Talking about his generation
How a retired educator helped Pete Townshend recover a piece of Who history
It was a meeting 42 years in the making, all thanks to a few large photocopied books George Robinson packed amongst his belongings when he left England for rural Newfoundland.
For more than 30 years, Robinson — who, full disclosure, is my dad — taught at schools in the Conception Bay North area.
Taking up the piano as a boy while growing up in the English city of Sunderland, he developed a keen interest in music that’s never left him.
The Harbour Grace resident graduated from the Northern School of Music in Manchester in the early 1970s and also attended the University of London Institute of Education prior to getting a job in 1973 as head of the music department at Ryhope Comprehensive School.
The school was located not too far from where he grew up, and Robinson immediately got himself involved in some interesting work.
That fall, the school did a production of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“It just happened there was me and Malcolm Gerrie,” recalls Robinson. “We were both of a similar disposition, similar tastes in music and similar ideas about what could be done. He was the drama guy and I was the music guy.
“We put our heads together for ‘Joseph’ and then after Christmas … we were listening to the ‘Tommy’ album, but not The Who’s version. We were listening to the one with the (London Sym- phony Orchestra).”
Initially in jest, Robinson suggested to Gerrie they could probably present the famed rock-opera at the school.
The conversation continued from there, culminating in a massive production with youth ages 13-18 that attracted considerable media attention in the early summer of 1974.
The New Musical Express, the best-selling British music newspaper at the time, did a front-page feature story on the production, and Robinson was quoted in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
For this show, the school reached out to Lou Reizner, a record producer who was responsible for the orchestral version of “Tommy.” It featured members of The Who plus Rod Stewart, Ringo Starr, Richie Havens and many others.
Wil Malone’s orchestral score was not published, so they asked for copies.
“These three big books were sent to us,” Robinson recalled.
Students played the brass arrangements, while Robinson handled parts of the score prepared for strings on an organ himself. As well, a full rock band performed.
Robinson spent another year at the school before travelling and working elsewhere in England. In 1977, he accepted a job at Holy Trinity in Heart’s Content.
*** Jumping ahead 37 years, this writer came across a post on Twitter from Ryhope Comprehensive, an account linked to a website that celebrates the school’s history (it closed in 1988).
The Twitter post featured a photo of Robinson that appeared with the New Musical Express article and asked if anyone could help track down “George Robinson, our music maestro.”
Journalists are curious by nature, so I decided to start a conversation. With dad’s permission, I later passed along an email address to the site’s owner, Peter Fannen.
The two traded a slew of emails and eventually completed a full interview for the website.
Robinson also shared dozens of photos from the production. In the interview, he mentioned having kept his copies of the “Tommy” score.
In June of 2015, Robinson received an unexpected email from Gerrie, who he hadn’t heard from in close to 40 years.
In the years since the two worked together, Gerrie moved from teaching into television, producing sitcoms, British awards shows and concert documentaries.
He’d come to know Pete Townshend through his TV work, and the two had discussed the existence of the score for Reizner’s production of “Tommy.”
Reizner died in the mid-1970s, and neither Townshend nor Malone had a copy of it.
Townshend, having recently released a version of The Who’s “Quadrophenia” featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was keen to recover the “Tommy” score.
Remarkably, it looked like Robinson had the only existing copy of the original score for the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Tommy.”
Gerrie forwarded him an email from Townshend’s assistant. Through a series of exchanges with the assistant, it was agreed Robinson would create digital copies of the 360 pages for the orchestral and choral arrangements, with Townshend covering the expenses.
At one point, the St. John’s business tasked with copying the score was worried about copyright, but a signed document from Townshend alleviated those concerns.
*** Planning to travel to England that fall to visit his daughter who lives in London, Robinson expressed an interest in meeting Townshend were the opportunity to arise.
Unfortunately, those dates coincided with tour dates for The Who in North America, but Townshend’s assistant came back with an offer to attend any upcoming concert date as his guest.
A case of viral meningitis for Daltrey put the kibosh on plans to attend a December Who concert in Toronto, but a rescheduled date for April 27 at the Air Canada Centre went off without a hitch.
While attending music school in Manchester, Robinson managed to see many of the wellknown performers and groups from that era, like Fleetwood Mac (then still a blues band), pre-“Dark Side of the Moon” Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and B.B. King, amongst others.
However, he never managed to catch The Who.
The closest he came was a trip students and staff involved with the school production made to the film set of Ken Russell’s “Tommy.”
They met Daltrey there, but Robinson was away on holiday at the time.
“We got four free tickets, very good seats,” said Robinson, who took his wife Maureen (aka my mom) as well an old school friend who lives in Toronto and his girlfriend.
“Roger Daltrey was in good vocal form — really was. I’ve seen shows on TV where live he struggled, but this show he was really on. And Pete Townshend was his usual, windmill-guitar self. And obviously they’ve got a really good band with them.”
He got a few pieces of memorabilia signed by Townshend prior to the show — his vinyl copy of Reizner’s “Tommy” production, a poster for the school production, a double-LP copy of “Quadrophenia” and the Rolling Stone article.
*** After the concert, Robinson and the others were admitted to Townshend’s guest room, where about 20 people were gathered waiting to meet the famed guitarist.
Amongst the guests was “Dragon’s Den” panelist Michael Wekerle and Rush’s art director Hugh Syme.
“There was lots of chatter going on, but as soon as he arrived in the room, there was a hush. The noise level just dropped.”
Townshend took time to shake hands, chat and pose for photos with everyone in the room.
When it was Robinson’s turn, the official photographer took a few snaps before the two shared words.
“As that photograph was being taken, Pete Townshend turned to me and said, ‘ Thanks for sending me the music. I was really happy to get that.’ He said, ‘I think Wil (Malone) was even more pleased than I was.’”
He later got the opportunity to show Townshend his copy of the New Musical Express with the story about the school production.
“I told him how it was a really big deal for us. I was so excited by all this, I was just talking away, and I didn’t really give him a chance to say anything to me! I was just chatting away, which is unfortunate, really.”
Townshend then asked where Robinson lived.
“He said, ‘Newfoundland. I don’t really know Newfoundland, but I once read a book about Newfoundland. Something about fish. I can’t remember the title. But I’ll find out the title and I’ll send it to you.”
Sure enough, Robinson did receive a subsequent email from Townshend’s publicist. The book in question was “Theatre of Fish” by John Gimlette. It’s a travelogue about the writer’s experiences in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s family history, and a lot about the way things are now too — really excellent,” read a portion of the email in quotation marks attributed to Townshend.
The next day, Robinson and his wife flew back to Newfoundland. Though it’s been a month now since the concert, his excitement over the experience hasn’t abated.
“You can see this by the photos. I was so excited. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat all the time. The adrenaline was running.”
George Robinson, left, shows rock legend Pete Townshend a copy of a 1974 edition of the New Musical Express with a feature article on a school production of The Who’s rock-opera “Tommy” Robinson handled the music for.
George Robinson holds a copy of the score for the London Symphony Orchestra’s version of “Tommy.” Robinson helped “Tommy” author, Pete Townshend, obtain a copy of the score.