Classic guitar interview: Pete Townshend, 1990

The Who legend pictured next to a Tommy hoarding in the early 1990s
The Who legend pictured next to a Tommy hoarding in the early 1990s (Image credit: Steve Goldstein/Corbis)

Back in 1990, Guitarist magazine caught up with The Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, who was characteristically frank and revealing. Here, we look back at this classic interview.

What originally influenced you to become a player and a writer?

"My father had played the guitar when he was young and my uncle Jack had worked for Kalamazoo, before the war, developing guitar pickups. So there was a kind of family thing about the guitar, although it was considered something of an anomaly then.

"My father was in a dance band and I wanted to do what he did, play the saxophone, but I couldn't blow a note so he suggested the guitar. Chromatic harmonica was actually my first instrument and I got very good at it - not quite Stevie Wonder, but very good. Then I hit eleven and decided I did want to try the guitar, so my grandmother bought me one.

"Then I started to examine what was happening, listening to Elvis Presley like all my friends. But to be honest I never really liked him, and also I think Scotty Moore was an aberration - it's not my idea of great playing.

"Feedback is just an extraordinary sound, like an enormous plane. It's a wonderful, optimistic sound."

"I think he was someone from another era who'd been drafted into rock and roll; he was competent but not brilliant. I know that's sacrilege to many people and I wouldn't want to slight him as an individual or as a player, because he's cited as a seminal influence by so many people, but for me it was more the sound of Nancy Whiskey."

Do you mean Freight Train?

"Yes, the sound of strumming guitars; such a glorious sound. And I like flamenco music and used to listen to a lot of that, and that's really where my style was born.

"I got my guitar for Christmas but I didn't learn it. Instead I bought myself a banjo, because in my class at school we had quite a good trad band - we even had a tuba player - and [The Who's bassist] John Entwistle was on trumpet. We were all very left-wing, or they were - I didn't know what politics was about. And they were always disappearing into sleeping bags with girls.

"So I picked up the banjo. And the players I looked at were the guys who played with Acker Bilk, Ken Collier and Kenny Ball. English banjo players really were a law unto themselves - you don't find that kind of brisk banjo playing on the original Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke records.

"But Acker Bilk's banjo had this very vital, bright sound. He used a G banjo with along scale and played it with lots of flourishes, and I copied that, until I went back to playing guitar a couple of years later.

"I didn't start to collect records and listen to guitar players properly until I went to art school, when I'd already been playing for five years. So my style was already formed and that's why I think it's so unique. I did start copying Chet Atkins when I was eighteen and I can do quite a good impersonation - not quite as good as Mark Knopfler, but I could give him a run for his money on Lambeth Walk, for example.

"But they're not in my blood, they're things that I learned but rapidly got tired of, and I became interested in the intuitive style that seemed to be R&B - like Jimmy Reed, who just played two shapes, but it was the depth in those two shapes that created the poetry."

Was your songwriting developing at the same time as all that?

"Yes, listening to R&B and to other players, and the creative process, were all part of the same thing. Prior to that I'd just been playing for amusement, not really accepting any challenges.

"In a way I regret not having had a formal beginning, because there are walls that I come up against, particularly in these days of players who are so brilliantly expressive and can play so fast. I can play much faster now than I used to, but I'm always ahead of my fingers, my vocabulary is limited and I can't read very well. So I wish I'd taken a more formal route."

Wouldn't that have changed the way you evolved as a musician?

"No. I think it might have structured my songwriting a bit better; I look back and see wasted songs because I was working so intuitively. There were lots of really lucky songs, like Won't Get Fooled Again or Behind Blue Eyes, which came out perfectly, but not through any understanding of song structure.

"Hendrix was a great player, but he wasn't really creative. He was dealing in other people's ideas, old blues things and tricks that were either borrowed from Eric or the pyrotechnic things that he had caught off watching me."

"Computers have since helped me a lot there - it's a bit like having always suffered from hay fever and then finding that your computer will analyse the pollen count. Analysis is a lost art, and to replace it with intuition is asking too much of intuition. Intuitive players and composers should have all their armoury before they start relying on intuition. That's when they'll make quantum jumps.

"Look at somebody like Prince. He has that armoury, he can write an orchestral score, sit at a piano and read a part, knock out a fairly good version of the Moonlight Sonata or study Gershwin if he likes. Then you've got this impetuous, imp-like character grafting all this intuitive waif-like feel - and you come up with that kind of magical quality."

So where does blues, rock 'n' roll and country fit into that?

"I think people are now looking at blues, rock and roll, country and folk music as a separate strain. But it's not, it's just that those four categories are the most disciplined forms of music that exist, with rock 'n' roll probably the most disciplined of the lot."

Because you're bound by certain limits?

"Yes, and they're very strict. A lot of them have now become rules which you break at your peril - people who broke the rock 'n' roll rules in the seventies are still smarting from the response."

But didn't bands like The Who push those boundaries and merge the feel of rock 'n' roll with true pop?

"The interesting thing is that rock 'n' roll was denied to The Who in a way. The Who were more a pop band than a rock band. Some people get confused when they read the history of The Who, or hear me talking about 'rock'.

"When I talk about rock I'm talking about the ideology that lay behind the emergence of new pop in the sixties - British pop. And I include in that people like The Beatles. That unleashed something which I'm very proud of, because it happened here and it came from us! I talk with Paul McCartney about when it all started, and it's fascinating to feel that you were the beginning of a movement which has outlasted Cubism!

"A lot of people will find that statement unbelievably pretentious, but the fact is that rock 'n' roll itself lasted as long as the pundits said it would - a couple of years. I mean, Elvis only made one rock 'n' roll album!

"Then there were a couple of albums from Bill Haley and one from Eddie Cochran. Buddy Holly isn't really rock 'n' roll at all, but you'd concede one album. And Jerry Lee Lewis said it - they were buried by the emergence of bands like The Beatles, who actually took the song form back to its romantic and sentimental post-war origins."

You mean the set middle eight and everything like that?

"That's right, much more melody involved, lyrics about love and sentimentality rather than about sex. And very few code words for sex, which rock 'n' roll was full of. We really didn't understand then - I don't think The Beatles understood better than anybody else what was really going on.

"We were quite naive and I think it produced a very innocent and refreshing form of music. And where the guitar fits into all this is as the symbol, the anchor, the only continuous line through that period and probably out to the present day.

"People occasionally try to revive the saxophone: the saxophone is the symbol of the eighties - bullshit! Even today, people hold saxophones like guitars! I'm not claiming superiority for the guitar, I'm just talking about what's been imposed."

The feedback and other noises that you extracted from your guitar, were these conscious efforts to do something new, or did you happen to turn your amp up too loudly one day and create it entirely by accident?

"No, I'm afraid I was an arty little sod and I was actually experimenting. I was at art school, surrounded by real intellectuals, people that were experimenting all the time. I was greatly impressed by all this and wanted to please these people.

"A lot of it was posing, trying to drag something out of the band that it was resisting - this is pre-Keith Moon. And as I got louder, John got louder by inventing the 4 x 12 speaker cabinet, which he did with somebody up at Marshall. Then I got a 4 x 12 cabinet and put it on a chair, so then he invented the 8 x 12 cabinet, to get louder than me, and then I invented the stack by getting two 4 x 12s and stacking them up.

"Marshall were outraged, and one day somebody from Marshall came and they were nagging me about the fact that the top cabinet was shifting and was going to fall off and get damaged, and I just said, So what? and knocked it over! There was a tremendous kind of arrogance.

"I haven't actually shown up at any of Jim Marshall's anniversaries or anything because firstly I feel a bit guilty about the way we treated their products, but also because I never see anywhere that what they actually did was rip off the circuit of a Fender Bassman amplifier. I remember them doing it. I remember the amplifier in the shop, on the counter, This is the one we're copying. But of course, there was a revolution in the way that they built the stuff and the actual sound that it produced.

"Our experimentations were all to do with our irritation with the audience, who heckled if you played a rhythm and blues song that they didn't know. You'd get blokes in the back with their pints of beer shouting, What's all this rubbish? Play some Shane Fenton! And we just got louder as a result. Then the squeaks and farts did start to occur in the feedback, but by that time I was already well along the path.

"When I broke my first guitar, I'd actually watched a guy called Malcolm Cecil, at Ealing Tech, where I was at High School, beat me to the punch. He went on to co-produce Innervisions for Stevie Wonder and he was bass player with the Johnny Scott Quintet.

"A girl in my class went out with the flautist and she invited Malcolm Cecil to come and give a talk. Half-way through the talk he started to get carried away, saying, There are lots of different ways you can play the bass; you can play it like this, or like that.

"And then he started to bang it. Somebody had been doing something on the stage with a saw, and it was still there, and he picked it up and said, You can even saw at the bass, and he started to saw through his strings and we all stood up and cheered! It made a fantastic noise, and the fact that he was sacrificing his strings! And he just carried on sawing, right through the strings and through the belly of the bass!

"The whole college was full of it, so that wall had been broken and it seemed perfect, natural for me, a couple of months later, to find myself doing the same thing. I saw myself as an R&B/ jazz musician, and also as an artist.

"I thought The Who would last about a year and I'd end up back in experimental music pursuing a career very much like Brian Eno, who, believe it or not, I was a primal influence on, from a lecture I did at Winchester when he was in the audience.

"It shows that radical experimentation really is worth pursuing. Because even though it might feel stupid and pretentious, if you do discover something new, it's your property and you're identified with it for ever.

"Other people stumbled on feedback at the same time as me. Jeff Beck was using it when Roger went to see The Tridents rehearsing. He said, There's a shit-hot guitar player down the road and he's making sounds like you. Then later, when we supported The Kinks, Dave Davies was adamant: I invented it, it wasn't John Lennon and it wasn't you!

"I worshipped The Kinks and never let a bad word about them pass my lips, so I conceded. But I believe it was something people were discovering all over London. These big amps that Marshall were turning out - you couldn't stop the guitars feeding back!"

But you did try to turn it into something musical, didn't you?

"Oh yeah, you can hear it on the records. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, the solo, on the note A I would flick a harmonic, get it feeding back and then go 'dit-dit-dit-dar-dar' with the switch. And by standing at certain angles I could get incredible sounds out of it, some of which were just characteristics of the Rickenbacker body, which I stuffed with paper.

"You could control it and it could be very musical - certainly that sort of thing where you hit an open A chord and then take your fingers off the strings... The A string is still banging away but you're hearing the finger-off harmonics in the feedback.

"Then the vibrating A starts to stimulate harmonics in other strings and it's just an extraordinary sound, like an enormous plane. It's a wonderful, optimistic sound and that was something that happened because I was posing - I'd put my arms out, let go of the chord then find that the resulting noise was better."

Is it correct that The Kinks' single You Really Got Me influenced you to write Can't Explain to attract the attention of the Kinks' Producer?

"That's right. I had two songs, one called Talking Generation, which became My Generation, and Can't Explain. We picked Can't Explain as the first song to play him and I re-did the original demo with staccato chords. Listening to it, it's a craftsman-like pop record of the time and a lot of people's favourite Who record. Shel Talmy was producing a particular kind of sound in the studio, a particular kind of arrangement."

So you were into home demos even then?

"Yes, I actually started with tape recorders before I started with guitars. As well as the trad band, John Entwistle and I were also in a rock band. One of the guys had a tape recorder and we used to have such fun with it doing spoof radio shows and stuff like that, and I set my heart on getting one.

"My Mum and Dad had a junk shop, in which I worked, and inevitably a tape recorder came in - it was a Grundig or something. I couldn't dub on it, but I rapidly realised that all I needed was another tape machine and I'd be able to.

"It was Kit Lambert who set me up with a studio of my own. He was The Who's manager and he pushed me all the way. I had a flat above my folks' and I set a studio up in one of the rooms. He bought me two machines and although those demos are a little brittle-sounding they were the first things I ever did and they sound really good."

Did you regret you weren't The Who's singer?

"No, not really. There were actually periods when Roger left the group for several weeks and I was The Who's singer. Robert Plant talks about the fact that when he first saw us I was the singer. He came to see us three nights in a row and offered himself for the job, as did Steve Gibbons when he came to see us and Roger wasn't there. Obviously none of them thought I was any good!"

If asked what songs Pete Townshend writes, many people would say, Aggressive songs. But some of them are really gentle...

"Well, everybody has different shades, some of which don't get seen by the public. But anybody who cares to go further can find that stuff. I find myself whining about how record companies put everybody into boxes, but we put ourselves into a box.

"If you've got something to say I think it's best to specialise, but when you are the product, you end up lumbered with the specialisation. It's not like running a factory and saying, We'll start by concentrating on the garden gates and then move on to the rest of the furniture. You say, I'm a garden gate.

"But then, when you've successfully sold yourself as that and you say, Oh, by the way, I'm not just a garden gate, people say, Oh shut up. They don't want to know. There's only room for one garden gate and that's The Who."

When everybody else was after guitar hero status, you turned around and played a one note solo on I Can See For Miles. Was that Townshend the anti-hero?

"Well, maybe. I'm sure it was a kind of defence mechanism. You have to remember that I knew Jimmy Page - Led Zeppelin weren't formed then but I'd seen him in various bands and if anything his playing slowed down as he got older! He was an extraordinary player, arrogant, flash...

"And Eric, with the Yardbirds, used to play absolutely beautifully and he'd only been playing a year! And Jeff Beck, who always had that guitar quality of making the guitar sound like a voice. That was the kind of market-place I was in, and although I hadn't been belted round the chops by Jimi Hendrix yet, I definitely didn't want to be competing with those players."

You say you were belted round the chops by Jimi Hendrix.

"It's very difficult now, just listening to records, to understand what all the fuss was about. He was such a visual performer There was something else, other than music, going on. Hendrix was a great player, but he wasn't really creative. He was dealing in other people's ideas, old blues things and tricks that were either borrowed from Eric - that Marshall kind of style - or the pyrotechnic things that he had caught off watching me.

"I don't have romantic misconceptions about musical instruments - they're just wood, probably far more useful as pulp than anything else."

"He used to follow the band around, watching, and then he suddenly appeared on stage doing all this stuff. But it was something else that made it extraordinary; he was just an extraordinary man. Talk to the women who came in contract with him - he literally enchanted them. And he was a pretty unremarkable kind of gnarled-looking guy, but he was a real enchanter.

"The thing that really stunned Eric and me was the way he took what we did and made it better. And I really started to try to play. I thought I'd never, ever be as great as he is but there's certainly no reason now why I shouldn't try. In fact I remember saying to Eric, I'm going to play him off the stage one day. But what Eric did was even more peculiar, he said, Well, I'm going to pretend that I am Jimi Hendrix!"

What statements were you making by smashing your guitars?

"I think that's a statement in itself, though. It's like one of the only people who understood how you felt was me. And we also know that had you shown up and asked me to give you a guitar, I would have told you where to go - although I have given away a lot of guitars in my life.

"The guitar smashing was basically marketing. I knew it was going to work, but I had to use real guitars and that was because I am primarily a musician and I wanted it to be real. I'm also an artist, and I'm not afraid to claim that what I do is art.

"But it couldn't be phoney, there had to be a kind of act of vengeance against the consumer society that was telling people like you and me that we had to have a Fender with those funny little Phillips screws on, otherwise we weren't real people. And I did the paper round for three years to buy my first real guitar!

"I lent it to John Entwistle one day and it was pinched and his mother gave me three quid! I think I swore then that I would never get attached to another instrument as long as I lived.

"When Rickenbacker made me a Signature model, a couple of guys in the factory weren't too happy about it - they felt it was a kind of jibe. But I don't have romantic misconceptions about musical instruments - they're just wood, probably far more useful as pulp than anything else.

"There are actually a couple of instruments that I would miss, and in fact a weird thing happened to the J-200 that I've had for a long time. Half way through Iron Man it got wet here in the studio and exploded, and it was almost like the guitar getting back at me - the only guitar I really cared about dying on me!

"In The Witches of Eastwick, Jack Nicholson smashes up a Mercedes 600 saloon. I saved up for about five years for one of those once, and I thought, Smashing it up in a movie! It could have been any car and it would have been just as effective."

Have you ever smashed a guitar off stage, in anger?

"Oh yes, quite a lot - once the principle is there..."

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