Artist Profile: Pete Townshend


Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend or popularly known as Pete Townshend was an English singer, guitarist, co-founder and leader of the band the Who. During his career that spans over 50 years, he became one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Pete Townshend wrote several newspaper and magazine articles, books, essays, reviews, and he also composed several songs for other artists. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as a The Who member. In this article, we are going to know more about how he changed the music scene. 

Early Life

Pete Townshend came from a musical family, his mother was a singer at the group called Sydney Torch and Les Douglass Orchestras and his father was a professional alto saxophonist in the Royal Air Force. Pete Townshend did not have many friends while he was growing up and he spent most of his time reading adventure novels. When he passed the eleven-plus exam, he attended the Acton County Grammar school where he was frequently bullied which deeply affected him. in 1956, Townshend purchased his first guitar and together with his school friend, John Entwistle, they formed a short-lived jazz group called The Confederates. They played at a youth club that was run by Acton Congregational Church called Congo Club. In 1961, Pete Townshend decided to study graphic design at Ealing Art College where he studied with future Queen lead singer, Freddie Mercury, and future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. 

Early Career

in late 1961, Pete Townshend decided to join the group called The Detours. The band’s line-up consisted of John Entwistle on bass, Roger Daltrey on lead guitar, Colin Dawson on lead vocals, Doug Sandom on drums, and Pete Townshend on rhythm guitar. After a year, Dawson quit the band because he and Daltrey were arguing too much. This resulted in Townshend to become the solo guitarist of the band. Because of Pete Townshend’s mother, The Detours landed a management contract with a local promoter named Robert Druce. In 1963, Pete’s father arranged an amateur recording of the first song his son ever wrote entitled It Was You. In 1964, the band discovered that there was another band that has the same name as theirs that’s why they decided to change their name to The Who. 

The Who

After the name change, their drummer Doug Sandom decided to leave the group and he was eventually replaced by Keith Moon. The Who was soon manage by mod a publicist named Peter Meaden who insisted that they change their name to High Numbers to give the band a mod feel. After they released several failed singles, The Who decided to leave Peter Meaden’s management and signed on two new managers namely Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. After changing their manager, the band dropped the name High Numbers and went back to being The Who. 

With the help of Kit Lambert, the band caught the attention of an American record producer named Shel Talmy who gave them a record contract. In 1965, they released their first single entitled “I Can’t Explain” which also became their first hit song that reached the eight spot on the British chart. They followed it up with the song Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere which also reached the top ten in the United Kingdom. But, it was their third single called My Generation, that cemented their reputation as the band who reflected the feelings of a lot of pissed-off adolescents during that time. The song became The Who’s greatest hit. 

To capitalize on the success of their song, their debut album was called My Generation and it was released in 1965. The album featured original songs written by Pete Townshend and some covers of James Brown songs. Townshend continued to create a handful of successful singles for The Who namely, I’m a Boy, Pictures of Lily, and Happy Jack. In 1966, The Who released their second album entitled A Quick One which reached the fourth spot in the UK chart upon its release.

In 1967, The Who released their third album called The Who Sell Out which was a concept album that was based on pirate radio. The album featured several humorous jingles and mock commercials in between their songs. In 1968, Pete Townshend became interested in the teachings of Meher Baba that’s why he started to write a song about a dumb, deaf, and blind boy who experience sensations musically. This resulted in the creation of their fourth album entitled Tommy that was released in 1969. This rock opera album met critical and commercial success. To promote their album, The Who embarked on a tour which included a memorable appearance at the Woodstock Festival in August that same year.

In 1970, The Who released their first live album called Live at Leeds and this was also the time when Pete Townshend started writing songs for the band’s next rock opera album. Townshend’s work was designed to be a multi-media project that represented the relationship between the musician and his audience. He called this project, Lifehouse. However, other The Who members were confused by its plot and just wanted to release another album. After his idea was rejected by his bandmates, Townshend began to feel alienated and abandoned his project after he suffered a nervous breakdown. That’s why most of the songs he wrote for his Lifehouse project was released as a traditional studio album entitled Who’s Next. The album became an instant hit and reached the top spot of the UK charts. It managed to produce two hit singles namely Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Reilly which was written as an ode to Townshend’s heroes at that tome composer Terry Riley and Meher Baba. 

In 1973, Pete Townshend began working on another rock opera project and he decided that it would explore the mod subculture in the early 1960s in the United Kingdom. This resulted to The Who’s sixth studio album called Quadrophenia which was entirely written by Pete Townshend and he also produced it too because things between him and Lambert began to turn sour. The album was released on November 1973 and it became The Who’s highest charting cross-Atlantic success because it reached the second spot in both the UK and the US charts. In 1974, Pete Townshend performed his first solo concert to raise funds for a London community center.

On March 1975, a film for their rock opera album Tommy was released and it starred Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, and Elton John. The movie earned Townshend a nomination in the Academy Awards for the film’s scoring and music adaptation. On November that same year, The Who released their seventh studio album called The Who by Numbers that featured the hit single, Squeeze Box, which was written by Townshend after learned how to play the accordion. After their tour to promote the album in 1976, Pete Townshend took a year-long break from the band to spend more time with his family. 

After the deaths of their two original members, The Who continued to play critically acclaimed performances in the 21st century such as their performance at The Concert for New York City in 2001 and Isle of Wight Festival in 2004, and Live 8 in 2005. 

Solo Career

Aside from his work with The Who, Pete Townshend has been active as a solo artist. In fact, between 1969 and 1971, he recorded a trio of albums about Meher Baba’s teachings along with other devotees. This album were called I Am, Happy Birthday, and With Love. 

In 1972, he released his first major solo album called Who Came First which received moderate success. The album featured demos of The Who songs that showcased Townshend’s talent in playing the acoustic guitar. In 1977, Pete Townshend collaborated with fellow Meher Baba devotee and The Faces’ bassist, Ronnie Lane to create the album entitled Rough Mix. Two years after that, he produced and played the guitar on the song Peppermint Lump by Angie under Stiff Records. 

During the ‘70s, Pete Townshend performed several memorable solo appearances and two of them was captured on record and they were on Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert in 1973 and the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea in 1979 which was sponsored by Paul McCartney. 

In 1980, Pete Townshend released his third and solo breakthrough album entitled Empty Glass. The album featured the hit songs Rough Boys and Let My Love Open the Door. He followed up this success by releasing his fourth album in 1982 called All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes which featured the hit single and popular radio song Slit Skirts. Although it didn’t become a huge commercial success, the album was said to be Pete Townshend’s most honest work since he wrote the Quadrophenia album for The Who. 

Pete Townshend spent the rest of the ‘80s and the early ‘90s working and experimenting with rock opera and other related formats. This resulted in two the release of several story-based albums namely White City: A Novel in 1985, The Iron Man: A Musical in 1989, and Psychoderelict in 1993. He also recorded several concert album which included a performance with a supergroup he created named Deep End. The group was composed of David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, Simon Philips, John Bundrick, Chucho Merchan, Billy Nicholls, Jody Linscott, and the brass ensemble named The Kick Horns. The supergroup performed three concerts with Townshend including a television session for the UK music television program The Tube. 

In 1993, Townshend teamed up with Des McAnuff to write and direct the Broadway adaptation of The Who album Tommy. The two also worked on a less successful stage musical adaptation of his solo album The Iron Man. In 2007, his rock opera entitled The Boy Who Heard Music was adapted and debuted as a part of Vassar College’s Powerhouse Summer Theater Program. That same year, he embarked on a tour called Classic Quadrophenia with Billy Idol and Alfie Boe.

The Who Projects

While he was making his own career as a solo artist during the ‘90s and through the present, Pete Townshend also participated in a series of tours with the surviving members of The Who which included the 2002 The Who tour that still pushed through despite Entwistle’s death. In 2006, they announced that The Who will embark on a major world tour to promote their first album in 26 years entitled Endless Wire. The band also performed at the Super Bowl XLIV half-time show in 2010 where they played a medley of their songs namely Baba O’Riley, Pinball Wizard, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Who Are You, and See Me, Feel Me. In 2018, Townshend announced that they will be releasing a new The Who album that will feature new and original songs by him and Roger Daltrey.  

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