The Rolling Stone Interview: Pete Townshend

The Who frontman talks about his generation

JANN WENNERPosted Sep 28, 1968 12:00 AM

Was it inevitable that you were going to start smashing guitars?

It was due to happen because I was getting to the point where I'd play and I'd play and I mean, I still can't play how I'd like to play. Then it was worse. I couldn't play the guitar; I'd listen to great music, I'd listen to all the people I dug, time and time again. When the Who first started we were playing blues, and I dug the blues and I knew what I was supposed to be playing, but I couldn't play it. I couldn't get it out. I knew what I had to play, it was in my head. I could hear the notes in my head, but I couldn't get them out on the guitar. I knew the music, and I knew the feeling of the thing and the drive and the direction and everything.

It used to frustrate me incredibly. I used to try and make up visually for what I couldn't play as a musician. I used to get into very incredible visual things where in order just to make one chord more lethal, I'd make it a really lethal looking thing whereas really it's just going to be picked normally. I'd hold my arm up in the air and bring it down so it really looked lethal, even if it didn't sound too lethal. Anyway, this got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until eventually I was setting myself incredible tasks.

How did this effect your guitar playing?

Instead I said, "All right, you're not capable of doing it musically, you've got to do it visually." I became a huge, visual thing. In fact I forgot all about the guitar because my visual thing was more about my music than the actual guitar. I got to jump about and the guitar became unimportant. I banged it and I let it feed back and scraped it and rubbed it up against the microphone, did anything, it wasn't part of my act, even. It didn't deserve any credit or any respect. I used to bang it and hit it against walls and throw it on the floor at the end of the act.

And one day it broke. It just wasn't part of my thing, and ever since them I've never really regarded myself as a guitarist. When people come up to me and say like "Who's your favorite guitarist?" I say "I know who my favorite guitarist is, but asking me, as a guitarist, forget it because I don't make guitar-type comments. I don't talk guitar talk, I just throw the thing around." Today still I'm learning. If I play a solo, it's a game to me because I can't play what I want to play. That's the thing: I can't get it out because I don't practice. When I should be practicing, I'm writing songs, and when I'm writing songs, I should be practicing.

Do you find it funny that people regard you as an excellent guitarist?

I find it astounding and I find it hard to believe if anyone ever says that they rate me as a guitarist at all. Although I dig my guitar playing, I think it's kind of an obvious situation, I play what I want to play within my own restrictions. I like to play like (Steve) Cropper. I like to play simply and tastefully and when I make records at home, you know, I play simply and tastefully and I don't play like I do on the stage. I don't play big chords and I don't smash the guitar around. I just do the things which I feel are well within my capabilities as a rhythmic musician.

With the compliment I immediately think of the people I dig, someone compliments me and I think I must move the compliment around to somebody that I really dig like Hendrix and would say I'm nowhere near someone like that as a guitarist and so the compliment feels out of place. I think, "Well, okay the guy's not saying you're a good guitarist, he's saying what you play you put over well," or "What you want to put over comes out." If I look like a good guitar player it's because that's my whole thing, to look like I'm playing the guitar, but really I'm not.

You said you spend most of your time writing songs in your basement.

A lot of writing I do on tour. I do a lot on airplanes. At home, I write a lot, obviously. When I write a song, what I usually do is work the lyric out first from some basic idea that I had and then I get an acoustic guitar and I sit by the tape recorder and try to bang it out as it comes. Try to let the music come with the lyrics. If I dig it, I want to add things to it, like I'll add bass guitar or drums or another voice. This is really for my own amusement that I do this.

The reason "I Can See For Miles" came out good was because I sat down and made it good from the beginning. The fact that I did a lot of work on arrangements and stuff like that doesn't really count. I think that unless the actual song itself is good, you know, you can do all kinds of incredible things to it, but you're never gonna get it, not unless the meat and potatoes are there. Although I do fuck around in home studios and things like that, I think it's of no importance; I don't think it's really got anything to do with what makes the Who the Who.

Does what you write in your home studio ever come out on records?

Most of it gets out, but the recordings I make myself in my own studio, don't. They might in the future, but they would only come out if they had the Who on them. To put out a record of me banging away on a guitar or bass drums collectively and generally being a one-man band wouldn't be a very good idea. I'd like to use my studio to record the group because interesting things happen in small environmental sound recording situations like Sony tape recorders, for example, which don't happen in studios. It's a well known fact.

When you work out an arrangement and figure out the bass line and the various voices, is that just directly translated onto a record that would be released?

More or less, but then we don't really take it that grimly; I mean what happens is I will suggest the bass riff on the demonstrations record, John takes up and goes from there. But the bass (line) I would suggest on the demo, as I said earlier, would be very simple, it would be economical, tasteful and just a vehicle for the song, making the bass line, and if I use them, the piano or drum, as simple and effective as possible in putting the song across to the group.

Instead of me hacking my songs around to billions of publishers trying to get them to dig them, what I've got to do is get the rest of the band to dig my number. If I've got a number that I dig I know that I've got to present it to them in the best light. That's why I make my own recordings so when they first hear it, it's not me stoned out of my mind plunking away on a guitar trying to get my latest number across. It's a finished work that might take me all night to get together, but nevertheless it's gonna win them over.

Do you ever think of using the demo version instead of the group version?

A lot of the demo's have been so good in fact that it's scared us out of making recordings. "I Can See For Miles" and "Magic Bus" both had demo's which were very, very comparable to the finished releases. They were just so exciting and so good that for a long time we didn't ever dare to attempt to make single because it was blackmail. I'd made this demo and I was more or less blackmailing Kit Lambert, our producer, into doing better. So we always put it off until Kit was very sure of himself. One night he just turned around and he said to us "Let's do 'I Can See For Miles.'" I had the demo there and we put it on and we dug it again and he just seemed like he was going to do it and he did it. He got it together.

The same with "Magic Bus" — we didn't want to do it. I listened to the demo and I thought that demo was good but that we're never gonna catch it on record. It's gonna bring us all down. Let's forget it, let's do something else; and Kit was going, "No, we're going to do it, we're going to do it, we're going to do it, you're going to learn every line, every little detail, every little precious thing in the demonstration record, you're gonna catch and you're gonna copy it if necessary." What happened is in the end we gave up and we thought, "Oh we'll do it," and we went down and we did it completely differently, but it all came together and we went up and we thanked him for making us do it.

What approach do you use?

The only way I can describe it is to go through it: We walk in, we set up our equipment and through the talk-back will come, "Can we hear the bass guitar, please?" And then for quarter of an hour it's clang, clang, where the bass guitar microphone is corrected and so on. Then "Can we hear the bass drum, please?" and clang, clang, another quarter of an hour and "Can we hear the top kit?" and Keith plays the top kit and "Can we hear the guitar," the guitar's always good. The guitar really is good the first time.

But by this time, of course, you're pissed off at the whole proceedings. All you want to do is go out for a drink so that's usually what happens. We all go out for a drink and come back in and we seem to have screwed up the balance a bit. So "Just a quick check on the bass guitar" and a "quick check" on bass rhythm and you go through the whole proceedings again. "Okay, we're ready to go!" Then you find that the number's only half routine, that you've forgotten something, and so by the time you've worked the routine out, the balance is lost again and you have to start all over again. And this is the way the Who record.

How would you do it?

The way I would do it is set up the amplifiers, and the drums in a kind of a fairly separated manner, but as they would normally appear on the stage, in the same stereo picture. I'd set up one stereo microphone up in the air above the lot and I'd record a backing track. That's the way I'd record the Who's backing track and on top of that I'd add voice or whatever went with it.

That's what you want: you want that action — walk in, set up, play. That's what you build music on, that instant thing of like having a lyric and just seeing it, and being given some words and having to play guitar to them in front of a tape recorder. This is a recording and it's going to be used and it's gonna be our next album. The music has got to be good and it's got to be immediate and it's got to be exciting, it's got to be now.

Why aren't you already recording in that fashion?

Were gonna, we hope. I'm working on the lyrics now for the next album. When we get through that, all the lyrics cleaned out, we'll start to work through the album. We'll probably have do to it in short sections, like fifteen-minute sections. Ideally, I'd like to record one backing track for the whole album whether it lasts for two hours or two days. We sit down and we do it in one go, and then okay, we spend the next two years adding tarty voices or whatever it is that it takes to sell the record. But at least you know what's happening in the background is real meat and immediate meat, and it's part of the present.

The whole thing about recording is that man feels slightly cheated anyway, because he's getting a recording of something which has happened, so he feels like he's getting something secondhand. If he thinks he's being fucked around already, this is a whole different thing. A lot of people, I'm convinced, that buy records don't realize what happens when a group records on an eight-track machine. They don't realize that they record half of it one time, and then another eighth of it another time. They record it in eighths at different locations, and this ceases to become music to me.




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