Pete Townshend talks ‘Quadrophenia,’ the Who’s excesses, and his Tanglewood debut

Matt Kent

Since “My Generation,” Pete Townshend has been a writer first, a guitarist second.

An art school student turned pioneering Rock Opera Poet, Townshend, 72, conceptualized The Who’s pivotal “Tommy” in 1969 before working on “Lifehouse” — his 1971 dystopian science fiction rock opera about computer grids that feels eerily on-point — then writing every song on the 1973 double-album “Quadrophenia.” The latter is the story of Jimmy, an angst-ridden young mod living in 1960s West London, who finds escape, for a time, through drugs and music.

Now, in an extremely limited tour — four shows in three US cities — “Classic Quadrophenia” will make its American debut in Lenox. The Boston Pops will accompany Townshend, Billy Idol, and Tony Award-winning actor and singer Alfie Boe for “Classic Quadrophenia” at Tanglewood Sept. 2. Tickets go on sale June 13.


We called Townshend at his home, just outside London, for a wide-ranging interview, from why he wrote “Quadrophenia,” to how he met Billy Idol, to his banishment from Holiday Inns.

Q. So how did this classical adaptation of “Quadrophenia” come about?

A. I’ve been working quite some time to create scores for what I call my grand rights projects, which can be performed as set pieces or collections, including some solo projects, and Who mini-operas. I’ve been trying to get my wife Rachel [Fuller] to help properly orchestrate “Tommy,” and “Quadrophenia.” She did “Quadrophenia” under my supervision. Alfie Boe as lead tenor [was suggested] and we had occasion to premiere it at Royal Albert Hall.

Q. How did Billy Idol get involved?

A. We needed a suitable Ace Face. The Ace Face is the kingpin mod, who Jimmy is greatly intimidated by. Billy Idol did that role when The Who did [“Quadrophenia”] in 1996 in Hyde Park. He played it magnificently.


Q. So you’ve known him a while.

A. He’s a good friend. He was in a band called Generation X. In 1977, he was in the first proper punk band I every saw. I went to a club called The Vortex — taken by Keith Moon in his pink Rolls-Royce. [Laughs] I was 32 at the time, and Billy was a kid, really. I expected to be spat at and called an old fart, but he was very polite. [Laughs] We’ve been friends ever since.

The Godfather is the older figure in the story — that’s the role I’ll be performing.

Q. Has your relationship with “Quadrophenia” changed as you’ve gotten older?

A. Not really. I’ve always had an arm’s-length relationship to it. I see it like a novelist who sold the rights to his book. The territory has been claimed by Who fans, Roger Daltrey, a number of people who wrote books. Who manager Bill Curbishley produced the [1979] movie.

Roger Daltrey sees it as a story about the neighborhood he grew up in, and the difficultly being young and misunderstood — a classic James Dean “Rebel Without a Cause” story. I’ve always seen “Quadrophenia” as a young person who finds everything fails them. This is very much the story by Hermann Hesse about his hero Siddhartha — he becomes a Brahmin, a Buddhist, a businessman, and in the end he finds redemption as a ferry man.

Q. How did “Quadrophenia” come to you?

A. I was in trouble. The Who had a lot of success with “Tommy.” We’d already played it all over America and Europe. Roger Daltrey grew his hair long, and bared his chest and showed his muscles like a Nordic god — we had a Jim Morrison instead of a yobbo [UK slang for “uncultured person”]. We heard a voice from Roger we hadn’t heard before.


We played “Tommy” live for three years — now that’s too long. We had the same trouble with “My Generation” — we played that too long and got sick of that. I started to really worry. I started on “Lifehouse,” a dystopian science fiction [rock opera about] the future of what might now be called the Internet — it was far-seeing. But was probably too much for me at the time.

So we did songs like “Baba O’Riley.” Roger became a superstar. Keith Moon in particular had incredible personal problems, ego issues, grandiosity, low self-esteem — all the extreme symptoms of stardom. I felt we needed to be reminded of our roots. I said Jimmy would be a composite of all The Who, and that appealed to their collective ego. [Laughs]

The artists we most like in pop music have to be people we can find ourselves in. Because we live through them in a way.

Q. What’s your favorite Who song to play?

A. I’ve been a funny piece of work all my life. I’ve not really enjoyed performing much at all. Never wanted to tour. I don’t get much of a kick by performing anything really. What I like is to write.


Q. Did you see yourself as a songwriter more than a guitarist?

A. I did. My role was to play rhythm guitar. John [Entwistle] played a lot of notes for a bass player. There wasn’t lots of room for lead guitar in the traditional Hendrix, Van Halen speed fingers, so I never managed to practice, really. I started to find my feet as lead guitar player, [but] never ranking high among the speed freaks. So I think it’s been interesting for me. I’ve never felt before that I could sing a song like “Love, Reign o’er Me.” I don’t sing it the way Roger sings it, but I’m pleased the way it’s happened.

Q. Did you feel like you were pushing to advance the band creatively?

A. The band was incredibly supportive of all my wild ideas. I was trying to advance the industry. I’ve always believed pop art is incredibly important, and a part of the arts. It’s denigrating to call it “pop art.” It’s creating this release valve for young people.

Q. You were known for guitar-smashing and hotel trashing in your early days. I read you were banned from all Holiday Inns for life.

A. [Laughs] I don’t have much to say about that stuff. Not that I disown it or pretend it didn’t happen. The guitar smashing stuff was different than the hotels. Guitar smashing was artistic expression for me — to be aware we’re destroying our planet, and the means by which we share art, and if that sounds high-toned for an 18-year-old boy, I got it all from a fellow at art school, [auto-destructive artist] Gustav Metzger.


I can use Holiday Inns now. When my kids were small [we were at a Holiday Inn] swimming pool, and I went to the desk and said, “Am I still banned from the Holiday Inn?” He said, “Wait, I have a list here. Yes, you are.” [Laughs] But I’m not banned from Holiday Inns anymore.

Q. Anything you’d like to add about coming to Massachusetts?

A. Rachel and I are really looking forward to Tanglewood. I think [The Who] were last there for Woodstock. We arrived a couple days early, and it was the first time I saw Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.” I always loved that piece. I hope that when I’m back again, it will be with own opera. I promise I won’t smash my guitar.

Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia

At Tanglewood, Lenox, Sept. 2. Tickets: www.livenation.com, www.bso.org,

Interview has been edited and condensed. Lauren Daley is a freelance writer. Contact her at ldaley33@
. She tweets @laurendaley1.