Daily Archives: March 21, 2011

Listening to Pete Townshend

I’m currently working my through an extraordinary 5-CD collection of demos recorded by Pete Townshend for The Who called ‘ The Genuine Scoop’.   The chronological scope of this set is immense, running from the days of ‘My Generation‘, through to a demo for the title track of his 1980 solo album, ‘Empty Glass’; in total a period of  about 15 years; 15 years during which The Who went from being a bunch of  spotty West London kids with attitude to a complex and troubled group of ageing rockers (now minus two), who just absolutely raged against the dying of the light and seemed as uneasy with global fame as they had been with most other aspects of their career.

Townshend’s demos have long been legendary among Who fans; from the late 1960’s onwards, they were generally so fully-formed that The Who often copied them  almost note for note.  Townshend, though never a great instrumentalist or singer per se  is nevertheless hugely versatile and would regularly multitrack drum, bass and keyboard parts into these embryonic versions.  As time went by, it’s interesting to hear how he would parody John Entwistle’s bass style or Roger Daltrey’s full-throated roar on these recordings; the aim was presumably to offer them guidelines as to how he thought they should perform the song rather than to take the piss – although with The Who, you could never be quite sure….

I rarely listen to The Who these days.  I’ve been trying to think of another band who polarise my opinions as much as they do – and can’t frankly.  There are items from their back catalogue for which I have no time at all, whilst there are records they’ve made (‘Substitute‘ , ‘I Can See for Miles’, most of ‘Who’s Next’)  which are seminal.  Most of this – good, bad and indifferent –  is covered on this five-CD set.  Thus, for me, you have all the ‘mod-era’ singles from ‘My Generation’ onwards plus a lot of peripheral stuff on Disc One, a lot of which is great.  Then, on Disc Two, you have most of the demos for ‘Tommy’, which I always thought was a load of nonsense – and still do, apart from ‘Pinball Wizard’.  Disc Three is generally concerned with the ‘Lifehouse’ project songs like ‘Pure and Easy’ and the songs that made up the bulk of  ‘Who’s Next’.  Disc Four covers the sporadic early 70’s singles like ‘Join Together’ and ‘Let’s see action’  then all the ‘Quadrophenia‘ demos, and whilst I may have some problems with the overall concept of ‘Quadrophenia’, it does feature some good songs.  Finally, Disc Five covers the material produced in the late 1970’s when the band were in obvious decline and which for me is generally pretty forgettable.

Some of these songs have seen official release of late, on three CD’s called ‘Scoop’  ‘Another Scoop’ and ‘Scoop 3’, all of which seem to take a fairly random approach to the way the material is selected and presented and there is stuff on those albums that does not figure here.  Having not heard them,  I couldn’t comment on how important they are in any review of Townshend’s career.  That’s the great thing about ‘The Genuine Scoop’; over 5 discs and 15 years , you not only get a steady improvement in the technical quality of the demos and increasingly sophisticated performances,  you can also see how Townshend matures as a writer.  Here is a substantial body of work and it amazes me that it’s taken a bootlegger to see the potential of a systematic, chronological survey of this material.

As a teenager,  I would perhaps have bracketed  The Who alongside The Small Faces   – and to some extent The Rolling Stones  and The Kinks – as purveyors of white boy angst.  This was music that captured the energy of the times and it was as much about appearance, hairstyles and on-stage demeanour as it was about lyrical content.  You couldn’t necessarily dance to The Who’s records, but that was never really the intention for Townshend.  What he wanted to do was to reflect the growing pains of a generation of British urban teenagers and that was as much about finding and losing girls as it was about getting them out on the dancefloor.  These painful insecurities began to manifest themselves in a series of singles, where Townshend abandoned straightforward tales of teenage lust in favour of idiosyncratic songs about masturbation (‘Pictures of Lily’)  and enforced transvestisism (‘I’m a Boy’), culminating in 1967’s  ‘Grand Guignol’ study of paranoia and jealousy, ‘I Can See for Miles’ – not exactly a ‘Summer of Love’ anthem in that year of peace, love and understanding.

Backstage in the late ’60’s

That was the thing about The Who; their sullen aggression and onstage/offstage rampages were somehow at odds with the times.   Yet bizarrely, they managed to appear in both of  the principal cinematic celebrations of the hippie era, 1967’s ‘Monterey Pop’ and 1970’s ‘Woodstock‘.  There’s a great, though possibly apocryphal story about  Pete Townshend at Woodstock.  At some time around the time of The Who’s set, the festival organisers decided that as the huge and ever-growing throng had systematically trashed the fences surrounding the site, they were going to make a virtue out of this destruction by declaring Woodstock a ‘free’ festival.  Far out – in terms of bolting the stable door after the horses had been liberated, man, this was right up there.  After The Who had come off stage and were preparing to be helicoptered out, Townshend got word of this empty but convenient gesture and swiftly sought out the aforementioned festival organiser.  Confronting this hippie capitalist weasel, he apparently jabbed his index finger into the guy’s chest, declaring “Listen, mate, we’re the ‘Orrible ‘Oo from Shepherd’s Bush and we want our facking MONEY!’    

If it isn’t true, it probably should be. The Who were punks and they were doing it 10 years ahead of the real thing.  This probably explains why Townshend was seen as a ‘Godfather’ of the Punk Movement and why people like The Clash were such big fans, not that they’d have admitted it in 1977.  Bill Bruford of Yes/King Crimson/Genesis notoriety tells of how around the same time he was approached by The Damned’s drummer, Rat Scabies, who quietly confessed to being a huge fan.

As for Pete Townshend, by late 1967, he’d moved beyond his 45 rpm vignettes of  the dingy backwaters of English life and The Who were already at work  on Townshend’s  first ‘rock opera’ (makes me wince just typing those 2 words together)  – ‘A Quick One’, which was in itself just an hors d’oeuvre for the main event, the bloated double album monster that was (and is) ‘Tommy’.

‘Auto-destructive art’, apparently….

Pete Townshend has a fatal weakness for grand narratives; around 1967, something in him rejected the economies of the 2-minute pop song – the fact that really great craftsmen (or craftswomen) of song like Smokey Robinson, Randy Newman or Joni Mitchell can say more about the human condition in three minutes than Townshend manages in the whole of ‘Tommy‘ is apparently neither here nor there.  He tried to do it again with ‘Lifehouse’ his aborted early 1970’s Meher Baba-inspired, (allegedly) spiritual project that is now available as a 6 -CD set (!!!) and did manage it again with 1973’s ‘Quadrophenia’  and most recently with a solo project entitled ‘Psychoderelict’, about which I am happy to report I know almost nothing.  Quite why he chooses to go this way is beyond me –  ‘Tommy’ was generally awful; despite an excellent first single (‘Pinball Wizard’).  I wasn’t rich enough or foolish enough to buy it myself, but I remember sitting through every numbing minute round at a friend’s house and feeling a sense of relief that I’d bought John Mayall’s ‘Blues from Laurel Canyon’ and Michael Chapman’s ‘Rainmaker’ instead (still a good decision, I’d say).

Of course, after Monterey and Woodstock, not to mention all the wild tales of guitars and drumkits being demolished (‘auto-destructive art’, said Townshend – yeah, right, Pete..), The Who had developed a reputation as a monster live band. This was enhanced  by ‘Live at Leeds’, their 1970 live album , which demonstrated all their strengths and limitations as musicians – Keith Moon relentlessly thunderous, Townshend dependent on chords rather than Claptonesque soloing, Daltrey effectively unemployed during the extended passages but – tellingly, sounding at their best on the shorter, punchier 1960’s singles.  Of course, the ‘elephant in the room’ on ‘Live at Leeds’ was the exclusion of the central part of their set, now occupied by material from ‘Tommy’.  For the next 3 years, The Who lugged ‘Tommy’ round the concert-halls and festival sites of the USA like a giant colostomy bag, because in America it seemed that they couldn’t get enough of this rather lurid and Dickensian saga of the underbelly of English middle-class life.  The media were much taken with the whole ‘rock opera’ thing and another London band, The Kinks, opted for a similar approach with a number of ‘concept albums’ like ‘Arthur’, ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and suchlike.

In a way, what we were seeing here was perhaps the fag-end of the British Beat movement – bands like The Kinks, The Move and The Who had said all they could with singles; this was the Woodstock Era and the album was King.  Also, you were no-one unless your latest album featured at least one track well over 10 minutes in length, with a good deal of instrumental noodling and – preferably –  some cod-Oriental mysticism chucked in for good measure.  Some bands, like The Move, The Beatles and the Small Faces couldn’t handle this, but The Who did, just about, mainly by nailing their colours to the ‘rock opera’ mast and touring relentlessly  – especially in the USA.  The reward for fans of The Who came with their next studio album, ‘Who’s Next’, which showed them finally making the transition to rock gods.  It’s their best album by far and the demos in this set show how adept Townshend had now become in producing these, adding the primitive VCS-3 synthesiser to the tonal palette.

The Trademark Leap

Even so, Townshend was unable to leave the ‘rock opera’ format alone and The Who’s next major foray was nothing more than a musical re-enactment of the lives of some typical mid-60’s mods in ‘Quadrophenia’ which although rooted in an idealised past, was still a more recognisable landscape than those evoked in ‘Tommy’.  Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, this was the band’s last throw as a major force.  By the time Keith Moon died in 1978, the punk revolution was in full swing in the UK  and any acknowledgement due to Townshend from the punks was more about The Who’s early singles than it was about ‘Tommy’ or ‘Quadrophenia’ .

By the time I saw The Who onstage for the final time, it was 1981.  Townshend had produced an excellent solo album the previous year (‘Empty Glass’) and there was some surprise that The Who were still active.  They had  drafted in Kenny Jones as a replacement for Moon and  toured the U.K. with Ruts D.C. as the support band.  I was a big fan of the (then)  new Ruts D.C. album and had already seen them turn in a storming show at Manchester Poly Students Union, so I wasn’t exactly that surprised that they effectively blew The Who off stage, making them look very much like yesterday’s heroes.  It wasn’t great, frankly.

Since then, Townshend has pursued a solo career which has encompassed several cd’s of original material plus  a book of short stories and various stage shows.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, his hearing has been severely affected by all those years of high-volume stage shows and more recently, he was implicated in the downloading of child pornography from the internet, though he seems to have been guilty of nothing more than trying to expose the issues around this problem.

At nearly 66,  and probably too abrasive and opinionated to ever become a ‘national treasure’  like Richard Thompson, Townshend maintains a very low media profile these days, but still retains the loyalty of The Who’s steadfast hardcore fanbase.  Some of them should have persuaded him that an official 2 CD chronological survey of these demos would probably have put him back in the public eye again.  Perhaps that’s why he didn’t do it….