Pete Townshend used to smash guitars. Now he is just breaking Broadway records.

A neat and tidy man, Pete Townshend: crisp summer trousers, pristine T-shirt, spotless jacket in midnight blue. The neat and tidiness - which one might have expected from a former idol of the sixties “mods” - is completed with a bottle of expensive aftershave stashed in his pocket which, rather disconcertingly, he suddenly produces in mid-conversation. He applies it generously to the nape of his neck.

“I’m cooking up here,” he explains, with a glimmer of a smile. “Eau-de-cologning.” The verb to “eau-de-cologne” is a Townshend invention, first heard in the song '5.15' recorded by The Who.

As the group’s leader, guitar player and principal writer – from its inception in 1964 to its present, long-term abeyance – Townshend is unlikely to run short of oblique references to an artistic past which embraces not only a catalogue of exceptional pop songs, but also a stretch of English social history which began with the white heat of hope and has not quite cut the mustard since.

Townshend has rolled with the punches in recent times: grown up, got lost, groped in the dark a bit, but always grafted, never tiring of pursuing the combination of immediacy, energy and observational edge that seemed to make pop songs change lives.

Success first came with three-minute bursts of adolescent rage and confusion, soundtracks to the lives of teenage tearaways besotted with dancing and clothes – neat clothes, not a thread out of place – delivered from basement stages in shows whose finales saw Townshend reduce his guitar to heaps of snapped strings and splinters. The Who were idolised by the “mods” – as in the “mods and rockers” of the Southern English seaside riots of three decades ago. Thirty years on, Townshend's latest blaze of glory is a distinctly more overground affair.

A Broadway interpretation of Tommy, the rock opera which The Who first recorded 25 years ago, has won five Tony awards: for lighting, design, choreography, direction (by Des McAnuff) and score. At the awards ceremony, Townshend said he hated this version of his creation; but the gongs matter – and, when I met him amidst the tranquil surroundings of the landscaped gardens of his picturesque home, adjacent to the Thames near Goring, Oxfordshire, he seemed a happier man.

As Townhend commented to me,maybe what matters most now is the fresh life that acclaim will inject into his compositions. Tommy tells the tale of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who discovers a mystical talent for pinball. Partly inspired by an earlier Pretty Things attempt at rock opera, Tommy was originally conceived as a radical vehicle for carrying pop songs of substance.

“I suppose what I wanted Tommy to do was to rescue the pop song, which seemed to me to be in serious trouble towards the end of the Sixties, partly because of a kind of post-psychedelic wetness that seemed to be around and soaking everything up,” Townshend said. "You could write a song ‘Weeee love you, Weee love you’ and the bloody thing would get to number 4 in the charts instantly, which was a shame, not least for the loyal fans who were paying out good money for low calibre and very lazy work.

“I was outraged by this and desolate really, because I knew that I was too much of a cynic about the industry - too anti-establishment - ever to be able to do that. I was a believer in what a certain group of writers were occasionally finding – like Ray Davies of the Kinks, Bob Dylan, and Lennon and McCartney – well most of Lennon and McCartney except for one or two of their more saccharin numbers.”

These were songs about heart and real experience. Songs with grit and humour that could condense the richness and weirdness of the everyday and convey the sense of possibility that Townshend had found in American blues.

The triggers for Pete Townshend’s revolution and involvement with what he refers to as “the big beat sound” were doubtless myriad, but, bizarrely, he tells me he believes that central to them all was his nose. Back in 1968 he told Rolling Stone magazine: “When I was in school the geezers who were snappy dressers and pulled all the chicks, like years before I ever even thought chicks existed let alone that any of them might be interested in me, these guys would always like to talk about my nose. This seemed to be the biggest thing in my life: my nose. It was huge. Really huge. At that time my nose was the reason I did everything. It was the reason I played the guitar, as a distraction from the sheer hideousness of my huge hooter. Yes, it’s all because of my big nose. I bet you didn't know that, did you?”

As Townshend often comments, the times were right for transcendence. “Jobs just grew on trees,” Townshend recalls. “You could do that great thing where if the boss was a bit pushy, you could turn round and say, ‘Shove your job.’ You could say that. Actually say it. I mean people did that all the time, and just went straight to another job. Isn’t that fantastic? Marvellous. It's tragic that the present generation couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. Sadly the bosses and all those big corporations, they've got the upper hand again.”

Ready-cash in teenagers' pockets created scope for attitude and stylised consumption, Townshend believes. 'My Generation', the definitive Who anthem, documented the frictions that ensued. 'My Generation' was born of a single incident. After our first two hits I got an American car, a huge over-the-top pink Cadillac convertible, the first big car that I’d ever bought.

“I was driving it down Beauchamp Place behind Harrods in Knightsbridge with the windows and the top open. I was about 22. And there was some posh woman, driving the other way in a small open MG; about 35, she was. And we stopped and looked at one another and she said: ‘Driving in mummy’s car, then, are we?’ and she drove off without giving me any chance to reply. You can’t believe how angry I was. Out of all proportion. I was enraged.

“What I found so offensive was that I’d actually been denied the right even to appear to have earned that money, even if I had spent it unwisely. And I lived in a huge luxurious apartment right in the heart of Belgravia at the time. Can you imagine that?”

As with many of this country’s most resonant Sixties dissidents, Townshend’s Shepherd’s Bush upbringing was not really working class at all, but one of middle-class means and fancy aspirations. His family circle included professional people – doctors and barristers – as well as some folk with inherited wealth.

“I actually felt slightly ashamed of my people. I wanted to believe I was an authentic working class hero – like so many of us did. What made me write 'My Generation' was that what the woman said reminded me so much of my mum. A bit stuck-up, really. A bit of a snob and a bit sneering. I knew so many people like that. Not only are you not rich enough to have a car like that, but you’re not pretty enough either. The ‘I hope I die before I get old’ is about everything that I thought that woman in the MG – and to an extent my mother, too – represented.

“There were dozens of incidents just like that right through my teenage years and into my early twenties. What I just couldn’t stand was not the polarisation of the British class system, but the idea that in England you could never ever move, never ever grow, if somebody saw you in a particular way. No matter how much money you got, the best you could ever do was – if you were very, very lucky and played the game completely – to move up just one class or sub-class. But even then your acceptance could never be totally guaranteed.

“I reflect now that this is not something that the working classes in England have ever had so much of a problem with. I think there’s a generosity in the working class which says, ‘Good on you mate,’ if you’ve done it, if you can pull yourself up by the boot straps. There's not usually much resentment about it. There’s never been that generosity on the other side though, in the middle or upper class, but I used to have to take it on the chin occasionally when Roger Daltrey (The Who’s lead singer) would do an interview and say: ‘I’m genuine working class – but Townshend isn’t.’ I used to feel really ashamed about that. Some say John Lennon felt the same.”

Daltrey has gone on to own a trout farm and do commercials for American Express. Currently he owns six homes – one in London, one in Southern California, one in New York, one in Windsor and the trout farm in Somerset. Townshend maintains much closer links with the rock world than Daltrey and monitors the progress of his peers.

He accepts that for yesterday’s youth icons, middle age presents a tricky challenge: “There are a few people from the old guard and everybody’s watching – how are they going to grow old? Are they going to grow old elegantly, or stupidly, or what? The way I see it, as things stand at present, David Bowie’s got a shock of blonde hair, Mick Jagger’s got a flat stomach and I’ve got a good brain … and Ray Davies is interestingly neurotic in a creative way whilst McCartney, well, I suppose at least he’s still got his cheeky grin. How we are going to go into our middle fifties, I just don’t know.”

Townshend’s own plan is to develop his skills in musical theatre. Come Christmas, a refurbished Young Vic will stage his project, The Iron Man.

Townshend says he always carries an image of the more erudite, thoughtful sections of The Who’s audience in the back of his mind. What are these people like now? What might they connect with in him? “I have a huge loyalty to them and hope I can still project something that they will value,” he says with feeling.

“I fear that what Bill Clinton has done and what John Major has done – which ironically the detestable Margaret Thatcher never did – is to take away our ability to dream. That’s the worst crime of all, really, isn’t it? They haven’t taken the future away but, when your children talk to you about it, you find you have to talk a lot about pollution and where it might be safe enough to live. The future of the planet is such a huge issue. I also worry about the future negative impact of so-called IT: computers, robots, ever-fancier mobile phones, all of that. There are good things about it, but a big price will be paid in loss of genuine communication between people – face to face - and in the loss of personal freedoms of all kinds and in the ever-bigger dominance of big corporations – big business. It’s all very sad, but I know that just sounds like an old geezer rambling on."

“But you don’t talk very much about what the future really is, do you? The future to me has to be – and yes, you can write this off as being pathetically Sixties and naïve, if you like – it has to be about spiritual freedom, about redemption; it has to be the biggest possible idea. It cannot be small ideas, but people in this country, in Europe, in America and probably everywhere for all I know, are just going into little boxes now and hiding again. All that brashness, colour, courage and that great bravado of the Sixties is now lost. I think that is one of the things that Tommy still seems to be hanging on to and echoing, somehow. I just hope it might inspire someone, somewhere to break out of all this mediocrity that seems to dominate our lives right now. Let’s try and live again.”















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