As Published Sunday, July 20, 1997, in the Pioneer Press.

(Minneapolis, MN)


Simon Townshend talks about growing up in rock royalty

When The Who started rehearsals for the restaging of their rock opera Quadrophenia last year, an orchestra member was making noise during one of the songs. Until Pete Townshend got in the musician's face.

"Stop it," The Who's guitarist/guiding light scolded. "You're ruining my finest work."

This anecdote comes not from Pete, but his younger brother, Simon Townshend, who was recruited for the Quadrophenia tour as lead guitarist/backup singer. And to be sure, Pete Townshend's assessment of The Who's catalog is absolutely infallible, for Quadrophenia remains the veteran British band's rosetta stone, and -- no apologies to Rent -- the most powerful depiction of youth culture currently being played out on any stage, anywhere.

No mean feat that, considering that the story of the young Mod Jimmy and his struggle to come to grips with that awkward age between adolescence and adulthood, recklessness and responsibility, is almost 25 years old.

The Who's Tommy may have made it to Broadway, but Quadrophenia is The Who rock opera that feels as if it was written yesterday. "A lot of people say that it saved their lives and that the music is still so important to them," says Simon Townshend by phone from London, where the singer/songwriter/producer and leader of the Simon Townshend Band is taking a break from working in his home studio.

Simon, 36, is the youngest of the three Townshend brothers (Paul, 40, manages Simon's band). Simon first played The Who songs live when he signed on with a Roger Daltrey solo tour a few years ago, but admits that playing the material without his 52-year-old big brother was strange.

Now Pete and Simon are playing in The Who together for the first time. Quadrophenia was first restaged last summer at six sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York and again for an audience of 150,000 at the Prince's Trust Concert in Hyde Park. The first leg of the U.S. tour opened Saturday in St. Louis.

According to Simon, the addition of him and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son) has lit a fire under the old dinosaur. "I thought that The Who's 1989 tour was stale," says Simon. "It was a musicians' version of The Who. And this has been brilliant. Perhaps Pete enjoys having people who care about the music and not the paycheck."

"Zak and I have a youthful zest about us that we bring to 'Quadrophenia,' because we both love The Who's stuff so much. Zak's a huge, crazed Who fan. He just loves that he's up there with The Who, and I think that energy helped fire it up into a whole show."

"Not to take too much credit but a lot of a stage show is about spirit, and I think with previous Who tours, there wasn't a lot of spirit on stage or off, and the punters (fans) sensed this coldness coming from the stage."

The Quadrophenia tour is a multimedia show that incorporates early footage of the band (some that was shot before Simon was born), which includes bassist John Entwistle and the late, great Keith Moon. A handful of shots from Frank Roddam's 1979 film version are used, as well as a Daltrey-produced montage of Jimmy and the Mods fighting with the rockers, dancing to ska bands, taking speed, driving motor scooters and getting their hearts broken.

Quadrophenia, which Townshend wrote four years after the original (and more commercially successful) rock opera, Tommy, captures all the things that are unique to growing up -- sexuality, style, stimulants, suicide and that elusive nature of how music so intensely defines people in their late teens and early 20s.

As a result, over the years, Quadrophenia (named for Jimmy's belief that he has four personalities) has become a personal touchstone for countless Who fans. One of them asks Simon Townshend what he believes Quadrophenia's main message to be.

"It's so in-depth. It's a very deep, meaningful piece of work, isn't it?" he says. Then, after a moment of deliberation, he concludes: "The whole thing is, 'Have a great time when you're young. Go out and enjoy yourself, and find your feet later on.' And the biggest thing is, `Love is the answer.' That's the idea, because Jimmy turns to love as his savior. And I think that's what happened with Pete."

On this tour, the Townshend brothers are sharing lead guitar chores -- even though Simon realizes that longtime Who fans come not to see him but his brother and the windmill smash-it-to-bits thing.

"I'm good at what I do, but I'm not Pete Townshend," he says.

What he does is his own thing. Simon has been recording since he was 9 years old and has had recording contracts with Warner Bros. Records and Polygram Records. He released two solid pop/soul/punk albums in the mid '80s, Sweet Sound and Moving Target.

He has forged a career as a respected producer, and his new album, which features his 18-year-old son Ben on drums, will be released in September. No wonder he took the Quadrophenia gig with some trepidation.

"At one point, I thought, 'Is this good for me?' Then I thought, 'Sod it, I don't care.' I do my own music full time, so this is like a holiday for me," he says.

"People may think I'm doing it for the wrong reasons. It's very important for me to keep my face and individuality. I've stood on my own two feet, and I always have."

"I'm enjoying it, because it's a chance for me and Pete to spend some time together. We've never been on stage before, and we're having a laugh and cheering people up at the same time. The fans are elated by it. They love to watch two brothers on stage."

Which begs the inevitable question, a version of which Ringo Starr's son has been hearing his whole life: What is the best part and worst part about being Pete Townshend's kid brother?

"Zak and I should have been put on salary from the day we were born, since we've been answering that one for so long," laughs Simon.

"It's like being born into royalty, I suppose. It opens a lot of doors, but it also creates expectations and something to live up to. But I've always done my own thing, musically. I've clawed my way here on my own."

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