Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist and principal songwriter, was born into a musical family in Chiswick, West London, on May 19, 1945. His father Cliff played the alto saxophone with the RAF dance band The Squadronaires, and his mother Betty Dennis sang professionally. An aunt encouraged him to learn piano but after seeing the movie Rock Around The Clock in 1956 he was drawn to rock’n’roll, an interest his parents actively encouraged.
Having dallied briefly with the guitar, Pete’s first real instrument was the banjo which he played in a schoolboy trad jazz outfit called The Confederates. The group featured John Entwistle on trumpet but after John took up the bass guitar the two friends joined another schoolboy band, The Scorpions, with Pete on guitar. Pete and John both attended Acton County Grammar School where another, slightly older, pupil Roger Daltrey had a group called The Detours. Roger invited John to join and about six months later the nucleus of The Who was in place when John persuaded Roger that Pete should join too.
Meanwhile Pete had enrolled at Ealing School of Art to study graphic design, where he broadened his mind on a diet of radical performance art and American blues music, both of which would influence The Detours as they worked their passage through the West London club and pub circuit. With the arrival in 1964 of drummer Keith Moon and managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, The Who were on their way, with Pete increasingly cast in the role of leader and spokesman.
Pete soon found himself at the forefront of the British musical boom of the Sixties. As guitarist and composer of the band, he became the driving force behind one of the most powerful, inventive and articulate bodies of work in rock. From early classic three-minute singles like ‘My Generation’, ‘Substitute’ and ‘I Can See For Miles’, through to complete song cycles in the shape of Tommy, Lifehouse and Quadrophenia, Pete established himself as one of the most gifted and imaginative musicians working in the rock field.
Pete spent all of the Sixties and much of the Seventies concentrating his creative energies on The Who. In concert he became recognised as the most visual guitarist of his and future generations, careering around the stage, leaping into the air and spinning his arm across the strings in his trademark ‘windmill’ fashion. He developed a unique guitar style, a cross between rhythm and lead which veered from furiously strummed chord patterns and crunching power chords to chromatic scales and delicate finger-picking. On top of this, he frequently smashed his guitar into smithereens at the climax of a performance.
Pete also emerged as one of rock’s most eloquent spokesman, a much sought-after interviewee who always had something interesting or controversial to say. In 1970 and ’71 he wrote series of pieces for Melody Maker which challenged the status quo in the music industry, cementing his position as a pioneer and a man who was uncomfortable with the trappings of celebrity.
In 1967 Pete became a follower of the Indian avatar Meher Baba which inspired him to release three privately circulated devotional albums. These led him to compile Who Came First (1972), the first of a series of non-Who albums, followed by Rough Mix (1977), a collaboration with fellow Baba devotee Ronnie Lane, and then the solo albums Empty Glass (1980), All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982), White City: A Novel (1985), The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend, an adaptation of Ted Hughes’ children’s story (1988), and Psychoderelict (1993). In 1984, with The Who temporarily disbanded, he led an ad-hoc band called Deep End with whom he released a live album in 1986, and he has also issued a series of albums called Scoop which feature Pete’s demos for Who songs, solo material and miscellaneous unreleased projects.
Beginning in the Nineties Pete has toured, mainly in North America, with a solo band, initially performing Psychoderelict but as the decade wore on he presented shows that included his solo material as well as Who classics. Many such shows, including occasional concerts in the UK, have been done in aid of charities.
Having established himself as one of the most intelligent and articulate of rock performers, Pete has run his own book publishing company and worked as an editor at the publishing house Faber & Faber which in 1985 published Horse’s Neck, a collection of his short stories. Ever inquisitive about new ideas and technology, he was amongst the first rock stars to utilise the internet on which his regular and often frank journals and essays have provided essential reading for fans. In many ways Pete can be regarded as an internet pioneer, insofar as Lifehouse, the project that embraced the songs on the album Who’s Next, included ideas such as the ‘Grid’, a national communications network, and ‘experience suits’ where life programs were fed to individuals via the Grid. At the time most observers were unable to grasp these ‘science fiction’ ideas but with hindsight it’s clear that Pete’s concepts were not too far removed from the world wide web and virtual reality that we know today. In 1970, the technology wasn’t available for the project to be realised and it took Pete almost 30 years to see it through. It was only fitting that when he did get to perform the Lifehouse music in its entirety it was available to a global audience via a webcast.
A Lifehouse Method website was made available from 2007 to 2008 through which ‘sitters’ were able to create musical portraits on line. Pete has plans to do more with this process in the future. He has plans for future artistic endeavours using the internet and in the meantime contributes posts to his own blog on this website.
Pete continued to write and perform with The Who, and 2006 saw the release of Endless Wire, the band’s first new studio album in 24 years. In 2012 Harper-Collins published Pete’s long awaited autobiography Who I Am, a typically forthright memoir of his life inside and outside of The Who.
In the second decade of the new millennium Pete Townshend has deservedly ascended to a place of honour at rock’s high table, a grandee who commands enormous respect in the world of music. This current decade has seen The Who tour in 2006/7 and again in 2011/12 with Quadrophenia & More. In 2014 The Who celebrated their 50 years together by embarking on a two year tour and a greatest hits album The Who Hits 50!, the album and world tour both being an enormous success which culminated in two spectacular weekend concerts as part of the Desert Trip event at Coachella, California. 2017 saw The Who returning to the Royal Albert Hall, London to perform Tommy for the 100th concert in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust followed by a UK and US tour and, for the first time ever, a tour of South America.
In 2016 Pete signed to Universal Music for his solo work which saw the re-release of the first seven solo albums from his back catalogue including 1972’s Who Came First right through to 1993’s Psychoderelict – plus all three of Pete’s Scoop series of albums.
Although the years of ‘pounding stages like a clown’ may be behind him, there is still no finer sight nor sound in rock than when Pete straps on an electric guitar, spins his right arm like a Catherine-wheel and slashes down across the strings to create the unmistakable resonance of those opening four chords of ‘I Can’t Explain’.
That’s what it’s all about.