Pete Townshend At 66: A Remarkable Rock Legend
As Peter Dennis Blansford Townshend’s mother would tell the story, on May 19, 1945 Air Marshall Tedder, searching for Pete’s dad, called out to a gathering of RAF personnel and announced: “It’s a boy.” Twenty-three years later a budding music legend Pete Townshend announced to another generation the birth of his deaf, dumb and blind incarnation, Tommy Walker, “It’s a boy.” And so was born the rock opera as the artistic expression of one of rock music’s most powerful intellects and boundless creative forces. It is said that a man possesses talent, but genius possesses a man. Entering his 66th year, Pete Townshend, The Who’s principal songwriter and wind milling guitarist, as well as successful solo artist, is a man possessed.
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To encapsulate such a wonderful, creative, chaotic, influential career is an impossible task. Perhaps the best way is to let Townshend’s repertoire speak for itself. Starting with his first chart buster in 1964, I Can’t Explain , he’s written such classic rock songs as My Generation, I Can See For Miles, Substitute, Magic Bus, has crafted several full Who albums loaded with classics including Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, Who By Numbers, Who Are You, Face Dances, It’s Hard, and also offered compelling solo projects such as Who Came First, Empty Glass, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, White City, Iron Man, Psychoderelict. In all, Townshend has composed well over 100 songs, many of which have become anthems of a generation.
This generation was born into the shell-shock of post-WWII England where beneath the malaise dwelled an undercurrent of explosive energy among disaffected youths searching for a vehicle through which to unleash their angst. Rock music provided just such a force and no country took to this sound that was the offspring of Black America’s blues artists as did England in the 1960s. Townshend, the son of musicians, left his dreams of becoming a graphic artist behind to hit the rock scene with a vengeance. He followed his old school chum, bassist John Entwistle, who had joined The Detours, fronted by another schoolmate, guitarist/vocalist Roger Daltrey. With the addition of a new drummer, Keith Moon, the R&B band called first The Who, then The High Numbers then back to The Who again soon made its mark. The Who became known for raucous sets in which Townshend would ritualistically destroy his guitar while Moon kicked over his drums.
But if Pete’s use of chaotic destruction and supercharged feedback made The Who into what Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder called “possibly the greatest live act in the world” it was Townshend’s gifted songwriting that would make the quartet, and later himself as a solo artist, into arguably the greatest rockers of that generation. Sure, Lennon/McCartney, Richards/Jagger, Plant/Page, among other British blues-rock contemporary teams can lay claim to that title, but with few exceptions The Who’s music erupted solely from the singular mind of their very introspective and creative guitarist. Tommy, written by Townshend when he was just twenty-three, elevated rock’s appeal. Who’s Next, which arose from the ashes of his Lifehouse project, is sprinkled with defiance but also disenchantment. Quadrophenia explores the mod culture that both attracted and repelled him. Ever conscious of his gangly limbs, his signature proboscis and awkwardness off-stage, Pete took his outsider edge and applied it not just to write music but to take it in directions and through mediums little explored up to that point. His use of feedback, lightning fast flamenco strumming, and the introduction of the synthesizer as an integral component of the rhythm are but a few of his trademarks.
Indeed, Townshend’s compositional range boggles the mind. From soulful blues to hard rock to flights of acoustic whimsy to psychedelic mind odysseys, he has explored it all. Want to trip out? Amazing Journey. Classic power chords? Won’t Get Fooled Again. Need to smile? Squeeze Box. Feeling like an outsider? I’m One. Rebellious? My Generation. Soul-searching rage? Behind Blue Eyes. Politics? White City Fighting. Comfort? Let My Love Open The Door. Domestic bliss? Love Ain’t For Keepin’. Restless freedom? Going Mobile. An unapologetic anthem? Baba O’Reily. Sexual ambiguity? Rough Boys. On and on. Name an emotion and Townshend’s touched upon it in an anthology that stretches over forty-five years. Has any other modern composer mastered so many styles and voices?
Townshend’s overall artistic expression knows no bounds it seems. Besides being a prolific songwriter, singer and (underrated) guitarist, he’s an author, poet, philanthropist, book editor, and Broadway producer. He has actively crusaded against exploitation of children—although he landed in hot water for using his credit card to download children’s pornography. (He maintained it was for research on ease of access and after a forensic computer investigation, Scotland Yard found nothing on his hardware/software to indicate he opened the images.)
Townshend has had his personal ups and downs no doubt. When just a boy, his parents separated and left him with his maternal grandmother, who was clinically insane. A strained marriage eventually collapsed sending him spiraling into a decade of hedonism. His battles with drug addiction are well-known, and the deaths of Moon and Entwistle must have hit hard. Also, his own progressive hearing loss stemming from years of being in literally the world’s loudest band has taken its toll. But through it all, from the 60’s London club scene, through Woodstock, Live Aid and even Super Bowl XLIV, Townshend has made an unparalleled mark. At sixty-six he seems to be coasting towards his twilight years with a quiet dignity that belies his rebellious youth image that now seems out of place for a gifted master.
Pete Townshend has blessed us with a musical legacy of mind-blowing scope and complexity. “There’s no in between with Pete’s music,” offers Daltrey. “You either love it or you hate it.” For the life of me I can’t understand how the latter could even be an option.
Happy Birthday Pete. Let the love and gratitude of your devoted fans, yours truly among them, “Reign O’er You”.