The Who in 2008

NZ Listener

A tribute band with two original members 

Last time The Who came to town, local media prepared the New Zealand public in the way you might expect them to warn of an imminent tsunami or terrorist attack. The country was put on high alert.

The group had just played in Australia, where reports of drunkenness and destruction, onstage and off, had seen them banned by airlines, vilified by the media and wished good riddance by the Prime Minister.

When it comes to Rock 101, the Who wrote the course paper. So many of what are now considered clichés of the rock’n’roll lifestyle – televisions thrown out hotel windows, cars driven into swimming pools – began with the Who.

As personalities they provided four or five enduring rock archetypes: the deadpan bass player (John Entwistle), the lunatic drummer (Keith Moon) the beautiful brooding frontman (Roger Daltrey), and the guitar hero/rock auteur (Pete Townshend).

And then there is the music. With Townshend’s power chords, Entwistle’s gargantuan rumblings and the manic Moon approaching each song as if it were a drum solo, they made every band before them sound as though they had been plunking ukuleles. Listen to 1970’s Live At Leeds and hear how much sheer force you can get out of just three instruments and a voice. It is a template thousands of bands have followed over subsequent decades.

Just over forty years since the Who last toured New Zealand, the first thing Pete Townshend recalls about the visit is that it was a chance to see a beloved aunt. “[She] had emigrated to Wainuiomata many years before for the sake of the health of my Uncle George. My Aunt Queenie came to see me in Auckland when we arrived, to say hello. It was quite sad because the newspapers had made us look like criminals and yobbos. Even so it was nice to see her after fifteen years, a gentle soul.

“The hotel we stayed in was old fashioned and the manager, worried by what he’d read about our behaviour in Australia, lined us up to give us a lecture. No room service. No room keys. No service of any kind. First sign of trouble we’d be out. We only stayed one night. I don’t really blame him when you see what the papers had written about us. The next morning when I woke up I realized the manager had been serious about no room service, and the operator told us we’d have to buy breakfast outside the hotel because he’d shut the restaurant in honour of our visit. I went out and bought some milk, sugar and cornflakes and called down for a plate and spoon. The manager wouldn’t let me have one, so I ate my cornflakes from the sink, and left a £5 tip for the maid.”

The following year the Who launched the first rock opera (Tommy) and gave their iconic performance at Woodstock. They subsequently made what is arguably the greatest hard rock album ever (Who’s Next), before losing drummer and dynamo Moon to a drug overdose and, in 1982, calling it quits.

But that was hardly the end. As rock passes its half-century, it becomes more and more apparent that, like classical music, its great works won’t go away.

The recordings remain, but who is to perform the music live, particularly when the original bands have broken up or intrinsic members died? The Who have been wrestling with the question almost since Townshend first announced he was quitting. They reformed for Live Aid in 1986, then for a US tour in 1989, and were on the eve of another American tour when founder and bass guitarist John Entwistle dropped dead in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2002, apparently due to a heart attack induced by cocaine use. Even that didn’t stop the music. The gigs went ahead with a stand-in, and Townshend and Daltrey have since continued to perform under the banner of The Who, with an auxiliary that has sometimes included Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, on drums. In 2006 there was even an album of new material, Endless Wire.

And yet Townshend readily acknowledges the Who is not the entity it was. In a blog post earlier this year he defined his position. “I used to be in a band called the Who. It does not exist today except in your dreams. I am a songwriter and guitarist who - if I create the right setting - can walk on to a stage with my old buddy Roger Daltrey and evoke the old magic of the Who in the dreams of the audience.”

How much does the audience who will flock to North Harbour Stadium in March to see Townshend, Daltrey and ring-ins perform as the Who appreciate the distinction?

“I think the audience can appreciate that the old Who will never function again as they once did, as innocently I suppose”, writes Townshend in an email answer to my question. “Roger and I know how to do what we have always done, but we are much more conscious of the process now, the device of letting our audience live out their own wish while we play the old songs.

“The fact of the matter is that the Who as a band stopped working when I quit in 1982. However, the brand would not die. That was partly a record company hanging on to a catalogue asset, but also partly Roger’s passion for what he believed we had achieved, and could one day do again. I let go, and I think John Entwistle did too, but Roger never gave up trying to bring the band back to harmony with the brand. I might seem to be talking about the name, and just the name. But the brand had been identified very strongly with the technique we stumbled on – which was providing music for people, mainly young men, to use as a kind of therapy. They put themselves into our songs, and sometimes even into us, and we found ourselves acting as alter-egos, or myth figures. We felt quite passive in this role, and focused on our performances most of all.

“Today, Roger and I work with the brand, and until we have the courage to stop calling ourselves The Who, must accept that brings up many difficulties.

“At least this particular Who Tribute band features two of the original members and you don’t have to listen to a bunch of Hollywood actors and actresses caterwauling their way through the history. I am able to say this about the movie Mama Mia as a very sincere Abba fan, but also as someone who acted as music director to the same appalling wonderment in Ken Russell’s Tommy.

“By the way, Ken Russell told my partner Rachel that he thought the Mama Mia film was wonderful. However, someone who looked remarkably like Elvis stood to watch our show in Atlantic City last month. It’s easy to summon up the ghosts.”

But even if Townshend and Daltrey today are doing more than simply summoning up ghosts, surely it feels different to step onstage now, at 62?

“It is different I think for me, perhaps not so much for Roger. I feel a difference in that I suddenly feel outside my own music. I perform it as a musician rather than a voice. I feel that if I try to make it sound or look as though I still relate to this music it will make it less useful to the audience. I want to be as transparent as possible, and so I become rather like a conductor – I throw myself into the music, but I don’t relate to it myself. I respond hugely though when it’s clear the audience is inside the music, especially younger people, that’s amazing for me.”

Perhaps the reason audiences have always responded, been able to get inside the Who’s music – and continue to - is that it allows so much room for them. It is, after all, a big music. When Daltrey, at Woodstock, wailed “Listening to you/I hear the music/Gazing at you/I get the heat”, he seemed to be speaking for all the muddy multitudes. Similarly, such songs as ‘My Generation’, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, ‘Who Are You?’ with their towering choruses and thundering chords, offer a voice to the questions and frustrations of generations. The Who truly invented the rock anthem.

If, on closer inspection, the songs, all written by Townshend, prove a little more personal and ambiguous than the audience’s response to them, their effectiveness is undeniable. It is something Townshend has clearly thought about a lot.

“Rock (and pop) is best when it is transparent”, he writes, “when we can find ourselves easily inside the music. Then we travel with it, and it works like a medicine, or a fix, or a release. It might also allow us to feel a part of a group, or society. In this, they are different from other art-forms (if you will allow me to call it art) in that the narrative, the story, the leading character, must be the listener not the performer. This is why some of the biggest performers in rock and pop are apparently so empty, they are actually practicing a kind of provisional humility, often without knowing it. Good examples come most easily from pop – like Madonna and Michael Jackson. But in rock there is Mick Jagger, who is like a puppet master, none of us who are his friends really know him all that well, he is happy for us to make him who we each want him to be. It is a great gift he has I think and I treasure him for it.”

Answers like these beg further questions, which I don’t have the opportunity to ask due to Townshend’s insistence on e-mail rather than the conventional phoner.

You might think he would be wary of computers. Six years ago he had his confiscated by police, after his name had been given to Scotland Yard by the FBI following an investigation into child pornography internet sites. Townshend had apparently logged onto a Texas-based site and used his credit card to view obscene images of children, which he would insist had been for purposes of research, stemming from his belief that he was abused as a child. He was arrested, though charges were later dropped and he was released with a caution.

Not surprisingly, passionate defences appeared in various media; who wants to believe the rock star, that has voiced so many of one’s dreams and ideals, is actually a criminal and pervert? One of the most surprising was a piece in this magazine by Beryl Te Wiata (wife of the late Inia Te Wiata), who had made friends with the guitarist when she sold him a car in London in the early 70s.

But to me, the most convincing defence already existed in Townshend’s music. Sexual abuse of children and its traumatic consequences had, after all, been a theme he had explored in his songwriting as far back as Tommy. Have the events of 2003 put him off ever addressing this subject again?

“I was unconscious of what I was doing when I wrote Tommy”, he answers. “When I started it I thought I was writing a spiritual tale, a kind of rock Siddhartha. It emerged eventually as a post-war horror-story with a fair smattering of ill-fitting black humour added by Moon and Entwistle. It was much later, in the mid-‘80s, after a period of therapy, that I came to terms with my own childhood sufferings, and those of some of my peers, and understood how they had manifested in Tommy and other songs. If I had looked carefully at my work as a writer in the ‘60s I would have seen evidence that I had been damaged in some way. What was surprising was that my work expressing this was so popular with the public, so I was obviously not the only one. I don’t mean we are all abused, though some of us were; I mean we all suffered in some way in the post-war years, all of us baby-boomers, or knew someone who had survived abuse.

“In 2003 I was working with disturbed adults, and they were my main concern, not children. The adults, like me, like to describe themselves as ‘survivors’. I think I was experiencing a kind of ‘White Knight’ syndrome so common among rock stars. I wanted to be the one who made a difference. However, by the time I was arrested I’d already given up trying to make sense of the internet’s ills in public, and had decided instead to privately fund a Survivors helpline, and help adults, real people I could touch and speak to. The charges against me were all dropped in the end, and so that helpline is what I concentrate on today, and it is very worthwhile work. I will never return to this issue again as a journalist or polemicist. But I can’t promise that my future creative work won’t again reveal some pain from the past.”

Townshend has answered the last of my emailed questions, but is clearly on a roll and, circling back to the start of our exchange, offers these further thoughts about the Who’s imminent visit.

“I think it’s fairly safe to say that we are determined to perform next year in NZ at full power, and we are making sure we don’t perform when jetlagged. We’re traveling east to west all around the globe in stages to make certain of this. It has been a long, long time since we played our music in New Zealand. Yours is a country that, in a way – because of my beloved Aunt Queenie and Uncle George, and our strange and unhappy visit back in 1968 – means a lot to me. It is full of intimate memories, despite the fact I have spent just two days there in my entire life.

“Today, my three children are grown up, I have some freedom, and more time to travel, no contracts to work out, and I am coming to play in New Zealand with a feeling of real anticipation and pleasure. Let me tell you something honestly: it isn’t often I feel that way about my work.”

Tags: the whopete townshend

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