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Born Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend on May 19, 1945, to Clifford & Betty Townshend in Chiswick, England. Townshend was primarily raised in the London suburbs of Ealing and Acton. Mr. & Mrs. Townshend met while playing in the World War II era big band the Squadronaires, Cliff on the alto saxophone and Betty as a singer. The Townshends’ marriage was often rife with anger and long periods of separation resulting in Pete spending a portion of his infancy with his maternal grandmother.
As Betty Townshend has stated, Pete “loved music right from the word go.” Townshend would see the movie “Rock Around the Clock” numerous times at the local cinema.
At 12, Townshend received from his maternal grandmother a guitar, “a cheap, Spanish thing.” Soon after, Townshend got a banjo, which led to meeting John Entwistle in 1959. Townshend and Entwistle would play together in numerous bands that played Dixieland and country & western.
Entwistle then became a member of Roger Daltrey’s band called the Detours. Daltrey, then on lead guitar, asked Townshend to join the band on rhythm guitar of which Daltrey described Townshend “as a nose on a stick” referring to Townshend’s big nose and very thin frame.
Townshend’s nose led to teenage insecurities and an inferiority complex about his physical appearance. At this time, Betty Townshend gave birth to Paul Townshend and Simon Townshend; Townshend’s other siblings. Townshend’s teenage years began as an only child receiving all of the attention to the oldest of three boys and receiving little or no attention. Cliff Townshend would make unflattering comments about Pete’s nose. Townshend felt neglected and unattractive.
In the fall of 1961, Townshend enrolled in Ealing Art College where he joined the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and the Young Communist League. While at Ealing, Townshend studied and absorbed numerous theories of art. Townshend learned that art could be used as social criticism. Townshend attended numerous lectures by visiting artists, such as, Austrian Gustav Metzke who lectured on auto-destruction.
While at art school, the members of the Detours were Townshend on rhythm guitar, Entwistle on bass, Daltrey on lead guitar, Doug Sandom on drums, and Colin Dawson on lead vocal.
In late 1962 and early 1963, the Detours opened for Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, a power trio with a lead singer band setup. After a change of lead singers, the Detours decided to go to a power trio plus singer with Daltrey switching to lead vocal and Townshend switching to lead guitar.
In 1963, Townshend’s art school buddy and fellow pothead, Tom Wright, an American, was caught with marijuana which led to his deportation. Wright suggested Townshend to take over Wright’s Sunnyside Road flat and Wright’s extensive blues, jazz, and classical record collection that featured Mose Allison, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, among others.
As a result of Wright’s suggestion, Townshend moved into the flat with Richard Barnes, who would later collaborate with Townshend on various projects.
In December 1963, the Detours opened for the Rolling Stones. Here, Townshend watched the Stones guitarist, Keith Richards, casually swing his arm in a wide arc over the guitar as a warm up. From this, Townshend created the windmill guitar strum earning the nickname, “Birdman.”
In February of 1964, the Detours decided to change their name to The Who at the suggestion of Townshend’s roommate, Richard Barnes.
In April 1964, drummer Doug Sandom left the band. Sandom called Townshend the most sarcastic person he had ever known. Keith Moon became The Who’s drummer.
At this time The Who were going through numerous management changes. The Who met Pete Meaden, a Mod. Under Meaden, the band’s name was The High Numbers. The band dressed like Mods and appealed to Mods even though they were not Mods. The Mods were amphetamine takers who wore tab collars and Italian shoes and drove Lambretta scooters. The Mod credo was “clean living under difficult circumstances.” Mod gave Townshend a platform and an audience for his social criticism.
During their summer 1964 residency at the Railway, Townshend broke his guitar against the Railway’s low ceiling. Townshend recalled that, “I had no recourse but to completely look as though I meant to do it, so I smashed the guitar and jumped all over the bits. It gave me a fantastic buzz. Luckily, I’d brought a spare guitar, the 12 string. I picked it up and carried on as though nothing had happened.”
Townshend related the guitar smashing to the Gustav Metzke lecture at Ealing. Townshend stated, “I think I justified it in terms of being noticed. And fuck it, I wasn’t going to stand on stage and play rock & roll, if it was just the music; because that’s not what rock & roll is, anyway. It might be what the blues is, but rock & roll is something else again.”
In August 1964, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp took over management of the band. In October 1964 The Who again became the band’s name.
Soon after, The Who began a Tuesday residency at the Marquee Club with the poster of Townshend in full arm swing declaring “Maximum R & B.” Townshend began using Marshall amplifiers in a stack with the Union Jack flag draped over the stack.
The Who signed a record deal which forced them to write their own material. In January 1965, Townshend composed “I Can’t Explain.” The next single, with guitar feedback, was “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” inspired by Townshend listening to a Charlie Parker record. Co-written with Roger Daltrey, Townshend stated, “Yeah, this is one gonna be about a punk kid.”
In December 1965, The Who released the My Generation album with eight Townshend songs with Pete singing “A Legal Matter.” The angry and defiant title track featured the lyric “Hope I die before I get old” and an explosive guitar feedback finale. Townshend was now a leading commentator on rock & roll.
Spring 1966 saw the release of the Townshend composed “Substitute.” Summer 1966, Townshend started working on Quads where couples in the future selected the sex of their children. From this project birthed “I’m A Boy.” Winter 1966, The Who released the album A Quick One (Happy Jack in the U.S.) with four Townshend songs. The title track, ten minutes long, was the first successful narrative song of its time and a precursor for later Townshend compositions. “Happy Jack,” the single, was a Townshend song that incorporated some of his childhood memories from the Isle of Man. At the end of 1966, Townshend admitted his extensive drug use including taking acid.
Summer 1967, The Who played the Monterey Pop Festival where at the conclusion of their set Townshend violently smashed his guitar in contrast to the peace and love setting in the Summer of Love.
Winter 1967, The Who released the album The Who Sell Out a tribute to pirate radio and its ad jingles. Sell Out featured nine Townshend songs with Pete singing “Odorono,” “Our Love Was,” “I Can’t Reach You,” and “Sunrise.” Townshend was now writing piano based songs. The album’s last track, “Rael,” foreshadowed the direction Townshend was taking The Who’s sound toward the delivery of a narrative concept.
May 1968, Pete and his long-time girlfriend Karen Astley wed at the Didicot Registry Office in Oxfordshire. The reception is held at the in-laws’ but there is no honeymoon as Pete has to stay home to work on the next Who single.
May 1969, The Who released the double album Tommy. Townshend nearly wrote all of the songs with Pete singing “The Acid Queen” and “Sensation.” Tommy is a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who becomes a Messiah and later is forsaken by his followers. Tommy is based, in part, by the spiritual teachings of Indian mystic, Meher Baba, of whom Townshend became a devotee. “Amazing Journey,” “Pinball Wizard,” and the finale “See Me, Feel Me,” are the notable songs.
August 1969, The Who played Woodstock that has been described as their worst gig ever. Townshend remarked, “[Woodstock] changed me and I hated it.” Townshend smashed Yippie Abbie Hoffman’s head with his guitar when Hoffman interrupted The Who’s set.
February 1970, The Who played at Leeds University for a live album. Live at Leeds is considered rock & roll at its finest particularly “Young Man Blues” and “My Generation.”
Summer 1970, Townshend began writing a monthly column for Melody Maker, a British rock weekly, that would form the basis for the Lifehouse project. Townshend wrote “Jai Baba” for Rolling Stone stating Townshend’s renunciation of the drug culture.
Autumn 1970, Townshend started on Lifehouse. A multi-media piece with a movie script about The Who, its audience, and a science fiction plot concerning virtual reality, alternative reality, experience suits, and Sufi spirituality. Bobby, the hero, organizes a concert by The Who where the audience’s and The Who’s vibrations become in tune. Being in tune releases the participants from their bodies to disappear to another plane of energy. Lifehouse became unworkable causing Townshend to suffer a nervous breakdown.
Summer 1971, The Who released the album Who’s Next with eight Townshend songs with Pete singing on “Going Mobile.” Who’s Next featured Lifehouse tracks that had the first extensive use of synthesizers in rock & roll. “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are the definitive synthesizer tracks in rock & roll history. The album’s last words are Townshend’s “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”
In 1972, Townshend released his first solo album, Who Came First, which was a tribute to Meher Baba featuring a collection of demos, new songs, prayers set to music, and cover versions of Baba’s favorite songs. Also, Townshend wrote the mini-opera, Long Live Rock- Rock is Dead which was not released.
Fall 1973, The Who released the double album Quadrophenia composed by Townshend in its entirety with Townshend singing “I’m One.” Quadrophenia is about the four-faceted Jimmy, a Mod from 1964-1965, who climbs on The Rock to examine his life. Each member of The Who had a theme. Townshend’s theme was “a beggar, a hypocrite, love reign o’er me,” drowning in the fluidity of love and the different forms love has. “5:15,” “Drowned,” and “Love Reign O ‘er Me” are the significant tracks.
In 1974, Townshend performed his first solo concert. The Who played New York’s Madison Square Garden which caused Townshend a deep depression coupled with alcohol abuse because he felt the band was a parody, “by pounding stages like a clown.” Tommy began shooting as a feature film with a Townshend Oscar nominated score. Townshend penned the liner notes for Odds & Sods, a collection of Who B-sides and rejected album songs.
Fall 1975, The Who released The Who By Numbers with nine Townshend songs with Pete singing “However Much I Booze” and “Blue, Red & Grey.” A stark, reflective, turning 30 album with Townshend embittered by the litigation with The Who’s managers and the declining state of The Who. Critics noted that the album seemed like a suicide note. Around this time, Townshend began developing significant hearing troubles that would plague him for the rest of his life.
In 1977, Townshend released a solo album, Rough Mix, made in collaboration with Ronnie Lane of the Faces and various other music stars such as Eric Clapton and Charlie Watts on such tracks as “My Baby Gives It Away,” “Rough Mix,” and “Heart to Hang Onto.”
Summer 1978, The Who released the album Who Are You with six Townshend songs. Instead of block chords, Townshend played fluid lead guitar notes. Townshend was taking The Who in a different musical direction. The title track was based on a Townshend encounter with two members of the punk group, The Sex Pistols.
September 8, 1978, Keith Moon, Who drummer, died in his sleep. Townshend was crushed, withdrawn, and depressed.
In 1979, The Who released the feature films, Quadrophenia and The Kids Are Alright. Also, The Who added Kenney Jones as the drummer to embark on a tour. Unfortunately, a concert in Cincinnati resulted in 11 deaths due to a pre-show stampede for festival seating.
In 1980, Townshend released “his first serious” solo album, Empty Glass, which clearly established the duality of Townshend, the artist/character and Townshend, The Who rock star/caricature.
In 1981, The Who released the album Face Dances with seven Townshend songs. Townshend became a heroin addict and nearly died of an overdose. Townshend’s extreme loathing of The Who was public.
In 1982, The Who released the album It’s Hard with nine Townshend songs with Pete singing “Eminence Front.” Townshend released a solo album, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, about his recovery from heroin addiction.
In 1983, Townshend released the album, Scoop, an “official bootleg” of his demos. Townshend also became an editor at Faber & Faber publishing house.
In 1985, Townshend’s novel, Horse’s Neck, a compendium of short stories about alienation from nature and love, was published. Townshend released the album White City – A Novel with a companion video with Jimmy from Quadrophenia as a husband and father in his thirties. Townshend performed at benefit concerts with The Who at Live Aid and as a solo performer.
In 1987, Townshend released the album, Another Scoop, a further collection of his demos.
In 1989, Townshend released the album Iron Man based on a Ted Hughes’ children’s story. Townshend with The Who toured which included two benefit performances of Tommy.
In 1993, Tommy opened on Broadway to become an eventual Tony winner. Townshend released the album PsychoDerelict based, in part, on the science fiction plot of Lifehouse. Townshend, as solo performer, toured America for the first time losing $400,000.
In 1996, Townshend released the album Coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestoking, a collection of his solo greatest hits. Townshend played intimate clubs accompanied only by a keyboard player. Townshend and The Who revived Quadrophenia as a theater piece for 1996-1997 tours.
Summer 1998, Townshend played a solo show as a warm-up for playing as a featured artist at a revival at Woodstock called “Day at the Garden.”
Pete Townshend is the power chording, windmilling, and leaping about guitarist for The Who. However, more significantly, Townshend, as the chief lyricist for The Who, wrote very accurate social criticism of the late 20th Century. “My Generation” is a landmark expression of youth hostility and establishes a revolutionary stance. Sell Out destroys the notion that advertisements selling narcissism lead to a better life. Tommy is a vital document evidencing the absence of men in a post war society and the impact of a vacuum of male authority. Lifehouse/Who’s Next looks to the spirituality of music as liberating the soul against the restrictions of totalitarian societies. Quadrophenia reflects on the history of rock & roll, the history of The Who, and the individuals who needed music in order to change the destiny of their lives. By Numbers/Who Are You tried to establish that people in their 30’s need anthems to express the lost innocence of youth.
Townshend’s solo career demonstrates the need to reconcile hoping to live before he got old against the painful loss of Keith Moon, for Townshend the embodiment of “Hope I die before I get old.” Townshend, as author of Horse’s Neck, expressed Pete’s desire to be one with nature and thus himself. Townshend’s last solo project, PsychoDerelict, challenged the listener to recall past triumphs and failures and go forward to break cycles of abuse patterns that hold people back against their will.
Pete Townshend was married to Karen Astley from 1968 until 2000 and is the father of Emma, Arminta, and Joseph.