Thursday, December 20, 2012

the last book I ever read (Pete Townshend's Who I Am, excerpt six)

from Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend:

I’m often described as ‘pretentious’ for attempting to write a composed song-cycle that tells a story (which itself has been torn to pieces a thousand times because it doesn’t fit established rules of operatic written drama). It was even called my ‘brain fart’ by some critic that I have since relegated to the sludge-pile of memory. ‘Rock opera’ had already happened with The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow and Keith West’s Excerpt from a Teenage Opera; The Kinks released their own Arthur the same year as Tommy, and we were certainly both using the term ‘rock opera’, albeit tongue-in-cheek. We knew that what we were doing owed more to British music hall than to grand opera.

My songs for Tommy still had the function of pop singles to reflect and release, prefigure and inspire, entertain and engage. But that vein – of promoting singles apart from a whole album – had been thoroughly mined by the time we released Tommy. Change was necessary for us, which of course meant taking a lot of criticism on the chin. If the naïve, workmanlike songs I wrote immediately before Tommy had been hits I might never have felt the need to try something else. I might have kept my operatic ambitions private. There’s nothing I admire more than a collection of straightforward songs, linked in mood and theme only by a common, unspecific artistic thesis.

But the ‘pretentiousness’ of Tommy was necessary. Without its audacity and cheek to attract both attention and opprobrium, I believe The Who would have eventually disappeared or become irrelevant. In any case, I enjoyed writing songs serving a brief. It’s how I had begun, it seemed to work for me, and the result was songs that might otherwise not have been written. After Tommy every collection of songs I submitted for a Who album was inspired by an idea, a story or concept that had some kind of dramatic shape and form, not always evident, but always there.

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