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The Rolling Stone Interview: Pete Townshend

The Who frontman talks about his generation

JANN WENNERPosted Sep 28, 1968 12:00 AM

The Who are the best known and most brilliant expression of the most influential "youth movement" ever to take Great Britain, the Mods. Their career began in Shepherd's Bush, a lower-class suburb of London, and took them through such places as Brighton-by-the-Sea, scene of the great Mod-Rocker battles of the early Sixties. Their first big recording was "My Generation".

Peter Townshend is the well-known guitarist in the group, but he is also the group's main driving force, the author of most of the material, the composer of most of the music and the impetus behind the Who's stylistic stance. It was he, for example, who is credited with initiating the Union Jack style in clothes, something he did by draping Keith Moon in them.

The Who's generation has gotten older, and the change is seen in their records: "The Kids are Alright" to "Happy Jack;" and from "Happy Jack" to girls and boys with perspiration, pimple and bad breath problems. And, as can be seen from the interview, the changes continue.

Peter Townshend is the group's spokesman, and by extension, the spokesman for whatever has become of the Mods. Whatever they have become, they are at least the most substantial part of the rock and roll army, a 'movement' which is as much American as it was English. Apart from the significance of what he says in relation to the Who as one of the best, most creative and influential rock and roll groups in England, Townshend, perhaps more than any other single figure in music — and because of the Who's unique relationship to the accompanying social movement — understands and articulates the "meaning of it all."

This interview began at 2:00 A.M., after the Who's recent appearance at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Nobody quite remembers exactly under what circumstances the interview was concluded.

The end of your act goes to "My Generation," like you usually do, and that's where you usually smash your guitar. You didn't tonight — why not?

Well, there is a reason, not really anything that's really worth talking about. But I'll explain the pattern of thought which went into it.

I've obviously broken a lot of guitars, and I've brought eight or nine of that particular guitar I was using tonight and I could very easily have broken it and have plenty more for the future. But I just suddenly decided before I went on, that if there was anywhere in the world I should be able to walk off the stage without breaking a guitar if I didn't want to, it would be the Fillmore.

I decided in advance that I didn't want to smash the guitar, so I didn't, not because I liked it or because I've decided I'm going to stop doing it or anything. I just kind of decided about the actual situation; it forced me to see if I could have gotten away with it in advance. And I think that's why "My Generation" was such a down number at the end. I didn't really want to play it, you know, at all. I didn't even want people to expect it to happen, because I just wasn't going to do it.

But Keith still dumped over his drum kit like he usually does.

Yea, but it was an incredible personal thing with me. I've often gone on the stage with a guitar and said; "Tonight, I'm not going to smash a guitar and I don't give a shit" — you know what the pressure is on me — whether I feel like doing it musically or whatever, I'm just not going to do it. And I've gone on and every time I've done it. The actual performance has always been bigger than my own personal patterns of thought.

Tonight, for some reason, I went on and I said "I'm not going to break it" and I didn't. And I don't know how. I don't really know why I didn't. But I didn't, you know, and it's the first time, I mean I've said it millions of times before, and nothing has happened.

I imagine it gets to be a drag talking about why you smash your guitar.

No, it doesn't get to be a drag to talk about it. Sometimes it gets a drag to do it. I can explain it, I can justify it, and I can enhance it, and I can do a lot of things, dramatize it and literalize it. Basically it's a gesture which happens on the spur of the moment. I think, with guitar smashing, just like performance itself, it's a performance, it's an act, it's an instant and it really is meaningless.

When did you start smashing guitars?

It happened by complete accident the first time. We were just kicking around in a club which we played every Tuesday and I was playing the guitar and it hit the ceiling. It broke, and it kind of shocked me 'cause I wasn't ready for it to go. I didn't particularly want it to go but it went.

And I was expecting an incredible thing, it being so precious to me, and I was expecting everybody to go, "Wow, he's broken his guitar, he's broken his guitar" but nobody did anything which made me kind of angry in a way, and determined to get this precious event noticed by the audience. I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar. I pounced all over the stage with it and I threw the bits on the stage and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really meant to do it.

Were you happy about it?

Deep inside I was very unhappy because the thing had got broken. It got around and the next week the people came and they came up to me and they said "Oh, we heard all about it, man; it's 'bout time someone gave it to a guitar" and all this kind of stuff. It kind of grew from there; we'd go to another town and people would say, "Oh yea, we heard that you smashed a guitar" and all this kind of stuff. It kind of grew from there, we'd go to another town and people would say "Oh yea, we heard that you smashed a guitar." It built and built and built and built and built and built until one day, a very important daily newspaper came to see us and said, "Oh, we hear you're the group that smashes their guitars up. Well we hope you're going to do it tonight because we're from the Daily Mail. If you do, you'll probably make the front pages."

This was only going to be like the second guitar I'd ever broken, seriously. I went to my manager, Kit Lambert, and I said, you know, "Can we afford it, can we afford it, it's for publicity." He said, "Yes, we can afford it, if we can get the Daily Mail." I did it and of course the Daily Mail didn't buy the photograph and didn't want to know about the story. After that I was into it up to my neck and have been doing it since.

 


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