CD-ROM may be a new venue for Pete Townshend, but it’s not as if the British rock legend hadn’t anticipated the technology more than 20 years ago, when Bill Gates was barely out of adolescence and five-inch silver discs were meant for holding scones and crumpets for afternoon tea.
Back in the ’70s, the Who songwriter-guitarist says he — along with fellow visionary musicians Brian Eno and Todd Rundgren — thought about merging rock with some as-yet-undefined interactive medium. What’s more, he says, while agonizing over Lifehouse — an abortive early ’70s experiment in audience participation, songs from which eventually appeared on the classic album Who’s Next — he devised ”four or five specific compositional systems requiring computers. The only thing missing was the computers.”
Well, Townshend finally has his computers, and the result is Pete Townshend Presents Tommy: The Interactive Adventure, an encyclopedic CD-ROM on his renowned rock opera about a ”deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who becomes a pinball-playing cult figure (due in April from Interplay). Spawned by intense discussions with John Hart, producer of the Broadway version of Tommy, the disc features a virtual arcade of Tommy arcana. There’s factual, left-brain material: samples, annotations, and comparisons of every Tommy incarnation, including the original 1969 double album and the 1975 Ken Russell movie. Then there’s dreamy, right-brain eye and ear candy: gorgeous visual collages that accompany the songs. And finally there’s just plain brainy stuff: snatches from demo tapes and interviews with the 50-year-old composer himself as well as band mates John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey. Though the disc includes no complete songs, it should have Who fans tilting their pinball machines in glee.
But apparently not Townshend, who has reservations about the final product. ”It certainly hasn’t set me alight,” he sighs. ”It doesn’t seem very relevant to what I do. But f— it — if I wasn’t going to be there [to help put it together], I’d be upset about that, too.” This reaction is hardly surprising, considering Townshend’s history with the new, much-hyped medium. ”Most of the time,” he says, ”I’ve been a fairly disappointed user of CD-ROM” — including discs from some high-profile fellow musicians he diplomatically refuses to name. ”Going into this project I was sanguine in the British sense, not skeptical or imperious or disdainful. I had to persuade myself to be as open-minded as possible.”
But even as a sanguine, computer-conversant musician, he says he was irked by the collision of technical and aesthetic sensibilities in the production process. ”[Programmers] are living in a different kind of brain space than the user,” he says. ”It’s an agonizing and wearying process, like trying to drive a car and build a car at the same time.”
Thirty years in the music industry have prepared Tommy CD-ROM producer Brian Christian (sound engineer for Pink Floyd’s The Wall) for dealing with unsatisfied artists. ”They’re never happy,” he says, ”and if they were it would be a scary thing.” But he understands Townshend’s frustration with CD-ROM production, which is much more complicated than that of CDs. Says Christian, ”He was absolutely wonderful and cooperative, but he doesn’t know how to design a program.”