NASHVILLE (Billboard) - The Who has played countless stadiums over the decades. On February 7, led by surviving members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the British rock outfit will perform during halftime at Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
Billboard: How did you and Roger Daltrey ultimately decide to play the Super Bowl halftime show?
Pete Townshend: We thought about it quite hard. I think Roger was doubtful that we should do it 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 I decided that I couldn’t do that work later this year because I had to continue to write.
Billboard: Most bands that play the Super Bowl use it as a platform to announce other projects.
Townshend: The only two shows Roger and I are committed to together so far are the Super Bowl and then a concert version of “Quadrophenia” at Royal Albert Hall in March (for the Teenage Cancer Trust). 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 or not to tour too much.
This show, for us, is an example of what he and I can do together, waving the Who flag, carrying the flag for the boomer generation, just as Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Stones have done previously.
Billboard: It seems the Who’s music is everywhere these days.
Townshend: 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 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, we do what we do very, very well — which is to play live — and it shines a light back on our work.
Billboard: There’s no question that the licensing has broadened the band’s appeal and proves these songs were built to last.
Townshend: It may have turned out they were built to last — but they were never intended to. What 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 as circus entertainers. Our function was to put on a show and make people happy, make them forget their troubles.
When I go back and listen to the Who songs in particular of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was an aspiration in my writing attuned 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 an 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.
Billboard: Talk about your relationship with Roger.
Townshend: We’ve never hated each other in the way 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 that we love each other, and at our age that’s wonderful. I’ve known Roger since I was 11 years old.
Billboard: What’s your take on the latest Who “Greatest Hits” project that was released in December?
Townshend: 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, and it’s got “It’s Not Enough” from the last album we did together called “Endless Wire.”
It’s really nice that when you listen to that record, we are actually recording music that compares pretty well to what we did in the old days.
Billboard: Are you satisfied with the Who’s place in history?
Townshend: We hit the spot with our audience, particularly in America, in a way that was pretty accidental.
I was good at writing for the English working-class boys in my early days, and when we started to work in America I got a bit lost. I didn’t really know what to write, and some of the big bands when we first went to America in 1966 or ‘67 were 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 drug-fueled.
The Who were just a hard-drinking rock ‘n’ roll band, dealing with the kind of working-class stuff that 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 and Woodstock, those things made us rather a romantic musical entity. Because we were so hardworking and so good live, when we finally came up with a definitive album in “Who’s Next,” the timing was absolutely perfect for us.
And, strangely enough, “Quadrophenia,” which is a piece about mods in London in the early ‘60s, has worked for several generations. That always surprises me when I talk to young people who hear it for the first time. They always say it reflects the way (they) feel about growing up.
Billboard: What are you writing these days?
Townshend: 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 look at the future and they don’t see any answers and they don’t see very much hope. As an artist and songwriter I want to reflect some of that, but also 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. I don’t know whether this will work as a Who project, but I’m pretty sure there are a few songs that 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.