Pete Townshend (born May 19, 1945) is an English musician, composer, and singer who rose to global prominence as the guitarist and songwriter for The Who, which released 10 studio albums between 1965 and 1982. His first proper solo album, Who Came First, appeared on Track Records in 1972.
As the Who’s activities became more sporadic, he cut the 1977 album Rough Mix with ex-Faces bassist Ronnie Lane. Townshend prioritized his solo career after his 1980 ATCO release Empty Glass, which spawned the hits “Rough Boys” and “Let My Love Open the Door.” On the eve of the Who’s first “farewell,” he explored new creative ground on his 1982 release All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.
He was born Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend on May 19, 1945, in Chiswick, Middlesex, England, the eldest son of singer Betty (née Dennis) and jazz saxophonist Cliff Townshend (1916–1986). His parents met as RAF musical enlistees during WWII. Cliff toured constantly with his band The Squadronaires, sparking tension in their marriage. After a two-year separation where Pete lived with his maternal grandmother, Emma Dennis, the family reunited and settled into an Acton duplex.
A quiet and withdrawn boy, young Pete immersed himself in novels like Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. His family spent holidays on the Isle of Man, where Clifford took Pete to see the 1956 rock docu-film Rock Around the Clock. Soon thereafter, Pete caught a London performance of the film’s star, Bill Haley. That Christmas, Emma bought him his first guitar. His two younger brothers, Paul and Simon, were born in 1957 and 1960.
During his time at Acton County Grammar School, Townshend formed his first band, The Confederates, with fellow pupil John Entwistle, who played French horn in the school orchestra. With Townsend on banjo, they played trad-skiffle and performed one show at the nearby Congo Club.
In 1961, Townshend enrolled at Ealing Art College, where he studied graphic design alongside future Creation, Faces, and Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood. Meanwhile, Entwistle took up bass and joined skiffle-rockers The Detours, led by then-guitarist Roger Daltery, a fellow Acton County alumni. Entwistle recommended Townshend, who joined as rhythm guitarist, then became sole guitarist once Daltery assumed the vocal slot. They opened for some of the leading rock acts of the day, including Screaming Lord Sutch, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Shane Fenton and the Fentones, and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
In 1964, The Detours changed their name to The Who and stabilized as a four-piece with drummer Keith Moon. After a brief stint as The High Numbers under mod publicist Pete Meaden, they reclaimed the Who name and rose to prominence amid London’s beat boom with three 1965 singles: “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “My Generation,” all written by Townshend. Their debut album, My Generation, appeared that December, comprised of eight Townshend originals and three R&B covers. One track, “A Legal Matter” (later issued as a single), features Townshend on lead vocals.
Over the next two years, The Who maintained its chart run with the singles “Substitute,” “I’m a Boy,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “Happy Jack,” and “Pictures of Lily.” The title-track to their 1966 album A Quick One is a nine-minute “rock opera” divided into six sections. Townshend, who wrote the piece at the insistence of Who manager Kit Lambert, explored the format further with the epic “Rael” on their 1967 release The Who Sell Out, a concept album mixing comedy rock and advertising indents. Its single, the psych-tinged “I Can See for Miles,” broke them through in the states, where they slayed 25,000 attendees of that summer’s Monterey Pop Festival.
During 1968, The Who released stop-gap singles (“Magic Bus,” “Dogs”) as Townshend worked on a sequence of songs that would spread the rock opera format across four sides. The resulting Tommy, about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who excels at pinball, appeared in May 1969, two months before their second stateside conquest at Woodstock. Its lead-off hit, “Pinball Wizard,” showcases Townshend’s distinct strumming technique and mix of electric and acoustic textures.
In 1970, Townshend worked on another grand concept, Lifehouse, about a transcendental synergy between performer and audience in a post-apocalyptic, grid-connected world. Stressed by his inability to communicate the concept to those around him, Townshend scrapped the proposed double album and accompanying series of concert events for the 1971 single album Who’s Next, comprised of highlights from the project. It features three of The Who’s most-recognized radio evergreens: “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Townshend wrote “Baba O’Riley” as an ode to his two main sources of inspiration at the time: Indian spiritual guru Meher Baba (1894–1969) and American minimalist composer Terry Riley. Its first 40 seconds consist of a two-track, arpeggiated keyboard pattern reminiscent of Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air. Between Daltery’s belting on the verses and chorus, Townshend sings the famous refrain “don’t cry, don’t raise your eye, it’s only teenage wasteland.”
Townshend’s interest in Baba’s teachings began during the making of Tommy and served as an inspiration on that project. Between 1969 and 1971, Townshend and fellow Baba-devotees recorded musical pieces in ode to the guru, compiled on the albums Happy Birthday, I Am, and With Love.
- Who Came First (1972)
- Rough Mix (1977 • Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane)
- Empty Glass (1980)
- All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982)
- Scoop (1983)
- White City (1985)
- Another Scoop (1987)
- The Iron Man (1989)
- Psychoderelict (1993)
- Lifehouse Elements (2000)
- Scoop 3 (2001)
- Discogs: Pete Townshend
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