The Who’s Pete Townshend, in an exclusive interview with Billboard, has revealed that the band’s upcoming Super Bowl halftime performance will feature a “compact medley” of their signature classic-rock anthems.
By taking the stage at the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, British rock legends The Who will play in front of the year’s biggest TV audience. Billboard checks in with guitarist Pete Townshend about the gig, his friendship with singer Roger Daltrey, and what’s next.
How did you and Roger Daltrey decide to play the Super Bowl halftime Show?
We thought about it quite hard. I think Roger was doubtful that we should do it this year. We played Australia last year in March and we were considering going on and doing some more touring, and quite a lot later on this year. And then I got quite engrossed in writing, and told Roger that I would probably need another year to write. So we canceled plans for this year. We were going to play at Coachella, the New Orleans Jazz festival, we had all kinds of things planned, so I persuaded Roger we should do the Super Bowl to kick those events off. And then decided that I couldn’t do that work later this year because I felt I had to continue to write. So this must have been on the cards for quite a long time, but I think we made a final decision to go ahead in October or something like that.
Most bands that play the Super Bowl use it as a platform to announce other projects.
That won’t be the case with us, however. In a sense the Super Bowl is emblematic of where Roger and I are currently. We both have very different needs, we always have. My hearing trouble makes it quite difficult for me to work in a studio for long periods of time. I have to be quite careful not to work too much and not to tour too much. I can still hear pretty well, I don’t need a hearing aid to hear conversations and I can work with music. As I get older, I’m 65 next birthday, my hearing is naturally falling off with age, so I’m having to take great care.
This show, for us, is a an example of what he and I can do together, waving the Who flag, carrying the flag for the boomer generation, I suppose, just as Paul McCartney does, and a couple of other artists that have done it recently like Tom Petty and the Stones.
But it also marks kind of a watershed. The music industry is changing so much. Almost everything about my life as a writer and a performer is about four or five songs that I wrote in 1971. It’s all about television, movies, commercials. When we go out and tour we don’t play stadiums like the Rolling Stones or U2, we play arenas, and we don’t always absolutely fill them to the brim. We do pretty well because we’re quite good at what we do.
When we put out records we don’t sell very many records, not that anybody does these days. But we are facing the same changes that everybody else is facing, so for us to be playing the Super Bowl at this point of our career — two old guys standing on the crest of a wave and we don’t know where that wave is going to crash next — it’s fabulous to be doing this show. I think it will help us decide what we are going to do next, what shape that will take, and whether we should just try and put out another record, whether we should do one of the fancy things I do on the side. (Exclusive: The Who’s Super Bowl set list.)
The Who’s music seems to be everywhere these days.
I broke up the Who in 1981 — we did a tour in ’82 to say goodbye, we got back together in ’89 to reminisce — but I had that long period between 1982 and 1989 where all I did was work on some solo stuff. But I was also learning how to run my catalog, learning how to be a publisher, learning how to make money outside of making records and touring.
I developed quite a knack for it, and I was actually licensing songs for television, for commercials, for movies well before it was considered to be OK. I was one of the first artists to sit with journalists and answer to the idea that I was selling out a heritage and emotional catalog that didn’t really belong to me — that belonged to my fans, that argument.
So today I feel quite confident about the fact that when we do something like the Super Bowl or we do our shows, we do what we do very, very well — which is to play live — and it shines a light back on our work.
There’s no question the licensing has broadened this band’s appeal and shows these songs were built to last.
In actual fact, it may have turned out they were built to last but they were never intended to. What I felt that I was good at almost by accident was working to the brief that I picked up when I was a kid, which was just writing for the neighborhood.
Later, I started to look at a slightly different set of issues and values, but I never, ever strayed into the political. I don’t quite know why — I’ve always had an interest in politics and world affairs — but I never allowed it to come into my work and I always fought very hard to prevent people from finding a political position in what I did. And the band were fairly apolitical as well. We saw ourselves almost like circus entertainers. Our function was to put on a show and make people happy, make them forget their troubles.
In a sense the function of doing the music was not that far away from the music of my father’s generation. My father was a musician and he played post-war music, it was the fantasy of love lost and love maybe found again, that kind of thing. The war broke up marriages, love affairs, futures, and visions and dreams. All of the music of the immediate post-war years seemed to be devoted to restoring the possibility of that dream. Rock’s function was very much to say “that’s fine, you have your dreams, but [we] have to live in the reality of what we see as a very bleak landscape. We have no function. We have no reason for being. We can’t see where we’re going to go or how we’re going to get there. We don’t like what we’ve seen you guys doing for the last 200 years. How are we going to change it? So the music there was about living in the present and losing yourself in the moment. Now that has changed. Boomers kind of hang on to that as a memory.
When I go back and listen to those songs, the Who songs in particular of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was an aspiration in my writing to attune to the fact that what I could feel in the audience was — I won’t say religious — but there was certainly a spiritual component to what people wanted their music to contain. There’s definitely a higher call for the music now which is almost religious. U2, for example, are hugely successful with songs about inner longing for freedom, ideas.
A song like “Baba O’Riley,” with “we’re all wasted,” it just meant “we’re all wasted” — it didn’t have the significance that it now has. What we fear is that in actual fact we have wasted an opportunity. I think I speak for my audience when I say that, I hope I do.
Talk about your relationship with Roger.
We’ve never hated each other in the way that the press has sometimes portrayed, but we’ve never found it easy to get on with each other. We’ve never socialized very much, and we still don’t.
But what has emerged in the past 10 years, particularly with the death of [bassist] John Entwistle, which was the last big shock we went through, is a tremendously supportive friendship. Roger and I have become friends who can say we love each other, and at our age that’s wonderful. I’ve known Roger since I was 11 years old.
What’s your take on the latest Who “Greatest Hits” project that was released in December?
It’s interesting because it’s got a couple of the more recent songs on it. It’s got “Real Good Looking Boy” from the EP we did in 2002, which is the last recording we made with John Entwhistle on bass. And its’ got “It’s Not Enough” from the last album we did together called “Endless Wire.”
Normally “Greatest Hits” give a sense that there’s no continuum beyond “Eminence Front,” I suppose, which is 1982, that there’s this great void. It’s really nice to be able to get a sense that when you listen to a record we are actually recording music that compares pretty well to what we did in the old days.
Are you satisfied with the Who’s place in history?
We were lucky in a lot of ways. We hit the spot with our audience, particularly in America, in a way that was pretty accidental. I think I was really good at writing for the English working class boys in my early days, and when we started to work in America I think I got a little bit lost. I didn’t really know what to write or how to write, and some of the big bands when we first went into American in 1966 or ’67, were bands like Jimi Hendrix, who was writing about angels in the sky, the color purple; Cream, Crosby Stills & Nash — the music at the time was quite romantic and quite drug-fueled.
The Who were just a hard-drinking band dealing with the kind of working-class stuff that I think became the essence of what happened later on with Bruce Springsteen. Bruce used to come watch our band in the early days quite a lot. I’m not saying he was studying or copying, but there was definitely a resonance.
When the Who suddenly passed through events like Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock, those things for us made us rather a romantic musical entity. Because we were so hardworking and so good on the road live, when we finally came up with a definitive album in “Who’s Next,” the timing was absolutely perfect for us. Songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” were written for a movie score for a movie that never ever got made in the shape of “Lifehouse.” Those songs were not written for a specific audience, but they really seemed to hit the spot in the USA.
And strangely enough, “Quadrophenia,” which is a piece about mods in London in the early ’60s, has worked for several generations. That’s the one piece that always surprises me when I talk to young people that hear it for the first time. They always say this is something that really reflects the way [they] feel about growing up.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on a musical play called “Floss” about a girl who rides horses, whose husband is a retired musician. I’ve been working on it for a long time. First I wrote the story, then I wrote the book. It’s about the idea that there is a tremendous feeling of fear today about the future and about our responsibility for the future, whether we’re worried about global warming, our behavior as aggressors, or as guardians of world peace. The middle classes of America and Europe have taken this position almost that they have to make amends. They look at the future and they don’t see any answers, and they don’t see very much hope. In a sense, as an artist and a songwriter what I want to do is reflect some of that, but also to demonstrate that music has a function in all this.
I finished the story in November and I’ve written quite a lot of lyrics, and I’ve been doing demos since the beginning of December. I’ve done about 10 songs so far. Whether or not this will work as a Who project I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure there are a few songs that I’ve done which Roger will enjoy singing. So there’s a possibility we might be able to release some of the songs from the play as an album or an EP.