Pete Townshend: I’ve never really liked performing

The Who icon reveals how his mum was “a bit of a fascist”, why it’s so important to smash up guitars and how the band would have failed if he hand-picked the members in his Letter To My Younger Self

I can’t say I was happy at 16, but I can’t say I was unhappy. I felt confused, I felt lost, I was trying to find a gang. And the band [The Detours] wasn’t providing that gang for me. The drummer at that time was an older guy [Doug Sandom]. In his interviews he describes me as a bit of a cunt. I didn’t set out to be one, I was mostly just inept at social graces with other men and certainly with women.

At 16 I had never kissed a girl, I had never been out with a girl, I’d never even had the courage to hold hands with a girl. I was unformed and didn’t fit in with my friends because they were all bigger and more grown up. I didn’t grow to my full height until I was 18. But the thing that changed for me was starting Ealing Art College and seeing the most beautiful-looking girl looking across a crowded room at me. I’d moved from a boys’ school where I felt I had to be funny to survive to realising I had attributes that I didn’t know I had. 

My mother was very scathing about my nose and anybody who was in any sense peculiar looking. She would only let me have friends who were good looking. She wouldn’t let an ugly boy into the house. She was a bit of a fascist. So I intuitively, instinctively knew what a good-looking man was, which helped me later. 

I thought my future would be as an artist. I didn’t know how to put what I was learning into practice yet, but I thought I was going to be a kinetic sculptor. I had the auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger as a tutor. David Bowie and Brian Eno did courses at different colleges, but with the same architect. I was doing a course about cybernetics, the relationship between man and machine, the coming of computers. This was in 1961. So they were an incredibly far-sighted bunch. 

I didn’t stay living at home for long. A guy called Richard Barnes came into the course in 1962 and we became friends. We took over this apartment that was owned by two American boys in the photography school who were busted and deported for using marijuana. So we not only got their stash of marijuana, we also got their amazing record collection. They had albums by Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith, the jazz organist whose guitar player Kenny Burrell was very influential on me, Booker T and the MGs. They were both very glamorous and attracted a lot of women, so we moved in, took over their flat and in a sense inherited some of the women. 

I was writing songs but I was more interested in using my art school training to create an image for the band. I thought we could use this bunch of roughnecks – Roger [Daltrey], Keith Moon, John Entwistle and me and model them like designers at a fashion show. The Stones were around and we supported them a lot, but they seemed to borrow very directly from American R&B bands. The Beatles were there, but they were not a model for the London bands. I remember saying The Who are a band who are chopping away at their own legs. I thought I would be back at college by 1965. And then we got a hit record. 

Keith Moon wanted to raise hell, John Entwistle wanted to have a big house full of stuff from Harrods, Roger Daltrey wanted to be a sex god and I wanted to be a renowned artist. We all pulled in different directions. The advice I would give my younger self is that you have to trust that the universe is going to lead you to the right people. If I tried to pick the ideal band back then, it would not have succeeded because I would’ve tried to work with like-minded people.

I remember my dad saying, and I believed it too, that rock’n’roll would only last three years

I would advise myself to have a moral code, particularly sexually – but I wouldn’t advise myself that it would have been better to live like a monk. I spent so much of my life between 16 and 30 being really true to my marriage. Whereas I watched my friend Eric Clapton every day with a different beautiful model. With me it was maybe three, four, five? All of which I was grateful for and I enjoyed the relief of having sex on the road, but I was ashamed and not comfortable. So I would be less hard on myself but at the same time I’d say try to keep within the bounds of what you think is morally decent. 

The generation gap was weird. It was only 16 years since the war. Many of us were seven years old before we saw a lump of sugar. The British way was that you didn’t say anything about the war. I never ever came across a man who talked about being in the war. We never heard their stories. We were carrying a frustration that we couldn’t be a part of the victory, we couldn’t be a part of the celebrations, but also couldn’t console our elders to whom we were incredibly grateful. 

My generation felt disenfranchised. That is a complex word for feeling like we had nothing to live for. It made us not so much angry as loose. We were loose-living. And when psychedelic drugs and more importantly the pill came along, away we went. Then we took power. But I think we misused the power to a great extent. The hippie era could have turned into something much better than it did. We are seeing something not dissimilar now – Glastonbury was great this year, with Stormzy, who has not even turned 30, singing about politics and emancipation. But we could make the same mistake again. 

If I was going to advise my younger self it would be not to worry so much, not to be so driven, not to be such a workaholic – but I can’t change the way I am. My younger self would be worried to see me still working. My opera is written and semi-recorded, my book and the new Who album are coming out. He would think, you are pushing 75 – how long do you think you are going to fucking live, why don’t you just retire, why aren’t you dead? We all knew pop music was written by, performed by and aimed at young people. I remember my dad saying, and I believed it too, that rock’n’roll would only last three years. 

During the Cuban [missile] crisis we went to school believing that this would be the last day of our lives. Michael Caine used to say we are all living under the shadow of the bomb. We were so obsessed with it. I joined the Ban the Bomb movement when I was 12. I was just following the gang – I went because I played the banjo in a jazz band! I only started to become active in the Labour movement when I met Neville Vincent, who started Amnesty International, and David Astor, the owner of the Observer. They got me involved in the Women’s Aid movement, in drug rehab and prison reform, but mainly in trying to liberalise South Africa.

Harold Wilson raised taxes for high earners to 98 per cent so The Who put all our money into our road crew, equipment, studios. It didn’t suit Keith Moon’s way of life. And it didn’t really suit me very much. But it kept me modest. We would do these shows, like playing Woodstock to one million people, and our record would go to number one, and nothing would happen. I never got a cheque that had more than six numbers in it. I was still in the same house I lived in when I got married. Until about 1978, I lived modestly because we had such a strong Labour government. 

DID YOU KNOW…

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My life is really great at the moment and I seem to spend a huge amount of time thinking back to the times when my main mission seemed to be to fuck it all up. Looking back to driving 180 miles per hour in a Ferrari down the M4 or some drunken cocaine-fuelled day like the first time I took heroin, I would not put money on any of my great moments. But like any man, I have had some times. 

If I were to pick a day to relive, it would be when we did a show with the Grateful Dead in San Francisco in 1976. Joan Baez was there and I did the concert for her, because I was such a huge fan. She said: “It was very loud!” But I remember feeling superhuman. In photographs I look handsome, fit, tanned, and there is a recording and I am playing incredibly well. But I have never really liked performing. It is a good job to have, though, but I always feel like I am working. 

I was always pretty snobby about rock’n’roll. As the television went through the window, I would look at Keith Moon and go, what a fucking prat. What a waste of time. Then, two or three times I did the same thing and I would think, what a fucking prat! I was in it for the art. People still say that I should never have smashed instruments. Fuck off. It is how I got you to listen to me. 

Pete Townshend’s debut novel The Age of Anxiety is out now (Coronet, £20)

This interview originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Pick up a copy from your local vendor or buy it online from The Big Issue Shop. And if you want to catch anymore incredible, iconic Letter To My Younger Self interviews then check our brand-new book compiled by books editor Jane Graham.

Image: Terry McGough