The presiding genius of The Who explains why, after 36 years, he is putting his masterpiece Quadrophenia on to the musical stage.
It’s 36 years since Pete Townshend wrote his rock opus Quadrophenia, later turned into a cult film, but he’d be the first to admit that nothing he’s done since has equalled it. Now, as he and Roger Daltrey keep the ‘Orrible ‘Oo going part-time, Quadrophenia is back – this time as a full-scale UK touring theatre production, with Townshend a creative consultant. Are its tales of style-conscious Mods and teenage alienation in 1960s Brighton as much of their era as eel pies and popping “blues”? Or can this new version do what Tommy did in the early-1990s and make it all the way to new audiences on the West End and Broadway?
In a remarkably frank interview, Townshend discusses everything from Mod culture and musical theatre to his “Groundhog Day” life as a rock star and why he is “very afraid that the front row of the first performance will be Mods wearing parkas”.
Why do you consider Quadrophenia to be your masterpiece?
That feels like a midriff punch. The thing about being a writer who is also in a big rock band is that sometimes I speak with my bolshie rock star’s attitude. At times like this, sitting now in Richmond quietly to try to talk about a piece of work I am very proud of, I recoil at some of the things I’ve said, or the way I said them in the past. But the ego-driven language does have a place: I have to accept that I probably don’t have the energy, self-certainty or focus to produce something like Quadrophenia again. I not only wrote and recorded this record in 1973, I also built two quadraphonic recording studios, did a huge tour and many small shows here and there, helped Eric Clapton and his girlfriend Alice get off heroin, began to set up the Tommy movie contacts and wrote a number of songs ready for the next Who album, Who By Numbers.
In that sense my achievement was towering, and I am humbled by my work ethic when I was young. I needed to guide Quadrophenia alone. It was a new kind of song-cycle, a development on the system I’d invented for Tommy, and my previous attempt at a dramatic work, Lifehouse, had fallen almost at the first post. For a brief period I tried to work with our old producer and manager Kit Lambert because I was afraid of becoming overloaded. But he was in bad shape. The band, as with Tommy, fell in behind me in the most extraordinary way, although Roger had some problems with me having so much control, but that was only because there is no proper story, and the characters are so iconic and mythic. He wanted to find some way into the story, and I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful because I was deliberately keeping everything open and vague.
Today Roger is one of the few dramaturgs [story analyst] who can really understand what Quadrophenia was intended to do for its audience. Where the word “masterpiece” is appropriate is probably in the method of my work. I am a studio nerd, and some of the new technology of the mid-1970s promised all kinds of easy ways to make big sounds. Instead, in the studio I used old-fashioned methods, big studio drum sounds, layered violins (that I played myself), John Entwistle’s powerful brass choirs, banjos, backing voices, bells and, of course, sound effects. All that and electric guitars. It was a fabulous time for me, because I love working in studios, and recording music. I gathered all those strands in a way that seems to me today to be quite masterful. I couldn’t do it now.
What debt does Quadrophenia owe to musical theatre?
In a way, rock itself owes much to music theatre, simply because the songs from that world began to lose meaning in the late 1950s. I’d grown up very close to that music because my father was in a dance band. There was an intimidating body of work written by some of the finest composers and lyricists of a 30-year period. And yet the songs didn’t seem to mean much to me or my buddies when we began to grow into our skin. There had to be something new.
But the supporting structure of music theatre somehow began to show itself like a manifesting ghost in early British rock. The Beatles larked about like Arthur Askey in a panto; Ray Davies exalted the glamour of the working-class world; The Who wrote songs about growing up that with a few word changes could have been squeezed into My Fair Lady. Music theatre, and its bastard brother music hall, had created and inhabited most of the venues that early British pop bands used to play in. You simply couldn’t get away from the idea that it might come back one day, and of course it has. The musicals of the late 1950s – especially those by Lionel Bart – did try to anticipate what rock soon arrived to do. But Lionel himself told me once that he was just two or three years too old to understand what had been coming – it reminds me today of my anticipation of punk in the early 1970s. I knew something needed to happen, and I knew it would be subversive, but I couldn’t see how it would take shape.
I always felt, right from my very first song and the reaction to it from the kids in my neighbourhood, that in a pop song the function was different to the songs from music theatre. There was already a story being experienced, by the listener – the context was already established. Songs about fantasy and a romantic future didn’t seem useful any more. A song had to fit into the world we were living in, and that was an immediate postwar world in which Britain and its youth had to face massive change. The cult of the individual happened partly because we found our own language, and that was very much enshrined in music.
I think the Mods transformed themselves into a kind of living music theatre project in the early 1960s. So when I revisited the scene in the mid-1970s, it was natural to create a song-cycle to bring it to life.
*Has Quadrophenia simply become a historical document? Can it really appeal to teenage culture today?*What a document! Everything was turned on its head. Girls looked like boys, boys wore eyeliner and danced alone or in pairs like girls. Today we are facing something of the same kind of upheaval. In the financial mess we are in how will young people express their need to be different? Roger Daltrey often says that Mod wouldn’t have happened if well-paid work hadn’t been available. But what awful work it was, and what antiquated rules and authoritarian systems were still in place. This musical version is inhabited by young people, and a few teenagers, but we are not trying to re-create Mod. It seems to happen every now and then as a throwback; I understand there is a big Mod revival in Southend at the moment and it will take off this summer.
What has been your involvement with the new production?
I have been involved until recently only as the original creator. After Tommy went to Broadway [in 1993] it was natural to look at Quadrophenia. I am now involved in the production of the show, the casting, the way the band works and will do some work during rehearsals. A lot of what I did on Tommy, after producing the script with Des McAnnuff the director, was deep background work with the cast. I tried to explain what it was like to grow up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
Austin Powers has done a lot of damage to the image of swinging London, parodying what had already been parodied by lazy American newsreels over the years. So in a sense my mission is to bring back some of the greyness, the bleakness of those years, and demonstrate to the cast that what happened simply had to happen, otherwise we would all have gone nuts. It wasn’t an optional outing of boys playing on scooters; it was a vital rebellion.
Where the Mod movement looks shallow today is in its lack of political, social or ecological interest. But you have to understand that after the ban-the-bomb movement and the failure of anti-apartheid, and then the Cuban missile crisis, young people felt their input was pointless. Fashion, music and daily life was elevated to a form of aloof poetry and was very much a secret society.
The production was slow to arrive because it doesn’t have a conventional backbone. Unlike West Side Story, it is not based on a classic tale. In fact I avoided the temptation to complete the story or to try to make the characters whole and reachable. I have always understood that rock and pop need music and a star system that offers partly empty vessels to the audience. Quadrophenia isn’t even about battles in the street, it’s a musical journey inside a young man’s mind during a drug-fuelled psychotic episode. But this is not a story about junkies. This is a day or two in the life of a young man who really can’t do what his peers are doing and survive. Jimmy is an ordinary young man, with modest emotional needs, but who is looking for something other than what is on offer.
How has the experience with the musical theatre version of Tommy affected you?
Every manifestation of Tommy has had its price for me. Happily it has usually been lucrative as well. The music theatre version came late for me – I had tried to mount it in London in the late 1970s but it had clunked. There was always interest to try it again from New York, but I resisted. One day in 1991 I fell off a push bike, broke my wrist so badly that I was told I would never play guitar again, and possibly never be able even to hold a pencil. While I was still in plaster the offer to develop the Broadway production came in. I jumped at it, but said I would stay out of it, but was drawn in by my creative relationship with the director, Des McAnuff.
It was the most exciting and invigorating time of my life. The Who had been inoperative (at my behest) since 1982, and I got a taste of fame and glory again. I’m afraid it went to my head for a while. I quickly recovered when overwork led to me starting to drink again (after an 11-year break), but my marriage did not survive for very long after that.
In 1993 when Tommy went to Broadway I also staged Psychoderelict, my own solo musical, and later that year Iron Man at the Young Vic. So it was year of intense and varied music theatre experience. At the end of it I promised myself I would never take a careless dig at Andrew Lloyd Webber or Richard Stilgoe again. The creative work behind a musical is almost beyond imagination in scale – and the problem is that unlike normal theatre, the story changes as the music is played, with each singer, with each phase of performance. As the composer and/or lyricist you have to be on your toes until the day the show closes.
Have you ever been to see a rock musical based on a back-catalogue?
I live inside one. Musicals based on back-catalogues are becoming a saturated market. How can rock musicals avoid being watered-down exercises in asset-stripping?
Do you visit the theatre much as a punter? What plays have impressed you profoundly?
I don’t go as often as I would if I lived in the West End, so I tend to do more theatre when I’m in New York, staying at a hotel right in the thick of the scene. It’s great to walk to and from hotel, theatre and the restaurants involved in a night out.
I have been most profoundly affected in recent years by Arcadia and An Inspector Calls. In both cases the non-dialogue devices used at the end of the play – in Arcadia the return to the waltz, and in An Inspector Calls the collapse of the Victorian house – fold both plays entirely back into themselves in a manner that is almost musical. Certainly the device seemed familiar to me: the way that when you reprise a song at the end of a show it has new power, and brings everything that has gone before to life in a new way.
Musicals? My favourite of all time is Into the Woods. My favourite opera is Billy Budd. The last time I saw that (at Covent Garden) I realised I had stolen the entire setting of Billy Budd for my last scene in Quadrophenia, the young boy on a rock, alone, fearing death in the grey rain.
Back to Quadrophenia, the character of Jimmy is “not schizophrenic, he’s quadrophenic”, the mixed-up, competing personalities in his head intended to represent four personalities of The Who’s original members.
This is rather controversial, and I might be remembering it all in a distorted way. But what I recall was that it was not my intention that the personalities of each band member were meant to be part of Jimmy. Each band member was supposed to perform an aspect of each of Jimmy’s four personality extremes. This is a crucial difference. Towards the end of recording, Roger lost patience with me. I had kept all the cards to my chest, and he wanted to see the release of a Who album not a Pete Townshend indulgence. He insisted the faces of each band member should be on the front cover and then it seemed necessary to alter the essay on the inside sleeve to reflect this change.
My view of a great rock band is that they merely hold up a mirror to their audience – even that analogy is too strong really. What we do is stand in front of a crowd, with their permission, and try to provide some cathartic function. For a lead singer such as Roger that is hard to accept sometimes – though he completely understands it. In fact he understands it better than anyone I know, but even so it’s tough to stand on a stage and carry a show, but tell yourself you don’t really matter.
Anyway, the device didn’t work at all. What worked was Jimmy meeting an old schoolfriend who had happened to make it big (the Godfather) and having a pop at him for deserting his neighbourhood. The offering that the old friend he met was me, and I was in The Who, seemed to work OK. I think the notion that Jimmy had multiple personality disorder might have nearly worked as well. But it is the failure of this device that made it so hard in the past for conventional theatre people to trust that the show would work. It works musically I think, but is yet unproven dramatically. This is something we intend to fix.
With that in mind, does Quadrophenia summon up Keith Moon or John Entwistle when you hear it or think about it? And what’s your experience when you listen to Quadrophenia today?
I remember those two men every day one way or another. Whenever I play Who music they appear like ghosts. In the casting sessions there was a moment when a large group of people were singing I’ve Had Enough – the song closes the first act – and I suddenly realised I had written the most wonderful music for a choir without knowing it. What choir would think of performing Quadrophenia? And yet it is ideal for the choral society in some ways.
What’s your opinion of Frank Roddam’s 1979 movie and the Mod revival that is spawned?
The Mod revival was already happening when we started the film. It is a good film, but I was sad it didn’t follow the music. The problem the writer had is precisely the problem we have today – if you sing the music through, without changing too much, some of the characters are rather thin, and some of the events are lost in a druggy haze.
The film also set up some new issues: is the girl important? Today I think she is, whereas when I wrote the story I thought of her as an impossible idea in Jimmy’s confused mind. Recently I’ve been able to put myself inside the young girl and ask myself if I would notice a curious boy like Jimmy, and imagine we might get married one day when he’s settled down. The answer was that of course I would notice him.
The film also made the Ace Face real and tangible, and he too is someone who needs closer explication. Why does such a charismatic young man descend to the menial life of a job as Bell Boy? My conclusion today is that it works for him, it is an escape from the limelight, but also possibly a cover for his criminal activities. How else but from crime does such a young man afford such a great scooter and such smart clothes? Many of the leading faces in the Mod scene I knew were much older and mysterious figures who seemed to have more money than they should.
The film answered some questions and posed new ones. The most obvious question is whether Jimmy actually follows his scooter over Beachy Head. I have no idea.
How do you find relinquishing control of your work to the hands of others?
If I can really let it go, it is no problem. But I have been drawn into this production, and it is a problem for me. I am more an artist than a back-room man. I tend to grandiosity and absurdity, petulance and pride, when my work is challenged. That is a pity because I am a very good team player if I can keep my ego out of it. Luckily the creative team of Tom Critchley and Jeff Young on this project are people I’ve worked with before on Lifehouse Chronicles and Lifehouse for Radio 3.
Tom Critchley (the director) and I also enjoyed an association with Kneehigh Theatre for a while. The producer Ina Meibach, from New York, has been my legal and creative mentor since the beginning of my career in the USA in 1967.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re currently working on?
Not really. I am writing, and for me that means I am waiting for something I am working on to land. I write essays, poems, lyrics, guitar tunes, piano pieces and bits of novels and autobiography every day. But if I told you what I was most hopeful about today I might set myself up to fail. I’m surprised how many projects I begin but do not finish. For me, art is finishing things. A pot ain’t art until it’s fired, even if it’s a Bernard Leach. I have a lot of metaphorical wet clay in my life at the moment.
Do you need or have an audience in mind when you write? Who do you write for when you’re creating new music now?
I am having to face that it is probably time for me to change. Whether I can change is another question. All my life I have tried to write music and lyrics that fit and deliver according to my notion of the function of rock and pop. For years this was a fairly straightforward brief, even if it wasn’t always an easy one. The audience was usually young, evolving emotionally, feeling a little lost, fearful of sharing their fear. Now there is a huge body of guitar- driven pop that serves this audience, and, of course, I may have become too old to do it well, though the story in question never changes, not really. So I am looking at how I might change my target audience, and how I might use my experience so far in life to do useful creative work.
I have had quite a narrow experience, a repetitive Groundhog Day round of Who rock shows and PR, taking my kids to school every day for a while, then back to the business of being a rock star. All the time I’ve wanted to avoid turning into a wealthy baron who is out of touch with the ordinary world. Billy Bragg I am not, but I am close as it is possible to be for someone who has done what I’ve done; I admire and respect Billy Bragg.
Today I have to face that my audience may be too old themselves to change. I am very afraid that the front row of the first performance of Quadrophenia will be Mods wearing parkas. Even if they were young, it would be pretty awful. If they are in their sixties it could be worse. But what might be the worst of all could be fathers and sons coming together, wearing parkas. I have a nice dilemma. If I am to write for anyone, I want most to do something for that dad who is locked in the past, just as I sometimes feel I am. Quadrophenia should really shoot me into the present day. Maybe then I can write a song-cycle for a man on his deathbed.
“Click here”:http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article6112382.ece to read the fullinterview on Times Online.
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