Pete Townshend, one of rock's greatest songwriters and most powerful guitarists, was undergoing a creative rebirth when we spoke in June 1993. Thirty years after hitting his first electric power chord with the Who, he had just completed the concept album Psychoderelict and was preparing a summer tour that would combine its songs with dialog, actors and theatrical staging.
For Who fans, notoriously impatient with most of Townshend's attempts at artistic growth outside the band, it was yet another step away from their beloved canon. But for Townshend, the project was a further exploration of his interest in musical theater.
"I think if I didn't take advantage of the fact that I happen to be able to write lyrics and music and a story, and am very good at collaborating in teams of creative people, I'd be undervaluing what I'm capable of doing," he told me over the phone from London. "I'm probably the only person in rock in the moment who is armed in this way."
Indeed, Townshend was on a hot streak. His reconceptualized version of his 1969 masterpiece Tommy had just won five Tony Awards on Broadway. Townshend saw Psychoderelict as a sequel of sorts - something he had tried in 1970 with a project called Lifehouse that was snuffed out by dirty dealing, although many of its songs became the guts of the classic Who's Next.
In Psychoderelict, Townshend spun some of Lifehouse's intended theme of future-shock alienation into a tale of manipulation deceit, betrayal, lost idealism and - ultimately - love set in the parallel universes of virtual reality and the music business. It also includes a gem of a pop song, "Don't Try To Make Me Real," which stands up to Who's Next's most revelatory material. And Psychoderelict marked a temporary return to the amplified six-string whoop-ass that made Townshend such a commanding performer.
Psychoderelict, while an interesting project, today remains consigned to Townshend's back pages. Surprisingly, it's Lifehouse that's taken on a new durability. Last year Townshend wrote more music for his once-shelved "monumental project" and brought it to life with the help of an orchestra and actors on BBC Radio 3. Recently Lifehouse became available via his e-commerce web site (www.eelpie.com) as a six-CD set that includes the full radio play plus his brilliant demos of the original music - including Who's Next songs - from 1970 and '71.
When we spoke seven years ago, Townshend talked not only about Psychoderelict and Lifehouse, but explained why he'd turned his back on pop songs in favor of musical theater. Happily, he's recently recanted and says he's got a pile of first-rate numbers written that might even become a new Who album when the current tour ends. In '93 Townshend also expressed dissatisfaction with his guitar playing and felt he'd been robbed of his distinctive acoustic style by a bicycle injury. But his intelligence and feisty vitality were undimmed throughout our interview - as they remain today.
Guitar.com: Psychoderelict is your second consecutive concept album, following The Iron Man. Of course, you've also written Tommy, Quadrophenia, and the Lifehouse project, which morphed into Who's Next. Are these more of a challenge than writing pop songs?
Pete Townshend: God, I wish that were true. I think the real challenge is writing conventional pop songs. It's always been a great challenge, and when you're young sometimes you can do it almost by accident, or just because you're young. You have an idea you think is new but isn't really. When you get older, you're more responsible about what you're willing to steal. Writing something that's really new and will hit without a big pair of tits or pecs stuck on the front of it, or a beautiful head of hair, or the ability to dance and stand on your head, is very difficult. I think I'm drawn to conceptual projects because I'm trying to move away from the challenge of writing pop, which I don't think I can really do anymore. I think if I could write pop I'd probably go on doing it just as a writer, because there's nothing like having a hit. I'm quite interested to hear myself say that, because I do actually think, every now and again, "Oh, I've got a really great hit record.? When I wrote "Face To Face," I thought I had a hit. I had a hit of sorts, but it wasn't a monster hit.
Guitar.com: Did the Broadway success of Tommy draw you more toward conceptual projects?
Townshend: Whatever I do in theater I think will probably start life as a record. It's what I know best. I tend to workshop my ideas in the studio, then hone them down. This is a rock tradition and I don't think I can break it. It's too much in my blood. I don't have the context of pop anymore, and I need a context in which to work. It gives me more confidence that people are going to give the material that I'm coming up with consideration. It might help me get the shades I'm dealing with across - give listeners an entry into ideas that maybe exist only between two people, and they're not exactly love, and they're not exactly infatuation, and they're certainly not lust - the slightly more complicated areas of human interpersonal relationships. It takes a bit more time for those subtleties to reach the listener. And I think that pop does not carry all of that elegantly.
Guitar.com: Your songs have a very introspective, exploratory feel.
Townshend: Well, in some ways I've started to take exception to that. Because one of the things I feel I haven't done is ever properly addressed my personal needs. I don't think I have analyzed my own predicament. I whined a lot in the press, but I think that what I've tried to do is write for another voice. As a solo artist, I've invented a voice that I felt was a character who was an embodiment of a number of other people - including me, but a group of people. I think Psychoderelict is probably the best example of me creating a group of characters in which I have an investment. I think people would be very, very suspicious if I suddenly emerged as a playwright. They'd think, "Well, who the Hell does this guy think his? All he's done is strut around the world with a guitar." So in my writing I have to stick to the people and the culture and experience that I know.
Guitar.com: So, for example, in "Behind Blue Eyes," which sounds so self-examining, you're actually in character?
Townshend: The interesting thing about "Behind Blues Eyes" is it's one of the original songs for Lifehouse, which was my first film script - which was abandoned by the Who. That song was written for a lead character, and I think when I do that sometimes I actually do plunge deeper into my own psyche that I would at other times. I get accused of having been through a long period of self-analytical writing. That is not the way it felt to me. It might have been the way it appeared, but it was not the way it felt.
Guitar.com: Why was Lifehouse abandoned?
Townshend: It's a weird story. I was going to develop it at the Young Vic Theater - which ironically is where I'm taking The Iron Man, which is my first complete musical that I wrote in '85, this winter. Frank Dunlop was then the director of the new Young Vic, and I was on the board there, and we were going to do this piece as a workshop with the Who and a live audience. Meantime, I didn't realize it, but I was being undermined by my manager Kit Lambert, who'd in that year become rather megalomaniacal and a deep new heroin addict. He had written a treatment for Tommy and had gone to Frank Dunlop and said, "Listen, this thing Lifehouse that Pete's talking about? You know, it's a bit crazy. Well, really it's just ,Tommy in disguise." So he gave Frank Dunlop his script of Tommy and took away my script of Lifehouse and told everybody I was going crazy. By the time I realized what was going on, I just gave up and used the very good music I'd written for Lifehouse as an album, Who's Next. I'd just done Tommy; I was really on. I knew I could do this thing. It wasn't too big for my brain. Lifehouse was the follow-up. I'd started writing it almost immediately after Tommy was finished. I think if it had happened at the time it would have been a monumental project for the Who, because Universal Pictures were willing to turn it into a movie.
Guitar.com: One of the joys of Psychoderelict is hearing you step back into playing electric guitar.
Townshend: I think it's because of this bike accident I had that kind of snatched the acoustic guitar away from me. I can still play acoustic, but with nothing like the kind of grace I used to be able to play. And I suddenly realized when I couldn't play it that my style of playing had become an enormous vanity for me. I'd actually become obsessed with how much better I was at playing rhythm guitar than almost anybody that I knew apart from the great flamenco players I'd seen in the streets of Spain. You know, nobody could play like me, I think. And I fell off the bike. I broke my wrist and shattered it into a thousand pieces and it doesn't revolve and I can't play very good rhythm guitar. So I've actually gone back to the guitar as a sort of new instrument, redressed it, and actually found that it's an enjoyable instrument to play in any shape or form. I've kind of lost that vanity that I'd built up around acoustic playing, because I certainly didn't start off with that vanity. I didn't start off feeling that I was a great rhythm player. I used to feel that I was a guitar player who was going to improve in time. And I think that what happened was I didn't get up the kind of speed that I wanted. I fell back into a kind of style of rhythm that, I think, was exemplified on the '89 Who tour. It was actually very flashy. Anyway, I've lost that, and I think it did actually get me back to picking up an electric guitar and banging away at it with my broken wrist with titanium rods in it, and hearing sounds come out that actually surprised me.
Guitar.com: You say that you never got up to the speed on guitar you wanted to, but I wonder if your perception isn't in part colored by who your peers were. Wasn't it daunting to come up with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton?
Townshend: That's right, it was. It was also very inspiring. I think that meeting and working with and watching and being close to Jimi Hendrix in the really early years did actually help me to shoot for a style of playing that became much more lyrical and faster than I'd ever sort of felt possible. It didn't approach the spiritual quality that he had. I've also found Eric inspiring, because he's never relied on speed. He's always relied on something else - feel, style. So they've both been really great teachers.
Guitar.com: In Psychoderelict, some of the important twists of the plot take place in "grid-life," a kind of digital universe the characters access through computer-controlled suits. Do you cruise the internet?
Townshend: Oh sure, yeah. I have sex on computer all the time. I'm into putting my head on females' bodies and all kinds of stuff. Out on the bulletin board I can wear whatever I like. Writers' can't catch me there. Well, the fact of the matter is that because the network is a network, everybody can catch anybody. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing.
Guitar.com: In reviews of Psychoderelict, the word "cynicism" keeps popping up - the observation that the work is streaked with cynicism. But in regarding the music business as a rotten orchard, I think of its spin more as realism.
Townshend: I'm starting to feel really misunderstood these days. I've had this thing leveled at me a couple of times, about the fact that I messed with the ending of Tommy [on Broadway], and I'm elevating normality above the '60s dream. I think a lot of people are just a little bit dumb, to be honest. It's not to say that anybody who doesn't like the record is stupid. I'm saying that anybody who doesn't like the album because they think it's cynical is just getting me wrong. I wouldn't waste my time on cynicism. There's vengeance in my life and vengeance in my craft, but there's also joy and love and generosity. It seems to me that if you actually try to articulate an idea in rock 'n' roll, there are two words people use: pretentious or cynical. I get them both hurled at me regularly, like bricks, and they're just bouncing off my big, solid, hard head. I'm gonna keep doing what I'm doing, and getting bigger and fatter and more contended and doing less work and making more millions of dollars - do you know what I mean? But what I'll never do is sneer at my audience. My audience to me is probably more precious now than ever before. I think that's why I'm doing this tour; I don't think it's to sell records. I think I suddenly feel this burning need to be in front of an audience. I think also, when I first got this idea to do a tour, it was originally not to face the public but to face the press. I actually wanted people to open that debate up with me. I wanted to be able to say to the press, "Well, don't you think that the most cynical thing that you can ever do is call somebody a cynic?" It's like John Lennon said, "It takes a hypocrite to call somebody a hypocrite." What I find heartening about this record and the kind of responses I'm getting to it is that like all of the better things I've done in the past, there's this great division: people either fall behind it and feel that there's something in it that works, or feel that this is a denial of what rock was meant to do in the first place. That always makes me feel that I'm on a rich vein. Because when that happens, time usually proves me right.