The Who's guitarist Pete Townshend talks about the band returning to Alpine Valley Music Theatre for the first time in 30 years.
Legendary British rockers The Who are preparing to play their first show at East Troy-based Alpine Valley Theatre in 30 years. Lead singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend will be joined by guitarist/backup singer Simon Townshend, keyboardist Loren Gold, bassist Jon Button and drummer Zak Starkey.
The band won’t be alone – they’ll be backed by a 48-piece symphonic orchestra made of players from across the state. Each show on their current Moving On! tour features a specially assembled group of players. Milwaukee band Dead Horses, the opener, further deepens the show’s strong Milwaukee and Wisconsin connection.
Prior to The Who’s performance Sunday, September 8 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre, Milwaukee Magazine caught up with Pete Townshend by email to talk about playing in Wisconsin, the band’s legacy and what it’s like working on the band’s first new album since 2006’s Endless Wire.
The band played Alpine Valley 30 years ago. Why was it time to return? What do you recall of the previous show there?
We actually played two shows at Alpine Valley in ‘89 I think. I remember it very well. I had some bronchial infection and when I sang the opening of my solo song “A Friend Is A Friend” my voice went into uncontrolled falsetto and I sounded like a petulant child. We were playing a three-hour show. It was good weather. I met Mary Beth Nawa there and we went on to produce dozens of charity shows together – often with Eddie Vedder – for Father John Smythe for his Maryville Orphanage, and more recently for Teen Cancer America.
Milwaukee band Dead Horses will be opening the Alpine Valley show. What do you like about their sound? Do you have a favorite song of theirs?
“All I Really Need To Know” is my favourite. I’m not like Elton John who listens to all new music, and remembers everything he hears, but Dead Horses have a simple sound that touches the heart. I really hope our fans adore them as much as I do.
The band’s album Tommy is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What does it mean to see the immense impact the album continues to have on musicians and music fans?
Honestly? It’s kind of worrying. This is a story of a young boy who suffers abuse, neglect, bullying and abandonment. It was many years after the Broadway show in 1993 that I realized most of the story is based on my own experiences as an infant before the age of 7. This is not an anniversary I am celebrating really. Instead I am trying to ride a contra-therapeutic wave as we perform the piece on stage on this tour. The music is different of course, and the notion of spiritual transcendence and healing through fame, and ultimately through prayer, is just about as healthy an idea as I’ve ever managed to create. My song-writing mentor Kit Lambert was vitally important to the background of the story, to its setting in the post war years. But my friends Mike McInnerny who did the artwork, and Richard Stanley (a filmmaker friend) with whom I talked the initial idea through over a couple of months in while writing, were also really important.
How would you describe your previous experiences playing with orchestras from Wisconsin and the Midwest? Do you know any players from this area?
What I know is that Chicago and Wisconsin have some of the finest musicians in the world. I do know a few players yes. I remember when Daniel Barenboim was director of Chicago Symphony in 1989 when we last played Alpine Valley, meeting him briefly in an elevator left me speechless. His first two Brahms Piano Concertos were on my Boom Box at the time. Roger says his experience with the Chicago orchestra on his solo tour was less than satisfactory because the director would not allow microphones to be fitted to individual instruments, which is really vital for our show. That’s why we are not working with them, but with a wider circle of players. Pity, because I rate Chicago Symphony as one of my favourite orchestras of all time. Maybe we can work together in the next life?
What do you like most about getting to play with a variety of different orchestras on this tour?
I admire the talent most of all, and the attitude of adventure most players seem to have. We’ve played with some brilliant musicians. What is most fun for me is when I go nuts in guitar solos and some of the orchestra smile and urge me on. It’s almost as though what they’ve always most wanted to do is play some bum notes and catch fire. They are mostly very generous-spirited people. Remember, these musicians have chosen to perform with us, they are not from resident orchestras, they are invited to join us as individuals.
What song (or songs) has been the most satisfying for you to play with the addition of the orchestra on this tour and why?
Funnily enough, “Baba O’Riley” is the one I like best; it is already complex with its sequenced electronic organ in the background. David Campbell’s additions are superb, and fitting. Our resident violinist Katie Jacobi is breathtaking in the finale.
The band has been working on new music, which you hope to release later this year. Roger recently said in an interview that it was a challenge turning your songs into Who songs but ultimately was able to find a way. What was it like seeing him transform the songs? Why is this method of collaborating appealing to you and Roger?
I’m really not sure what he finds so challenging. I completely respect his process, but I don’t know what he means when he says he has to turn my songs into Who songs. You’ll have to ask him. So many people, including Roger, make arbitrary distinctions between what they regard as my ‘Who’ songs and what they describe as ‘solo’ songs. I just write songs, not for myself, not necessarily for Roger, and mostly not for The Who. The exception was Quadrophenia which I wrote specifically for the band because I felt all four of us had lost our connection with our neighbourhood roots.
I tend to work with wide-ranging ideas and concepts that inspire me and draw me in. The entire idea of a “Who song” is shaky because what The Who actually is has evolved so much over the years. It’s like trying to shoot at a moving target. For this forthcoming album, the songs I wrote specially, and some I gathered from my archive, were intended to deliver to Roger songs that would give him scope for his immense vocal range and interpretive ability as a singer. I also wanted to try to make sure the themes were current, and suitable for men of our advanced age.
However tricky and challenging he found it, he has done the most amazing job which you will hear when the album comes out.
Why is it important for the band to release new music?
Maybe it isn’t important for the band to release music, but it’s vital for me. Touring and performing is not my favourite thing. Who fans know that and forgive me as long as when I do perform, I deliver as best I can. But creative work is my passion and where I find joy, struggle and release. Most of all, it’s where I find dignity as an artist and a man.
Who would you cast to play you and Roger if there would ever be a film made about The Who?
The idea of a Who film appalls me. I wouldn’t try to stop it if it happened, but I would probably disagree with every line of dialogue put into my character’s mouth even if it could be proved I had once said it. I wouldn’t get involved in casting. I would not get involved on any level at all. So, a Who film if it happens will be driven by Roger who has far more experience in movies than I do and loves the form.
That said, I expect the casting director would have a descriptive brief that said: “For Pete Townshend, we need an actor who is tall and skinny, with a nose like a sausage and beautiful blue eyes.” My description would be: “For Pete Townshend we need someone who can convey the essence of Pete Townshend, not some fricking caricature.”
I’ll leave Roger’s casting description to you.