Over the last few decades, Pete Townshend’s status as a composer has thankfully caught up with his formidable reputation as a guitar smashing, eardrum splitting rock god. Several of his most famous works with the Who have been given the orchestral treatment, earning rapturous responses at the world’s most prestigious concert houses. Most recently, the 1973 double disc Quadrophenia received a symphonic reimagining courtesy of Rachel Fuller, a singer-songwriter, arranger and also Townshend’s wife. Released as Classic Quadrophenia in June 2015, the piece had its live debut the next month at London’s Royal Albert Hall, with tenor Alfie Boe giving voice to the parts originally sung by Roger Daltrey. Now Townshend will take the production on the road for a series of limited dates in the United States, kicking off on Sept. 2 at Massachusetts’ Tanglewood Music Center with Boe, New Wave hitmaker Billy Idol, and the Boston Pops. Back-to-back shows at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House will follow on Sept. 9 and 10, before a final performance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 16.
Townshend wrote his first hit, “I Can’t Explain,” in 1964, but it didn’t take long for his artistic ambitions to outgrow mere pop songs. Two years later he tested his creative might with a nine-minute musical suite, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” spreading a narrative over six distinct musical motifs. It would be a dry run for his most famous work, Tommy, the 1969 “rock opera” that set the standard for that oft-maligned and misunderstood art form: the concept album. Such projects ran the risk of seeming bloated and self-conscious in the hands of lesser talent, but Townshend bested himself with Quadrophenia, an unflinching look back at the mid-’60s Mod scene in which the band had come of age. Viewed through the eyes of a troubled teenager named Jimmy, the piece managed to balance clear-eyed nostalgia with forward-thinking musical ideas. Many—including Townshend himself—consider it among his most perfectly realized works, reestablishing the Who as a Band of the People after the spiritual mysticism of Tommy and the isolating superstardom that followed in its wake.
Upon its initial release, Quadrophenia resonated as a call to fans to grow up and move beyond the adolescent selfishness, skillfully evoked with great empathy and care in Townshend’s songs. The message of Classic Quadrophenia is similar, challenging diehard rock fans to embrace a broader scope of music. The 72-year-old legend spoke with PEOPLE about his upcoming tour, the early days of the Who, and how he’s crafting his legacy.
What was the catalyst for gathering these orchestral folios of your work?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The Library of Congress allow you to register something called a grand-right, which is music, lyrics and dramatic scenario—“book,” we call it—and I wanted to approve of everything that I had. Not just Tommy and Quadrophenia, but also some of my lesser works, like the Who’s mini-opera, Rael, which is a much longer piece than the Who recorded originally. The Who did a thing called “Rael” which I think was a 7-minute single, but it was meant to be a 4-hour opera. [laughs] We started literally on sheet music. I started studying opera writing when I was 21 or 22, and I couldn’t even play the piano back then. So it was quite an audacious, arrogant and pretentious thing to try to do. [laughs]
I started to do [Classic Quadrophenia] because I didn’t want to be on my death-bed thinking, “Oh f—, I wish I had rubber stamped something that I approved of here, rather than allowing somebody else to translate it their way.” I don’t mind if people translate it their way, but I wanted to have something that was mine. And then Rachel [Fuller]—now my wife, my partner then—met Hans Zimmer and Hans took the score and help turn it into a score which Deutsche Grammophon heard, and gave us the money to make the album.
What was it like hearing these completed scores played back by an orchestra for the first time? Was that an emotional experience for you?
No, not really. Music is kind of my job and I lived with quite a lot of it. The other thing is I grew up with a dad who was in a band and I used to sit and try to read scores with him. He was in a band that varied between 14 and 26 pieces. My father-in-law with my first marriage was a film score composer who worked with me on a number of projects. I’ve worked with and played with orchestras before—we’ve done a version of Tommy, which was done with the London Symphony. So I’d been there and done it, but this was a delight because I had approved every note of every score. Rachel had literally orchestrated it under my nose, and every time she made a change she would say, “This is what [the Who’s bassist and occasional brass player] John Entwistle played on the French horn, but I’ve changed it a tiny bit. Is that OK?” And if I thought it was OK I would say yes, and if I felt she had done too much I would say, “No, I want you to leave it the way John did it.” There are no electric guitars, so there’s quite a lot of emulation that had to be done with contrapuntal string arranging and stuff. I was ready for it. It was a 90-piece orchestra [in the studio], and when we did it at the Royal Albert Hall we had 120 people. It’s pretty big stuff.
Keith Moon’s drumming is such an integral part of the songs on the original recording, but for Classic Quadrophenia you used an orchestral percussion section instead of a rock drum kit. Was it a struggle to dissect all of Moon’s parts and distribute them to these different instruments?
No, this was something we [Townshend and Fuller] both agreed we would do. I actually think that when orchestras have drum kits in the middle, it tends to be a racket. A rock drummer on their own can completely silence an orchestra. It was my notion to avoid having a drum kit. Going back to Tommy, which Lou Reizner and Lou Adler did back in the ‘70s with a celebrity cast and the London Symphony Orchestra, the first two test recordings had a drum kit. I remember having a conference with Lou Reizner saying, “Listen, try a couple with orchestral percussion rather than a drummer.” It was quite clear it was going to be better. And that’s exactly what we did [on Classic Quadrophenia]—we have a guy playing the tom-tom fills, we have somebody playing cymbals, we have somebody playing a bass drum, we have somebody playing tympani. One of the interesting things about this was that Keith Moon was never a conventional drummer in any respect. He didn’t play that kind of on-the-beat style drums that are so typical of so many bands from the R&B and blues era. He didn’t know how to keep it simple, but he was very orchestral. I think if Rachel was speaking to you now, she’d say it was very simple to translate what Keith had done to an orchestral section.
On the original recording you used ARP synthesizers to create sounds of strings. What lead you to use synths over a string section back then?
It was about the Who being a band that did not use orchestras. [laughs] John Entwistle was a brass player and he played lots of stuff over it: flugelhorn, tuba, valve trombone, and trumpet. He did all the parts on it. There were bits where I wanted to do Wagnerian parodies and John was on the money. But where I wanted orchestral textures, I had been experimenting with synthesizers since years before and I wanted absolute control. I actually played violin, as well. I played synthesizer, but some of the parts were doubled with real violin. You can hear synthesis, but if it sounds sort of semi-real it’s because I’m sort of bowing along, not very well, mono fiddling in the background. I’m not a bad violinist as long as I keep it simple.
Over the years you’ve revisited a number of your works in a variety of ways. It makes me think of that famous line: art is never finished; only abandoned. Do you feel that’s true?
I think art is finishing things. There has to be a point where you let things go and you deliver them and they’re done. The more power you get as a creative, the less likely you are to finish it. I do think as an aphorism it is correct, but what I say for me is that art is finishing things. It’s getting to the point where you say, “Right, this is ready to go.” In the early years there was no time to procrastinate, no time for perfection, no time to go back again and again and again and review what we had done. It suited me very well. We put out a lot of things that I didn’t feel were quite right, but at least we got them out. In the last 20 or 30 years I’ve released very little stuff and I think it’s because I never feel it’s ready. I never feel it’s finished. If I played you some of the stuff I think is not finished, you’d probably say, “Well Pete, this is great, why didn’t you put it out earlier?” And I would say, “There was no need to, and I think it can be better.” Also, I think as one gets older you think, “People will hear all this stuff when I’m dead anyway.” [laughs]
The art in my business, in popular music, is as much about who you are and how you work to serve your audience, allowing them a way to engage and occupy what it is that you do for them. I think some of the best pop stuff and R&B stuff comes from the neighborhood. The best artists don’t necessarily speak for their neighborhood, but speak alongside their neighborhood. Then people from their neighborhood feel that they’re speaking [themselves]. If you take Quadrophenia, it’s probably closer to Catcher in the Rye than it is to Moby Dick. [laughs] I would be happy to be associated with either; I know that sounds pretentious. What Quadrophenia was about was a conscious effort by me to allow people who were fans of the band to get back to their original relationship with them. And it’s strange that even in an orchestrated version you still get the sense that this is a story of a f—ed up boy from Shepherd’s Bush.
I’m hard pressed to name anyone who has more compassion and empathy for adolescent problems and the struggles of growing up. Has your relationship to Jimmy changed at all over time?
No, it’s been very solid. Where my relationship to some of the figures in my work, like Tommy, has changed is, as I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten a better understanding of how when you write music and stories you do so much of it unconsciously and therefore you allow your own neuroses to leak through even though you don’t intend them to.
With Quadrophenia I had a very clear notion of who Jimmy was. He was a composition of several boys and one girl that I knew when the band first started out in ’63 and ’64, the time the Beatles became really big in America. We were playing R&B music to local kids, some of whom we’d gone to school with so we knew them very well. In 1973, the Who had gotten quite grandiose. I don’t know if we had lasers, but we certainly had a lot of bells and whistles. We’d had a big deal with Tommy and the Woodstock movie with Roger looking like a Greek god and blah blah blah. But we were lost. We were grandiose and we were separated [from fans] and I wanted a way to bring us all together. I achieved that with Quadrophenia by making the focus one of our early fans who, let’s face it, in Quadrophenia is much more important than the members of the band.
For a while there, the four members of the band thought it was about them and therefore I managed to get it past them. [laughs] It is about them. It’s about them when they were like Jimmy. It’s about us when we were unknown and we were just kids in the neighborhood. So it had a rejuvenating and focusing effect for us as members of a band. It was a really good piece for us right then, and I think it grounded us and helped us a lot. It’s been amazing in the last 10 years or so performing it with Roger (and for a while there with John Entwistle [who died in 2002]), because we never thought as a band we’d be able to perform it and do it justice. Roger has found new ways of performing, particularly on songs like “Love Reign o’er Me.” He does it like an opera singer. Alfie Boe has his work cut out. He will be compared, there’s nothing he can do about it. [laughs]