Born into a musical family in 1945 as the last major battles of World War 11 drew to a close Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend was a bookish lad who wanted to be a journalist until the draw of rock’n’roll lured him towards guitar playing, He studied graphic design at Ealing Art College (alongside Ronnie Wood and Freddie Mercury) and under the influential auto-destructive art pioneer Gustav Metzger he found his own direction.
Immersing himself in R&B and blues legends Pete dropped out in 1964 and joined the Detours with old friend John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey, supporting major acts of the time like Screaming Lord Sutch, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. His musical education coming on apace Pete started writing and when his room-mate Richard Barnes suggested a name change to The Who, closely followed by the arrival of drummer Keith Moon, the stage was set for what would become rock history.
We must pick him up as he begins his solo career in 1970 with the album Happy Birthday, first in a series of tributes to his spiritual mentor Meher Baba. His debut album proper is Who Came First (1972), depicting him in his famous white boiler suit and black boots. This self-produced affair includes demos from the then aborted Lifehouse concept, some of which was used on Who’s Next.
Working in his advanced home studio Pete maintained a nucleus that would serve him well in Ronnie Lane, Billy Nicholls and Caleb Quaye, a formidable quartet. With outstanding material like “Pure and Easy”, “Nothing Is Everything (Let’s See Action)” and the inspired “Parvardigar” this auspicious disc is available in the 2006 reissue with bonus tracks – “The Seeker” and “Mary Jane” amongst them - also a version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”, a song he would have grown up hearing in the parental homes in Chiswick and Acton.
After another Baba inspired release, With Love, Townshend waited until he had enough of what he considered to be high class songs for the Rough Mix disc, a studio album featuring his friend Lane again. Produced by Glyn Johns, Rough Mix has many splendid guests: Eric Clapton, Gallagher and Lyle, Stones men Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts, and Entwistle, providing the horns on the standout “Heart to Hang Onto” and “Till the Rivers All Run Dry”. The short and sweet “Annie” is a co-write with Clapton and the general mood of the material is closer to pastoral folk rock than the post-Mod sound of The Who. Again, check out the 2006 reissue for the three bonus tracks, two from Lane, one from Pete.
Empty Glass (1980) contains many songs that would easily have settled inside the Who template. The punky, brassy “Rough Boys” is one while the title track was worked up during the Who Are You sessions two years earlier. The hit single “Let My Love Open the Door” is particularly fine but then so is “A Little Is Enough”, a telling and mature reflection on his personal life at that time. Working with Chris Thomas as producer was an inspired move since Empty Glass stands up today as a classic. The Kinks inspired “Keep on Working” has been somewhat dismissed by Pete but we love it. The 2006 version includes four demo/work in progress alternates and the overall mood, one where aspiration and fame are set in the balance, signals this as an important release.
All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982) sees the artist sticking with Thomas for another even more ambitious set of songs. Ever devoted to personal truth Townshend is one of the most candid and painstaking of lyricists and that quality shines through on “ Face Dances, Pt. 2”, an expression of disaffection with his career and life that pulls no punches. Some kind of catharsis arrives in “Somebody Saved Me” (later reworked by The Who) and the musical atmosphere is compelling throughout thanks to Virginia Astley’s piano colorations, a rock solid rhythm section and Pete’s deft use of synthesisers including the legendary Arp 2500 – he is it shouldn’t be forgotten, a pioneer in the use of integrating synthesisers in rock music.
In 1983 Atco released the compilation double-album Scoop, 25 demos of songs released or put on hold by The Who. This beauty contains the early “So Sad About Us”, “Squeeze Box”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes” (from Who’s Next/the Lifehouse project), “Magic Bus” and “Love Reign o’er Me”. There is also the guitar tribute “To Barney Kessell”, excerpted piano from Quadrophenia and the very down home “Cookin’” and “Goin’ Fishin’” – a superior form of nostalgia.
The West London drenched White City: A Novel features a dark slice of London verité. Guests include Dave Gilmour, Clem Burke, Phil Chen and old buddies Tony Butler and the prolific and talented drummer Simon Phillips. The opening “Give Blood” is an experiment given to the band but “Face the Face” is a big overdubbed monster with a modern production and plenty of bite. Check the 2006 issue where Pete covers The Beat’s “Save It for Later”.
The live at Brixton Academy disc Deep End Live! Was recorded in 1985 and released a year plus later. This is a stage set that demands rediscovery. It contains a great take on Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’”, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” and crowd pleasing romps across “Pinball Wizard”, “I Put a Spell on You”, “Magic Bus” and the finale “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
Another Scoop (1987) is an archival return that like its predecessor delivers what you want to hear. Or as Pete put in the liner note "This is the second in a series of albums bringing together demo-tapes, home recordings and unreleased oddities produced during my career in and out of The Who.” It’s essential for the devoted fan since it contains original versions of everything from “Pictures of Lily” and “Substitute” to “You Better You Bet” and “The Kids Are Alright”. Thank God for the well maintained home studio!
The Iron Man: The Musical is an adaptation of Pete’s friend Ted Hughes epic with a cast featuring Roger Daltrey, Nina Simone, Deborah Conway and John Lee Hooker. All of The Who in their then incarnation appear on “Dig” and “Fire” (the Arthur Brown song of note that Townshend helped helm in 1968). Got to be heard for Hooker singing “I Eat Heavy Metal” and Simone’s appearance on “Fast Food”.
The conceptual Psychoderelict is a densely layered affair from 1993. Ostenibly a searching examination of the music business and a rocker’s life – partly autobiographical, though not entirely – there is humour and pathos in equal measure here. The combination of music and drama (it has the feeling of a radio play rather than a full-blown Townshend musical opus) divided opinion at the time but if an artist is allowed to confront harsh truths he is unlikely to care too much about the brickbats.
The final compilation, Scoop 3, is less geared to older Who material but does feature a plethora of new songs on a generous 2-CD set. Meanwhile 1995’s Scooped cherry picks the previous sets and The Best of Pete Townshend (1986) is a concise solo overview with the best version of “English Boy” and other delights like “Pure and Easy”.
The Lifehouse Chronicles box set finally saw the light of day in 2000 on Pete’s own Eel Pie label, also his publishing outlet. Set across six CDs this is an exhaustive trawl across some pristine highlights, though it is also possible to obtain the abridged Lifehouse Elements.
Following several live releases on that label we return to the compilations Gold, The Definitive Collection and the remastered Truancy: The Very Best of Pete Townshend. All these offer a crisp insight into the man’s work. Classic Quadrophenia brings him and us up to date. Who’s next? Who knows? Watch this space. Pete Townshend continues to make music for all generations. His legacy is immense and his own work shows just why he deserves all the kudos coming his way.
Words: Max Bell
Pete Townshend was heading toward collapse as the '70s turned into the '80s. He had battled a number of personal demons throughout the '70s, but he started spiraling downward after Keith Moon's death, questioning more than ever why he did what he did (and this is a songwriter who always asked questions). Signs of that crept out on Face Dances, but he saved a full-blown exploration of his psyche for Empty Glass, his first solo album since Who Came First, a vanity project released to little notice around Who's Next (so limited in its distribution that Empty Glass seemed like his solo debut). Some of the songs on Empty Glass would have worked as Who songs, yet this is clearly a singer/songwriter album, the work of a writer determined to lay his emotions bare, whether on the plaintive "I Am an Animal" or the blistering punk love letter "Rough Boys." Since this is Townshend, it can be a little artier than it needs to be, as on the pseudo-Gilbert & Sullivan chorus of "Keep on Working," but the joy of Empty Glass is that his writing is sharp, his performances lively, his gift for pop hooks as apparent as his wit. Though it runs out of steam toward the end, Empty Glass remains one of the highlights of Townshend's catalog and is one of the most revealing records he cut, next to his other breakdown album, The Who by Numbers.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Rough Mix, Pete Townshend's 1977 collaboration with former Small Faces and Faces songwriter and bass player Ronnie Lane, combines the loose, rollicking folk-rock of Lane's former band, Slim Chance, with touches of country, folk, and New Orleans rock & roll, along with Townshend's own trademark style. Lane's tunes, especially the beautiful "Annie," possess an understated charm, while Townshend, with songs such as "Misunderstood," the Meher Baba-inspired "Keep Me Turning," and the strange love song "My Baby Gives It Away," delivers some of the best material of his solo career. Rough Mix stands as a minor masterpiece and an overlooked gem in both artists' vast bodies of work. Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, and Charlie Watts guest.
Words: Brett Hartenbach
Pete Townshend's demos had grown legendary among Who collectors well before the official release of the double-album Scoop in 1983. On each demo, Townshend worked out full arrangements, which the Who would often follow exactly. He also recorded a wealth of songs and instrumental pieces that never made it to record. Over the course of two albums, Scoop features 25 of these demos, including both classic Who songs ("So Sad About Us," "Bargain," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Magic Bus," "Love Reign O'er Me") and unreleased gems ("Politician," "Melancholia," "To Barney Kessell," "Mary"). Occasionally, the songs sound better in their demo versions, particularly on latter-day Who songs, which were over-wrought in their official incarnations. But what makes Scoop so fascinating is its revelation of the depth and detail of Townshend's imagination, and how he refined his ideas. But even casual fans will find the sheer musicality of the record worthwhile -- it's one of the most focused and impressive albums he has ever released.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Like its predecessor, Another Scoop is a collection of 27 demos Pete Townshend recorded for the Who, and if anything, it surpasses the first volume in terms of quality. Another Scoop has a greater percentage of familiar Who classics -- including "You Better You Bet," "Pinball Wizard," "Happy Jack," "Substitute," "Long Live Rock," "Pictures of Lily," and "The Kids Are Alright" -- and the outtakes are uniformly excellent, ranging from his takes on "Driftin' Blues" and "Begin the Beguine" to neglected gems like "Girl in a Suitcase," "Holly Like Ivy," and "Ask Yourself," and even weird experiments like "Football Fugue." For any Townshend fan, Another Scoop is necessary listening, containing some of his best and most adventurous work.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Pete Townshend and the Deep End Band played live for two benefit outings -- November 1 and 2, 1985 at the Brixton Academy -- to help support Townshend's own "Double O' Charities. The performances are excerpted here and were used in a made-for-home-video, also called Pete Townshend's Deep End Live!. Initially, a promotional 12" EP of the show was released to AOR radio stations in August of 1986. However, significant interest in the project would ultimately yield a 10-song LP which was issued to retail a few months later. Townshend (guitar and vocals) is backed by an ensemble that includes a core band of John "Rabbit" Bundrick (keyboards), Chucho Merchán (bass), and Simon Philips (drums) with Peter Hope-Evans (harmonica), Gina Foster (backing vocals), Billy Nicholls (backing vocals), and Jody Linscott (percussion) as well as an eight-piece brass section. When compared to the Who, the extended instrumentation provides Townshend with a larger sonic pallet to work from. The artist takes full advantage on the stylish update of the R&B classic "Barefootin'," and a suitably dramatic overhaul of "I Put a Spell on You." Plus, perhaps just to demonstrate his top-shelf taste in modern music, the English Beat's "Save It for Later" is a stone gem with the intimacy of an "unplugged" type of backing complete with sax -- by either Tim Saunders or former Stiff Little Fingers member Simon Clarke. Even though it could be considered a Who tune, Sonny Boy Williamson's "Eyesight to the Blind" is given a big city swing that presented the familiar melody in a fresh context. The Townshend originals serve up one offering from the '80s solo albums Empty Glass (1980) ("A Little Is Enough"), All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982) ("Stop Hurting People") and the Who-related tunes "Behind Blue Eyes," "I'm One," and "Pinball Wizard."
Words: Lindsay Planer
With the Kinks releasing a strong record and Mick Jagger a great one, the harder-core Brit Invaders have been rocking lately. Now Pete Townshend, the most ambitious musician of the lot, returns fiercely. A tamed Tommy is a Broadway smash; with trademark willfulness, the Who's former main man gives us Psychoderelict, a rock opera that both echoes and undercuts his classic.
Dark and agonized, Psychoderelict sputters and bellows, but its clangor gives it power. Formatted as a sci-fi radio play, substituting an Orwellian air of virtual-reality apocalypse for Tommy's pinball pathway to glory, it's not the coming of age of a deaf, dumb and blind boy messiah but the comeback bid of a shutdown idol. Damned as a "psychedelic flower-child turned alcoholic vegetable" by rock-press vixen Ruth Streeting, Ray High is holed up (à la the aging Elvis), craving a hit and redemption. Alternately an archetypal bitch and mother, Ruth plots with High's manager and flunky father figure, Rastus Knight, to yank Ray back into the spotlight.
Predictably, chaos ensues. Yet the story, for all its cliché and bombast, allows Townshend to explore themes that have long obsessed him. A compulsive seeker whose questing sometimes recalls John Lennon's embarrassing honesty, Townshend has flourished a gift for examining life's trials as well as its instances of painful possibility — the pathos of desire, the fight for identity and community, the fanatic urge toward truth. Leading a cast of actors and musicians featuring Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards and Mark Brzezicki on drums, Townshend's strong voice shines on "English Boy," a youth cult anthem of the sort he invented with "My Generation," and the lovely ballad "Now and Then," while his guitar work fires up big instrumental numbers dedicated to his guru, Meher Baba. Sound effects and dialogue meld with songs to fashion a kind of aural movie; it's a collision that underscores one of Psychoderelict's themes, the tension between truth and technology. Ultimately, the opera's characters place a guarded final faith in music as the avenue toward transcendence.
Driving Psychoderelict, that faith continues to make Pete Townshend's career one of rock & roll's finer stories — brave, desperate and open.
Words: Rolling Stone
As Townshend points out in his liner notes, Scoop 3 isn't quite the same as its two predecessors, since it has a healthy dose of recent material instead of being devoted to songs entirely from his large archive of demos and home recordings. As he notes, this new material is almost entirely instrumental because, "(W)ithout a 'commission' from the Who (or for my own solo career), I simply write less songs." This does give Scoop 3 a different feel -- as the songs and song sketches intertwine and twist with the instrumentals, the collection gets a meditative, reflective feel, creating a bit of an aural self-portrait, which ironically enough means that it flows better as an album than any of his projects since White City. However, it may mean that those legions of die-hard fans looking for a collection overflowing with unheard songs, starkly revelatory early demos, and covers -- like on the first two Scoop releases -- may be a little disappointed, because there simply aren't as many. But they are here, in the form of previously unheard songs like "Commonwealth Boys" and "I Like It the Way It Is" as well as early versions of "Rough Boys" (called "Tough Boys"), "However Much I Booze" (called "No Way Out"), and -- most remarkably -- "Eminence Front" and "Athena" (called "Teresa"), in slower renditions that reveal the heart of the songs. Actually, that's true for most of the material here, as the selections from Who By Numbers, Quadrophenia, Face Dances, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, and Iron Man -- even songs that worked brilliantly on the albums -- sound more of a piece when delivered in these delicate, passionate, synth-heavy but warm homemade versions, especially when they're bridged by Townshend's evocative instrumentals. It does wind up sounding like a musical diary, and if that isn't enough to satisfy listeners who have eagerly awaited a third Scoop for over a decade, they're simply ungrateful, since few musicians would have the guts or the inclination (or the material, for that matter) to release something as raggedly lovely and personal as this.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The Iron Man: A Musical is an adaptation of a children’s book, The Iron Man, written byTed Hughes. It was produced by Pete in his Eel Pie Studios, and released as a studio album in 1989. The Iron Man features guest singers who portray the characters in the story, and stars Roger Daltrey, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone, Deborah Conway, along with Pete Townshend, who plays the main character Hogarth. The songs sung by Roger Daltrey (Dig and Fire) also feature John Entwistle on bass, and are billed as performances by The Who, making these the first official recordings by The Who since the band broke up in 1982. The project was intended to be a full blown musical stage production, and was later expanded and staged at the Young Vic Theatre in London in 1993. In 1999 it was adapted as an animated film and released by Warner Brothers. The story in the movie version was modified to better target the American audience, and was renamed The Iron Giant to avoid confusion with the popular Marvel comic book, Iron Man. Although none of Pete’s music is featured in the movie, he received the credit of Executive Producer."Ted Hughes story provides me with a perfect fairy tale on which to hang modern songs. My intention was to write a modern song-cycle musical in the manner of Tommy." - Pete Townshend, Iron Man press kit, 1989. "The story is very similar in a way to Tommy, to Quadrophenia, to a lot of early Who singles, it’s about the fear and depravation and isolation of children, particularly of a little boy in this context. I think it’s what I always believe lies at the essence of rock and roll." - Pete Townshend, Iron Man promo interview, 1989.
If Empty Glass, an album filled with songs that could have been performed by the Who, was a solo album because it was too revealing and personal, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes was a solo record since it's impossible to hear anyone but Townshend wanting to indulge in this deliberately arty, awkwardly poetic bullsh*t. Where his other albums showed an inclination toward classical-influenced art rock, this is defiantly modern art, filled with stagey prose, synthesizers, drum machines, angular song structures, and a heavy debt to new wave -- in short, Townshend's vision of what modern music should sound like in 1982. This kind of record taunts cynics and critics, being nearly impenetrable in its content even if the production and the music itself aren't all that inaccessible. The problem is, this is Arty with a capital A and Pretentious with a capital P, yet Townshend never seems embarrassed, never shies away from indulging himself in his own ego. While autobiographical to a certain extent (how else to read "Somebody Saved Me" or "Stardom in Acton," which drops the Who's home borough?), it's hard to tell exactly what he's on about. So it's easy to see why many listeners are exasperated instead of intrigued (or even admire its damn impenetrability), but it's also easy to get fascinated by the album's very obtuseness. This is very much of a piece and, apart from the gems "North Country Girl" and "Slit Skirts," it's hard to separate individual songs and see them as their own works. Indeed, separating All the Best Cowboys from its era is even difficult, since the album's surface glistens with new wave synths and guitars; this is clearly a record Townshend could only have made in 1982, emboldened by new wave, the reaction to Empty Glass, new sobriety, and general hubris. For these reasons, this is very much loved by a certain portion of Townsend's fan base -- and for the same reasons many, many people despise it. And any record that fractures an audience so considerably is worth a spin.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Pete Townshend's Classic Quadrophenia finds the singer/songwriter turning his 1973 rock opera into a full-fledged opera. Enlisting his partner Rachel Fuller to adapt the album into a classical piece, Townshend found a sensitive, simpatico collaborator who manages to retain the oversized dramatic sweep of the piece. Similarly, conductor Robert Ziegler leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra through the piece with gusto, mirroring the majesty of the Who if not the mayhem. Generally, that's the curious thing about Classic Quadrophenia: it is recognizably the album in its form but not quite in feel. Some of that is due to this not being a Who record, of course, but shifting the piece into the classical realm ratchets up the melancholy that runs throughout the opera, making it less an explosion of teenage angst and more of a bittersweet reflection.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine