Pete Townshend Writes, Performs Song for 'The Americans' (Exclusive Q&A)

Pete Townshend

For the first time, the Who leader has written a song for television. "It Must Be Done" will appear on the April 30 episode of the FX show

Pete Townshend has written his first original song for a television show, composing and performing "It Must Be Done" for FX's "The Americans" with the show's composer Nathan Barr. It will appear in the episode airing April 30.

Prior to "The Americans" airing, two different versions of Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" will open and close the season opener of Showtime's "Californication" on April 13. A re-mix from L.A. producer Philip Stier will open the show and the original version from 1980 will close the episode.

The two versions will appear on a "Californication" soundtrack EP that Townshend's publisher, Spirit Music Group, will release with Tunecore. Four of the songs will be covers of rock classics by emerging artists that will appear in season seven.

Spirit, which took over Townshend's publishing catalogs as a solo artist and the Who in 2012 and works on his current projects, had spent the last year exploring ways for him to get involved in visual projects. Spirit's president Mark Fried and Pete Shane, Spirit's senior vp creative, reached out to music supervisor PJ Bloom, who said "The Americans" was a proper fit as the showrunners had been looking to bring in a rock ‘n' roll icon.

The song, about three minute long, appears in a scene for which it was not written. Townshend and Barr initially had the music playing under a scene involving a car being shadowed, which did not fit after the scene was edited. It was moved to a scene that is being described as "sex and murder." 

"It's really striking," Townshend said of the placement.

"Pete is not just pushing his own brand -- he's doing something great and giving it to the public," says Spirit's Fried. "The (new song) is a wonderful addition to the canon."

Speaking from his studio in Richmond, England, Townshend shared his thoughts about the new song.

You spent a couple of months exchanging musical ideas before the song emerged. What was the starting point for you and Nathan?
What I was struck by was that Nate composes on the cello, an instrument my partner and orchestrator Rachel (Fuller) uses, so I have listened to a lot of cello music and I have really fallen in love with it.  We exchanged ideas (between England and Los Angeles) and I was immediately struck by this very evocative piece he had written, very plaintive. I added some guitar, then came up with some lyrics.

Obviously you have collaborated with film and theater projects, not to mention the Who, but how does working this way stand out?
It's almost like jazz. I'm responding to something he wrote, he's responding to something I write, almost like live music. I was surprised by the intimacy.You're so focused on what is essential – there are no breaks for cups of coffee – ad what seems like it should be impersonal and cold is quite the opposite.

What elements of the show did you want to incorporate into the song?
I wanted to keep it very simple. Here's this couple whose whole life is about duty, duty without honor, duty without explanation. There are no accolades.They're not living a lie but doing things they find hard to do. Everybody has a part of their life that's difficult to explain. For me it's why the fuck am I in the Who?

When it comes to licensing your music for shows such as "Californication," what makes you say yes to offers.
Long before I got into the matter of commercial publishing, it was obvious that I was someone who had spent his life writing these anthems and that they could help me pay for dangerously artistic things -- I wouldn't have spend my time touring constantly. In the early 1970s, I was one of the first to license for commercials and Roger Daltrey was perturbed by it. He wasn't angered by the license, but by licensing without tying the song to the master. Our music, the Who's records, were not being heard. I think I overreacted and for four or five years I stopped licensing songs. Then the Who's music went off the map. This was in the ‘80s -- '83, '84 -- it wasn't even on the radio. After awhile I thought let me try this again and I started licensing music and it has created an incredible interest in our work.

So much of it is through television. How would you compare it to film?
One thing I didn't get was how a handful of songs could get used a number of times and still don't feel overused. The music supervisor is dealing with the familiarity of the song. That's what's essential. It's not that it adds to storyline or the character, it's doing something for the setting. You hear so many great new songs on television. It's really quite amazing to hear a new song, a plaintive acoustic song that adds pathos and reflection to a scene. I believe, and I don't want to make too much out of it, it's why so many people want to work in TV. It's so much more exciting, so much freer than film. The music supervisors do their work weekly, living with new music and old music and they turn into musicologists. When Rachel went to L.A. she became friendly with (former head of music at Disney and Universal Pictures) Kathy Nelson who, when it comes to choosing a song, she just nailed it over and over. She listened to so much music. Music supervisors are the most passionate music fans. The only person I know who wants to hear as much as possible is Elton John. He's obsessive. He keeps at it and is able to talk about new music and who's in which band, a bit like a football fan.