11 Questions for Pete Townshend

You probably know Pete Townshend from his career in The Who, which spanned over fifty years, but the songwriter and banjo/accordion/harmonica/ukulele/mandolin/violin/synthesiser player has also put out a good deal of work on his own. His latest solo project, Classic Quadrophenia, is a classical reinterpretation of the Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia album.

What made you want to revisit Quadrophenia?
For a long time I’ve been working towards the day I leave the planet. I’m not trying to immortalize myself, neither am I wishing away my life, but I am keen to make sure that my most serious compositions are properly archived, and where appropriate or necessary notated (scored) in an accurate way. I want to make sure that musicians in the future can access scores, and adapt them to various purposes, so that the music will continue to be played into the future. And of course what I want is for it to be played live in front of living audiences.

I wanted the scores to enable performance from the top down as-it-were: a full symphony orchestra with choir at the top, right down to simply piano-vocal charts so that if a music teacher at a school wanted to get students to perform any of my operas they could. Starting with full orchestra scores is a big project, especially as I can’t read music. (I can write it, using computers, but I have never been trained).

Almost 20 years ago I started the process of gathering my ‘operas’, this was how I decided to begin. I started with Lifehouse (which is an unfinished work) and hired Billy Nicholls, Sara Lowenthal and Rachel Fuller to work with me on Lifehouse Chronicles which was a collection of old and new music related to the story, and I also flew in a fair bit of work-in-progress. This was released in 2000 on the Eel Pie label.

Sara then started work on my three ‘mini-operas’: A Quick One While  He’s Away, Rael, and Wire & Glass. 

Finally, in 2012 I decided to commission someone to start on Quadrophenia. I didn’t have to look far because by this time Rachel Fuller and I were virtually married, and had lived together for a long time. Rachel was keen to take this on. By a coincidence I had first met Rachel when The Who were rehearsing at a London studio for the 1996-1997 tour of Quadrophenia that grew out of the charity performance I organized in Hyde Park for the Prince’s Trust, of which I had been a patron and activist since 1982. On that occasion my very old friend Billy Nicholls had asked Rachel to orchestrate some of his solo work, and that’s how the connection was made.

How much freedom did your collaborators have to interpret the songs?
Rachel was my only collaborator, but she commissioned an assistant, Martin Batchelar, to whom she gave fairly free rein. I didn’t give Rachel that much scope for interpretation. To begin with I just wanted an orchestral representation of what was on The Who album, no extra songs, no frills, no diversions. Rachel was very happy to work faithfully in this way, and I gave her access to the Who multi-tracks from 1972-1973 so she could analyze each instrument or vocal part very accurately.

What made this project evolve from one that would have ended up with me holding a ‘folio’ (a book of written music) to a fully fledged recording, was that Rachel decided to do demonstration recordings as she went along, so I would be able to comment and approve what she and Martin were doing. I had asked my friend Hans Zimmer if he could guide Rachel in setting up a composition studio (of the kind Hans uses to write his film scores) and he gallantly invited Rachel to use some time in his London studio. The first track she worked on was Love Reign O’er Me, and it sounded spectacular. The conductor Robert Zeigler heard this synthesized demo track. He invited us to perform it with Jeff Beck and the BBC Concert Orchestra at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Suddenly what had merely been notes written on a score began to take a life as real music. Later, when Mark Wilkonson, the President of the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, heard it, he gave us a deal and recommended Alfie Boe to take the lead role.

What surprised you about making Classic Quadrophenia?
Right the way through this project, I have been amazed at how Who music (and some of my own writing) lends itself to orchestral performance. Probably all music would sound wonderful played by a good orchestra. But there are a number of reasons why Who music lends itself. Keith Moon’s style of drumming was almost orchestral, more about decoration, flourishes and celebration than just keeping a beat. Who bassist John Entwistle was classically trained on trumpet and French Horn, so his work—especially on The Who’s Quadrophenia—encompassed a complete set of brass instruments, and he made his own arrangements. By the time The Who came to record the original album Roger’s singing was probably at its peak, and he pulled all the stops to make the words come alive. I was also adept at using analogue synthesizers, especially for orchestral emulation (having used them extensively on Who’s Next).

The most wonderful surprise was seeing the way orchestral musicians threw themselves into playing this music. The last orchestral sessions I had done had been a while back, and so much has changed now for orchestras. They are challenged all the time, not only by the demands of the usual repertoire like Brahms, Beethoven and Wagner, but also by complex and highly rhythmic and explosive film scores written by the likes of Hans Zimmer. So they only needed a few takes to get the music right. Indeed, it sounded right first time.

What are the standout tracks from this project, in your opinion?
“Love Reign O’er Me” is one of my best songs, and this really shines in this context. But some of the most anarchic songs like “Dr Jimmy,” and “I’ve Had Enough,” also leap from the speakers.

Are any other Who members involved with Classic Quadrophenia?
You must mean Roger of course. He commissioned his own orchestrations in 1994 for a solo tour, and I have to say I was inspired to hear what he achieved. On this project, because it grew right inside my family circle, and my domestic relationship with Rachel, who would play me a new bit of work almost every week, there was no opportunity to involve Roger. Many people involved with Quadrophenia, and our fans, feel a huge propriety over it, and that’s fine by me. But I reserve the right to develop my compositions outside The Who family if I wish. I also want Roger to feel he can do the same with my music, as though it belonged to him, because the part he played in its journey and evolution was so vital. I wished him well when he recently toured Tommy as a solo show.

Which classical composers do you look to for inspiration?
In this case, that’s probably a wrong-headed question because it might infer that I played a grand part on the orchestrations on this new version. I played no part at all, apart from trying to make sure the music retained the original mood and harmonic sense of the Who version. However, when I wrote the original songs it’s perhaps obvious I looked to Wagner for inspiration for some of the instrumental passages that were intended to evoke Jimmy’s uneasy mix of paranoia and grandiosity. Elsewhere, where the music is lighter, I refer to Bach (especially his preludes) here and there. The overall story of Quadrophenia was inspired to some extent by one of my favorite English composers, Benjamin Britten. His opera Billy Budd is also about a young man enduring a difficult rite of passage, and is set by the seaside, and on the sea itself.

Quadrophenia isn’t the only rock opera you’ve written. What is it about the rock opera form that interests you?
One thing that might surprise people is that I believe it gives me a chance to embrace the wonderful—but apparently limited—pop-rock song form more fully. A great rock or pop song can stand on its own. Its function is to grapple with whatever issue is on the table, but bring release, empowerment and mutual acceptance in the audience. So when you string a bunch of songs together to help tell a story, you are really just starting where we all spend most of our time in any case, in one of the many days of our lives. One way to appreciate our own ‘story’ is often to immerse ourselves in other stories. This is what art has always done I suppose.

How is a rock opera different from a rock musical or a concept album?
I think a rock opera has to have a more specific story, or theme. The first two concept albums for me were Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper. No story, but very clear resonance and sense of time. But by the time they were released I had already begun toying with the idea of rock-opera, and so had a number of other writers, especially in the UK.

A rock musical, like Hedwig for example, or Rent, might use music alongside spoken story telling, or as with Jersey Boys or the Abba musical, celebration of an artist or band’s work. A rock opera should really be music, and only music. No talking!

What’s next for Pete Townshend? Are you working on any new projects?
Yes. Celebrating 50 years of The Who also allows me to celebrate 52 years of life as a commercial songwriter (my first song “It Was You” was published in early 1963). I am reviving my solo archive work, and continuing to commission folios of all my ‘operas’. I am writing new songs all the time. I have worked with Nate Barr on The Americans, and done a number of other collaborations. I am working on a magnum opus that will begin with the publication of a short novel in 2016. My main project as a regular guy is to slow down again, after a very busy and intense few years. I have done this a few times in the past, but I need it now more than ever: time to enjoy what I have, to be happy and relaxed.

Over the course of your career as a musician, what do you think has changed the most about pop music?
The electronics. Once music became digital, and could be created using digital technology, it was released into a new era, and a much wider range of people could make pop music. In a sense the first sampling in rap-based R&B ushered this era in.

If you could go back to 1973 and give yourself one piece of advice about your career, what would it be?
“Hey Pete! Don’t try to play Quadrophenia live until you have digital technology.” Even Rachel’s orchestral version—with me approving as she went along—would not have been possible without the use of computers.

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