The Who: Interview with Pete Townshend
GUITAR WORLD A story told on that scale requires a more elaborate narrative than a three-minute pop song. How did you develop the story for Tommy, and what were your inspirations?
TOWNSHEND I’d read Siddhartha [Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel about an Indian man’s spiritual enlightenment] and a few things like that, and I had this idea of somebody on a spiritual journey; the bit about Tommy being a pinball wizard came later. The fact that Tommy was deaf, dumb and blind was simply about being spiritually shut down.
But, you know, the story was a kind of side issue to the whole project. It was just a thing with which to create the music and then to present it. I don’t think any other band could have gotten away with that, presenting an album like that as a narrative story. I think Tommy worked because the Who was such a great band. I think if the Who had been a naff band, it would have flopped.
GW And in fact, Tommy made the Who one of the biggest bands in rock and roll. But that, in turn, made you distraught about the level of success you achieved. Why did you have a problem with it?
TOWNSHEND I think I was worried and anxious that the connection between the Who and its audience was being eroded by the band playing to big audiences. I felt that the elegance of pop music was that it was reflective: we were holding up a mirror to our audience and reflecting them philosophically and spiritually, rather than just reflecting society or something called “rock and roll.”
And that all that was going to be lost by playing large-scale things like Woodstock, which turned us into superstars. And in some ways it was wonderful that we went from being a band with a predominantly male following to one where Roger seemed to be a kind of Rock Sun God and we had a few women in the audience for a change.
But in other ways it was disarming because the natural easy connection between me, as the writer, and the audience, was broken. The feeling I had was that we were starting to become in a way like Tommy: we started to become more deeply deaf, dumb and blind to what was actually happening to us.
GW You attended Ealing Art College as a teenager. It was there that you became familiar with some of the concepts you later employed with the Who. Deconstructionism, for example: you’d smash your guitars onstage, making it actually one of the most anticipated parts of a show. How much did your art college training play a role in your rock operas?
TOWNSHEND I think it had everything to do with everything: the Who and all our music. Because it would allow someone to have the ability—maybe the arrogance—to set himself up as a reflector of society, or in my case, of our audience. I went so far in the early days as to call the Who “pop art” because I wanted to identify with those people who looked at the condition of society and the world, the climate in which popular ideas were gathered, as well as fashion and style and image and all of those things.
GW Give me an example of how your art college training affected your music and your ability to be, as you say, a “reflector” of your audience.
TOWNSHEND Let’s just take a basic art school course: If you’re trained to draft images, what you’re trained to do is capture not the truth, not an impression, but rather geometric precise representations of what it is that the eye sees. It’s an absolute reflection.
So it is from that pure place that I wrote those songs. Who is it reflecting to? It’s reflecting to the subject. As an artist, you’re purely there to perform a very mundane, simple act. It’s not about caricature. This is about truth.
GW So when you felt the Who were no longer connecting with their audience after Tommy’s success, the bond between artist and viewer was broken. You were no longer able to reflect them.
GW And it was at that point that you began to develop the rock opera Lifehouse. Was Lifehouse conceived as a story that would address this sense that you and your audience were losing touch with one another?
TOWNSHEND Lifehouse contained a fear of losing that easy identity with our audience. But it was also a recognition that there was nothing more important to me than the simple art of rock music: of making something that unites the listener and the player. Because that moment has lasting value for the person that’s heard it.