Exclusive: Townshend On Revisiting 'Who's Next'
"I was really proud if it," Pete Townshend says of "Who's Next." "Proud of the way it sounded and also proud of the fact that although it was being perceived as a very straightforward album, I knew thThe exposure Pete Townshend recently received over the police investigation into his accessing of a child pornography site dwarfed all other issues in his life. Under legal advice, he hasn't until now even been able to promote Universal's new deluxe version of "Who's Next." The 1971 album widely considered not only the Who's masterpiece, but one of the greatest rock albums ever made, has for the first time been remastered from original master tapes. It has also been massively expanded, with 35 additional tracks augmenting the original nine.
Unlike standard outtakes and b-sides, these additional cuts are an essential part of the back story of the album. Indeed, "Who's Next" originally started as a much larger project called "Lifehouse." It was a planned concept album that was to have been the appropriately grand follow-up to "Tommy," the so-called "rock opera" that had made the Who superstars in 1969.
Recalls Townshend in an exclusive interview, "We were riding on the back of 'Tommy', a hugely successful concept album, which was actually very dodgy in premise. That had done so well I almost had a carte blanche from everybody around me to do whatever I wanted. In a sense the concept behind 'Lifehouse' was a mechanical device to show how we become disconnected and unaware of the spiritual mechanics that go on in day to day life.
"I had done a similar thing with 'Tommy,'" he continues. "In 'Tommy' I used the device of a child being smitten, deaf, dumb and blind by witnessing a violent trauma. In 'Lifehouse' I used a similar device again: an individual plunged into a life of virtual reality fed by something like the Internet, suspended in a kind of parallel life in virtual animation, experiencing totally phony lifestyles." Into this very ambitious story were also mixed themes of community with audience and the musical resonance of individual human beings, which can be aggregated to produce a "universal chord."
However, Townshend's grand plan began to unravel when he also decided that the idea would encompass a motion picture, in preparation for which he arranged a workshop at London's Young Vic Theatre. Three concerts were arranged there, one of which was recorded. The concerts were intended to be the start of an audience participatory process, whereby the Who's music would change in response to fans' reactions to the songs and the event. "Some of the material is included in this package," says Townshend. "I'd done a lot of going round in the hall talking to people but at the end we just gave up and played a show."
However, that first intimation of the ungainliness of the concept was as nothing compared to the heroin-haze induced chicanery of Who co-manager Kit Lambert. Says Townshend: "Frank Dunlop, who was my writing partner at the time at the Young Vic, was approached by Kit Lambert and told we weren't really working on 'Lifehouse' at all, we were working on 'Tommy'." Dunlop arranged a press conference to clear the resultant confusion up, astonishing Townshend and alarming his Who colleagues, who had never seemed too enamored with 'Lifehouse' in the first place. "It was at that point when the members of the band lost faith in the idea," says Townshend, "because a whole bunch of journalists took people like [frontman] Roger [Daltrey] and [drummer] Keith [Moon] aside and said to them, 'You know Pete's mad. This will never work'."
The project relocated to America in March 1971. "Kit Lambert reached out and said, 'Listen, I'm in New York in the wonderful new Record Plant studios,'" recalls Townshend. "'Why don't you come over and we'll record some of the tracks and maybe we can knock something together?' Then I discovered that he was a six-month heroin addict. We went into the studio. We only did about five days and it was good fun but Kit was very, very uneven."
Some sense of stability finally descended on the project in May, by which point both the film idea and Kit Lambert had fallen by the wayside. Townshend was elated with the next studio chosen to record the "Lifehouse" songs -- Olympic, just outside London -- and the producer, Glyn Johns. "It just sounded so great," recalls Townshend. "It was one of the first records the Who had made that to me sounded good. At that time the studio was at its peak. It was a great big room -- nearly 100-foot-high ceiling. Beautiful Helios desk. Well-run. And Glyn was at his most effective in that room. Also, because we'd done so much rehearsing on the material -- both at the Young Vic and then in New York with Kit -- we went in and we just kind of played it, so it had that immediacy as well."
After recording was finished, the decision was made that "Lifehouse" as a concept was to be abandoned and that the songs Townshend had composed for it would -- in juggled sequence -- be used to put together a conventional album. As that album would be a single disc, it meant jettisoning several songs (some of which appear on the new deluxe version). Asked how he felt about his dream being so discarded, Townshend merely says, "I didn't feel happy or unhappy. I just felt fantastically relieved."
The album would be released as "Who's Next" in August 1971. The set was highlighted by roaring rockers like "Bargain," beautiful love songs like "Love Ain't for Keeping" and the climactic, magnum opus "Won't Get Fooled Again." Of the latter track, a sort of call to arms for apathy, Townshend notes, "Writing a song like 'Won't Get Fooled Again' today would be a very dangerous thing to do. To say, 'Listen, I don't f*cking care. I don't care about what the politicians say, just don't come and talk to me about politics' -- you couldn't write that today."
Despite the epoch-marking nature of "Tommy" -- an album whose intellectual leanings helped change the public perception of rock music from teenage junk to a respectable art form -- "Who's Next" very quickly eclipsed its predecessor in terms of critical kudos. "I learned a valuable lesson," admits Townshend. "I learned that 'Tommy,' with only the best songs taken off it and released, probably would have enjoyed the same success. In other words, we would have got respect as a band that played great music and not necessarily as a band that were [just] great entertainers and were full of great ideas."
"I was really proud if it," he continues. "Proud of the way it sounded and also proud of the fact that although it was being perceived as a very straightforward album, I knew that there was a bit of depth there if you wanted to look. Subsequently, of course I've spent a lot of time trying to encourage people to look more deeply into 'Lifehouse.' It's become a kind of tradition among Who fans to nod their heads to me and say, 'Okay Pete, if you say so, we'll go and have a look'. That has meant a huge amount to me because I put so much energy into it. And I do feel it was a great lost idea."
Townshend reveals that Who fans were for whom he always specifically wrote. "The Who had such an incredibly clear audience brief: our audience was 80% male, they were fantasists, dreamers, they were football hooligans, they were romantic, they were idle pursuers of metaphysical dreamland, they were apolitical -- they were an extraordinary bunch of people," he says.
"Some of them were blue collar but some of them weren't," he continues. "Today I don't get that clear brief. What I get is an incredibly special, wonderful, corny friendship that I have with Roger. After all those years of thinking of him merely as the school bully, I love him so much that tears come into my eyes when I think about him. That friendship I hope will drive something between us that will produce good music but Roger and I as an 'old pals' act don't offer the kind of clear brief to a songwriter that the Who used to."
Last year, the three surviving Who members started work on their first studio album in two decades. Townshend: "We were in rehearsal at my studio in Twickenham and we filmed the whole thing. We ran through one of Roger's songs called 'Certified Rose' and we ran through one of my songs called 'Good Looking Boy.' That was as far as we got because two, three weeks later we were in L.A. waiting to tour and then found that [bassist] John [Entwistle] had died."
Townshend admits the reunion was not going completely smoothly: "We wouldn't have got a balanced Who album at the time anyway without an incredible amount of strategic commitment -- almost political commitment -- to doing an album that was a third my songs, a third Roger's songs and a third John's songs, which to be absolutely brutally frank about this, is not what I would call a Who album."
Did his colleague's death make Townshend regret having declined to make a Who studio album for so many years? "No," he says. "You have to realize that what made me stop making Who albums is very much the same thing that happened to Led Zeppelin. Somebody in the band died. And unlike them, I was very slow to get the message.
"We made another two albums that we probably shouldn't have made," he adds. "'It's Hard' and 'Face Dances' contained really good material for a solo album but they weren't classic Who songs." He cites torment caused by the Cincinnati concert disaster in 1979, which left 11 Who fans dead, as an additional reason for his reluctance in that period. "I didn't want to be seen to be lugging my body 'round the world in the aftermath of the Cincinnati disaster, which I really felt we hadn't dealt with emotionally," he says. "I'm not sure that we have to this day, so it had a massive impact on me.
"I really did believe that it was something to do with Who fans, something to do with the kind of promoters that we were working with, something to do with the way that we were being managed and fundamentally to do with the kind of music that we had started to play in the early '80s, which was kind of post-punk, old guard rock'n'roll, which is that, 'We can do what the f*ck we like' kind of arrogance. I'm not saying we were responsible. I'm not saying that any one faction was responsible. But I was certainly not responsible for handling it properly."
Townshend is considering spending the summer cooking up some backing tracks for he and Daltrey to work on and turn into a new Who album. With half the band now gone, he is ambivalent about crediting said album to the Who but also admits, "He and I on a stage -- whatever we call ourselves -- can't avoid the fact that in some illusionary way we bring down the mysterious mantle of the Who around us. It will always happen. So we might as well call it the Who."
Oddly, at this stage, Townshend says he has no particular desire to make solo albums. But three decades' worth of unresolved ambitions for an unfulfilled dream still occasionally tug at him. Of "Lifehouse," Townshend concludes, "I still feel that if somebody gave me a couple of million dollars, I could do a little workshop which would demonstrate its very simple idea: music can reflect people."