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Pete Townshend Is a Justin Bieber ‘Belieber,’ Plus 4 More Revelations from the Who Guitarist

Variety logo Variety 6/20/2017 Steve Baltin
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It is widely known in the greater music industry that Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend is one of the more cerebral figures in rock. After all, the 72-year-old is an early architect of the “rock opera” concept (“Tommy”), as well as the writer of some of the biggest anthems in rock history (among them: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Reilly.”) And, as he is showing yet again with the upcoming “Classic Quadrophenia,: an orchestrated stage adaption of the band’s seminal 1973 album that will come to Boston, New York and Los Angeles in September, he is continually reinvents himself and his work.

So it should come as no surprise that a rare opportunity to talk with the iconic figure covers a wide array of topics, not the least if which: why he’s a proud “Belieber.” Here are five revelatory — and highly quotable — tidbits from a recent interview with the music legend.

The most transcendent music is heard in small clubs, not arenas or stadiums.

“Going to see Pink Floyd in their early shows in the ‘60s, or seeing Jimi Hendrix in the same clubs in London — quite small events — and being so overwhelmed by sound and by lights and newness. … I was, in a sense, humbled by what I was experiencing. With large crowds, I have a sort of strange defense mechanism, which is I tell myself, “This is nothing.” Even when we went on for the Super Bowl and somebody said, “Do you realize 80 billion people will be watching this?” I went, “Doesn’t sound that many to me.” It’s not arrogance, it’s just for some reason I feel unaffected by it. I was very detached at Woodstock. What I loved about Desert Trip was that they didn’t deliver me into six feet of mud swimming with LSD.” (Laughs)

Music is an ever-malleable art form.  

“Since Prince’s death, suddenly there is all this music that we never had access to before. And we wonder why it was that he didn’t want us to hear it. That was his situation. I also want to be able to make my own changes.”

The success of a teen heartthrob proves the power of pop. 

“I think that we hand ourselves to Justin Bieber; and he’s a good guy, he does his best to entertain us. What’s important is not Justin Bieber, and I think he probably would agree with me, it’s that we are ‘Beliebers.’ It sounds a bit preachy, but that we stand together in his presence.”

Handing over (the) “Reign” to Roger Daltrey, saved the Who classic.

“I would write the song and then I would give it to the Who and the band would do with my songs what it did. And it wasn’t always something that I liked. One good example is having written “Love Reign O’er Me” as a song that was deliberately quite kind of reedy and wimpish — a young man in the depths of self-pity being forced to pray for the first time in his life. Roger [Daltrey], in the studio, took it by the throat and sang it as though he was Zeus! (Laughs). And I remember thinking, ‘F—, this works just as well as the way I originally intended.”

New music is coming and it might be … different.

“I’ve been working on a new piece a long time. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I do feel that whichever way I want it to go, do it with a hillbilly band, dance band, rock band or full orchestra, all the doors are open for me.”

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