F1 Abu Dhabi: Pete Townshend on guitars, getting old, and Daltry
What’s On has a Pete Townshend interview ahead of The Who live at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after-race concerts, du Arena, Yas Island.
Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Richards. No, not a firm of lawyers, but some of the most talented men to ever pick up a guitar. Another name that belongs in that list is Pete Townshend of The Who. The iconic British band, who had huge success around the world in the 1960s and 1970s, close the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend with Townshend and his explosive guitar driving the show.
One of the most dynamic – and sometimes terrifying – bands to ever take the stage, Townshend, along with singer Roger Daltrey, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, played Woodstock 45 years ago, smashed up hotel rooms, and provided the soundtrack to an entire movement: the Mods, with hits such as My Generation, Who Are You and Won’t Get Fooled Again.
Townshend and Daltrey are the only two living members of The Who and begin their latest tour in Abu Dhabi. They’re no strangers to big gigs: they played the Super Bowl in 2010, closed the London Olympics in 2012, and rocked the 2009 Melbourne Grand Prix.
The relationship between Townshend and Daltrey is one of the most notorious in rock history with frequent, well-documented fights – often physical. But today, with Roger aged 70 and Pete 69, Townshend says there is a new respect and affection between the men, 50 years after The Who released their first record. We spoke to Townshend ahead of the Abu Dhabi gig and began by asking him about his trademark move: the windmill.
So, Pete, the windmill. For those who haven’t seen it, describe how it works. You take a guitar pick and slice it across the strings at what must be about 50mph and it goes schweeeuugghhh! It’s not just a gimmick; I do it because it’s a noise you can’t get any other way. Nobody else gets it right. It is very difficult to do it without cutting your hand to shreds. And, of course, I have cut my hand to shreds a few times while doing it.
You’ve been playing the guitar a long time – do you still enjoy it? Oh yeah, I still love it. I’m not a Jimmy Page, or a Jimi Hendrix, I’m not a great shredder like Slash. I’m not an eloquent player, but I like to get sounds out of the guitar that it doesn’t want to make. I like to take a position, look the audience in the eye and let my fingers do the walking – I know something magical will happen. The guitar is a great thing. It’s something you can take to bed with you at night. You can sit in the bath and plunk away at it. A guitar has a weapon-like quality. It can be angry and explosive, but also tender and warm.
Touring today must be very different to when you started. [laughs] Yeah, everything’s a bit nicer these days. It’s not that the hotel rooms are bigger, but we get more respect now. We might get a note from the hotel manager welcoming us. That didn’t happen in the old days. Back then the manager would warn us, “If you put a foot wrong, you’re out the door.”
Yes, The Who had some crazy days, right? I’m not a natural at this but I think Roger is. His passion is rooted in the traditions of rock ’n’ roll. But I’m more of an intellectual about it. I understand what rock is and why it happened and where it came from. But next birthday I’ll be 70, and I don’t look back and think I could have done more concerts. I look at AC/DC still playing gigs today and wonder how they’re not dead.
Roger once said: “I’d do 300 gigs a year if Townshend was up for it…” No, he wouldn’t be able to do it. When we go on tour we have to take a day off between each show, sometimes two or three days, because we’re getting older. Roger and I don’t mind being called old. I’m incredibly fit, I eat OK, I ride a bike and go sailing. I survive. My energy comes from the music. I come home from a tour and I look better than when I set off. I usually lose 20 pounds. I have to eat a lot of cheesecake to keep up.
Do these big gigs get your blood racing? Being at a gig feels like home to me, I don’t get nervous, I feel very safe. I remember when we played the London Olympics in 2012. We were about to walk on stage and somebody told me something daft like four billion people around the world were watching on TV. I just thought, “Yeah, OK.” People who come to see us probably put more effort into the show than I do. But it’s important for me to respect the audience and I always do my best.
How much do you rehearse? It takes me a quite a while to get comfortable. I need to know a song well enough so that, if I make mess of it, I can make it look deliberately anarchic. There has to be feeling of looseness, and movement, and possibility.
You once said on a TV chat show in 1981 that, “You have to grow up with dignity and that’s very difficult in the music business.” Have you done that? I remember that day very well. I felt terrible. My marriage was breaking up, and I was not well. Soon after that I left The Who. Those were painful times. I don’t care about dignity anymore. What’s important is being content with what life has delivered you. If there happens to be a bit of misery, that’s OK. I’m certainly much happier now than I was then. I was happy being miserable. I was a performing, windmilling clown in The Who and we were selling out stadiums, playing the old songs. I was earning lots of money, throwing it away on a stupid lifestyle. I’m so glad that I’m not like that anymore. I feel my best years are still to come.
You and Roger. What’s your relationship like these days? We’re still very, very different people. When we lost John Entwistle in 2002, it wasn’t so much a wake up call, but I think Roger and I looked at each other and realised that the two people who had the most to work out between them were the ones left alive. We had the bridge to cross and had to work out why life had thrown us together. It was a karmic, cosmic moment.
How have you patched it up? Slowly but surely, we’ve managed to do what we never did all these years: listen to each other. It took us a long time to learn that. I told him, “Rog, I’m listening to you, could you please do me the favour of listening to me too.” We’ve been through so much together, we have so much common ground, and our communication is improving. We still live on slightly different planets, but we’re very comfortable in each other’s company, and I’m looking forward to seeing lots of him on this tour.
Can you say you love him? Ten years ago I would have said no. But today, I would say most emphatically, yes. I’m sure we’ll exchange some very interesting words on our deathbeds!
You can’t deny you two have amazing chemistry on stage. Well, other people see that, probably better than we do. In the mid-1970s I’d be on stage wanging away on the guitar and Roger would look across at me like a puppy [laughs]. I used to think, “He’s just the singer.” But that’s not how I feel today. Now I look across and think, “That’s Roger Daltrey, we’ve done some extraordinary things together.” And we’re still doing it.
Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi 5pm, Dhs365. Tel: (800) 927. Taxi: Yas Marina Circuit. yasmarinacircuit.com