Pete Townshend is the genius songwriter, lead guitarist and backing vocalist for The Who, the electrifying English rock band widely considered one of the most influential of the 20th century by old and young alike. Writing over 100 songs for the group, Townshend created smash hits such as “Baba O’Riley”, “I Can See For Miles” and “The Kids Are Alright” which starred each of the four band members equally and targeted an angst driven topic matter. But what makes Pete Townshend so extraordinarily special is not just his ability to write poignant and evocative lyrics but his remarkable tenacity. This is because he has not only achieved a spectacular musical standard in his 11 instruments and developed his strong flare for song writing but he has achieved both of these feats without any formal training!
Born 19 May 1945 to a saxophonist and a singer, Townshend was an introverted young boy who spent much of his youth reading adventure novels whilst harboring ambitions to become a journalist. It was the 1965 film Rock Around The Clock which originally sparked Townshend’s interest in American rock and roll and he went on to attend his first concert which was Bill Haley in London; but life was not all plain sailing for the young Pete Townshend. Upon arriving at Acton County Grammer School at the age of 11, Townshend was often picked on by his peers owing to his large nose but these experiences helped to kindle Townshend’s creative flame. Instead of running around with his mates on weekends, Townshend taught himself the guitar, becoming an extremely competent player despite being unable to read music. Going on to study graphic design at Ealing Arts College in 1961, Townshend realized in 1964 that his true passion and talent lay in the music sector so dropped out of school completely to focus on launching his musical career.
It was 1961 when Pete Townshend joined the Detours as an additional guitarist at the demand of the new bass player and little did the band realize the stardom they were destined for. Daltrey, the lead guitar player, was respected as the leader of the group and Townshend remarked that he “ran things the way he wanted them”. This iron leadership caused animosity and disputes between Daltrey and Colin Dawson, the lead vocalist who quit in 1962. This shift in the group dynamic led to Townshend’s promoted to the position of sole guitarist and fortunately for the group, through his parents’ contacts, they were able to perform as the supporting act for bands such as Cliff Bennet and The Rebel Rousers which gave them a small income. In 1663, Townshed’s father arranged an amateur recording of the song “It Was You”, the first song Townshend ever wrote.
In 1964 the band changed its name to “The Who” following a clash with another rising band also called The Detours and so under new management, Townshend wrote “I Can’t Explain” which was met with resounding success for a first single, reaching number 8 in the UK charts. Two further singles also made the top 10 in the charts, lodging The Who firmly in the position of an exciting and innovative band who were revolutionizing rock and roll through their eloquent commentary on society and youth in the sixties and catchy guitar riffs.
Townshend went on to write full length song cycles such as Tommy, Lifehouse and Quadrophenia, whist also honing his performance skills by touring with The Who throughout the sixties and seventies. During this time he also developed a new technique of guitar playing which was a cross between rhythm and lead guitar, made up of alternating between quick strumming of chord patterns and intricate chromatic scales and finger-picking. A born entertainer, Townshend would keep his audiences riveted by running and leaping across the stage, waving his trademark “windmill” arms and smashing his guitar to pieces at the climax of a performance. He was also a natural spokesman and through his controversial comments he became the voice of a quashed, tightly constrained youth during the sixties who were beginning to demand more social freedoms in everything they did, revolutionizing society to today’s modern structure.
In the early seventies, Townshend began to feel alienated from his bandmates after launching the ambitious project Lifehouse, which was designed to explore the connection between the artist on stage and the audience coming to watch them. He was shunned by the group who simply desired more hit singles and not a convoluted, experimental rock opera. In 1974, Townshend played his first solo concert in London for charity and it became evident that the group was slowly drifting apart. After launching his solos carrier in 1972 with the album Who Came First, which was inspired to his devotion to Indian avatar Meher Baba, he quickly produced more solo music, feeling liberated from the creative constraints songwriting for a band such as The Who had put on him.
During the nineties, Townshend toured North America with a solo band performing classics from The Who and also some of his solo material. He has also opened his own book publishing company, writing a book of short stories in 1985 called Horse’s Neck. Later, in 2006-07, Pete managed to fulfill his Lifehouse project in the form of a website which created unique and individual musical portraits for sitters online. 2006 also marked the release of Endless Wire, the Who’s first new album in almost 25 years. 2012 saw the publishing of Who Am I by Harper Collins – Townshend’s long anticipated autobiography recounting his experiences within The Who and as a solo artist. Townshend possessed an extraordinary talent for combining musical passion with skillful lyrics and clever words. Owing to this rare combination, he has taken his place in rock history as an experimental and innovating leader of the musical industry and to this day his music is enjoyed by many millions of people across the world.