Pete Townshend has had more than half a century to tell his story. And the guitarist and lyricist for The Who has done so many times: in his searching, poignant lyrics on solo albums and Who releases, his 2012 memoir, Who I Am and countless interviews.
But in his new Audible Original “Words + Music,” Somebody Saved Me (out May 6), the guitarist once known for his windmilling, instrument-bashing style and youth-gone-wild rock operas turns down the volume to focus on a less-inspected period in his career when his commercial prospects were dimming and he struggled to keep the band afloat after the death of gonzo drummer Keith Moon in 1978.
Townshend tells Billboard that the two-hour “Words + Music” covers some material he’s discussed in the past, but that the opportunity to create a long-form podcast, in which he can weave his story in between poignant performances of some of his favorite solo songs, was what convinced him to participate.
“I loved this format, because it enabled me to approach the songs and the music that I was writing in that five-year period [through] what was going on in the music,” says Townshend about 1978-1982 stretch he discusses — which included the release of his solo albums Empty Glass (1980) and All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982). One of the other perks for Townshend was working with revered music journalist and Somebody Saved Me co-producer Bill Flanagan, an old friend who also helped shepherd the VH1 Storytellers episode he recorded in 2000.
Not only was it a good way to re-visit a period in his solo career that Townshend says didn’t exactly light up the charts, but it also allowed him to donate the “significant” proceeds to the Teen Cancer America charity, at a time during the pandemic when such organizations were “badly affected” by a drop in donations. “I really, really enjoyed it and I felt safe with Bill and Audible talking about a kind of dangerous period for me — where I was very productive but not particularly successful, where everything I was doing was lucrative, but the pressures were fantastic.”
Luckily for Townshend the series format is open enough that it allows every artist to take their own approach. Rufus Wainwright’s Road Trip Elegies was recorded during a road trip with his therapist, with more than 20 performances from McCabe’s Guitar store in Los Angeles woven into the tapestry, and Common’s Bluebird Memories shuttled between poetry, rapping and conversation at a show taped live at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York.
Preston Copley, the executive producer of “Words + Music” for Audible Studios tells Billboard that the process for choosing artists for the series is a mixture of intuition — finding “extraordinary emerging and established musicians who have a particularly powerful story to tell, and more importantly are ready to share that story with a degree of vulnerability”– as well as filtering listener data to see who they want to hear from, and tapping the “advocacy and taste” of their creative partners. Among their collaborators on the show are Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett and the team at Van Toffler’s Gunpowder & Sky media production house, which includes Flanagan and (MTV VMAs and Unplugged producer) Alex Coletti.
“We try to frame the pitch for working on a volume of ‘Words +Music’ as an unmediated opportunity to own their story, with committed support from experts in audio-first storytelling and production, to ensure a degree of quality that respects and represents them as top-tier creatives,” Copley tells Billboard about the deep-dive series that has included illuminating chats with everyone from Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, to original shock rocker Alice Cooper, Elvis Costello, Chuck D and many more. “This is artist-lead work, [which] tends to achieve better results with considerable buy-in. We expect and adore that installments sound as sonically variant as the musicians participating in them.”
Participants are given wide berth when it comes to building their stories for the series, with some performing at a live venue (a la Common), others delivering a manuscript in studio, or, as in Townshend’s case, working with a trusted collaborator over a series of long sessions. And, unlike a traditional audiobook or podcast interview, Copley says the goal is to “strike a more emotional chord with the listener, not dissimilar to why these artists might build an album… we’re aspiring to create a new medium which satisfies both the impulse to learn something new about artists we love, and to create something emotionally resonant.”
Common tells Billboard that he found “Words + Music” to be a safe place to explore a “unique way of connecting with fans and audiences because it gives you the avenue to do something new… that you haven’t done before.” And, not for nothing, to push the boundaries for fans who appreciate words and music. From hole-in-the-wall clubs to some of the biggest stages in the world, Common said he’s done it all, but appreciated the challenge of coming up with a “once-in-a-lifetime” performance for his audience that he hasn’t done before.
Townshend, a self-described “famous talker,” says he felt exactly that way about his “W+M,” which was one of the first in-depth interviews he’s done in a long time, after saying “never again” following the completion of his memoir. “It was really pleasant for me to [look] at music from that period,” he says. “I never really looked properly at the demise of The Who, the slowing down of The Who [in the early 1980s], the death of Keith Moon, the tragedy in Cincinnati [where 11 fans died in a stampede in Dec. 1979] and the trouble with not having hit albums.”
In order to do that, Townshend brought in a bass player and drummer to flesh out the lead tracks he’d recorded by himself, which allowed him to break down, revise, review and bring new life to 10 songs: “Let My Love Open the Door,” “Eminence Front,” “Rough Boys,” “Sea Refuses No River,” “A Little Is Enough,” “Don’t Let Go the Coat,” “Slit Skirts,” “Somebody Saved Me,” “You Better You Bet” and an intense, solo acoustic “I Am An Animal.”
Townshend also delves deeply into the helplessness he and the band felt as they watched Moon’s self-destructive behavior, the crushing effect of the deaths of the fans in Cincinnati and a touching story about his first kiss as an intro to “Somebody Saved Me.”
“When you start to approach 80 what happens — and I think I can speak for all men — you look in the mirror and you see a little old man. And you don’t change — you still feel same same urges and drives. And I’m not talking about sex, I’m talking about romance, mystery, intrigue, eyes meeting across a crowded room,” says Townshend, 76, about the feelings he explores in the “Somebody Saved Me” portion of his “W+M.” “It never changes, so telling those stories, particularly about that song… it was cleverly constructed [and] it took leaps in my life — I wrote it when I was about 35. I would have no idea that I could have added 3-4 verses to the song by the time we get to today.”
Townshend’s Audible Original “Words + Music,” Somebody Saved Me will be begin streaming for free on Audible beginning on May 6 in the U.S. Other upcoming acts slated to drop Audible Originals “Words + Music” include Beck (July 1), Tenacious D (Aug. 5), as well as installments focusing on Mariah Carey, Aimee Mann, Carlos Santana and yasiin bey (formerly known as Mos Def) slated to roll out later this year.
Check out a preview of Townshend’s installment below.