Going Through the Motions: Why Pete Townshend’s Windmill Works Even When He Doesn’t Mean It

pete wightI presented this one at the 2004 Pop Conference. It was later published in the academic journal Popular Music, with an introduction by Jason Toynbee, and followed by some back and forth between Jason and me, in which we argued good-naturedly about the different ways academic writing and popular writing tend to analyze the same phenomenon. In other words, the piece was a microcosm of everything great and infuriating about the Pop Conference itself.

We’re going to start with some film — the Who playing “Young Man Blues” at the Isle of Wight in 1970. I’ve always loved the Who, but I never really cared for their version of this song until I first saw this clip, which just nailed me to my seat. I actually got goose bumps – all the hairs on both my arms stood straight up. I watched it again the next morning when I wasn’t so stoned to make sure I’d seen what I thought I had, and it still blew me away.

The song lasts for about five and a half minutes, and during that time you witness a wild transformation: the band starts out playing the song, but by the end it’s the other way around — the music takes over, and it’s the song that’s playing the band. As a fan and a critic, of course, I live for moments like that. More importantly, though, as a guy who spent a good ten years on the road in a band that very much wanted to be the Who (actually, the Clash, but it’s really the same thing), I know just how easy those moments are to fake, and how that can make chasing after genuine onstage epiphanies not just a point of honor, but a physical craving that gets harder and harder to satisfy the more often you do it.

That’s the nifty thing about this bit of film: you don’t just get to see the band reaching for an elusive moment and capturing it. You also get to see them lose it after Pete Townshend plays a bum note, and then you get to watch Townshend vamp around desperately trying to call it back. And when he finally succeeds, the whole thing rockets to another level, and you get to witness both the man and the song disappear entirely for a few priceless moments.

Before the song, though, Pete’s got something apropos to say about his job.

When I’m on the stage, let me try and explain: when I’m on the stage, I’m not in control of myself at all. I don’t even know who I am, you know. I’m not this rational person that can sit here now and talk to you…I’m just not there, really. It’s not like being possessed, it’s just I do my job, and I know that I have to get into a certain state of mind to do it

OK, now it’s time to watch what Pete means, as he and the band tear through “Young Man Blues” at the Isle of Wight in 1970:

When Pete says, “I do my job,” he’s not being ironic in the slightest. He takes his work very seriously, and on stage his job is to lose control.  But he’s got a dilemma: all the outward signs of him losing control – the leaps, the windmills, the guitar smashing – only work for a little while. It’s like that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where he and Daffy Duck keep trying to outdo each other onstage. No matter what Daffy does, Bugs always one ups him, until finally Daffy drinks some gasoline, then swallows a match and explodes. The crowd goes wild and Bugs urges Daffy to take an encore. But, as his ghost ascends to heaven, Daffy sighs and says, “That’s the problem with that bit: I can only do it once.”

Townshend’s windmill must have happened for the first time once, presumably because he couldn’t control himself. But the motion quickly became a move: a signature he was expected to repeat nightly, which then became part of rock and roll’s trick bag – a thing you do to demonstrate the kind of music you’re playing, rather than something that happens because the music’s playing you.

The windmill is now such an iconic rock gesture that not only does it have a name, but the very footage we just watched is featured in a montage sequence in School of Rock, when Jack Black’s teaching his students how to look and move onstage. If you’re like me, though, you noticed two different kinds of Pete Townshend windmills. They look exactly the same, but they feel different. The first is the “I’m-doing-this-cuz-all-you-fuckers-expect-me-to” windmill. And the second is the “I’m-doing-this-because-I-can’t-help-myself” windmill.” If my presentation has a thesis, it’s that you can’t have one kind of windmill without the other.

At the first Pop Studies conference, the word “authenticity” cropped up during so many panels that it actually started getting booed by the end of the weekend, so I don’t want anyone to worry that I’m going to waste your time insisting that one type of windmill is authentic, and one is a sham. As a performer, though, it has certainly been my experience that sometimes you don’t think about what you’re doing on stage at all – shit just happens, and you watch it unfold at the exact same moment the audience does, so that you will suddenly find yourself in midair, for example, with no real idea how you got there – whereas other times you actually find yourself thinking, “Oh, I should make my way over to the drum riser, cuz we’re about to modulate and it will look pretty cool if I time my leap right.”

So to me it’s not a black and white, either-it’s-real-or-it’s-faked choice. Rather, there’s a spectrum: you have spontaneous action on one end and planned moves on the other. At one extreme the crowd watches the band lose itself in the music, and at the other the band consciously tries to make the crowd lose control.

Both ends of that spectrum can be equally enjoyable. I doubt Too Much Joy were the only band that sometimes traveled with two sets of gear: the good, expensive kind that we used most of the time, and the shitty instruments that our roadies passed us at the end of select performances when it felt like we needed to smash shit up. When the show was over, they’d collect what pieces they could, then try to put them back together so they could stay in tune for at least the length of one more song. We didn’t use them every night, but we did break them more often than we could actually have afforded in real life. But every once in a while one of us would get angry or happy or just drunk enough to smash one of our regular instruments, and I still have no idea if the audience ever noticed any difference. The rest of the band was always suitably shocked, however.

Just cuz a band’s surprising itself doesn’t mean it’s any fun to watch, though, as Pete demonstrates about 2:25 into the song by playing what’s frankly kind of a lame lead, which sputters to such a sad halt, ending what had been a genuine frenzy.

It’s almost as though Pete suddenly remembers who and where he is, and the magic disappears. But how’s he get it back? The exact same way he lost it: he remembers who and where he is! He’s fucking Pete Townshend! On stage with the fucking Who! So he starts acting like it, leaping and windmilling like he’s supposed to, and before too long he isn’t acting anymore.

I find the part where Pete stops playing and just shakes his guitar over and over, letting it ring, pretty damn profound, because it feels like he’s finally gotten exactly where he wanted to be and it has nothing to do with looking cool or even playing well. It’s about nothing more than a moment of glorious noise, and surrendering completely to its power.

Calling up those moments is tremendously difficult, and making them last for any serious length of time nearly impossible. So when you want to summon one, you do what superstitious humans have always done: namely, whatever the hell you were doing the first time it happened.

This goes on all the time when you’re a touring rock band: you do something accidentally one night — some new banter, or a way you haven’t strummed on that song before, or someone else in the band jumping through the air at the same time you fall to your knees, so he just misses your head — and both you and the crowd are surprised and excited. Because it’s your job to please the crowd, you try it again the next night, only this time you’re practiced, so the crowd responds not just to the moment you summon, but also to your obvious command of that moment. If it works twice, it becomes a regular part of the act, and that very phrase hints at the transformation the moment is undergoing.

The thing is, those little bits are usually more powerful the third, fourth and fifth time they happen than the first, when it was just a happy accident. You can probably say this about most anything musical, I think: in the studio, for instance, the same logic applies. While there are some musicians who insist in interviews that they prefer first takes, I’m pretty sure those folks are liars, or else they just have attention deficit disorder. For my band, third takes were often the ones that achieved the best balance between knowing the thing well enough to nail every part just right, and being just unsure enough whether everyone was going to avoid fucking up that our surprise and glee when things went right gave the song a lift that would gradually disappear from subsequent run-throughs.

Live, the algebra for all this gets a lot more complicated. On the one hand, you only get one take on stage. But on the other, chances are you’ve played these songs dozens or hundreds of times already, so every additional performance threatens to strip another little bit of the mystery away. If you’re lucky, the push and pull between those opposing phenomena helps you remain poised in the sweet spot between them, and I think you can hear how weariness battles with expectation in the mind of a touring musician when Pete introduces Tommy eight songs later in that Isle of Wight performance.

We’d like to play for you tonight, something which we played over the other side of the island, when we were here last year, wearing the same clothes, carrying the same guitars. With the same personnel and the same road manager, and all the groups using our P.A., same as last year. Driving over in the same cars. It’s all the same this year as it was last year. And, uh, we’re going to play the same thing that we played last year. Something which all of you have probably come specially to hear…

When you just read that quote, it’s easy to assume Pete was bitter or bored, but he doesn’t sound particularly morose as he counts off all the things that haven’t changed in the year since they last played these very songs in these very clothes at this very venue — he simply sounds bemused.

I’m guessing that Pete was still having fun, but was suspicious of those moments when it felt like he was just putting on a show, even if the show he was putting on was a damn good one.

Performers like pleasing audiences, and audiences are going to be happy more consistently when they’re being served up something that’s worked before, but for a lot of musicians – and Pete Townshend was pretty obviously one of these by the early-1970s – there’s a law of diminishing returns. To the extent that you’re just putting on a show you’re not only precluding the possibility of discovering anything new, but also smothering the flame that made the old stuff powerful in the first place. As the years pass, the moments that surprise you come less and less often, but if the crowd’s clapping as loudly as ever it can start to feel like you’re a priest for some cargo cult: your followers love the bamboo air towers and wooden headphones so much that they’ve forgotten what those things are supposed to call down from the sky. They’re confusing the gestures with the goal, but you know you’re failing, and if you can’t make an army plane appear soon, no one – including you — will ever believe they really existed, once.

I attended Tom Kipp’s “Taxonomy of Sludge” panel last year, and I thought it was brilliant how he and Tim Midgett cataloged the way various musical bits get re-used so often that all traces of their original inspiration are eventually lost (my favorite was probably “Reggae Upstroke as Pathetic Roots Move”). Anyway, we were all laughing so hard that one member of the audience objected – he thought we were ridiculing music that lots of fans took very seriously. Needless to say, that guy missed the point completely. We weren’t laughing at the music – we were laughing at the chasm between what the music wanted to mean and what it was doomed to mean to anyone who’d heard it too many times before.

But as I hope you saw when Pete started windmilling so fast that he seemed seconds away from taking off like a helicopter

the music can always surprise you, and the times that it does are actually sweeter if you’ve already convinced yourself it’s all bullshit. Anyone in this room who’s said “I love you” to someone and really, really meant it should know exactly what I’m talking about.

That’s why I think it’s wonderful rather than distressing to realize the thing that first calls the mojo back after Pete loses it is nothing more profound than a simple stage trick: the band brings it down so Roger can shout, “They stepped back!” then Pete and Keith hammer the beat on the word “Back!” for a brief frisson of excitement before bringing it back down again, until Roger repeats the line and they slam the word “Back!” again.

Unfortunately, the band misses the beat – or, more precisely, fails to hit it all together – the second time around, which only serves to remind you that this is real, the band is playing live, and things can go wrong. So it’s that much more powerful when the phrase comes round again, and they don’t just nail it, but they do it five times in suddenly rapid succession. All of a sudden, they’re pros, and their ability to hit their cues makes the crowd roar, and gives Pete the power to take them all someplace that sounds less rehearsed but no less amazing.

The word I keep coming back to is surprise. There are dozens of ways to be surprised, and several of them happen at once as Roger shouts, “Back! Back! Back! Back! Back!” Anyone seeing the Who play this song for the first time is surprised when the lyric and the music don’t do what they were doing a couple seconds ago. The band is doubly surprised: first because they pulled the trick off when everything else suddenly seemed to be going wrong, and second because the trick works on them, too. The crowd screams, which is surprising even when you’re used to it if you haven’t yet convinced yourself you deserve it, but only feels good when you’re already clapping for yourself in your head, which you should be if you all just hit your cues after four minutes of false starts. If everything happens the exact same way tomorrow, it might not feel quite as satisfying, but that’s OK, because these things have to not work the way they used to every once in a while in order for them to keep surprising you.

Since I keep extolling ineffable moments of transcendence, I should probably explain that I’m a semi-militant atheist, which means that while I understand making my way in this country requires me to nod politely and pretend I respect other peoples’ beliefs, the truth is I find it difficult to take anything someone says seriously after they’ve told me they believe in God. Nonetheless, when I wind up in places of worship, I find myself wishing I could appreciate the rituals as more than empty gestures. Interpreting them intellectually feels puny and wrong, which is maybe a stupid thing to say after spending however many minutes trying to dissect the meaning of a guitar strum. But that’s the point I want to be sure I’ve made before I shut up: the more music you play, the more music you hear, the harder it becomes for the music to affect you, and the better it feels whenever it does anyway. And when the music can’t pull that off on its own, talented performers can force it to do so. Not because they have faith in something bigger (although they might), and not because they think they’re all that matters (although this is even more likely) – just because they know how to fill the space until the music pushes them out of the way again.

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