Born Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend on May 19, 1945, in London, England; son of Clifford (a musician) and Betty (a singer; maiden name, Dennis) Townshend; married Karen Astley, 1968 (divorced); children: Emma, Aminta. Education: Attended Ealing Art College, England. Addresses: Home--The Boathouse, Ranelagh Dr., Twickenham, TW1 1QZ, England. Office--Entertainment Corporation of America, 99 Park Ave., 16th Fl., New York, NY 10016-1502. Website--Pete Townshend Official Website:

Pete Townshend, the Who's principal songwriter and lead guitarist, is among the most mercurial figures in rock. As a raging young mod in the late 1960s, Townshend made concert history by smashing his guitar in frenzied moments onstage; his music mirrored the anger and alienation of a whole generation. Townshend first rose to prominence with the songs he wrote for and performed with the Who, including the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia, and the anthemic singles "Won't Get Fooled Again," "My Generation," "I Can See for Miles," "Who Are You," and "Eminence Front." While his output with the Who reflected blustering male adolescent angst, Townshend's later solo material showed the mature and well-rounded artistic side of the guitarist, singer, and songwriter. His best-selling 1980 solo album Empty Glass, for example, contains songs that deal frankly with the onset of middle age, the media treatment of rock stars, the death of Who drummer Keith Moon, overt homosexual references, and a reliance on spiritual themes culled from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes and the philosophical teachings of Townshend's guru, Meher Baba. Outside the Who, Townshend also worked as a rock impresario, producing such songs as "Fire" by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the album Hollywood Dream by Thunderclap Newman, and organizing the all-star Rainbow Concert to commemorate Eric Clapton's return to performing after overcoming heroin addiction in 1973.

Peter Townshend was born in London on May 19, 1945. His parents were both professional musicians, and as a child he accompanied them on dance band tours. By the age of 12 Townshend was experimenting with a guitar; he was quite taken with rock 'n' roll, especially Bill Haley and the Comets. A shy teenager, he spent hours by himself practicing the guitar, and later the banjo, which he performed in a Dixieland-style band founded by his friend John Entwistle. Initially Townshend preferred jazz to rock, but his high school friends--Entwistle and a maverick named Roger Daltrey--were gravitating toward a rock style that incorporated R&B elements in their music. Soon after graduating from high school, Townshend, Entwistle, and Daltrey formed a band called the Detours. They held daytime jobs while performing in small London clubs at night.

England's youth scene in the early 1960s featured sometimes bloody clashes between "mods," dandyish middle-class teens, and the rowdier "rockers" or "skinheads." The manager of Townshend's group decided to direct his musicians toward the mod audience. Soon the Detours were known as the High Numbers and were playing in Soho's Wardour Street clubs. During this time the group picked up its fourth member, drummer Keith Moon. Fortunately for the High Numbers, their contract was bought out by new management, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. Townshend in particular benefited from the management transition; Lambert introduced the young artist to traditional musical forms and state-of-the-art recording techniques. Lambert also allowed the group to change its name to the Who, and he promoted his charges tirelessly. By 1965 the band had an enormous following in England, especially among mods. The Who also broke through in America with two songs, "Can't Explain" and "My Generation." Some critics feel that in the latter song, with its stuttered phrases, hard beat, and defiant "hope I die before I get old," Townshend and the Who created nothing less than an anthem for the times.

Following the drug-overdose death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978, the band soldiered on with replacement drummer Kenney Jones. In 1984 Townshend officially disbanded the Who, although the three original members of the band periodically reunited for highly successful tours, including a 1988 venture that showcased the 1969 rock opera Tommy and a 1996-97 tour that showcased the 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia. In 2003 the band was on the verge of another monster tour when Entwistle died in a Las Vegas hotel room.

Throughout their history, the group reigned as a premier rock attraction--even though none of its songs ever went to number one on the Billboard charts. Analyzing his band's constant popularity, Townshend told Rolling Stone: "Always, always, there is a very, very strong grab --a deep, instant grab--which lasts ... forever. It's not like a fad. People who get into The Who when they're thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, never stop being fans. The Who don't necessarily captivate the whole teenage generation--as each batch comes up every year--but we certainly hit a percentage of them, and we hold them."

A Who Alone

Townshend's solo albums never generated the sales that his Who albums did, but critics have praised them as significant steps in the evolution of a mature artist. By many critic's standards, Townshend's initial solo release, Who Came First, is a tentative affair, featuring demo recordings of songs that he wrote for the Who, songs inspired by his devotion to Meher Baba, and a collaboration with fellow Baba acolyte Ronnie Lane. Like the songs that appeared on the Who's landmark Who's Next, many of the songs on Who Came First were written for Townshend's aborted follow-up to his 1969 rock opera Tommy, which Townshend titled Lifehouse.

A multimedia science fiction extravaganza that ultimately contributed to Townshend's nervous breakdown, Lifehouse confused producers, rock journalists, and his Who band mates with the complexity of its plot and thematic elements. Nevertheless, this period remains Townshend's most productive in terms of the amount of commercially and critically successful songs he wrote. Who Came First includes the Lifehouse composition "Pure and Easy," which had appeared in an abbreviated version as a coda to the Who's Next track, "Song Is Over." Discussing the origins of "Pure and Easy," Geoffrey Giuliano quoted Townshend in the biography Behind Blue Eyes: "From the peace of the original note, the single unmultiplied breath of life, the eternal silent singing that pervaded all, came this. ... What are we supposed to be doing? Here am I, in suburban Twickenham, skinny, vain, and obsessed with the word 'forward'; how am I equipped to begin to understand Infinite Love?"

Another album track is "Nothing Is Everything (Let's See Action)," his original demo of the Who single "Let's See Action." Giuliano finds Townshend's solo recording far more satisfying than the blustering, macho version recorded with his band: "Only Townshend's version hits the mark with an intricate web of complex lyrical assaults heralding the cause of spiritual freedom as well as the profound hypocrisy of everyday society, the collective power of the individual, the apathy of ignorance, man's quest to see God face-to-face, the hope of expanded consciousness, the eternality and majesty of the soul, the expansive nature of nothingness, surrender to the finite ego of the Great Oversoul, and finally the simple, plaintive, pitiful pleas for some kind of direction home. Quite a lot to be accomplished by one three-minute [actually six-minute, 21-second] so-called pop tune!"

Rough Mix and "Rough Boys"

In 1973 Townshend helped organize Eric Clapton's return to live performing at the all-star Rainbow Concert, which featured Clapton's former Blind Faith bandmates Steve Winwood and Rick Grech, Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi, and Faces lead guitarist Ron Wood on bass guitar, who collectively called themselves Eric Clapton and the Palpitations. Townshend released the Who's double album rock opera Quadrophenia that same year, which was followed up by 1975's Who By Numbers. His next project apart from the Who, 1977's Rough Mix, began as a request to produce a solo effort by Ronnie Lane. The duo enlisted guest musicians Clapton, Entwistle, Charlie Watts, Bad Company bass guitarist Boz Burrell, keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick, drummer Henry Spinetti, harmonica player Peter Hope Evans, and former Slim Chance band members Graham Lyle, Benny Gallagher, and Charlie Hart. The result was a collaborative effort that is a panoply of rock musical forms encompassing the Appalachian and English folk, American R&B, the irony of Townshend's "Misunderstood, and the art rock ambitions of Townshend's "Street in the City." While the Lane and Townshend play on each other's songs, the only two songs they sing together are a cover of the Don Williams' country chestnut, "Til the Rivers All Run Dry" and the Townshend composition "Heart to Hang Onto." "I wanted to do something with Ronnie and I knew he would stir me up from my veritable complacency," Townshend told Gig interviewer Bart Mills. "I felt sure my writing, and ultimately the Who, would benefit." While Gig and New Musical Express gave the album mild reviews, Dave Marsh hailed it as "a triumph" in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Marsh awarded the album the five-star status that describes a recording as "indispensable: a record that must be included in any comprehensive collection."

The three years following the release of Rough Mix were dedicated to the release of the film version of the Who rock opera Quadrophenia, the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright, the release of the Who album Who Are You, and a worldwide Who tour that was delayed a year due to the death of drummer Keith Moon, and was subsequently marred by the deaths of eleven fans who were stampeded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1979.

In the meantime, Townshend obsessed over middle age, his marriage, his sexuality, spirituality, the punk and New Wave music movements, and media coverage of the death of Moon. These subjects inform the prevalent themes on his 1980 solo release, Empty Glass, which takes its title from the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes. "When you hold out an empty cup to God, and demand that he fill it with wine," Townshend wrote in New Musical Express, "He fills it faster than you can ever drink. Then you know that the fault lies in your own incapacity to receive His infinite Love, rather than His capacity to give it." Produced by Chris Thomas, who also produced the Pretenders debut album, Empty Glass also features members of the band Big Country as instrumental backup. Townshend dedicated the album's first single, "Rough Boys," to his two daughters and the Sex Pistols.

In a New Musical Express conversation with Charles Shaar Murray reprinted in Trouser Press, Townshend explained his views of rock star sexuality: "People in rock imagine that they're so incredibly f***ing liberated and anarchistic, but they're not. They're so incredibly closed up and macho. In many ways rock is more reactionary than the rest of society, because the business side of it is so super-corporate, the money flow of it so controlled, and the forefront of it is so commando-trained, so macho, so concerned with uniforms and hardness. I would never do a [overtly homosexual rock performer] Tom Robinson, but it was refreshing that he nearly managed to do it within a rock framework. But it's easier in rock 'n' roll to look tough rather than be tough, since everyone in rock'n'roll believes what you look like anyway."

The song "Jools and Jim" refers to rock critics Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, who had raised Townshend's ire by casually suggesting that Keith Moon's life and death were essentially pointless. "Typewriter tappers/You're all just crappers ... Everybody's human 'cept Jools and Jim," sang Townshend in response. He also added a retort to the duo's disparagement of Moon for his penchant for violently rearranging hotel rooms: "Morality ain't measured in a room he wrecked." Empty Glass reached platinum sales partially due to the hit single, "Let My Love Open the Door," which introduced the singer to a new generation of popular music fans who may or may not have ever listened to the Who.

From Self Destruction to Redemption

Moon's death, Townshend's frequent close calls with drugs himself, a catastrophic 1979 event in which eleven people were trampled to death at a Who concert, and the onset of middle age, threw Townshend into a binge of cocaine, tranquilizer, and alcohol abuse. During the recording of Empty Glass and the Who's tour and recording of the 1981 release Face Dances, Townshend separated from his wife, and descended further into drug addiction and alcoholism. In addition, his finances were in disarray--he was close to bankruptcy. During this period, he overdosed on heroin while nightclubbing with Jam front man Paul Weller, but began using the drug again despite the incident. "From the moment I touched smack," Giuliano quoted Townshend, "I felt as if I'd joined forces with the devil. I went from being unbeatably lucky to becoming a powerful foe, my own worst enemy. I had opted for self-destruction."

Townshend sought a cure from his addictions with Dr. Margaret Patterson, the same doctor who had helped cure Eric Clapton's heroin addiction in the early 1970s. Rejuvenated in 1982, Townshend recorded and released the critically lambasted It's Hard with the Who and his solo album, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. The latter album is perhaps Townshend in his most self-conscious and pretentious artistic mode. However, the net effect is of an artist experiencing a creative rebirth. Such songs as "The Sea Refuses No River," "Somebody Saved Me," and "Slit Skits" deal with the redemption possible for even the most decadent individual through spiritual and human love. "For all its wordiness, its trad-Townshend sound, its frequent moments of bathos and its return to perennial themes, it remains an astonishing record: painful, awkward and boundlessly courageous," wrote Murray in New Musical Express. "Pete Townshend has compounded all his faults and virtues into one record, made no concessions to stadium rock nor to what's supposedly 'relevent.' He's risked making a fool of himself and provided one of the year's most inspiring albums." Townshend dedicated the album to Dr. Patterson.

In 1983 Townshend announced he would no longer record and tour with the Who. He was appointed assistant editor at the prestigious London publishing house Faber and Faber, where he was able to write and publish his 1985 short story collection, Horse's Neck, which Mick Brown described in the London Sunday Times as "a series of elliptical commentaries on childhood, the tribulations and degradations of fame and the obsessiveness which lies at the heart of the contract between star and fan." In 1985 Townshend scored another hit single with "Face the Face" from the album White City. The album's themes and accompanying gritty short film caused many critics and listeners to infer that the album's main character is a grownup version of the protagonist Jimmy from the 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia. Other critics have interpreted the estranged relationship depicted on the album to be a metaphor for the repressive system of apartheid in South Africa. The album features guitar work from Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, who also cowrote one of the album's several standout tracks, "White City Fighting," and whose own 1984 solo album, About Face featured the song "Murder," which was, in turn, cowritten by Townshend.

Taking the Who to Broadway

In 1985 the Who reunited for an appearance at Live Aid. They also regrouped to tour in 1989 and several times in the 1990s. On the 1989 tour the band played Tommy in its entirety while also focusing on songs from Townshend's 1989 solo album The Iron Man, which drew its inspiration from the children's novel by Ted Hughes. The album also featured Daltry and Entwistle performing a remake of the hit single Townshend produced in the 1960s for the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, "Fire," as well as the song "Dig." Other guests on the album include singers John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone, Chyna, and Deborah Conway.

In 1992 Townshend collaborated with director Des McAnuff on a theatrical version of Tommy, which went on to become an enormously successfulTony Award-winning production. In 1993 a stage version of Iron Man debuted in London with Daltry starring. This play, however, was less successful and closed after only a few performances. In that same year Townshend released PsychoDerelict, a radio play that incorporates the story of an aging rocker and the vagaries of stardom with music Townshend had recorded in the 1970s for his Lifehouse project. While eliciting positive critical reviews, the album sold poorly. "I sell records in much smaller numbers, but to a much more exclusive crowd, but that's the apology of a dying act," he was quoted by Giuliano. "Some of the things I write about in middle age and will probably continue to write about in late middle age are not quite so palatable as some of the slightly more raunchy, more distasteful problems of being adolescent."

Following the release of PsychoDerelict, Townshend continued to issue releases of his home demo recordings, which began with the release of Scoop in 1983, and continued with Another Scoop in 1987, Lifehouse Elements in 2000, and the six-disc set The Lifehouse Chronicles in 2000, which also features the 1999 radio play adaptation by Jeff Young from a script by Townshend. He also released recordings of live performances such as the 1970s The Oceanic Concerts to raise money for the Meher Baba Institute and Pete Townshend Live: A Benefit for Maryville Academy, which features reworkings of such Who classics as "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," as well as a collaboration with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder on the Rough Mix song "Heart to Hang Onto."

In 2002 Townshend was arrested for downloading child pornography on his home computer. He defended his actions as research for a project he was working on in which he explored his claim that he was molested as a child. After a four-month investigation the charges were dropped. In 2003 the Who reunited for a world tour. When bassist Entwistle died from a cocaine-induced heart attack in his Las Vegas hotel room, Townshend and Daltrey cancelled several dates but continued the tour despite negative reaction to their supposedly mercenary motivations. In 2004, Townshend and Daltry released another anthology of Who hits, which included bonus songs that represent the first new songs by the Who since the release of It's Hard.

Whether playing with the Who or recording solo albums, Townshend has remained one of the most articulate purveyors of rock music. His songwriting captured first the frustrations of male adolescence and then the equally frustrating progression of middle age compounded by substance abuse, spiritual questioning, and sexual exploration. As a guitar player, he consistently earned critical accolades and appearances on lists denoting the best guitarists of rock and roll. His singing voice, which he has compared to that of Andy Williams, is by turns plaintive and playful, taunting and regretful, masculine and feminine. His stage persona, punctuated with smashed guitars and gravity-defying leaps, set the tone for many of the rock stars who followed him, including Jimi Hendrix. Pete Townshend is, simply put, among rock music's most celebrated performers and writers.

by Bruce Walker

Pete Townshend's Career

Professional musician, 1960- ; with John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey, formed the Detours, 1962; added drummer Keith Moon, changed band name to the High Number, 1963, and the Who, 1964; member of the Who, 1964-84; released debut solo album, Who Came First, 1971; established Eel Pie Recording Ltd. 1972; founded Eel Pie publishing company, 1976; appeared in film version of rock opera Tommy, 1975; released collaborative effort with former Faces bass player Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix, 1977; solo contract with Atlantic Records, 1979- ; coproduced film version of rock opera Quadrophenia, 1979; released Empty Glass, 1980; released All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, 1982; released White City and published Horse's Neck: Lyrical Prose, 1985; released Iron Man song cycle inspired by poet Ted Hughes children's book, 1988; released solo album PsychoDerelict and premiered stage version of Tommy, 1993; arrested and released for downloading child pornography from the Web, 2002; toured with Who, 2003.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 14 years ago

Add Pete Townshend to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist - sign the petition at: RateItAll - vote for the artists (like Pete) you think deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but have been overlooked at: RateItAll - vote for songwriters (like Pete) that deserve to be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame but have been overlooked at:

over 15 years ago

Pete Townshend will undoubtably go down in history as one of the greatest rock guitarists' and songwriters ever to take the stage. His lyrics take on at times disturbing and angst wridden themes that make his music relevant from your generation to my generation.

almost 16 years ago

i feel pete townshend is one of the best song writers in rock and roll history. his songs will last the test of time. also in my opinion, they will never grow old. he will forever be a musical icon