault,” Daltrey counters. “We screwed up because we were in shock when Keith died and we tried to continue as quickly as possible. We should have experimented more, tried out loads of different drummers, but instead we got [former Faces drummer] Kenney Jones and he was the wrong choice. And then from 1982 to 1989, just when we were young and glamorous, we didn’t tour. We went off course.”

When Entwistle died in a hotel room in Nevada in 2002, the day before the Who were to begin their tour of the US, there was no question of cancelling. “When you’re in a stadium band everyone from the musicians to the car parking attendants are depending on you,” says Daltrey. “He was the bassist, he didn’t write the songs or sing, and we had a responsibility. Today, touring is the only way we make money. I won’t make anything from this record. Pete might make some from the publishing. I’m a wealthy man, but I’m not a mega-rich rock star like Elton John or these younger bands like Coldplay. I have to work for a living.”

He also has to look after himself. Singing is a strenuous physical activity and eight years ago Daltrey almost lost his voice entirely, the product of singing for decades over one of the world’s loudest groups and rarely hearing himself in the process. “I went for a check-up and my vocal cords looked like the Grand Canyon,” he says, breaking into a laugh. “There were things growing on them. It was horrible because all I’ve ever wanted to be is a singer. I had an operation and I couldn’t talk for three weeks, but now I’m hitting notes I couldn’t hit in years.”

Against all odds, the Who have endured. Townshend has come up with some of the most radical ideas in the history of rock, Daltrey has been the unlikely conduit for those ideas, and the Who could not survive without both of them on board.

“I had to write material that Roger could respond to and be challenged by,” Townshend says of the new album, although he could be talking about the history of the Who. “I know it wasn’t easy for him to get inside these songs because there is a lot of me in them, a lot of my needs in there. But eventually I got an email with a recording attached that was blindingly good, so I emailed back to say, ‘You’ve f***ing nailed it.’ He was pleased about that. We have a way of working that means we can stay away from each other.”

“How do I feel about the Who?” Daltrey asks before heading off for a final bit of clothes shopping in preparation for the band’s latest jaunt around America. “I don’t feel anything. It is part of my life, it cannot be taken away, we’ll go on for as long as we can do it well. Then you listen to Townshend play guitar and say, ‘Where the f*** did that come from?’ Sometimes he fails miserably, but he dares to fail.”

In a tone of respect, perhaps even love, Daltrey gives his summation of the man who has shaped the course of his life more than any other, who he now appears to go to great lengths to avoid so that the two of them can get on perfectly well and therefore keep the Who alive.

“Townshend is one of the true originals. That’s what makes him great.”

Ball and Chain is released on September 14. Who is released on November 22 and the band will tour the UK in spring;


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Re: The Who on a new album, ageing and artistic differences
« Reply #1 on: September 14, 2019, 05:00:45 PM »
Very interesting, Laird, thanks for sharing.