He's got the whole world in his laptop: Interview: Pete Townshend invented Virtual Reality (maybe) and he still thinks there's life in the concept album. By Andy Gill

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The Independent Culture
PETE TOWNSHEND is a busy man these days. In August he's off to the United States to work on a stage version of Iron Man, his musical setting of Ted Hughes's poem; the stage version of Tommy is a big hit on Broadway, has won five Tony awards and looks set to tour; another Who tour is looming on the horizon; and this week his latest solo project, a radio-play-with-music called Psychoderelict, is released, though Townshend won't be here to mark the fact. He's off on a low-key promotional tour of small American theatres. Busy, busy.

And it's there in the way his lugubrious, vulturine presence sweeps into the room at his record company's offices toting a Macintosh laptop computer, which he plugs in to recharge. This, it turns out, is but one of 14 Macs he owns - eight at his studio, five at home, and this one on the road. It seems excessive, but then Townshend has always been a bit of a techno-freak, his conversation liberally spiced with words like 'gigabytes' and discussion of the origins of virtual reality. According to Townshend, he was into VR 20 years ago, way before William Gibson popularised the notion; but 'Arthur C Clarke invented it in a science fiction novel in 1942, and there was probably somebody before him, too . . .'.

Townshend's VR idea formed the backbone of an abandoned project called Lifehouse, which was originally intended to be the follow-up to Tommy. 'It was a really considerable project, quite a smart project in a lot of ways. It was about totalitarian media, and what would happen when - and it has actually started - the big corporations take over all the newspapers and TV stations and so on, and eventually start to control people's experiences through the use of advanced techniques like virtual reality.'

But the idea was just too far ahead of its time. The project was dropped, although fragments - most notably the early synthesiser rocker 'Baba O'Riley' - appeared on Who's Next, which replaced it as Tommy's successor. 'The Who and their managers and the people I was working with in theatre at the time couldn't get a grip on it, they couldn't understand it,' he claims. 'It was too brilliant, I think - too cosmic. It was very poorly written, the script was childish, but it was a fantastic idea.'

Such a fantastic idea, in fact, that when Townshend needed a 'lost dream' for a rock-star character in Psychoderelict, he gave it to him, complete with the remaining fragments of the original 'Baba O'Riley' music, which are interspersed among the new songs like 'English Boy' and 'Predictable' and the narrative superstructure, a corny tale of how old rocker Ray High is goaded out of reclusive inaction by a conspiracy between his manager Rastus Knight and bitchy radio journalist Ruth Streeting.

The story was planned as a novel, but Townshend decided to splice it together with the songs he'd written for his new album, which he'd decided he wasn't really happy with in their original form. 'I finished the album and I didn't really like it, then as I was about to deliver it I fell off my bike and smashed up my wrist, which gave me a period in which to re-examine everything.'

One brief re-examination later, and hey presto: another concept album. Does he find it so very difficult to do a bunch of songs without tying them up with a conceptual ribbon?

'No, I don't find it difficult at all,' he says. 'I just don't find it fulfilling; because I'm not sure that what I'm trying to get across is coming across. I've always been upset that the shades, the allegories beneath songs like 'I'm A Boy' and 'Pictures Of Lily' and 'I Can See For Miles', their true shades of meaning, might only appear when I sit down and try to write my autobiography. So I decided to try and weave some story around what I did, to help propel the songs, and help them to arrive, in some shape or form.'

But sadly, the reverse is more the case here: for while the new music includes some of Townshend's best work for years, and the old Lifehouse material offers a fascinating glimpse of the past, the narrative element of Psychoderelict is more panto than radio play, and the characters, who Townshend admits are 'comic-book stereotypes', are flimsy. Quite apart from the obvious parallels between himself and Ray High, the journalist Ruth Streeting is clearly modelled on Townshend's one-time bete noire Julie Burchill, though he seems surprised to learn that the heroine of her novel Ambition was called Susan Street.

'There's shades of her in there,' he says. 'As I was finishing the script, Julie had her last book out, and she was in everything: there was her mug, staring at me from every newspaper, talking about earning 100,000 quid a year, as though it was a lot of money.'

Townshend's manager Bill Curbishley was, it is claimed, very upset when he learnt he was not the model for the odious-but-loveable manager Rastus, who is apparently based on a former road manager of The Who, who had a very cavalier attitude towards the guitarist's wealth. 'He'd say to me, 'You're a rock star, Pete, you should try cocaine: very good drug, very interesting - want me to go out and buy you . . . six ounces?' I'd say, 'Oh yeah, go on then,' and then at the end of the tour I'd get a bill for dollars 500,000, and I'd say, 'What's this for?' He'd say, 'The six ounces of coke.' I'd say, 'So where is it?' He'd say, 'Aaaah . . . well, the road crew had a very long drive, all the way from Zurich to Nuremburg, and they couldn't do it without the drugs.'

Townshend remains sanguine about his time spent rolling round the enormo-domes of America and Europe with The Who, trashing poor innocent guitars by the busload; though he still regards with bitterness the machinations of what he claims is a conspiratorial network of agencies and promoters.

'If the Who go out on the road, for example, it's very difficult to get the place you want to play. If you actually want to play a 10,000-seat place, and the promoter reckons he can sell 80,000 tickets, you'll end up in the 80,000-seater.

There's no way you can actually get the place you want, because the promoters and agents conspire to book, say, Leonard Cohen into that smaller place you're after for the whole period you want; and Neil Young will be over here, they'll be using him to block another theatre - so you'll be left with this untrackable route, that you can only do stadiums. I'm not saying The Who didn't want to do some stadiums, but we certainly didn't want to do a complete stadium tour, and we ended up playing only stadiums, apart from Radio City.'

He may well be right. Who can tell? Just because Pete might be paranoid, it doesn't mean that they're not out to get him. It is perhaps typical of the Townshend outlook that he should view new technologies like VR primarily as tools of repression. He can even, in his search for what happened to 'all that lovely hippy shit', trace the rise of stadium rock to the big psychedelic festivals, whose dreams of communality were, he believes, a red herring.

'It's not the Rolling Stones, the Beatles or the Who that are responsible for rock'n'roll in football stadia, it's the festivals. It's ironic that the only big gigs that you can be assured will be sell-outs now are, once again, the festivals.

For all his wealth, Townshend remains, however, firmly on the side of the English working class, whose situation is depicted with some venom in 'English Boy', the standout track from the new album. 'We're very useful when there's a war on, to go and tear people's guts out with a bayonet,' he splutters bitterly. 'But as soon as some wanker with a striped suit tells us it's over, we're supposed to crawl back under our working-class stone, on the dole, and keep our mouths shut, just hide away on our housing estates. Not only that, but on our housing estates, we're not even allowed to go out and 'borrow' a car for an afternoon . . .'

Yet he claims to be essentially conservative, secure in his marriage and, oddly for one so interested in new technology, resistant to change. 'I live and work no further than a hundred yards from the house in which I was born,' he says, 'and I still regard my brief as writing for those six guys and one girl who came up to me at the Goldhawk Club, who'd heard 'Can't Explain' for the first time on Ready Steady Go and said, 'That's the song, that's what we want to hear more of.' I still feel charged by that to this day.'

'Psychoderelict' is released this week by east west records.

(Photograph omitted)

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