24 Years Later, Believe It or Not, the Who’s Next
After much further cajoling from Mr. Daltrey, Mr. Townshend finally sat down to try writing the music last year. But he had no idea what he wanted the new record to sound like — especially since the results would be the illustrious band’s first album since 1982.
“You come up against such enormous preconceptions about what would constitute material for a new Who album,” he said. “It had to deal with the past and the future and contain that magic ingredient, and I tried to figure out what that was.”
The result is “Endless Wire,” coming out Tuesday on Universal Republic Records. A sprawling work, it ranges from the first songs Mr. Townshend and Mr. Daltrey have ever recorded as an acoustic duo to some that hold their own next to the band’s finest stadium rockers. At its heart is “Wire & Glass,” a 10-song “mini-opera” that is Mr. Townshend’s latest foray into extended musical narrative, an approach he pioneered with the rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.”
“The stripped-down acoustic-vocal stuff is what slays me,” Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead singer and a longtime champion of the older band, wrote in an e-mail message. “After 20-plus years of not recording new Who material, they didn’t pick up where they left off — it’s where they are now.”
The album announces that one of the greatest rock bands of all time is back in business as something more than a touring heritage act. The release also puts the spotlight back on the notoriously spiky partnership that helped bring it into being.
Mr. Daltrey, 62, and Mr. Townshend, 61, are the two surviving members of the founding lineup, after the deaths of their incendiary drummer, Keith Moon, in 1978 and Mr. Entwistle in 2002. And though they seem lately to have attained an uneasy peace in their relationship, it was clear in separate interviews — Mr. Daltrey in a friend’s apartment high above Central Park and Mr. Townshend over the phone from a tour stop in Vancouver — that this hasn’t stopped them from taking the occasional swipe at each other.
“After John died,” Mr. Townshend said, referring to Mr. Entwistle, “I was left with one very clear relationship and that was with Roger — which was probably the least important to me in the band. We had a lot of discussion that our friendship meant more to us than anything else.”
Mr. Daltrey puts it another way: “He’s like the brother I never had. I love him dearly; I don’t like him sometimes, but I love him dearly. And I’m sure he would say the same about me.”
Mr. Daltrey recalled the day, just before Christmas, when some demo recordings arrived. “He told the press that he’d given me 26 songs,” said Mr. Daltrey, “yet I only received 4! So I was still very skeptical as to whether this was really going to happen, because I’ve been burned so many times before.”
After handing over that first batch, Mr. Townshend set the new songs aside to concentrate on a different kind of writing, which led to the mini-opera. “I’d written a novella as a possible basis for a theatrical play or a two-man show or maybe something in Las Vegas,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
“The Boy Who Heard Music” (posted at www.petetownshend.co.uk/projects/tbwhm) is a tightly knit, hallucinatory tale of the rise and fall of a band made up of three teenagers from different ethnic groups, and an aging rock star observing them from a mental institution. (Mr. Townshend says his online research for the project led to his arrest in 2003 on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children; the charge was dropped, but he remains on a sex-offender watch list.) He reworked the novella into “Wire & Glass” — some songs that “had some teeth,” he said. He then “knocked off the rest a bit Jack White style, using stuff from notebooks as far back as 1971,” and after more than two decades, a new Who album was ready to roll.
Still, Mr. Townshend was apprehensive about sending these songs to Mr. Daltrey. “Roger is always difficult to present new music to,” he said. “He operates rather like an editor. When you present him with finished material, he’s a fantastically positive interpreter. But I don’t think he knows enough about being an artist and the vulnerability of the creative process.”
Mr. Daltrey — who called “Wire & Glass” a “quirky, cranky idea” — suggested that Mr. Townshend’s narrative writing had as much to do with marketing as with art. “In the early days we used to call it hype, and it still is hype,” he said. “It was a device to get noticed in the press: ‘Oh, the Who have a new album, just like the Stones and the Beatles.’ But if you said you had a mini-opera, then all of a sudden they were interested.
“Whatever Pete wants to call it as the device that makes him write the songs, I don’t care,” he continued. “There’s still some interesting words on there. So I take all of that with a pinch of salt, and I don’t fight it anymore.”
Forty-two years after their first recording and 24 years after a Who “farewell tour” — a farewell that lasted seven years before the band went back on the road — the volatile chemistry between the singer and the guitarist still yields a powerful stage presence, as a series of recent shows in the New York area proved. (The touring band also includes Mr. Townshend’s brother Simon on guitar, Pino Palladino on bass, Zak Starkey on drums and John Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards. On the album, Pete Townshend plays numerous instruments and Peter Huntington plays drums on many tracks, since Mr. Starkey — Ringo Starr’s son — was touring with the band Oasis when most of the album was recorded.)
The band was the clear highlight of the Concert for New York City after the 9/11 attacks, an intensely emotional show that Mr. Townshend described as an example of “the Who mechanism working in ideal circumstances.” As this tour was starting, however, the band mates’ differing worldviews — which Mr. Townshend attributed to the contrast between his more bohemian art-school background and Mr. Daltrey’s more working-class roots — clashed yet again.
Mr. Townshend, always interested in new technology, announced that the concerts would be Webcast, only to retract those plans a few days later at Mr. Daltrey’s insistence. Eventually, the band made a deal with Sirius Satellite Radio to broadcast the shows as part of an all-Who channel that will continue throughout the tour.
“I don’t particularly like the world technology has created,” Mr. Daltrey said. “Has anything really gotten better with the computer, or are you just doing more and more of less and less? I’m incredibly paranoid about it, especially after what happened to Pete. I think the Internet is just an advertising device of very dubious returns.
“Also, I haven’t got the luxury of throwing the kind of money at it that he can,” he continued, referring to Mr. Townshend’s songwriting revenue. “I haven’t got the publishing, I’m just the singer. So I have to look at it much more hard-nosed as a business and ask if I can put a million dollars into it, and the answer is no.”
Mr. Townshend responded: “Roger likes things that are finished, and with the Internet, everything is a work in progress. I try not to bludgeon him with this stuff, but I can’t help it; it’s my passion.”
For Mr. Daltrey, “Endless Wire” closes a door for the band that was left open after the death of the high-flying Mr. Moon (about whom he is developing a film project, with Mike Myers committed to the role). “We were ill equipped to deal with Keith’s problems at the time,” he said. “If we’d known then what we know now about rehabilitation, we wouldn’t have lost him. So it always felt that if that had really been the end, it wouldn’t have been right. With this album, now there can be an ending. I don’t want it to be, but it can be, and I’m at peace with that.”
Mr. Townshend, characteristically, disagreed with that assessment. “It doesn’t feel like closure; it feels completely new,” he said. “Closure implies that we couldn’t do it again, couldn’t do another album with the same quality and dignity.
“This album isn’t some sort of Who miracle. It’s just two guys who’ve come together to do something creative. It just happens to be under a very powerful brand name.”