With rehearsals still three or so weeks away, Pete Townshend laughs as he says “I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen” when the Who hits the road in May. “It’s quite exciting.”
Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey and a legion of Who fans have plenty to be excited about this year, of course. The venerable group’s Moving On! Tour of North America, accompanied by a 52-piece orchestra at each stop, kicks off May 7 in Grand Rapids, Mich., with separate spring and late summer/early fall legs. A new album, the Who’s first since 2006, is also in motion, and lest we forget it’s the 50th anniversary of the landmark rock opera Tommy and the group’s equally historic appearance at the first Woodstock festival.
“We’ve got a busy year ahead, but it’s a lot of fun,” Townshend tells Billboard. “It’s all play. The studio stuff and the music stuff, that’s what I love to do. I’m kind of tickled by what we’ve taken on here. We shall see what happens.”
As Magic Bus double-decker buses cruise around New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to promote the tour, here’s how Townshend broke down all things Who during a long conversation from his home studio in London.
After starting a Who sabbatical back in Oct. 2017, Townshend’s pre-condition for a tour was “only if we had a new album out.” That put into motion a chain of events that led to him writing new music concurrently with a tour being negotiated with Live Nation, and waiting to hear back from Daltrey. “It was all a bit whirlwind,” the guitarist reports, and it wound up cutting quite close to the last minute.
“The (tour) contract was signed literally just before Christmas, and the album (contract) was signed just after Christmas,” Townshend says of the album, which will be released on Polydor in the U.K. and Interscope in the U.S. “Roger hadn’t had a chance to listen (to the new songs) properly because he had an ear infection, so it was holding, holding, holding, holding. I really didn’t think we were going to be able to do the tour or make the album, to be honest. We went up to the wire, and it was a bit tense for awhile.”
Townshend spent from May to August working on 15 tracks for the set, some new and some “rescued from ancient history.” With the instrumental tracks currently being recorded, Townshend describes it as “a mixture of stuff…some songs which cater for the part of the Who audience that have a preconception about what is a Who track but are also willing to take some chances.” He makes use of spoken passages (“Not rap,” Townshend notes), and the songs include a sea chanty and tracks about the Syrian refugee crisis (“Twice Refugees”), homelessness and an old girlfriend. “I’ve written all kinds of bits and pieces — as always, my approach has been a bit scattergun,” says Townshend, adding there’s been discussion about potential guests and producers for the set. “It’s a pretty wide range of stuff. Some of it’s pseudo-operatic, some of it’s electronica. There’s a few ballads. I’ve got quite a lot of extreme sample stuff. I don’t think Who fans, people who like Who music, will be overly surprised.
“Quite a few people that heard my demos said, ‘What’s great about these demos, Pete, is they do sound like you but they also sound new,’ so hopefully that’s what we’ll achieve.”
And Townshend, who played on Daltrey’s 2018 solo album, As Long As I Have You, adds that, “I wrote songs that I hoped Roger would love — that was really the only prerequisite. I just tried to write songs I thought he could get inside and that would interest him and intrigue him and challenge him. Until those songs were written and demoed and I got them to Roger, we did not have a tour.”
Townshend acknowledges that the Moving On! Tour format was inspired by Daltrey’s orchestral performances of Tommy during 2018, and by a desire to do something different than the past few Who tours. “If we were just doing what we did on the last tour there wouldn’t be any point,” he notes. “We’re really challenging ourselves with this thing. I think this is going to be dangerous.” And he gives credit to Daltrey for making a rock band-orchestra pairing more palatable.
“My experience is it’s very difficult to work with a proper symphony orchestra when you’ve got drums,” Townshend explains. “That’s the only reservation I’ve ever had. Apparently when Roger did his tour they overcame that; I’ve read lots of good reviews and the response was very good.” This time out, however, Townshend will be “leaving my Marshall stacks at home,” while longtime Who touring drummer Zak Starkey will be using electronic drums to contain his levels.
There was some consideration about doing Tommy in its entirety because of the anniversary, but Townshend is expecting more of a “tri-parted show” that will feature “a short version of Tommy, a short version of Quadrophenia, a few new things and then closing with a few classics” — though he says that approach could change by the time rehearsals being in April. Townshend also hopes to include some “not so well” songs, and he’s already “throwing around ideas” with Keith Levenson, who worked on Daltrey’s tour and also in the first touring company of the Tony Award-winning The Who’s Tommy stage musical.
SEE ME, FEEL ME
Presenting Tommy in its entirety does not seem like an option for Townshend anymore, anyway. He reveals that the last time he played the piece, during the 2017 Teenage Cancer Trust benefit concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Townshend suffered “a mental crash” about halfway through the show.
“I had a flashback to childhood abuse,” Townshend recalls. “The second night was OK, but the first night I nearly walked off the stage…which would have been awful. I wasn’t playing very well and I was feeling dizzy. I almost blacked out and it was just horrible. I don’t know where it came from because I’ve been working with Tommy. I’ve been investigating it — where it comes from in my life and childhood, writing about it in my biography. So it was quite a shock.
“I decided that I really never wanted to play it ever again, or indeed ever talk about it. It’s one of the reasons I decided to take this sabbatical year; I really felt I needed to let my brain and my heart and my past have a rest.”
Moving forward, Townshend says, he plans to avoid “more aggressive” Tommy songs such as “The Acid Queen,” “Cousin Kevin” and “Uncle Ernie” “because I was getting so deeply and profoundly triggered by them.” And Daltrey has checked off on that. “He was very kind about it; He said, ‘We’ll just do the songs that you can do.'”
Townshend does, however, consider himself “sort of the holder of the keys with Tommy,” and he says that in this anniversary year he’s “been looking at stuff like movies, NBC TV specials, events at Radio City and one-man shows where I talk about it.”
NOT GOING BACK TO THE GARDEN
Still feeling 50 years later like Woodstock “was just completely nuts,” Townshend and Daltrey have no plans to take part in any of the anniversary celebrations going on during mid-August. “Unfortunately the dates are wrong for us,” says Townshend, adding that, “I don’t know that the Who should be there…or any of the people who played there first should be there. If John Sebastian were there and maybe Richie Havens was still alive and did it — very, very lovely people who we were kind of connected to. Sly isn’t working. Santana could do it. It just wouldn’t be the same.”
Townshend remains “grateful” that Woodstock “actually did cement our career in America, especially when the film came out.” But he feels like the original spirit would be captured better by another generation.
“What they need to do with Woodstock is to do it again properly,” he explains. “Young people in America, I think, are…starting to feel like they have their hands on some power, and I think that was how everybody felt in America the time of the first Woodstock. But now you have South By Southwest, and there’s Coachella, so this stuff is already there, and it’s already happening. But what they can’t do with Woodstock again is…it can’t be the first big festival that kind of gets out of control. That’s what was so exciting about Woodstock was it was nuts, just chaos.”
GUITAR AND PEN
Townshend — whose Who I Am: A Memoir came out in 2012 — says he hasn’t read Daltrey’s new autobiography, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite: My Story. “We both have our own journey,” Townshend says. “I know who he is and who he thinks, and I know how different we are. He will tell his story and have a completely different view of it to me in many ways. And I can’t think of anything more boring than reading a book about the Who. I don’t read anybody else’s book about the Who, either.”
Townshend does note that some people “have said to me that (Daltrey’s) writing about the early years is really fascinating, so I may give that a go.” And, he adds, “a few people have said to me ‘Roger should read your book because you’re so nice to him.’ But it’s not all nice.”
WHO ARE YOU?
After drummer Keith Moon’s death in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle’s in 2002, Townshend says he and Daltrey “often feel like half a band.” And the guitarist misses the dynamic the original Who had at its peak.
“What unified the sound of the album was going into the studio with Keith, John and Pete playing together; That had a sound and dynamic to it which knitted everything together,” Townshend says. “We haven’t had that for a long time, so it’s one of the reasons we haven’t made records. We don’t have a band that we can just drag into a studio and jam. There isn’t that moment when we all get together, the four of us, and we walk into a studio and go 1-2-3-4, right, we’re doing tracks.”
As such, according to Townshend, “Roger and I are both aware we have a brand now which is bigger than both of us… which you could take into Vegas if you want to. When we get together underneath that banner we are conferred with a magical sprinkling of historical stardust that attracts an audience that is not just old fans. It’s curious young people. It’s people who are interested in our legacy where we fit into history.”
But Townshend is also quick to note that, “I’m not saying this is the end of anything,” and that Moving On! is not intended as a farewell tour. “Roger has said he doesn’t know how much longer he can sing the way he’s been singing, and he’s been singing incredibly well the last five, six years — better than ever,” Townshend says. “Maybe doing this orchestra style tour, where the dynamic is so much different — in other words he doesn’t have to battle with a noisy rock band — it might open some avenues for us. We’ll have to see how it works out.”