Pete Townshend Biography

Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend, 19 May 1945, Chiswick, London, England, the son of singer Betty Dennis and respected saxophonist Cliff Townshend. Having served his apprenticeship playing banjo in a dixieland jazz band, Pete joined the Detours as rhythm guitarist. This local attraction, which also featured Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle, was a vital stepping-stone to the formation of the Who. Townshend emerged as leader of this turbulent unit by virtue of his compositional skills. Several early songs, notably ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’ and ‘My Generation’, encapsulated the trials of adolescence while a virulent guitar-style which eschewed formal style in favour of an aggressive, combative approach, underlined a lyrical anger and frustration. Townshend later expanded his art to embrace character studies (‘Happy Jack’ and ‘Dogs’), but his songs did not translate well in other hands and singles by the Naturals (‘It Was You’ - reportedly Townshend’s first composition), Oscar (‘Join My Gang’) and the Barron Knights (‘Lazy Fat People’) failed to emulate those of the Who. However, Townshend did find success as a producer when ‘Something In The Air’ became a million-seller for Thunderclap Newman and he also assisted manager Kit Lambert with protégés the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown.

Townshend began a solo career in 1970 with contributions to Happy Birthday, a collection devoted to spiritual guru Meher Baba. A second set, I Am, appeared in 1972 and although not intended for public consumption, the albums featured material which also found its way into the Who lexicon, including ‘The Seeker’ and ‘Baba O’Riley’. Interest was such that Who Came First, the guitarist’s first official solo release, also drew from this reservoir, and thus reflected a gentler, pastoral side to the artist’s work. Its spirituality and highly personal perspective set the tone for much of Townshend’s later recordings. Rough Mix, a collaboration with former Small Faces bass player Ronnie Lane, succeeded a third set for Baba’s Universal Spiritual League, and although generally more upbeat than their predecessors, nonetheless portrayed an air of calm intimacy.

Townshend subsequently founded a record label and publishing company, both named Eel Pie, and his solo work did not flourish fully until the release of Empty Glass in 1980. Galvanized by punk, the guitarist re-examined his musical roots and emerged with a set both personal and compulsive. ‘Let My Love Open The Door’ reached the US Top 10, while the energetic ‘Rough Boys’ and caustic ‘Jools And Jim’, a sideswipe at contemporary rock press journalists, revealed a strength of purpose missing from concurrent Who recordings.

By the early 80s, Townshend’s drug and alcohol problems (which he had explored on Empty Glass) were conquered, which would subsequently lead to a zealous role in anti-drug campaigning. The abstract All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes was a marked disappointment, reflecting the personal traumas which had bedevilled its creator at that time. Scoop, a collection of home-produced demos, marked time until the release of 1985’s White City, an ambitious work which sadly promised more than it fulfilled. During this period Townshend became a consultant editor at the London publishing house, Faber & Faber, where he found a new lease of life encouraging the work of young authors and poets. He ended the 80s with Iron Man, a musical adaptation of poet laureate Ted Hughes’ famous children’s story which featured cameos from several musicians, including John Lee Hooker. Although flawed, there was no denying the artistic ambition it displayed, as if emphasizing Townshend’s role as one of rock’s most literate and pensive talents.

In 1993, a stage production of Tommy, re-titled The Who’s Tommy, opened on Broadway, and won five Tony Awards. Also in 1993, he launched his new pop opera Psychoderelict, which played concert venues later in the year. In 1995, he was busily working with the new New York production of Tommy and resisted the urge to join Roger Daltrey on his tour performing Townshend’s music. In 1999, Townshend’s infamous Lifehouse project, extracts from which had appeared on the Who’s seminal 1971 collection Who’s Next and Who Came First, finally saw the light of day as a BBC Radio Play. The work’s vision of a future world of virtual living bore certain similarities to the Internet, a medium which Townshend actively promoted on the interactive section of the attendant Lifehouse box set, allowing fans to access a website and leave personal data from which the composer will be able to construct a song. Whilst Townshend’s solo work has never matched the quality of the songs he wrote for the Who, taken as a whole catalogue it is highly impressive and he joins the likes of Ray Davies as one of the era’s best songwriters.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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