Pete Townshend Deluxe Gold Top 76

Back in 1983, Pete Townshend released the first in a series of CD compilations—titled Scoop, Another Scoop and Scoop 3—that offered an inside look into his approach to making music. Those homespun recordings of demos and rarities—the bulk of which were made in the ‘70s—were anthologized in 2002 on a 2-CD set titled Scooped. To commemorate Gibson’s recent announcement of the Pete Townshend Deluxe Gold Top '76 —a striking “Les Paul Artists Series” replica of one of the main instruments favored by Townshend in the ‘70s—we’re proud to present the following interview, conducted with the Who leader in the summer of 2002, shortly after the Scooped set was released. Read in full, the chat offers a fascinating glimpse into the creative mind of one of rock’s greatest artists.

Pete Townshend

What was the motivation behind releasing the first Scoop CD, back in 1983?

I'm not quite sure what I was up to back then. I know that I was listening to a kind of draft Scoop that Spike [Helen Wilkins, Townshend’s editor and producer] had put together for me during the last Who tour in 1982, so it must have been a project I began to get interested in while The Who were still in their first phase, prior to first breaking up. I think I partly wanted to debunk the myth that my demos were better than The Who versions of my songs. Many demos had been released in various forms at various times, and many were bootlegged. What was clear was that my demos were often just different in some essential way to The Who version.

I also wrote music that The Who would never ordinarily record, and I thought I would like the world to hear that, too. It’s hard to say whether the collection works in either sense. Who fans buy this stuff. They aren't all ready to indulge my idea of myself as a free spirit, musically speaking, but the collection sold 200,000 double albums. That was a gross of about $3 million. There were no recording costs, and no cash advances from the record company to me over and above what I normally received for my regular solo albums, so everyone was happy.

Did you anticipate, at that time, that you would continue to make more demos available to the public?

The first Scoop wasn’t just demos. It was also unreleased material. And so the die was set to some extent for an outlet for me that would always have a mixed audience. I was hooked when I started to get good feedback for stuff like “Unused Piano from Quadrophenia,” which was nominated for a Grammy—my first ever nomination, by the way. That was a piano theme that I had written purely for impressionistic purposes—to create an image and mood for myself, so that as I wrote songs for Quadrophenia they would take on a particular musical modality, or ambience. This is what still attracts me to the series. I like the idea of people hearing my demos, and work-in-progress demos for things with which they are familiar, but I also like exposing brand new work which I've written sometimes just to amuse myself, or to create a mood for some other part of my life.

Pete Townshend

Most of the material on the Scoop albums is multi-instrumental and fully arranged. Did you always try to completely arrange the songs before taking them to The Who?

Yes. The reason for doing this is that The Who is a simple rock band with an extremely parochial style and sound. To influence it one must be very specific about what one wants. So a full orchestral piece recorded by The Who will sound orchestral, but there will be no orchestra. The other reason for trying to deliver complete demos is because up until now—and this may well change—I have always wanted to be the composer up until the recording starts, and from then on the guitar player. I have never felt comfortable tearing my own stuff apart with the band during recording. So I become a little detached. I find myself behaving like a session man. I do my job. I play guitar with The Who much as I do on stage these days. If the demo is complete, even I am able to react to it with more detachment and objectivity than if there were deliberate “spaces” for creative and interpretative input.

The demo for "You Better You Bet" is your personal favorite. What is it about that demo that you especially like?

It was written about the most incredible girl. I put my heart and soul into the song knowing that I would never be able to have the girl because although we were in love at the time, I had kids, a wife who I greatly respected and had hurt, and I wanted to try to be a good guy. When I played her the song she was pleased, but I'm happy to say she has gone on to live very happily without me.

In the liner notes you write that "Behind Blue Eyes" wasn’t a personal song, but rather it was written to fit into the context of Lifehouse. Still, the demo is more vulnerable and sad than the version that appears on Who’s Next. Was it ever difficult to hand over such a beautiful song to Roger, to sing?

Not at all. Roger has a great voice. The Who did rather overplay the song, but today we can do it however we like, and Roger still interprets the song with different degrees of intensity every time. I love singing the solo too. It's a terrific song.

The Who

Did the other members of The Who ever suggest pulling your songs in a direction that was radically different from what you originally envisioned?

Very rarely. Roger would often ask me to sing a song that he liked, but felt uncomfortable about singing. And, in the latter years [1978-1982], John [Entwistle] wanted the recordings to be heavier while I wanted them to be lighter. But generally we each submitted demos and selected what we liked. I always submitted many more than we needed.

Did you consciously strive to write toward the strengths of the individual members of the band?

Always. On “My Generation,” I made the demo with a six-string bass and played a solo because I knew that would suit John. I put in a stutter because Roger and I were both huge fans of both John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash, and both [of them] occasionally stuttered. When I started to employ drums on my demos I tried not to overplay, but I certainly would have played like Keith sometimes if I could. After I heard [The Band’s] Music from Big Pink, I wanted my demos to sound tight and cool. That's why the demos for Who’s Next are so good, because I tried very hard indeed to emulate the sound of The Band to some degree.

You also once said that Who’s Next probably became one of the best-sounding Who albums precisely because those demos were so good. Can you elaborate on how an outside producer—in this case, Glyn Johns—would take what you had done sonically and try to replicate or evolve it?

You know, I don't think he did that. The band had rehearsed the songs for that album to the highest standard by the time Glyn got us into his special studio at Olympic. We did the album quickly as a result, maybe in less than two weeks.

You’ve always seemed to have an especially intense love of the studio—much like Prince, it seems to me. Does the studio inspire you as a writer?

Yes. I love Prince and the way he uses the studio as his template for whatever is happening in his life. For people like us, the studio is like a golf-course! It's strange to think that one can be inspired by technology, but one can. For example, “Drowned” [from Quadrophenia] was written purely to test my first one-inch 8-track machine. It is a fantastic song, but I just knocked something out so that I could play. Music is something you play at. It's play—like golf, sailing, model trains, engine restoration, etc. It's quite a man thing, I think.

Pete Townshend

Does writing prose fiction ever inspire you to write a song?

Yes. There are so many examples, in my case. The story of Tommy was a long prose-poem called “Amazing Journey,” before it became the song-cycle we have all come to know, and love or hate. Who’s Next was a story called “Lifehouse,” about the future of communications, the coming of the Internet, Virtual Reality, censorship of certain kinds of music, and so on. Quadrophenia was a little story about the day in the life of a Mod kid. In each case the story came first.

I think recently I've noticed that what happens when I write prose or poetry is that it starts the juices flowing—but it also shines a light on what is going on inside me. Sometimes, that light needs a better focus, and a song is often the best way to tighten up an idea. I have just finished the first draft of a new book called The Boy Who Heard Music. Two really quite powerful songs have come from that. In the story, I also feature a child's play I once wrote which contains a song called “Only One Hymie.” So the ball goes around and around.

You know, I write about music a lot too. I mean about the way it sounds, and what it is for. That works sometimes as a lever for me. I find myself describing something, and then think, “I must actually do this—now!”

Pete Townshend

Can you compare and contrast prose writing and songwriting? Do you derive more satisfaction from one than from the other?

Songwriting is best. It's the hardest . . . finest . . . tightest. It also requires the most discipline. When someone I like brings out a new album of new songs, I go buy it. When I hear new songs, I like I feel like praising God. It seems like the greatest gift, to find great new songs. This month’s find is Wilco.

Given how much you love the studio, at any point in your career did you consider becoming a producer of albums by other artists?

I did that once or twice, especially with Thunderclap Newman. I would love to have time to do it, but when I have tried it, I have found myself unable to give as much as I would like. There’s just not enough time.

Today, there’s nothing unusual about someone recording and producing an entire album in their home studio. Do you feel you were a pioneer in that evolution?

Yes. I am pleased to have helped develop and demand equipment for this purpose. There are others, like Joe Meek, Wendy Carlos, Les Paul, and Eddie Cochran and so on—who worked in complex home studios long before I did. But I helped develop the first portastudio. It was me and a fellow called Andy Berraza who, in 1971, came up with the idea to use a four-track car cassette head block (designed to play two tracks but in two directions) as a one-direction 4-track. Andy somehow managed to solve the problems of the delicate bias issues, and sold it to Fostex. Prior to that I had invented the Junior Songwriter's Kit for [Faces’ guitarist and one-time Townshend collaborator] Ronnie Lane—two Dolby Cassette machines in an attache case for overdubbing. I have always encouraged songwriters to have their own studios. Composers should be like painters. If you can't write notation, you must have a scratch pad you can use at any time night or day—almost in any place too. These days, all this is possible.

Along with maybe Lou Reed, you were one of the first artists to demonstrate that rock and roll could accommodate big themes, or themes normally associated with great literature. Do you agree?

Ah. I love Lou Reed, but I'm not sure I ever did what he did. I think Lou deals with earthly themes. Lou is like an Elmore Leonard crossed with Charles Bukowski—he's actually better than both of them in my opinion. His story is often a neighborhood moment. He captures a specific, a color, the nature of a feeling. Lou is actually perfect pop. Just perfect sometimes.

And you?

A literary model for me would probably be someone like Herman Hesse crossed with Somerset Maugham. The story is there, but I tend to try to work around it for some reason. Where my songs land in the neighborhood, which rock really demands, they land in a general reflection of a group, a team, a gang, a small society. I deal more with wishy-washy abstracts.