That event made headlines all over the world, most often as a condemnation of rock & roll (as on CBS news), or simply of America. Sixteen years as a unique and seminal rock & roll band aside, what happened in Cincinnati has probably made the Who more famous than they have ever been. Millions who had never heard of Keith Moon now think they know who the Who are.
In the world of rock & roll, the Who’s status has also changed. People have rallied around the band. Though the Who have never placed a Number One album or single on the Billboard charts, they have represented the very spirit of rock & roll to a growing mass of fans; the Who’s confrontation with disaster has made the group even more important as a standard-bearer, and raised the possibility that, having only just returned to live performances after two-and-a-half years off the road, the band might be forced off the stage for good. The T-shirts fans are wearing tell the story: I Survived The Who, on the backs of a few, The Who Cares, on the backs of a lot more.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, where Townshend and I talked, excitement, at least in the media, was pervasive. For days preceding the Who’s three sold-out concerts at the 14,000-seat Oakland Coliseum Arena, the drums were beating with a message that could not be missed. Along with the usual ticket giveaways, radio stations programmed “all-Who” weekends, “the Who A-to-Z” weekends (and they have a Z, too: “Zoot Suit,” the B side of their first record, cut in 1964 as the High Numbers), run long, pretaped interviews with Pete Townshend, and fondly recalled the Who’s “American debut” at Monterey in 1967 (it wasn’t; it was in New York in 1966). Smaller cinemas put on double bills of the band’s two 1979 films, the fictional Quadrophenia and the career-documentary The Kids Are Alright, both of which had died early at local first-run houses. The day the Who left town, the radio jumped on Empty Glass, Pete Townshend’s new solo album—with vocals, guitar and synthesizer by Townshend, piano and organ by John “Rabbit” Bundrick and bass by Tony Butler of On the Air, a band led by Simon Townshend, Pete’s brother.
Such a buildup (and follow-through—two weeks after the Who left town, the airwaves were still full of their music) was common in the late Sixties, but nothing like it had been heard since: not for the Stones, not for Dylan, not for anyone.
The Who are, in some ways, a new band: along with Kenney Jones (who replaced Moon on drums), they have added Rabbit on piano, organ and synthesizer. After the end of the spring tour the Who returned to England to complete an album, tentatively set for release in the fall. They hit the U.S. in June for another tour, this time touching down in Los Angeles and heading for the South.
At the same time, the band is caught in its past. It’s not the immediate past, of Keith Moon’s death and the disaster in Cincinnati. (“We can do fourteen dead here,” said a woman outside the Oakland coliseum, handing out fliers for the forthcoming concert by John Lydon’s PiL. “We can beat Cincinnati.” The Bay Area has always had the world’s stupidest punks.) When we talked—before the show I saw—Pete Townshend spoke of the Who’s history as, among other things, a burden: “A great knapsack—you carry it around, and nobody ever empties it. You’ve got the old stale sandwiches in it, as well as the new ones.” But that history—and the Who’s history may be more vivid, more coherent, than that of any other band with a tenure even approaching theirs—can also be a crutch.
As their show opened—with “Substitute” (1966), “I Can’t Explain” (the band’s first record as the Who, 1965) and “Baba O’Riley” (1971)—it was impossible to think of the songs as oldies, or even as classics. With the volume loud enough to be totally satisfying—and loud enough to leave me with a partially paralyzed lower lip and a sore wrist for three days—the songs were undeniable: rock & roll facts, preexistent entities waiting for the Who to discover them. The Who didn’t sound like they were referring to what had gone before: they sounded as if they were starting all over again, from the necessary beginning.
But as the show moved on—and into the more abstract and less social material from Tommy, or 1978’s Who Are You—the performance, at least for me, settled down. Other fans—the teenage junkie behind me, the college students in front—grew ever more excited, but in a way they also settled down: they were waiting for their favorites, and the shape of the concert insured that they would get them. If the show was not quite the Who’s Greatest Hits, it was the History of the Who. Aside from a couple of numbers from Quadrophenia, and “Dancing in the Street” as part of a three-song encore, there were no surprises: no unrecorded material, nothing from the unfinished album, no obscurities, be they “I Don’t Even Know Myself” or “Pictures of Lily” or “The Seeker.” The band gave the audience what it wanted, but they didn’t entice the audience to want more than it had thought of wanting—which is what the Who, like all great rock & roll bands in their great days, have been all about.
Technically, the show was superb: shot through with fun and movement. Roger Daltrey seemed to run in place for two solid hours. Townshend’s crouched leaps were thrilling—spectacular but not gaudy, aggressive but not cruel. No one in the Who ever seemed bored by the material. The band changed the show over the next two nights. They cut it down, stretched it out, shuffled the songs, varied the encores—and, according to one fan who saw all three concerts, Townshend never played the same solo twice. The band sounded as compact and uncompromised as it ever has. Rabbit and a horn section added a kind of subliminal fullness. But it was a show based on the “stature” Pete Townshend talks about below, not a show intended to subvert it.
To a man, the Who looked terrific. Roger Daltrey and Kenney Jones were dressed in T-shirts and denims, and worked like athletes. John Entwistle, as always, stood stock still, and this time wore a neat white suit, which set him off perfectly. As for Townshend, he appeared onstage in an impressive navy blue jacket: he looked like a world-beater. When, after a few numbers, he took it off, revealing a Clash T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his pants suddenly seemed baggy—and he struck me as just another rock & roll anomaly. Just another Buddy Holly: the kid you laugh at, if you bother to do that, the kid who one day comes out of his shell and changes your life.
As that Clash T-shirt was no doubt meant to show, Townshend remains a fan. Since “I Can’t Explain” he has been one of rock & roll’s first-rank creators, definers; but since a memorable interview appeared in these pages in 1968, he has also been its premier participant-philosopher—or, if you like, player-coach. What follows below is merely the latest installment of that career.
It seems to me that the love songs on Empty Glass are much more personal than they’ve been for the past few years—not confessional, but clearly directed to a person. There’s a passion in “A Little Is Enough” that seems very new.
I think probably because I’ve had a harder time, lately. Before Keith died, I decided that practically all the personal problems I had—whatever they were, whether it was boozing, or difficulty at home with my family—was because of the Who on the road. When we came off the road, I spent two and a half years not touring—under great pressure from the band to tour, but I resisted, and said, “No, I want to try it and see what happens.” I got to the end of that period, and all my problems were still there. Some of them were worse. But what was strange about that time was that it somehow opened me up: I was able to put a slightly different slant on the qualities that I look for, or that other people look for, in life.
With a song like “A Little Is Enough,” what was interesting to me was that I was able to very easily put into words something that had actually happened to me when I was a thirty-four-year-old. It wasn’t self-conscious; it wasn’t a song written from a stance. It wasn’t objective. It was purely personal: instant, and purely transparent. It’s very emotional, but it’s also very straightforward and clear. Just the fact that you can’t fucking have the world. If you’re lucky enough to get a tiny piece of it, then—fine. When that’s applied to something as immense and intangible as love—whether it’s spiritual love or human love…
I suppose I wrote the song about a mixture of things: I wrote it a little bit about God’s love. But mainly about the feeling that I had for my wife—and the fact that I don’t see enough of her, and that when we are together there’re lots of times when things aren’t good, because of the period of adjustment you require after a long tour: stuff like that. She would always want a deeper, more sustained relationship than I would—but in the end I suppose we’re lucky that we do love one another at all. Because love, by its very nature, is an infinite quality, an infinite emotion—just to experience it once in a lifetime is enough. Because a lot of people don’t—don’t ever experience it.
A lot of the songs on the album—well, “Let My Love Open the Door” is just a ditty—but particularly “A Little Is Enough” and a couple of the others—“I Am an Animal,” I think—are getting close to what I feel I want to be writing: in terms of somebody who’s thirty-five writing a rock song, but one which isn’t in the George Jones-Willie Nelson tradition—“I’m a smashed-up fucker standing at the bar…” “Empty Glass” is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz—he was a poet in the fourteenth century—used to talk about God’s love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God’s grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink—the barman being God. It’s also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can’t fill it up with his love —if it’s already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: “This ‘Empty Glass’—is that about you becoming an alcoholic?”
That George Jones tradition—which is apparently where the person in Germany plugged in “Empty Glass”—can be just as stultifying as if you felt it always necessary to write in the voice of a seventeen-year-old: as if that were the only way a song you wrote could have any validity as rock & roll.
I think what’s always been my problem, though, is that I’ve always been fascinated by the period of adolescence—and by the fact that rock’s most frenetic attachments, most long-lasting attachments, the deepest connections, seem to happen during adolescence, or just postadolescence. Rock does evolve, and it does change, and it does go through various machinations, but to you, as a listener, someone who needs both the music and the exchange of ideas—you always tend to listen in the same way. You expect—and you feel happiest when you get—an album that does for you what your first few albums did. You’re always looking for that: you’re always looking for that first fuck. Of course, you can never have that first fuck, but you’re always looking for it. Occasionally, you get very close. Always chasing the same feeling, the same magic.
I think the strangest thing for me—and I think perhaps the Who are unique in this respect—is that we seem to be able to continue, even though I think my writing is clumsier than it was in the early days. It’s less easy for me to completely open up, because I’m not alone anymore. When I wrote the first five or six hit songs for the Who, I was completely and totally alone. I had no girlfriend, no friends, no nothing—it was me addressing the world. That’s where the power of that early stuff comes from. But despite the fact that the later material is less transparent, less wholesome to some extent, we still appeal to a very young audience. Sometimes preadolescents. But always, always, there is a very, very strong grab—a deep, instant grab—which lasts… forever. It’s not like a fad. People who get into the Who when they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, never stop being fans. The Who don’t necessarily captivate the whole teenage generation—as each batch comes up every year—but we certainly hit a percentage of them, and we hold them.
Just after Cincinnati, just after the news hit that eleven people had been killed trying to get into your show, there were statements on the radio from you and from Roger Daltrey, and my wife was very disturbed by something Roger said: simply a reference to the people who had died as “the kids.” She said, “But they weren’t all kids—one of those people was a mother with two kids of her own.” What that expression meant to her was that the audience was no longer real to the band: the audience had become faceless, physically present but also somehow invisible. Whoever was in the audience, they were “the kids.” It was as if there were an enormous gulf separating the band from its audience—as if there were no way to feel the kind of identification she and I felt when we first saw the band in 1967, when it became obvious that the band and its audience were part of the same reality a reality we were both creating, or a story we were both telling. Do you think there is that kind of gulf?
Yes. I think there is. When I think back to the days at the Marquee—we got a regular Tuesday night residency, which was a big coup for us, because we didn’t even have a record out. The first night, there were maybe fifty people, the next night, two hundred, and after that we were packing it. We were a cult within a cult—our whole audience was nineteen years old, as we were—and there’s a great feeling of affirmation when the audience knows they’re sharing in the success; they’re making the success happen as well. So you become incredibly close. The two or three thousand people who regularly attended the Marquee residency—I think I know them all by their first names.
One of the problems, today, is not an obvious one. Roger—who, dare I say it tends occasionally to jump to conclusions about what’s going on, and maybe sticks to them until someone can talk him out of them, jumps to a wrong conclusion when he feels that the gulf is created by a difference in age. I think it’s more to do with a difference in stature. The Who are an enormous business machine, surrounded by all kinds of controversy—and I suppose a great amount of media power. A lot of that comes from the success of things that are happening around the band. The Tommy film is a case in point: an average, entertaining film, blown all out of proportion—the David Frost show. Allan Carr with his famous parties, Oscar presentations. It’s really got very little to do with front-line rock & roll, but it does affect the way people see the band.
But there is also the fact that the band’s history starts to accumulate. To be in existence for fifteen years, and still be working, still be appearing on a stage… People can actually pay money and go and see this band who have got—not so much a wonderful backlog of material behind them, but who have actually got a history.
It’s like discovering a new author. You run out of books to read, and suddenly you discover that you like F. Scott Fitzgerald. You start, and you read all his books, and you’re really pissed off the day you come to the end of them. Then you go on to your next author—you might discover Salinger. And you go through that lot. And you get pissed off when you run out. This often happens to you when you’re quite young—and what’s a big kick for a lot of young kids who get into the Who is the discovery that there’s so much to get into. We do exist now, we are putting out product, but there’s a lot more they can find. So although there is a gulf, I think there is also a fascination in the fact that people might feel that gulf to start with, but also feel there’s an opportunity, by a kind of investigative listening, and studying, and reading books about the band or going to see the films—there’s a chance they can get closer.
All I can tell you is that I meet kids on the road—and they are kids, sixteen to twenty—and they treat me just like the guy next door. They’ve got no deep respect for me; there’s no fanaticism. It’s an absolute, one-to-one relationship. There’s a familiarity, a sense of naturalness. I think that could only come about if they felt close to me. It doesn’t happen with everybody—but it happens with quite a few people.
Of course, it’s going to be different if you’re fucking eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds—I don’t think I’d go and watch the Who, even if I lived in America. I mean, I’d sit and wait until the Clash came: I’d go and see them. And hope I’d get one of their good nights!
Is there any point to the Who carrying on, as a touring band, any point beyond pandering to an audience that has become so conservative, so fearful of new experiences, that latching onto a rock legend—and whatever else the Who is, it is that—can become a reactionary defensive way of resisting new and challenging music? That isn’t to say—or to deny—that your music today is unimaginative, old-fashioned, or whatever—that’s irrelevant. I’ve been struck, over the last few years, by the fact that the great bulk of the American rock & roll audience will do almost anything to avoid having to deal with something that’s radically new.
Me too—I think you’re absolutely right. It’s very, very strange: in Britain, at the moment, we’ve got 2-Tone, we’ve still got punk, we’ve got mod bands, we’ve got heavy-metal bands, we’ve got established supergroups, we’ve got all kinds of different families of music—each of which takes an enormous amount of adjustment. They’re intense, and very socially… jagged. They don’t fit neatly into existing society: they challenge it. And yet in America, kids seem to be quite happy. Rock, to them, is enough: establishment rock is enough. That seems very peculiar to me. There are obviously lots of subdivisions of music in America, but I think that’s something record companies dream up. In reality, whether it’s black music or white rock music, I think the truth of the matter is exactly as you’ve said. It’s not necessarily something as big as fear—it’s fucking uncomfortableness, listening to a Sex Pistols record. It worries you, because somebody is speaking the truth.
People in the States don’t necessarily refuse to admit that problems exist, but it’s a country that believes in success—that ultimate success lies in the hands of man. Whereas, rock doesn’t. Newer rock, particularly, actually affirms the futility of man, in all respects but one. It says, in a word, in a sentence, what Meher Baba said: “Don’t worry—you’re not big enough to deal with it.” It’s just gone too crazy. Do your best and leave the results to God.
When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Bodies” and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening. This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion.
It touches you, and it scares you—it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s like somebody saying, “The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ’em!” That’s one of the reasons: a lot of new music is harder to listen to. So you get a band like the Clash, and they come out with a nifty little song like “Clampdown,” and you can’t hear the words, and they’ll play it on the radio in L.A. You read the fucking words, they scare the shit out of you. Or the Pretenders—Chrissie Hynde’s got a sweet voice, but she writes in double-speak: she’s talking about getting laid by Hell’s Angels on her latest record! And raped. The words are full of the most brutal head-on feminism that has ever come out of any band, anywhere!
And yet it’s only because it’s disguised that it’s getting played, and getting appreciated. To some extent, both the Clash and the Pretenders are getting played because their music is slightly more palatable, slightly closer to the old form. I saw so many new bands go down in England, so many great bands, because unless you were in exactly the right frame of mind, felt the same way, felt as abandoned, felt as anarchistic, and felt as I-don’t-give-a-shit as they did, you just couldn’t enjoy it. And in fact—to answer the question you asked at the beginning of all this—for the Who, at the moment, to go out as an established band, requires a lot of that don’t-give-a-shit attitude. We don’t give a shit whether the audience has a problem or not. All we know is that for us, to go on a stage, get instant communication, know that people have done their homework, have an instant connection with the audience, go backstage afterward into a dressing room full of the most beautiful women you can ever hope to lay your eyes on, never have anybody say anything nasty to you, everybody’s friendly, everybody’s wonderful, people don’t throw us out of hotels anymore—
I mean, life revolves quite nicely—you know what I’m saying? I’m getting paid a lot of money for the privilege. The first ten years in the Who were fucking awful; miserable, violent, unhappy times. It’s nice to now sit back and enjoy it. It might be brief; for the sake of rock music in some ways I hope it is brief. For me, maybe I don’t hope it’s brief.
We’ve very much dropped our idealistic stance in terms of our weight of responsibility to rock’s evolution. We haven’t stopped caring about where it’s going to go; I think we’ve realized that we’re not capable of doing that much, in terms of actually pushing it forward. If we have got a chance of pushing it forward, I think we’ve got a better chance of doing it on the road than we do on record, to be quite honest.
So can the band still make history? Obviously it has made rock & roll history, and it’s certainly affected social history as such. You seem to be saying that can’t continue.
Maybe only history in terms of statistics, now—how many years we’ve been together; how many disasters we can survive.
Which is not what I meant. I meant exactly what you meant: pushing the music forward.
Well, I don’t know. Who’s that down to? Is it down to me? As a writer? I don’t know. I think if it’s down to me as a writer there might be a chance, but I don’t know how much stamina I’ve got left.
Let me put it another way. What strikes me most about what happened in Cincinnati is that it seems, now, not to have happened at all. It has not become part of the rock & roll frame of reference, as Altamont instantly and permanently did. It seems to me that it was an event that should have signified something new about the relationship between bands and their audiences, or about rock & roll as mass culture, was taking place. It ought to have forced people to reexamine a lot of assumptions, a lot of what they took for granted. That hasn’t happened.
Will that event have an effect on the Who’s music? I don’t mean in terms of the Who putting out a nice little commentary about it, as the Grateful Dead did after Altamont with “New Speedway Boogie”; I mean over the years, in a more profound way.
I think what’s not apparent to the outside world, in the Who, is our—bloody-minded brutality. Our—determination. Our stamina, and our strength. It’s not apparent, because we seem to brood so incessantly on our weaknesses, we seem to have so many phobias; like everybody who really cares about rock, we spend so much time worrying how many more years… But the amazing thing, for us, is the fact that—when we were told about what happened at that gig, that eleven kids had died—for a second our guard dropped. Just for a second. Then it was back up again.
It was, fuck it! We’re not gonna let a little thing like this stop us. That was the way we had to think. We had to reduce it. We had to reduce it, because if we’d actually admitted to ourselves the true significance of the event, the true tragedy of the event—not just in terms of “rock,” but the fact that it happened at one of our concerts—the tragedy to us, in particular, if we’d admitted to that, we could not have gone on and worked. And we had a tour to do. We’re a rock & roll band. You know, we don’t fuck around, worrying about eleven people dying. We care about it, but there is a particular attitude I call the “tour armor”: when you go on the road you throw up an armor around yourself, you almost go into a trance. I don’t think you lose your humanity, but, think: for ten, maybe fifteen years, the Who smashed up hotel rooms—why? Where’s the pleasure in it? We actually quite relished general violence. I don’t understand why it happened. It doesn’t happen now, but it did happen, for a long time. I think that, for me, tours were like a dream.
I was literally wearing armor. The only thing that would ever crack it, for me, at a show, would be if my wife and kids were there. Or my brother—he’d be, what? Eleven or twelve years old. Simon: he’s got a band of his own now, On the Air. I used to really worry about him. He’d like to be right up front, and if I saw trouble happening—that would be my link. That would pierce my armor.
In a way, I think you’re wrong about what you were saying about a gulf. When I say armor, I mean armor that actually allows you to be more abandoned, and freer, that allows you to be tougher, harder—genuinely tougher and harder. I’m not trying to glamorize it, and it’s not something that I’m necessarily proud of. The Who’s macho tendencies, in some ways, weaken our audience: our audience is about eighty percent male.
You say that if you had allowed yourself to really think about, to really face the true tragedy of what happened in Cincinnati, you would have had to stop—but you couldn’t stop, you didn’t want to stop, there was no point to stopping. But once the tour was over—or maybe a year after, or two years—isn’t it important, if the band is going to continue to make sense of where it’s been and where it’s going, to somehow integrate that event, to absorb it: to allow it to affect you, in terms of the music you make and the way you perform it?
I don’t know, because so far, we’ve had a series of quite unfortunate reactions.
How do you mean?
I think the way festival seating was blamed, wholesale, for practically all the problems, was quite a nasty, negative overreaction—because I like festival seating. When I go to a concert I don’t want to have to fucking sit in a numbered seat, and get clobbered over the head every time I stand up. I like to be able to move about, I like to be able to dance if I want to, or go and buy a Coke if I want to, or push my way to the front if I want to, or hide in the back if I want to! I also know, from the stage, that you get the best atmosphere with festival seating.
Yesterday was a case in point: the second date we did in Seattle. I saw five or six punch-outs, because of people just not wanting to stand up at the same time as the person in front of them. You see one guy punching some guy out ’cause he’s standing up, and fifteen minutes later he‘s standing up and the guy behind him is punching him out. Everybody’s got a different reaction time—a different moment when they feel they want to get up and jump. One person thinks that the time to get up and jump is the guitar solo in “My Wife,” and somebody else thinks it’s when Roger goes, “See-ee meeee, fee-eel me—” I mean, who knows? You don’t get that kind of conflict at general-admission shows.
That’s one reason. Another is that immediately after the Cincinnati gig, to protect ourselves partly from legal recriminations, we doubled, trebled and quadrupled external security at halls. The problem with Cincinnati was external security, external control: external people control. People in large numbers need controlling. They’re—they’re like cattle. But a lot of kids complained; everywhere they’d look there was a cop. It spoiled their evening for them. They felt, okay, it happened in Cincinnati, but we don’t need that. There was an article in the paper in Seattle, complaining about the fact that there was too much security. It said, “This isn’t Germany. The kids in Seattle don’t rampage. There’s never been even a slight injury at a concert…” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
All of which is quite meaningless: “It can’t happen here.” That’s just what I meant about the event seeming not to have happened, to have been deflected.
Probably—but at the same time, it was interesting that the first serious problems they had at Seattle coliseum were at our two gigs [this tour]: the first two gigs they’ve done with reserved seating on the floor. It’s the first time they’ve actually had audience-inflicted injuries.
The other side of it is worth mentioning: the fact that the Who don’t just get their strength from wearing armor. We did go home, and we did think about it, and we talked about it with our families and our friends. I went home to about ten letters, from the families of the kids who’d died: letters full of deep, deep affection and support and encouragement. It wasn’t like these people were being recriminatory. The father of the girl who died who had two children was writing to say that it would hurt him, the family, the friends of the family and friends of the girl, if they knew that because of what happened, because of her death, we changed our feelings about rock. They understood her feelings about the band, and about the music—you know what I’m saying?
We actually left the States—I know Roger and I had a long conversation about it—with an incredible feeling of, without being mordant about it, of love for the American people. Everybody had been so positive, and so supportive and understanding—even to the point where people would come up to me and say, “We know it wasn’t your fault.” And to some extent it was our fault. It’s not exactly the way the Cronkite report made it look, but there was a great share of responsibility there, and people were so willing to—not so much to forgive, but firstly to get us back into shape, so that perhaps it was possible for us to behave in a truly realistic, responsive way about the whole thing.
I think only time will tell. If I could dare say it, I’d say that Cincinnati was a very, very positive event for the Who. I think it changed the way we feel about people. It’s changed the way we feel about our audience.
In terms of affection?
In terms of affection, and also remembering constantly that they are human beings—and not just people in rows. And I hope the reverse: that people who come to see the band will know that we’re human beings too, and not this myth you were talking about earlier.
I mean, I watched Roger Daltrey cry his eyes out after that show. I didn’t, but he did. But now, whenever a fucking journalist—sorry —asks you about Cincinnati, they expect you to come up with a fucking theatrical tear in your eye! You know: “Have you got anything to say about Cincinnati?” “Oh, we were deeply moved, terrible tragedy, the horror, loss of life, arrrrghh—” What do you do? We did all the things we thought were right to do at the time: sent flowers to the fucking funerals. All… wasted. I think when people are dead they’re dead.
When I was in England a couple of months ago, there was constant talk of youth-culture violence, particularly from skinheads, and there seemed to be a general feeling that the violence was increasing. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade [a record shop and label in the Notting Hill area of London] spoke of the violence, in his store and on the street, as a day-to-day fact. I asked him why he thought this was happening, and he gave me various explanations having to do with the economic and political situation in Britain—but he also said that he thought Quadrophenia, the movie, had had an effect. He thought that the movie glamorized violence between youth movements, and also very much exaggerated the mod-rocker violence that did take place in the early- to mid-Sixties, when the movie is set—that the violence was nowhere near so intense as the movie shows it to be. What do you think about that?
Well—I’m sorry to say that I suppose in a way I think he’s right. It’s very difficult when you make a film—when you produce a film—because in the last analysis you have to hand it over to the director. I wrote the script, originally—the first draft screenplay I wrote with Chris Stamp—and there was no riot scene at all. Not at all. For me, Quadrophenia was about the fights, and the riots, happening in the kid’s head. The threat: “I’ll do anything, I’ll go anywhere”—and what you’re dealing with is a little wimp. Who’s fucking useless. Who couldn’t fight anybody. He had his few pills, and his bottle of gin, and he felt like he could.
It was a study in spiritual desperation: the fact that all that desperation and frustration leads somebody to the point where for the first time in their life they realize that the only important thing is to open their heart. It wasn’t about blood and guts and thunder —in the way that the film turned out to be.
It wasn’t about the clash of youth cultures.
No. I suppose the director, Franc Roddam, thought it would make good cinema. And I think to some extent it’s possible [the film] has sharpened [the violence] up, but I think it runs a bit deeper. A lot of skins would naturally go and see Quadrophenia, but the thing that makes skinheads violent is that—well, fundamentally they’re fascists. They despise everybody—who isn’t like them. It’s a kind of toy fascism, fed by organized fascism: fed by Martin Webster and the National Front.
You know, I’m not afraid to say that I think fascism stinks, and I think a lot of skins stink. But I suppose I think any violence stinks, and if you pin down any of these kids, you could actually get it across to them that neither their violence nor their outfits nor their stance is going to change anything in British society. But most of all, they’re wrong anyway: there’s nothing wrong with our society. It’s perfectly all right as it is. The way all societies are is that some people get, and some people don’t. And if you don’t fucking get, you don’t go around slashing people on the face because you’ve not got enough money to buy a car. You hear it with dignity. The problem to some extent—when you’ve got a film like Quadrophenia—is that it’s exploited something that’s already there: the violence was already there. I don’t know quite where the responsibility lies—maybe you could use the same terms I used for Cincinnati: I suppose the responsibility lies in direct proportion to everybody who makes money out of it.
Earlier, we were talking about the different strains of music that exist in Britain now, and you said each was jagged, challenging, didn’t fit easily into the social order—and that things didn’t seem to be that way in America. In America, when a problem becomes evident, it’s common to hear. “Oh, it’s just a problem in communications”—as if there couldn’t really be anything that truly divides people. Whereas in Britain, the class system is recognizably the basis of the way the country works—it’s part of the way this country works, too, but not recognizably—and, in Britain, there is an understanding that real things can divide people: that, inevitably, they do. That, to me, is one of the reasons you can have intensely different audiences and musics, each “jagged,” not because one form of music simplistically represents a given class, but because the idea of clashing, of being separated, is part of the society itself: it’s not the slightly unreal concept it often is in America. Such conflict implies change, and yet you’re saying society as it is right now is just fine—perfect. I’m quite taken aback to hear you say that. It seems to me you’re saying a lot more than that it’s pointless to try and change society.
I’m saying it’s pointless to try and change it through violence. And it’s pointless to try and change it through complaint. Probably anarchy… Anarchy in organized society means standing up and saying, “Listen, I don’t fit in, and I refuse to fit in”—and, presumably, you end up in jail. But you don’t necessarily have to hurt anyone by being an anarchist; the old image of the anarchist walking around with a bomb, about to blow up the British Museum, is dated.
No—I don’t think society’s perfect at all. What I’m saying is that a lot of the problems that lead to violence, that occur within separatist youth movements in Britain, come from resentment that somebody is better off than they are, and they can’t understand the reason why. And they then feel that if this person is better off than they—if there’s a Rolls Royce to be had, and it happens to be driven by a Pakistani, then he doesn’t deserve it: it belongs to me. Charlie Wilkins from Camden Town. With his Dr. Marten boots with steel-toe caps, and his hair shaved off. He probably works for the GPO—and has probably got an IQ of four. And deserves a Rolls Royce as much as a kick in the head. I mean, he deserves nothing, is what I’m saying.
Why do British rock movements last so long? Then are still Teds, or the Ted-rockabilly subculture; there are mods again; there are still skinheads, after more than a decade. London and towns outside it are full of very young kids in pure 1977 Sid Vicious regalia. Why do these movements last so long, and without developing?
I don’t know. There is that deeply ingrained sense of class, and it shatters down now into separatism—but it goes a little bit deeper. There’s a need for uniforms; and to some extent it doesn’t matter which uniform you choose, just so long as you choose a uniform.
A lot of skins are just kids that like the look. They like football, they like to go and jostle at football matches, get involved in a few punch-outs, but not kill people. Not slash people. It’s something like getting involved in a fight, and going down to the pub the next day as the hero, with a black eye.
What’s important about the uniforms is that they’re so extreme. You adopt the heavy-metal uniform: you wear a denim jacket, you cover it with badges of this band and that band—UFO—you take your cardboard guitar, and you go down to the Roundhouse, and you wave your long, greasy hair—
Cardboard guitars? To mime playing along?
Right. Then rockabilly: bright pink jackets, with velvet collars; drapes that go halfway down your legs, great big brothel creepers—
Shoes with great, thick crepe soles. And drainpipe trousers, pink socks. Punk: people with beehive, pointed hair, their legs chained together, girls going to clubs with no skirts on. Mod: short, clean haircuts, military clothes—
They’re all so fucking extreme: I think it invites a them-and-us situation, wherever it occurs. The way Franc Roddam tried to justify the sensationalist violence in Quadrophenia was by analyzing the relationship between the two friends; Kevin, who was the rocker, and Jimmy, who was the mod. Despite the fact that they were friends, and had a hell of a lot in common, and could have gone on to become closer, Jimmy ends up finding himself beating his own friend up, simply because he’s wearing the wrong clothes.
It’s so clear who are “they” and who are “us”—animosity comes quite naturally. Quite why there is the need for uniforms, I don’t know. I’m still trying to work that out.
Rolling Stone, June 26, 1980