25 Apr 2016
A CONVERSATION WITH ANDY ‘THUNDERCLAP’ NEWMAN
Mark Wilkerson got in touch with me recently, shortly after hearing of the death of Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman and subsequently sent me an interview he had conducted with Andy back in 2009. It’s a fascinating conversation with a very special person and I’m delighted to be able to post it up here. Many thanks to Mark for sharing it with us.
Richard Evans, web master.
On July 24, 2009 I had a long phone conversation with pianist Andy Newman, of Thunderclap Newman, the unlikely trio that rocketed to fame in 1969 with their number one hit (released on The Who’s label, Track Records) ‘Something In The Air’. The interview was one of several I did that year in the hope of being able to revise my Pete Townshend book one day, but that revision never came to be.
This was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done. Newman possessed an engaging, warm personality, and was a great conversationalist. He clearly loved talking about music and culture and was impressively knowledgeable about an array of subjects. We talked about the obvious things – Thunderclap Newman, Pete Townshend, The Who, multi-track recording – but then veered off into territory such as jazz, boxing, cricket and rugby. We talked again a few weeks later, this time about baroque music, as Mr. Newman had kindly mailed me a CD of the BBC ‘Baroque and Roll’ interview with Pete Townshend, with a kind note written on ‘A. L. Newman’ letterhead.
I was saddened to hear that Andy had passed away. I’m heartened that I have a record of my conversation with this fascinating man which, thanks to Richard Evans, I’m able to share with you now.
Despite the fact that I’ve edited out the detours into cricket, Muhammad Ali, The Beatles, Benny Goodman, rugby, etc., it’s still rather long…
In 1963, Pete Townshend was in art school, and Andy Newman was a telephone engineer. They had a mutual friend named Rick Seaman.
AN: “[Seaman] went to the same art college as Pete. I think they were on a different art course – I think Rick Seaman was doing fine art, and I think Pete might’ve been doing graphic design. But apparently they eventually sort of came into contact with one another through various other people including early members of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band. Rick and myself had been playing a bit of music together and doing a bit of recording onto an old Grundig tape recorder and Rick played the recordings to Pete, and for some reason he liked them.
Newman didn’t think much of this collection of recordings, which were called Ice & Essence: “To me it wasn’t that good, but everyone else seemed to think it was alright.”
AN: Anyway, I kept hearing about Pete’s career, he had a band that had all sorts of names, one time I heard it I think it was called ‘Us’, [spells] U-S, the name kept changing, and finally they ended up with the name ‘The Who’ and that sort of stuck. It’s quite fascinating… Anyway, what happened was that I actually did a performance at the college one lunchtime – I just played piano solo for about an hour in front of the audience – it was just to fill some time in because they’d had some very important artist, I think it was Shake Keane and his band, but they’d had to drop out at the last minute and so I came in and took over. I just played, as I say, solo piano, and apparently Pete was in the audience.”
In his 1982 book Maximum R&B, Richard Barnes recalls Newman’s lunchtime performance at Ealing Art School and the influence it had on Townshend:
A student friend of Pete’s called Dick Seaman used to go on about this mysterious person that he knew who was a post office engineer by day and some sort of lonely undiscovered genius musician at night. Dick arranged for him to play at the Art School in the lecture theatre on lunchtime. The resulting concert by Thunderclap Newman (real name Andy Newman) on piano and kazoo was an incredible experience. He was a very strange and mysterious person who had never played to an audience before and he played and sung mostly his own weird compositions. He set a metronome going on top of the grand piano and just played for over an hour until he was stopped. He never looked at the audience once. The students went wild at the end.
Pete became slightly obsessed with him and regarded him as a sort of undiscovered genius. …Pete played [Ice & Essence] constantly.
All these years later, Newman didn’t come across as “strange”, or “mysterious”. But he was surprisingly oblivious as to the impact his little lunchtime performance had apparently had on Townshend. I read the preceding quote to Mr Newman, and he was positively floored.
“Did he really?,” a breathless and clearly amazed Newman remarked as I finished reading the quote.
“Yes!” I responded, after which followed a long pause.
AN: “I didn’t know that. [another long pause] I say… I didn’t realise that. Well, well, well. You’ve taken my breath away there! [laughs incredulously]
After taking a few moments to let that soak in, I forged ahead…
One of the results of Pete Townshend’s exposure to the work of Andy Newman was that he picked up the art of multi-tracking, a skill which meant that Townshend could make quite complex demos without an expensive multi-track recorder.
AN: I was playing other instruments, mainly wind instruments, and what I wanted to do was proper, full orchestrations, and being an amateur musician and having people around who really didn’t know anything about music and didn’t understand the whole sort of concept of how an orchestration goes, I thought, well, the only way to do it is to get two tape recorders, record your basic track on the first one, and then dub through a mixer to the second one, with a microphone in the mixer, and add the second instrument, and then bounce back the other way putting the third instrument on. And I managed to do a few recordings like that. The technical quality was appalling because by the time you get to four overdubs you’ve lost a hell of a lot of quality, and all the faults in the system build up, and I didn’t have terribly good equipment to work with anyway. And I think on the basis of what I’d done, I mean, these recordings were played to Pete, and he thought it was a very good idea to try and do it. Of course by then, you didn’t need to do bouncing across, you could use four track and eight track tape recorders to do all this, but I think at that stage, Pete didn’t have quite enough money to buy a multi-track tape recorder.
It wasn’t until several years later that Townshend and Newman would cross paths again.
AN: …I got a message from [Pete] saying that he wanted me to do some film music, and so we went to his flat in Eccleston Square [Pete lived there in 1967], and he sort of told me roughly what he wanted. At the time he was gluing a guitar back together which he’d broken… Anyway, he gave me a Nagra reel to reel portable tape recorder which at that time I think was considered the best portable tape recorder money could buy. I think they’ve still got them in the film industry now. So what happened was I went away on the basis of what he’d said he wanted and I recorded some stuff and sent it back to him with the tape recorder.
MW: Did you strike up a friendship with Pete right away, did you have a lot in common, for example, in addition to the multi-tracking?
AN: No, we only met him, and everything was very business-like. We never got pally with Pete. Pete wasn’t that sort of person, you know – he was into work and business, and had a very diligent sort of career-first approach to everything. …I wasn’t very close to Pete initially, it was only when we did the recording project with Speedy Keen and Jimmy McCullough, you see. After that we got a little bit closer to him but often he was away for long periods and most of our communication was really in a businesslike way.
…most of the time he was away on tour in America. We used to get these very amusing stories coming back, of… well, certainly on the tours in this country, of the slight disagreements between he and other members of the band. It must have been in one of the music newspapers, one of the British ones, where they recounted a performance that was done at the Regal Cinema Swindon, which ended up with a punch-up on the stage, mainly between Townshend and Keith Moon. Then apparently they were all sort of called and said, “Look, you’ve got to start behaving yourself,” and all the rest of it, and they agreed to do it, and the next thing apparently was a television broadcast up in Newcastle, which ended up after the performance with a row between Townshend and the producer and I seem to remember – I don’t know which one, whether it was the Melody Maker or the NME – but it said at the end of it an amplifier was thrown!
A little more than a year later, Newman received a letter from Pete, “asking me if I would like to record some songs with two guys who he was working with. And this was ostensibly for another film.”
The first of this unlikely trio to enter Townshend’s life was John ‘Speedy’ Keen, an old Acton County Grammar School classmate of Pete’s, a drummer and songwriter who went on to become Townshend’s driver for a time, shuttling him to and from gigs in the late ‘60s, and even writing a song which was recorded by the Who, ‘Armenia City In The Sky’.
AN: Speedy used to basically go to the gigs with Pete and then drive him back because after the gig he’d be very tired. They say one of the reasons why Speedy did that was ‘cause one night Pete did this thing somewhere up in the North of England, he wanted to drive all the way back and he’s going down the motorway and he fell asleep. Now in those days the motorways didn’t have crash barriers on them. Fortunately, where he went to sleep, the ground next to the motorway was flat, he went straight through a fence and into a farmer’s field. The problem was, the farmer was ploughing the field and it had messed up his day’s work. Anyway, he gets out of his tractor and he starts screaming at Pete, you know – “You irresponsible young so and so,” blah blah blah, “They should bring back national service, sort you hooligans out,” and all the rest of it, you know, blah blah blah [laughs]. Pete woke up and when he realised what had happened, he apparently put his hand in his pocket and pulled out 50 pounds. And gave it to the guy. Suddenly the guy was all over him! “Oooh! Don’t you worry, we’ll get you out of here. Are you all right sir?” £50, that was his price. But of course, obviously, it could have been a lot worse than that. He could’ve, you know, hit something really solid or whatever, so that I think – after that, he always had Speedy along to drive for him. Particularly on the way home, you know.
In the early ‘70s, Townshend told Zigzag that it was Who manager Kit Lambert’s idea to put the trio together, but Newman remembers things differently.
AN: I don’t think it was Kit Lambert’s idea, I think it was Pete’s idea, and he persuaded Kit Lambert, and then Kit Lambert said it was his idea [laughs]. ‘Cause it took a heck of a lot of effort on Pete’s part to persuade Kit. But anyway, what happened was that Speedy, as I say, had been working with Pete, he’d also written a lot of songs which Pete was aware of, and of course he obviously was very keen to do something in the business. But of course at that stage, Pete either wasn’t in a position or didn’t see his way clear to sort of giving him a shove. But then the Who did a performance in Scotland, I’m not sure where, and their support band was a Scottish band called the One in a Million. And Jimmy McCullough was the lead guitarist. And when Pete saw him he was really knocked out by the little – ‘cause he was only fourteen years old – and he was playing like Eric Clapton [laughs], so Pete thought “Christ, he’s great,” you know. Anyway, it turned out that this little lad was coming down to London with his family, and of course there was a subplot behind this, which was that his father was actually working for a Scottish engineering firm that was actually making the transmission for the transporter that moved the Saturn rocket at the NASA headquarters for the moon shot. So although he couldn’t say anything about it ‘cause it was top secret, that’s the reason why he came down to London. Anyway, he soon got together with Pete, and Pete introduced him to Speedy, and they thought about working together, but then Pete then decided to introduce me into the thing to see if it would work, and we made these three demos, and that’s how the thing got started.
The three unlikely bandmates converged at Townshend’s riverside home in Twickenham and recorded three songs in his home studio.
AN: And so we went in there, he had a little studio upstairs, one of the bedrooms converted, he just had a couple of Revox tape recorders, a Bechstein upright piano, and we knocked out three… I think we did what later became ‘Something in the Air’, but then it was called ‘Revolution’, then we did ‘Accidents’, and I also think we did another song but I can’t remember the name of it. It was some other song which I think was later on sort of revamped and changed around on a later record.
At the time, McCullough was 15 years old, roughly a decade younger than his bandmates.
MW: [I had interviewed Jon Astley for my Pete Townshend book in that house, in the room where Pete’s studio used to be]. It must’ve been very difficult to get an upright piano up those stairs…
AN: Oh, that was alright – he eventually had a six foot ten Bosendorfer in there! It went in alright, there was plenty of room for it, amazingly enough.
There’s rather an interesting story about that premises. It’s right by the river, and it’s on the tidal part of the river. Now, normally, when the tide comes in, it just comes a little bit up the front sort of roadway of the house, and then recedes very quickly, but in the spring and the autumn, you get much higher tides, and when Pete first moved in there he decided to use the little cellar in the place as an echo chamber. So he set all this very expensive equipment up there to produce a really sophisticated echo chamber. Sadly, one day the tide came in and wrecked all his equipment. …I think one Leslie speaker was written off, ‘cause it doesn’t do loudspeakers any good if you drop them in the water. [laughs]
AN: …And then of course after that I got the call to go to IBC studios after he’d asked me if I’d like to sort of form a little band with these blokes, they wanted to do it, so I said yes, and we went to IBC studios in Portland Place, and it was sort of down time from a Who session [this was reportedly left over time from the Tommy sessions], and we knocked out the basic tracks of those numbers: ‘Wilhemina’, ‘Accidents’, and ‘Revolution’, later to be changed to ‘Something In The Air’.
MW: …and Pete’s role was producer and he also played bass.
AN: Yeah, he played bass, using the pseudonym Bijou Drains.
Newman was unable to shed any light on the origins of Pete’s nom de plume.
AN: He produced it, though, and he was a very good producer. I have to say that, I mean I didn’t realise it at the time, but listening back to the recordings that were made, the whole virtue of them is down really to the hand of Pete producing them.
MW: Did he help compose the songs or was he strictly an engineer?
AN: He was managing the recording, and he made suggestions on the arrangement and the instrumentation that was going to be used and how the instrumentation was done, so I think he also arguably had a strong input on arrangement which was conceptual rather than written out, but as far as I know, as far as the composition of the songs were concerned, I’ve no idea whether he had any input on that at all. He certainly didn’t claim any input in terms of credit [the majority of the songs were credited to Speedy Keen]. So as far as I know, the songs were written by the people who wrote them and Pete merely sort of finished them off and produced them. And injected a little bit of arrangement suggestion.
Chris Morphet, who took many well-known photos of Pete, including one in front of Battersea Power Station and a series of photos inside Pete’s studio using a wide-angle lens, played harmonica on the album.
MW: …so after the initial IBC sessions, later on that year you did more at Pete’s house…
AN: Most of the stuff we did on the Hollywood Dream album was done in his studio at the Embankment, Twickenham. Initially, with two Revoxes bouncing between each other, and then later on, he got the first sixteen track 3M tape recorder in the country. He put his order in a long time before anybody else. So from then on, we were putting onto that machine. Yeah, 3M I believe beat the competition by coming out with a sixteen-track before anyone else. When everyone else said, “Eight track’s good enough and you’ll never need anything more than eight track,” well 3M said, “We think sixteen-track is going to be the thing,” and they gambled right. Everyone wanted sixteen-track and they left the competition behind, ‘cause everyone else was making eight track machines and by that time, nobody wanted them.
MW: So he received that tape recorder during the sessions…
AN: Oh yes… what was happening is we were knocking the tracks up together and sort of doing the multi-tracking and the initial tracks that we multi-tracked we were doing with the Revox bouncing from one Revox to the other. But about half way through the project, he got this sixteen track machine. So the rest of the tracks were embellished with that. And that made a heck of a lot of difference. He also had one of the earliest Dolby A systems, which was a noise eliminating compression system to get rid of background noise on tape. I think he probably was one of the first people to have it, but I know for certain that the 3M sixteen track, he was the first person – ‘cause no other studios could see the point in it, and all the other manufacturers thought 3M were mad, and they were going to lose a lot of money out of it. But then the boot was on the other foot within about a year. Suddenly the studios wanted sixteen track and they couldn’t damn well get them, 3M weren’t making them fast enough, and all the other manufacturers couldn’t sell their eight track machines so they were desperately going back to research and development departments to design and develop sixteen track machines!
MW: Richard Stanley [filmmaker friend of Pete’s] told me that during your sessions, there was a creative block and he put photographs in front of you while you were playing the piano to try to stimulate some creativity, sort of like a musical version of a Rorschach test…
AN: Oh, that’s right, yes. …I remember the photos that he put in front of me… it was being recorded.
MW: Pete is also credited with playing pedal steel guitar on the album…
AN: That’s right – Hollywood Dream. He played the pedal steel, which was very, very good, I was quite impressed by that. I’d never – I’d heard these on records but I’d never actually seen one. It’s an instrument that I think in America was very common on the country and western circuit but we’d hardly ever… we’d seen Hawaiian guitars, which are different, but we’d never seen these pedal steels.
MW: So that was Pete’s idea to put that on the album?
AN: Yes. I think he’d been over to America and he’d seen it, and he’d bought one, and he’d learned how to play it, and thought he’d put this nice sort of West coast sound on the recording, you know.
MW: And now all this time that you’re recording in Pete’s house, he’s got a baby, born just a couple of months earlier. Did you have to work around…
AN: That’s right, yes. Well, Pete had to work around that. I think occasionally his wife sort of wagged the finger about keeping the baby awake and… you know, this is one of the problems that having children and having a private life and doing the business all in the same place, as well as the artistic creation, can have its contradictions. But as far as I remember, you know, it didn’t concern us in any way, it was basically Pete managing the situation as far as… like, we’d do a recording and we get something done to a certain point, and he’d say, “Right, we’re going to have to stop now because, you know – baby’s got to get some sleep!” [laughs] So… we’d be about ready to quit anyway… [laughs] it wasn’t just the baby that wanted to sleep, we’d want to sleep as well!
MW: And meanwhile, while all this is going on, The Who are leaving on tour – they left for the States for two months, came back and then left again for Woodstock…
AN: Usually when he was away, we were out on tour, touring the UK or the continent. They’d arrange the tours so that we would be touring in this country while the Who were sort of building their massive career up in America and I think one of the ones that we were on, the Who were actually doing the Metropolitan Opera, with Tommy. Which was unbelievable, having a rock band in the top Opera house of the Americas! [laughs]
In late summer 1969, Thunderclap Newman embarked on a UK tour.
AN: The first tour we did before ‘Something In The Air’ was released in the UK. I think it was the Kirklevington Country Club on 21 June… wait – when I say before the single had been released, it had in fact been released on 14 May, but it took about three weeks before it got into the shops. So what happened was the first gig we did was about a couple of weeks after people were able to buy it. What was ridiculous was we were doing this place up in Durham or wherever it was, the Kirklevington Country Club, and our record was at number 27. It was quite amazing. And the next week, we were at number 17, and we appeared on Top of the Pops – no, it was number seven – God. That was the BBC charts, you know. I’m trying to remember the whole thing now. And that was the beginning of a tour which went through the UK. And it ended up at the Bath Pavilion, and they pulled us off because all the gigs after that had been negotiated when they thought we weren’t going to do any good. And so they were like, literally for peanuts. And so effectively, what they did, they told these people, if they paid more money they’d get us, if they didn’t they wouldn’t, so they wouldn’t so they didn’t!
Then we went on another tour later in the summer, which I think went through Scotland…
It was a Scandinavian tour, which was the following year, we did with Deep Purple. I think it was a fairly standard tour – we went through Denmark and then up to Sweden, then back through Denmark again, and then finished the last performance at the sports pavilion in Oslo. It was a big, enclosed sort of sports pavilion, a huge place.
MW: And so somewhere along the way there, Speedy Keen realised he couldn’t play the drums and sing… so he had to move to rhythm guitar.
AN: Yes – the problem was, the first two gigs, Speedy led on the drums, which was difficult ‘cause he was at the back and, you know, flailing away on the drum kit is not conducive to singing. I mean, before that, he either sung, or he played the drums. So they decided to get [Jimmy’s brother] Jack in on the drums, and put him at the front on lead guitar to front the band up. And then it worked a lot better after that.
MW: In 1970-1971 Pete was working on Lifehouse… In one of his weekly columns in Melody Maker at the time, Pete said that he’d talked to you about anechoic chambers and he tied this to the theme of Lifehouse – the ‘universal note’ etc…
AN: I think there were cases of people who… I know the thing is, that if you are actually working in an anechoic chamber testing audio equipment, it does get very, very eerie because your ears get used to reverberation and you lose all sense of direction, because you’re not getting the reverberation coming back. And it can sort of unbalance people a little bit, I mean, if you get used to it I suppose it’s all right. But certainly a lot of people do find it disorientating when they first do it. And you can’t tell which direction the sound is coming from, because your ears triangulate on the sound using the sound bouncing off the objects, the sound is not bouncing off anywhere, it’s just coming from source, sometimes you have a difficulty sort of pinpointing it.
MW: Another thing – apparently the New York Times reported that in Pete’s film of Lifehouse (which obviously never happened), you were cast as the main character, Bobby.
AN: Well I never heard that! I’m just amazed. I’m amazed! You’re telling me things I never heard before! Oh dear… Well… I may well have been cast, but I was not notified! Of course, I was never notified that they’d decided to call the band we were playing in Thunderclap Newman, until about a week after they’d made the decision! So they never asked me if it was alright to use my name. But I didn’t mind, you know, ‘cause I didn’t think the thing was going to succeed anyway.
MW: What a surreal period that must’ve been for you, for that first song to shoot up the charts as it did.
AN: Well, it was like going from a peaceful monastery to a loud, noisy nightclub with lots of people intruding in. I don’t quite know if that’s a fair description of it but I can tell you, for me, it was a bit sort of traumatic, except for having been a civil servant, and being used to dealing with the public [laughs]. I’m not quite sure that that is the best way to do one’s public relations, but I must admit that playing in front of very, very big audiences – I mean I’d never had more than about 20 or 30 in an audience before that – the first two or three were a bit sort of a surprise, but in the end we just got used to it. But certainly it was a sort of a traumatic thing. And I look at the tour schedules and everything we did in that very, very short period of time, and I think well, how did I manage it? I mean, it was amazing, I’m not sure I could go through that again.
MW: Do you remember enjoying it at the time?
AN: Umm, well… some of it was enjoyable, some of it was not so enjoyable. It was going so fast, you didn’t really have a chance to sort of enjoy it or not enjoy it. You just got it done, and then got on with the next one. It’s rather like the stories you get from people in war zones where they had so much happening that they just had to get on with it, and hope that they would not be the one that would stop the bullets. And as I say, at the time, it was… I must admit, when it was all finished, you know, I felt the effects of it, when we finally sort of stopped working and had a bit of a break, you know. I must admit that when I was approached about five years ago with the band that I’m doing now, which is a resuscitation of Thunderclap Newman, I really didn’t want to go in for it again, but I got sort of sucked in.
MW: In 1972 your solo album Rainbow [Track Records] was released, with Pete Townshend as executive producer, and Rick Seaman as producer. Can you tell me a little about that?
AN: Well basically what happened was that Pete didn’t actually directly produce it. What he did was he sort of made the arrangements for it to be done, and he put Rick Seaman in charge of producing it – directing the sessions. And basically what I did – it was purely myself on my own, multi-tracking, but being able to multi-track on eight and sixteen-track recording machines, which were available in the studios by then. The problem was that we were working on the thing and we’d got about three quarters of the way through but it needed finishing off. And then I don’t quite know what happened – they suddenly decided to stick the thing out as it was. So it was half-finished. A selection of the numbers that we’d done were made, and I’m not entirely sure that all the ones I would’ve preferred to have gone on actually went on. And some that I probably would’ve thought twice about went on, but that’s the way it ended up, and I don’t think it sold a hell of a lot! [laughs] In fact I remember the only critical acclaim we got was one of the music newspapers – I can’t remember which one it was – said ‘If only the album was as good as the sleeve’!
MW: And was Rick Seaman – had you been friends with him throughout, up to that point?
AN: I’d been friends with Rick since school days. And I’m still friends with him.
MW: And had he ever produced anything before?
AN: Oh no, no – he’d never done any producing at all. He knew nothing about it – he was a coach driver! He used to drive people down on their holidays.
MW: So how did he become a candidate for producer?
AN: Well, he sold me to Pete Townshend in the student days, and Townshend turned to him and said, “Look, you obviously know how to do this – do it.” And Rainbow was the result. Except that Rainbow wasn’t finished. That was the trouble – I mean, if we could’ve basically put the project through a bit longer, we could’ve got some of the tracks finished off, possibly made a better selection, and come up with something a little bit more complete. But that’s rock’n’roll for you. [laughs]
MW: We fast forward to 1982, where Pete included a track written by you, ‘Prelude’, on his Chinese Eyes album…
AN: That’s right. I was contacted by Nick Goderson, who was sort of looking after the publisher, who asked me if he could use one of the ones off the Rainbow album called ‘Arctic Sunset’. And the idea was he would use the melody from that and put his words on top. So basically I got the sort of joint publishing on that.
MW: Ah, so it wasn’t actually a new composition…
AN: He put words onto one which I’d actually composed. However, there comes a sequel to that… and this is purely my reading of the thing, it may be Pete saw it a different way, but fairly recently, in the last year, I was asked by the band I’m working for, if we could do any of the ones on the Prelude album, and I thought, well, none of these ones are going to be suitable for in your face rock bands, [laughs], you know, anyway, I gave them copies of the thing, and they came back with ‘Arctic Sunset’ And so I managed to get a copy of Pete’s ‘Prelude’ – I’d never actually heard it – ‘cause I didn’t actually get sort of advance copies of the thing, all that happened was that it got released and then suddenly I got a few royalty checks come in, which was very nice. So what happened was that I thought, well, let’s get Pete’s version, and transpose that, and let’s get Arctic Sunset out and work out what I’ve done there. Well there’s about three themes on Arctic Sunset, and none of them in my opinion bear any relevance to what Pete put musically down on Prelude. So I don’t know why he felt that he had to include me as the composer – but don’t tell him I said that [laughs]! It seems completely different to me. However, they say that Fats Waller claimed that he got… he copied ‘Alligator Crawl’ from George Gershwin’s ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, but if you play those two, they’re completely different! And yet to his dying day, which was in 1943 on a train somewhere in Kansas, apparently in the middle of a joke, Fats Waller swore he nicked the melody from George Gershwin! But it’s not the same! It’s not even related! [laughs] maybe he thought he took it. Maybe he thought he heard what he heard… Still, I’m not going to complain, because I got credited for the music, and I got some money out of it, so… c’est la vie.
We veer off momentarily into further discussion about jazz, then somehow into cricket and rugby… then back to Pete:
MW: Pete sat in with Billy Corgan during one of his Attic Jam shows a year or two ago and they played ‘Something In The Air’.
AN: Oh! It was good, was it?
AN: Actually I’m quite surprised at the number of versions of Something In The Air there are knocking around. Even one I think, done by Herbie Mann, who’s a modern jazz guy. We’re trying to compile all the versions of Something In The Air so that we have them on record. Very few of them follow the original arrangement, though. They usually put them in different keys, and rearrange them in a different way, but then I suppose that that’s the license that people would normally do – they feel the song a different way, so they adapt it, you see.
MW: Did you know much about Pete’s dad?
AN: Cliff Townshend, yeah. He was a saxophone/clarinet man with the Squadronaires, which was the RAF dance band during and a little bit after the war. And in this country it was one of the three top bands of the services. There were two very good American bands, there was Glenn Miller and Sam Donahue, and there was the British RAF band, the Squadronaires. Now I was talking to an American guy… now what was his name… trombonist… I’ve forgotten his name. He died recently, he used to be a member of Paddington Sports Club. …and he was telling me – ‘cause he was around at that time, he was in the trombones in Glenn Miller’s band – he was saying that the favorite band amongst the American armed forces was Sam Donahue, who led the Navy band. They all preferred him to the rest. But he said if they couldn’t get Sam Donahue, they would settle for the Squadronaires. But none of the Americans liked Glenn Miller’s band, amazingly enough.
MW: That’s interesting, because he’s the one who’s mentioned first usually.
AN: That’s right. But most of the actual servicemen, if it came to a choice, they’d get Donahue, and if they couldn’t get Donahue, they’d get the Squads, and they’d only have Glenn Miller if they couldn’t get the other two. Which I was quite surprised about, because you’d think the American bands would have a much more authentic sound than a British band. But apparently they liked it! Not as good as the Donahue – you never heard of the Sam Donahue band in all the publicity, but the servicemen much preferred that one. There was another guy I met who actually played with Cliff Townshend in the Squadronaires, he was a bass player, and he said he thought Sam Donahue’s was by far the best band, and he couldn’t understand why Glenn Miller was getting all the publicity.
MW: I saw a recording of Pete on the Parkinson Show, and his dad was in the house band.
AN: Right, in… what’s the name of that guy… Jack Parnell’s orchestra. I think it was Jack Parnell.
MW: Pete and his dad played together when the credits were rolling at the end of the show.
AN: Cliff Townshend was a beautiful player. He played my soprano sax at a party, he was really good. And he was a really, really sweet man.
MW: Speaking of jazz, there’s another quote in the Barnes book about when you visited Sunnyside Road and [quoting from the book] “…held forth about Bix Beiderbecke and the valuable contributions he made to jazz… Pete went through a Bix Beiderbecke period for the next 3 or 4 weeks…”
AN: Did he really? [long pause… amazed] I know one thing – he got very fascinated by a record that Bix Beiderbecke was on with a band called the Jean Goldkette Orchestra where the guitarist, Eddie Lang, did a very interesting sort of set of chords before the vocal refrain and apparently he spent quite a lot of time trying to learn the chords. Eddie Lang was a superb… he was probably the first great jazz guitarist in history. He precursored Django Reinhardt and the other great guitarists like Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessel and Carl Cress, and oh, God, I’m trying to think of all the great jazz guitarists. He really was the first great jazz guitarist. But he was an extremely good accompanist. He could not only play the solos, but he could also accompany extremely capably. In fact, he was so good that when Bing Crosby started his solo career, he signed a contract with Brunswick, and he had in the contract written that he would not record unless Eddie Lang was in the orchestra. Eddie Lang had to be on the session, otherwise Crosby would not sing. That’s what he thought of him as an accompanist.
After detouring into yet another off-topic discussion (my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, which led to a discussion of famous Louisvillian Muhammad Ali), we returned to the subject of Pete Townshend. Andy mentioned that he’d recently been working with Mark Brzezicki, the drummer at the time for Simon Townshend’s band. I mentioned that a few years earlier I had interviewed Simon for my book at his home on Woodgrange Avenue – the same home he and Pete grew up in.
AN: A little story I heard – and this goes way back – which apparently is when Pete first left school and was working… in the very, very early stages of basically working with groups, he was doing recordings up in his bedroom, you see, and of course he was making so much noise, he was keeping the whole house awake and, you know, his father and mother were saying, now for Christ’s sake, don’t make so much noise! He decided to soundproof the bedroom. He reckoned the noise was coming through the floor and disturbing them downstairs, and so what he did, he thought, well, what you need is a dense substance to keep the sound in, so he went out and bought a whole load of dry sand, he took the floorboards up, and he tipped the sand in between the beams on the ceiling. The trouble is, the ceiling is only plaster and it’s hanging on laths, and it ain’t very strong! It stayed up for about 3 weeks, and suddenly one day the ceiling in the front room came down. [laughs] …Pete told me that, yeah Pete told me that a long time ago.
MW: I’ve heard a similar story, with concrete being laid on the floor rather than sand…
AN: That’s the way he told it to me… it was definitely Pete, ‘cause we were talking about soundproofing studios and not to disturb the neighbours, and he told me what he’d done there! It worked, it certainly kept the sound in, the only problem was you know, the ceiling couldn’t take the strain! And mum and dad were not well pleased!
- Mark Wilkerson, author of ‘Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend’ (Omnibus Press, 2008) and co-author of ‘Pearl Jam 20’ (Simon & Schuster, 2011). His new book, ‘Tomas Young’s War’, (Haymarket Books) is now available.