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Peter Dennis Blandford "Pete" Townshend (born 19 May 1945) is an English rock musician, composer, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter and author, known principally as the guitarist and songwriter for the rock group The Who, as well as for his own solo career. His career with The Who spans more than 40 years, during which time the band grew to be considered one of the most influential bands of the 1960s and 1970s.
Townshend is the primary songwriter for The Who, having written well over 100 songs for the band's 11 studio albums, including concept albums and the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia, plus popular rock and roll radio staples such as Who's Next, and dozens more that appeared as non-album singles, bonus tracks on reissues, and tracks on rarities compilations such as Odds & Sods. He has also written over 100 songs that have appeared on his solo albums, as well as radio jingles and television theme songs. Although known primarily as a guitarist, he also plays other instruments such as keyboards, banjo, accordion, harmonica, ukulele, mandolin, violin, synthesiser, bass guitar and drums, on his own solo albums, several Who albums, and as a guest contributor to a wide array of other artists' recordings. He is self-taught on all of the instruments he plays and has never had any formal training.
Townshend has also been a contributor and author of newspaper and magazine articles, book reviews, essays, books, and scripts, as well as collaborating as a lyricist (and composer) for many other musical acts. Townshend was ranked No. 3 in Dave Marsh's list of Best Guitarists in The New Book of Rock Lists, No. 10 in Gibson.com's list of the top 50 guitarists, and No. 10 again in Rolling Stone magazine's updated 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Townshend was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Who in 1990.
Born in Chiswick, London into a musical family (his father Cliff Townshend was a professional saxophonist in The Squadronaires and his mother Betty (née Dennis) was a singer), Townshend exhibited a fascination with music at an early age. In the mid-1950s he was drawn to American rock and roll; his mother recounts that he repeatedly saw the 1956 film Rock Around the Clock. When he was 12, his grandmother gave him his first guitar, which he has described as a "cheap Spanish thing". Townshend's biggest guitar influences include Link Wray, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Hank Marvin of The Shadows.
"Then I heard rhythm & blues and it was all over. The first record I remember was 'Green Onions' by Booker T. I never listened that much to Muddy Waters or people like that. It was Steve Cropper who really turned me on to aggressive guitar playing."
Townshend's brother Simon (who also became a musician) was born in 1960. In 1961, Townshend enrolled at Ealing Art College, with the intention to become a graphic artist and a year later, he and his school friend from Acton County Grammar School John Entwistle founded their first band, The Confederates, a Dixieland duet featuring Townshend on banjo and Entwistle on horns. From this beginning they moved on to The Detours, a skiffle/rock and roll band fronted by Roger Daltrey, another former schoolmate. With the encouragement and assistance of his old classmate Entwistle, Daltrey invited Townshend to join as well. In early 1964, because another band had the same name, The Detours renamed themselves The Who. Drummer Doug Sandom was replaced by Keith Moon not long afterwards. The band (now comprising Daltrey on lead vocals and harmonica, Townshend on guitar, Entwistle on bass guitar and french horn, and Moon on drums) were soon taken on by a mod publicist named Peter Meaden who convinced them to change their name to The High Numbers to give the band more of a mod feel. After bringing out one failed single ("I'm the Face/Zoot Suit"), they dropped Meaden and were signed on by two new managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, who had paired up with the intention of finding new talent and creating a documentary about them. The band anguished over a name that all felt represented the band best, and dropped The High Numbers name, reverting to The Who.
After The High Numbers once again became The Who, Townshend wrote several successful singles for the band, including "I Can't Explain", "Pictures of Lily", "Substitute", and "My Generation". Townshend became known for his eccentric stage style during the band's early days, often interrupting concerts with lengthy introductions of songs. He developed a signature move in which he would swing his right arm against the guitar strings in a style reminiscent of the vanes of a windmill. He became one of the first musicians known for smashing guitars on stage and would repeatedly throw them into his amplifiers and speaker cabinets. The first incident of guitar-smashing happened when Townshend accidentally broke the neck of his guitar on the low ceiling of an early concert venue at the Railway Tavern in Harrow. The stage, only about a foot high, nevertheless brought the ceiling to within 7 feet. After smashing the instrument to pieces, he carried on by grabbing another guitar and acting as if the broken guitar had been part of the act. Drummer Keith Moon was delighted; he loved attention and destruction on any level, and smashed his drum kit as well. The press sensationalised the incidents. The on-stage destruction of instruments soon became a regular part of The Who's performances. This was further dramatised with pyrotechnics, an idea which came from Moon, who incorporated it in his exploding drum kits. At a concert in Germany, a police officer walked up to Townshend, pointed his gun at him, and ordered him to stop smashing the guitar. Townshend, always a voluble interview subject, would later relate these antics to German/British artist Gustav Metzger's theories on auto-destructive art, to which he had been exposed at art school. However, on several occasions, he admitted that the destruction was a gimmick that set the band out apart from the others and gave them the publicity edge that they needed to be noticed.
The Who thrived, and continue to thrive, despite the deaths of two of the original members. They are regarded by many rock critics as one of the best live bands from a period of time that stretched from the mid-1960s to the 2000s, the result of a unique combination of high volume, showmanship, a wide variety of rock beats, and a high-energy sound that alternated between tight and free-form. The Who continue to perform critically acclaimed sets in the 21st century, including highly regarded performances at The Concert For New York City in 2001, the 2004 Isle of Wight Festival, Live 8 in 2005 and the 2007 Glastonbury Festival.
Townshend remained the primary songwriter and leader of the group, writing over one hundred songs which appeared on the band's eleven studio albums. Among his most well-known accomplishments are the creation of Tommy, for which the term "rock opera" was coined, and a second pioneering rock opera, Quadrophenia; his dramatic stage persona; his use of guitar feedback as sonic technique; and the introduction of the synthesiser as a rock instrument. Townshend revisited album-length storytelling throughout his career and remains the musician most associated with the rock opera form. Many studio recordings also feature Townshend on piano or keyboards, though keyboard-heavy tracks increasingly featured guest artists in the studio, such as Nicky Hopkins, John Bundrick or Chris Stainton.
Townshend is one of the key figures in the development of feedback in rock guitar. When asked who first used feedback, Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore said, "Pete Townshend was definitely the first. But not being that good a guitarist, he used to just sort of crash chords and let the guitar feedback. He didn't get into twiddling with the dials on the amplifier until much later. He's overrated in England, but at the same time you find a lot of people like Jeff Beck and Hendrix getting credit for things he started. Townshend was the first to break his guitar, and he was the first to do a lot of things. He's very good at his chord scene, too." Similarly, when Jimmy Page was asked about the development of guitar feedback, he said, "I don't know who really did feedback first; it just sort of happened. I don't think anybody consciously nicked it from anybody else. It was just going on. But Pete Townshend obviously was the one, through the music of his group, who made the use of feedback more his style, and so it's related to him. Whereas the other players like Jeff Beck and myself were playing more single note things than chords."
Many rock guitarists have cited Townshend as an influence, among them Slash, Alex Lifeson and Steve Jones.
In addition to his work with The Who, Townshend has been sporadically active as a solo recording artist. Between 1969 and 1971 Townshend, along with other devotees to Meher Baba, recorded a trio of albums devoted to his teachings: Happy Birthday, I Am, and With Love. In response to bootlegging of these, he compiled his personal highlights (and "Evolution", a collaboration with Ronnie Lane), and released his first major-label solo title, 1972's Who Came First. It was a moderate success and featured demos of Who songs as well as a showcase of his acoustic guitar talents. He collaborated with The Faces' bassist and fellow Meher Baba devotee Ronnie Lane on a duet album (1977's Rough Mix). Townshend's solo breakthrough, following the death of Who drummer Keith Moon, was the 1980 release Empty Glass, which included a top-10 single, "Let My Love Open the Door" and "Rough Boys". This release was followed in 1982 by All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, which included the popular radio track "Slit Skirts". While not a huge commercial success, noted music critic Timothy Duggan listed it as "Townshend's most honest and introspective work since Quadrophenia." Through the rest of the 1980s and early 1990s Townshend would again experiment with the rock opera and related formats, releasing several story-based albums including White City: A Novel (1985), The Iron Man: A Musical (1989), and Psychoderelict (1993). Townshend also got the chance to play with his hero Hank Marvin for Paul McCartney's "Rockestra" sessions, along with other respected rock musicians such as David Gilmour, John Bonham and Ronnie Lane.
Townshend has also recorded several concert albums, including one featuring a supergroup he assembled called Deep End, who performed just three concerts and a television show session for The Tube, to raise money for a charity supporting drug addicts. In 1993 he and Des McAnuff wrote and directed the Broadway adaptation of the Who album Tommy, as well as a less successful stage musical based on his solo album The Iron Man, based upon the book by Ted Hughes. McAnuff and Townshend later co-produced the animated film The Iron Giant, also based on the Hughes story.
A production described as a Townshend rock-opera and titled The Boy Who Heard Music debuted as part of Vassar College's Powerhouse Summer Theater program in July 2007.
Recent Who work
From the mid-1990s through the present, Townshend has participated in a series of tours with the surviving members of The Who, including a 2002 tour that continued despite Entwistle's death.
In February 2006, a major world tour by The Who was announced to promote their first new album since 1982. Townshend published a semi-autobiographical story The Boy Who Heard Music as a serial on a blog beginning in September 2005. The blog closed in October 2006, as noted on Townshend's website. It is now owned by a different user and does not relate to Townshend's work in any way. On 25 February 2006, he announced the issue of a mini-opera inspired by the novella for June 2006. In October 2006 The Who released their first album in 26 years, Endless Wire.
The Who performed at the Super Bowl XLIV half-time show on 7 February 2010, playing a medley of songs that included "Pinball Wizard", "Who Are You", "Baba O'Riley", "See Me Feel Me" and "Won't Get Fooled Again". In 2012, The Who announced they would tour the rock opera Quadrophenia.
The Who were the final performers at the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony in London, performing a medley of "Baba O'Riley", "See Me, Feel Me" and "My Generation".
Townshend suffers from partial deafness and tinnitus believed to be the result of noise-induced hearing loss from his extensive exposure to loud music. Some such incidents include a Who concert at the Charlton Athletic Football Club, London, on 31 May 1976 that was listed as the "Loudest Concert Ever" by the Guinness Book of Records, where the volume level was measured at 126 decibels 32 metres from the stage. Townshend has also attributed the start of his hearing loss to Keith Moon's famous exploding drum set during The Who's 1967 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
“What I want to do is sophisticate our sound a little. One of the troubles is Moon. He's so deafening.”
—Pete Townshend, NME – April 1970
In 1989, Townshend gave the initial funding to allow the formation of the non-profit hearing advocacy group H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers). After the Who performed at half-time at the Super Bowl XLIV, Townshend stated that he is concerned that his tinnitus has grown to such a point that he might be forced to discontinue performing with the band altogether. He told Rolling Stone, "If my hearing is going to be a problem, we’re not delaying shows. We're finished. I can’t really see any way around the issue." Neil Young introduced him to an audiologist who suggested he use an In-ear monitor, and although they cancelled their spring 2010 touring schedule, Townshend used the device at their one remaining London concert on 30 March 2010, to ascertain the feasibility of Townshend continuing to perform with The Who.
In March 2011, Roger Daltrey said in an interview with the BBC that Townshend had recently experienced gradual but severe hearing loss and was now trying to save what remained of his hearing.
"Pete's having terrible trouble with his hearing. He's got really, really bad problems with it...not tinnitus, it's deterioration and he's seriously now worried about actually losing his hearing."
Referring to that, in July 2011, Townshend wrote at his blog: "My hearing is actually better than ever because after a feedback scare at the indigO2 in December 2008 I am taking good care of it. I have computer systems in my studio that have helped me do my engineering work on the forthcoming Quadrophenia release. I have had assistance from younger forensic engineers and mastering engineers to help me clean up the high frequencies that are out of my range. The same computer systems work wonderfully well on stage, proving to be perfect for me when The Who performed at the Super Bowl and doing Quadrophenia for TCT at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010. I'm 66, I don't have perfect hearing, and if I listen to loud music or go to gigs I do tend to get tinnitus."
From The Who's emergence on the British musical landscape, Pete Townshend could always be counted upon for a good interview. By early 1966 he had become the band's spokesman, interviewed separately from the band for the BBC television series A Whole Scene Going admitting that the band used drugs and that he considered The Beatles' backing tracks "flippin' lousy". In a 1967 interview, however, Townshend complimented one of The Beatles' songs: "I think "Eleanor Rigby" was a very important musical move forward. It certainly inspired me to write and listen to things in that vein." Throughout the 1960s Townshend made regular appearances in the pages of British music magazines, but it was a very long interview he gave to Rolling Stone in 1968 that sealed his reputation as one of rock's leading intellectuals and theorists.
Townshend gave increasing interviews to the newly risen underground press, firmly establishing his reputation as a commentator on the rock and roll scene. In addition, he wrote his own articles, starting a regular monthly column in Melody Maker, and contributing to Rolling Stone with an article on his guru Meher Baba and a review of The Who's album Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy.
Townshend has withdrawn from the press on occasion. On his 30th birthday, Townshend discussed his feelings that The Who were failing to journalist Roy Carr, making unflattering comments on fellow Who member Roger Daltrey and other leading members of the British rock community. Carr printed his remarks in the NME causing strong friction within The Who and embarrassing Townshend. Feeling betrayed, he stopped interviews with the press for over two years.
Nevertheless, Townshend has maintained close relationships with many journalists, and sought them out in 1982 to describe his two-year battle with cocaine and heroin. Some of those press members turned on him in the 1980s as the punk rock revolution led to widespread dismissal of the old guard of rock, Townshend attacked two of them, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, in the song "Jools And Jim" on his album Empty Glass after they made some derogatory remarks about Who drummer Keith Moon. Meanwhile several journalists denounced Townshend for what they saw as a betrayal of the idealism about rock music he had espoused in his earlier interviews when The Who participated in a tour sponsored by Schlitz in 1982 and by Miller Brewing in 1989. Townshend's 1993 concept album Psychoderelict offers a scathing commentary on journalists in the character of Ruth Streeting, who attempts to scandalise the main character, Ray High.
On 25 October 2006, Townshend declined at the last minute to do a scheduled interview with Sirius Satellite Radio host Howard Stern after Stern's co-anchor Robin Quivers and sidekick Artie Lange made joking references to his 2003 arrest. Stern conducted an interview instead with Roger Daltrey and repeatedly expressed regret about the utterances of his on-air colleagues, stating that they did not reflect his own feelings of respect for Townshend.
Later in 2006, Townshend appeared on the Living Legends radio show in an exclusive interview with Opal Bonfante. The interview, broadcast worldwide on Radio London, was his first live interview in 15 years. Townshend spoke about his forthcoming UK tour, his online novella and his memories of the old pirate radio stations.
Also in late 2006, Townshend granted an interview with author Mark Wilkerson, which led to Wilkerson's 2008 biography Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend.
In a BBC Radio 4 interview, first broadcast on 27 October 2009, Townshend informed the audience that from the time he was involved in writing the music for the Who's first album, he has been influenced by the works of the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell.
In BBC Radio 6 Music's inaugural John Peel Lecture, Townshend urged Apple to use its power to help new bands instead of "bleeding" artists like a "digital vampire". He also argued against unauthorised file-sharing, saying the internet was "destroying copyright as we know it".
Throughout his solo career and his career with The Who, Townshend has played (and destroyed) a large variety of guitars – mostly various Gibson and Fender models. He has also used Guild, Takamine and Gibson J-200 acoustic models, with the J-200 providing his signature recorded acoustic sound in such songs as "Pinball Wizard".
In the early days with The Who, Townshend played an Emile Grimshaw SS De Luxe and 6-string and 12-string Rickenbacker semi-hollow electric guitars primarily (particularly the Rose-Morris UK-imported models with special f-holes). However, as instrument-smashing became increasingly integrated into The Who's concert sets, he switched to more durable and resilient (and sometimes cheaper) guitars for smashing, such as the Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster and various Danelectro models. On The Who's famous The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour appearance in 1967, Townshend used a Vox Cheetah guitar, which he only used for that performance; and the guitar was smashed to smithereens by Townshend and Moon's drum explosion. In the late 1960s, Townshend began playing Gibson SG models almost exclusively, specifically the Special models. He used this guitar at the Woodstock and Isle of Wight shows in 1969 and 1970, as well as the Live at Leeds performance in 1970.
By 1970, Gibson changed the design of the SG Special which Townshend had been using previously, and thus he began using other guitars. For much of the 1970s, he used a Gibson Les Paul DeLuxe, some with only two mini-humbucker pick-ups and others modified with a third pick-up in the "middle position" (a DiMarzio Superdistortion / Dual Sound). He can be seen using several of these guitars in the documentary The Kids Are Alright, although in the studio he often played a '59 Gretsch 6120 guitar (given to him by Joe Walsh), most notably on the albums Who's Next and Quadrophenia.
During the 1980s, Townshend mainly used Fenders, Rickenbackers and Telecaster-style models built for him by Schecter and various other luthiers. Since the late-1980s, Townshend has used the Fender Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster, with Lace Sensor pick-ups, both in the studio and on tour. Some of his Stratocaster guitars feature a Fishman PowerBridge piezo pick-up system to simulate acoustic guitar tones. This piezo system is controlled by an extra volume control behind the guitar's bridge.
During The Who's 1989 Tour Townshend played a Rickenbacker guitar that was ironically smashed accidentally when he tripped over it. Instead of throwing the smashed parts away, Townshend reassembled the pieces as a sculpture. The sculpture was featured at the Rock Stars, Cars And Guitars 2 exhibit during the summer of 2009 at The Henry Ford museum.
There are several Gibson Pete Townshend signature guitars, such as the Pete Townshend SG, the Pete Townshend J-200, and three different Pete Townshend Les Paul Deluxes. The SG was clearly marked as a Pete Townshend limited edition model and came with a special case and certificate of authenticity, signed by Townshend himself. There has also been a Pete Townshend signature Rickenbacker limited edition guitar of the model 1998, which was his main 6-string guitar in the Who's early days. The run featured 250 guitars which were made between July 1987 – March 1988, and according to Rickenbacker CEO John Hall, the entire run sold out before serious advertising could be done.
He also used the Gibson ES-335, one of which he donated to the Hard Rock Cafe. Townshend also used a Gibson EDS-1275 double neck very briefly circa late 1967, and both a Harmony Sovereign H1270 and a Fender Electric XII for the studio sessions for Tommy for the 12-string guitar parts. He also occasionally used Fender Jazzmasters on stage in 1967 and 1968 and in the studio for Tommy.
In 2006, Townshend had a pedal board designed by long-time gear guru Pete Cornish. The board apparently is composed with a compressor, an old Boss OD-1 overdrive pedal, as well as a T-Rex Replica delay pedal.
Over the years, Pete Townshend has used many types of amplifiers, including Vox, Fender, Marshall, Hiwatt etc., sticking to using Hiwatt amps for most of four decades. Around the time of Who's Next, he used a tweed Fender Bandmaster amp, which he also used for Quadrophenia and The Who by Numbers. While recording Face Dances and the collaborative album Rough Mix, Townshend made use of a Peavey Vintage 4X10 amplifier in the studio. Since 1989, his rig consisted of four Fender Vibro-King stacks and a Hiwatt head driving two custom made 2x12" Hiwatt/Mesa Boogie speaker cabinets. However, since 2006, he has only three Vibro-King stacks, one of which is a backup.
Townshend figured prominently in the development of what is widely known in rock circles as the "Marshall Stack". It has been recounted by others during the start of popularity of Jim Marshall's guitar amplifiers, that Townshend became a user of these amps.
He also ordered several speaker cabinets that contained eight speakers in a housing standing nearly six feet in height with the top half of the cabinet slanted slightly upward. These became hard to move and were incredibly heavy.
Jim Marshall then cut the massive speaker cabinet into two separate speaker cabinets, at the suggestion of Townshend, with each cabinet containing four 12-inch speakers. One of the cabinets had half of the speaker baffle slanted upwards and Marshall made these two cabinets stackable. The Marshall stack was born, and Townshend used these as well as Hiwatt stacks.
His amplifier rig currently usually consists of four Fender Vibro King amps with extension cabinets.
He has always regarded his instruments as being merely tools of the trade and has, in latter years, determinedly kept his most prized instruments well away from the concert stage. These instruments include a few vintage and reissue Rickenbackers, the Gretsch 6120, an original 1952 Fender Telecaster, Gibson Custom Shop's artist limited edition reissues of Townshend's Les Paul DeLuxe models 1, 3 and 9 as well his signature SG Special reissue.
Townshend also worked with synthesisers that made their debut on Who's Next that included the EMS VCS3, the ARP Instruments, Inc. ARP 2600, some of which modified a Lowrey TBO Berkshire organ. Current photos of his home studio also show an ARP 2500. Townshend was featured in ARP promotional materials in the early 1970s.
Since the late 1980s Townshend has predominantly used Synclavier Digital Audio systems for keyboard composition, particularly solo albums and projects. He currently owns three systems, one large Synclavier 9600 Tapeless Studio system, originally installed in his riverside Oceanic Studio, later transferred to a seagoing barge moored alongside the studio on the River Thames, and currently based in his home studio. He also uses a special adapted smaller Synclavier 3200 system which can be transported, enabling him to carry on working away from his main studio. This 3200 system was modified to be of similar specification to the 9600, including the addition internally of FM voices, stereo Poly voices and with the large VPK keyboard. This is the only Synclavier 3200 system of this specification in existence, custom designed and built for Townshend by Steve Hills. The third system Townshend owns is one of the first Synclavier II systems ever built. The ORK (original smaller) keyboard of which is on display in his company's head office alongside a pink Vespa scooter.
Although known for his musical compositions and musicianship, Pete Townshend has been extensively involved in the literary world for more than three decades, writing newspaper and magazine articles, book reviews, essays, books, and scripts.
An early example of Townshend's writing came in August 1970 with the first of nine instalments of "The Pete Townshend Page", a monthly column written by Townshend for the British music paper Melody Maker. The column provided Townshend's perspective on an array of subjects, such as the media and the state of US concert halls and public address systems, as well as providing valuable insight into Townshend's mindset during the evolution of his Lifehouse project.
Townshend also wrote three sizeable essays for Rolling Stone magazine, the first of which appeared in November 1970. In Love With Meher Baba described Townshend's spiritual leanings. "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy", a blow-by-blow account of The Who compilation album of the same name, followed in December 1971. The third article, "The Punk Meets the Godmother", appeared in November 1977.
Also in 1977, Townshend founded Eel Pie Publishing, which specialised in children's titles, music books, and several Meher Baba-related publications. A bookstore named Magic Bus (after the popular Who song) was opened in London. The Story of Tommy, a book written by Townshend and his art school friend Richard Barnes (now the Who's official biographer) about the writing of Townshend's 1969 rock opera and the making of the 1975 Ken Russell-directed film, was published by Eel Pie the same year.
In July 1983, Townshend took a position as an acquisitions editor for London publisher Faber and Faber. Notable projects included editing Animals frontman Eric Burdon's autobiography, Charles Shaar Murray's award-winning Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop, Brian Eno and Russell Mills's More Dark Than Shark, and working with Prince Charles on a volume of his collected speeches. Townshend commissioned Dave Rimmer's Like Punk Never Happened, and was commissioning editor for radical playwright Steven Berkoff.
Two years after joining Faber and Faber, Townshend decided to publish a book of his own. Horse's Neck, published in May 1985, was a collection of short stories he’d written between 1979 and 1984, tackling subjects such as childhood, stardom and spirituality. As a result of his position with Faber and Faber, Townshend developed friendships with both Nobel prize-winning author of Lord of the Flies, Sir William Golding, and British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. His friendship with Hughes led to Townshend's musical interpretation of Hughes's children's story, The Iron Man, six years later, as The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend, released in 1989.
Townshend has written several scripts spanning the breadth of his career, including numerous drafts of his elusive Lifehouse project, the last of which, co-written with radio playwright Jeff Young, was published in 1999. In 1978, Townshend wrote a script for Fish Shop, a play commissioned but not completed by London Weekend Television, and in mid-1984 he wrote a script for White City: A Novel which led to a short film.
In 1989, Townshend began work on a novel entitled Ray High & The Glass Household, a draft of which was later submitted to his editor. While the original novel remains unpublished, elements from this story were used in Townshend's 1993 solo album Psychoderelict. In 1993, Townshend authored another book, The Who's Tommy, a chronicle of the development of the award-winning Broadway version of his rock opera.
The opening of his personal website and his commerce site Eelpie.com, both in 2000, gave Townshend another outlet for literary work. Several of Townshend's essays have been posted online, including "Meher Baba—The Silent Master: My Own Silence" in 2001, and "A Different Bomb", an indictment of the child pornography industry, the following year.
In September 2005, Townshend began posting a novella online entitled The Boy Who Heard Music as background for a musical of the same name. He posted a chapter each week until it was completed, and novella was available to read at his website for several months. Like Psychoderelict, it was yet another extrapolation of Lifehouse and Ray High & The Glass Household.
In 1997 Townshend signed a deal with Little, Brown and Company publishing to write his autobiography, reportedly titled Pete Townshend: Who He? Townshend's creative vagaries and conceptual machinations have been chronicled by Larry David Smith in his book The Minstrel's Dilemma (Praeger 1999). After a lengthy delay, Townshend's autobiography, now titled Who I Am, was released 8 October 2012. The book ranked in the top 5 of the New York Times best seller list in October 2012.
Townshend showed no predilection for religious belief in the first years of The Who's career. By the beginning of 1968, however, Townshend had begun to explore spiritual ideas. In January 1968, The Who recorded his song "Faith in Something Bigger" (Odds & Sods). Townshend's art school friend Mike McInnerney gave him a copy of C. B. Purdom's book The God-Man, introducing him to the writings of the Indian "perfect master" Meher Baba, who blended elements of Vedantic, Sufi, and Mystic schools.
Townshend swiftly absorbed all of Baba's writings that he could find; by April 1968, he announced himself Baba's disciple. At about this time, Townshend, who had been searching the past two years for a basis for a rock opera, created a story inspired by the teachings of Baba and other writings and expressing the enlightenment he believed that he had received from them, which ultimately became Tommy. Tommy did more than revitalise The Who's career (which was moderately successful at this point but had reached a plateau); it also marked a renewal of Townshend's songwriting and his spiritual studies infused most of his work from Tommy forward, including the unfinished Who project Lifehouse. The Who song "Baba O'Riley", written for Lifehouse and eventually appearing on the album Who's Next, was named for Meher Baba and minimalist composer Terry Riley. His newfound passion was not shared by his bandmates, whose attitude was tolerant, but who were unwilling to become the spokesmen for a particular religion. Few of the thousands of fans who packed stadiums across Europe and the US to see The Who noticed the religious message in the songs: that "Bargain" and the middle section of "Behind Blue Eyes" from Who's Next and "Listening To You" from Tommy were all originally written as prayers, that "Drowned" from Quadrophenia and "Don't Let Go The Coat" from Face Dances were based on Baba's sayings, that the "who are you, who, who, who, who" chorus from the song "Who Are You" was based on Sufi chants, or that "Let My Love Open The Door" was not a message from a lover but from God.
In interviews Townshend was more open about his beliefs, penning an article on Baba for Rolling Stone in 1970 and stating that following Baba's teachings, he was opposed to the use of all psychedelic drugs, making him one of the first rock stars with counterculture credibility to turn against their use.
His stardom quickly made him the world's most notable follower of Baba. Having missed out on meeting his guru with Baba's death 31 January 1969 (work on Tommy kept him from making the pilgrimage), Townshend made several trips to visit Baba's tomb in India as well as becoming a frequent visitor to the Meher Baba Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At home he recorded and released his most overtly spiritual songs on records assembled, pressed and sold by Baba organisations. When these records became widely bootlegged, Townshend put together a selection of the tracks for release as the solo album Who Came First. In 1976 he opened the Oceanic Centre in London, using it as a haven for English Baba followers and Americans making a pilgrimage to Baba's tomb in Meherabad, India as well as a place for small concerts (one such in 1979 was released on CD in 2001 as Pete Townshend & Raphael Rudd—The Oceanic Concerts) and a repository for films made of Baba.
Townshend became a lower-profile follower after 1982, having felt that his former addictions to cocaine and heroin made him a poor candidate for spokesman. Nevertheless, his discipleship continues to the current day.
Townshend met Karen Astley (born 12 June 1947, daughter of composer Ted Astley and sister of record producer Jon Astley), while in art school and married her in 1968. The couple separated in 1994 and divorced in 2009. They have three children: Emma (born 1969), who is a gardening columnist, Aminta (born 1971), and Joseph (born 1990). Townshend currently lives with his long-time girlfriend, musician Rachel Fuller, in The Wick, Richmond, England. He also owns a house in Churt, Surrey, England, and in 2010 purchased a lease on the historic National Trust property Ashdown House in Oxfordshire. According to The Sunday Times Rich List his assets were worth £40 million as of 2009.
In a 1989 interview with radio host Timothy White, Townshend apparently acknowledged his bisexuality, referencing the song "Rough Boys" on his 1980 album, Empty Glass. He called the song a "coming out, an acknowledgment of the fact that I'd had a gay life, and that I understood what gay sex was about." However, in a 1994 interview for Playboy, he said, "I did an interview about it, saying that "Rough Boys" was about being gay, and in the interview I also talked about my "gay life," which—I meant—was actually about the friends I've had who are gay. So the interviewer kind of dotted the t's and crossed the i's and assumed that this was a coming out, which it wasn't at all." Townshend later wrote in his 2012 autobiography Who I Am that he at one point felt as if he was "probably bisexual". Townshend also stated that he once felt sexually attracted to The Rolling Stones frontman, Mick Jagger.
Townshend has two younger brothers by more than 10 years: Paul Townshend (born 1958) and Simon Townshend (born 10 October 1960), both of whom are musicians. Simon Townshend plays with The Who as part of their touring band. Paul Townshend played the voice of his brother, Pete, in The Simpsons episode, "A Tale of Two Springfields" as Pete was unavailable.
Pete Townshend has woven a long history of involvement with various charities and other philanthropic efforts throughout his career, both as a solo artist and with The Who. His first solo concert, for example, was a 1974 benefit show which was organised to raise funds for the Camden Square Community Play Center.
The earliest public example of Townshend's involvement with charitable causes was in 1968, when Townshend donated the use of his former Wardour Street apartment to the Meher Baba Association. The following year, the association was moved to another Townshend-owned apartment, the Eccleston Square former residence of wife Karen. Townshend sat on a committee which oversaw the operation and finances of the centre. "The committee sees to it that it is open a couple of days a week, and keeps the bills paid and the library full", he wrote in a 1970 Rolling Stone article.
In 1969 and 1972 Townshend produced two limited-release albums, Happy Birthday and I Am, for the London-based Baba association. This led to 1972's Who Came First, a more widespread release, 15 percent of the revenue of which went to the Baba association. A further limited release, With Love, was released in 1976. A limited-edition boxed set of all three limited releases on CD, Avatar, was released in 2000, with all profits going to the Avatar Meher Baba Trust in India, which provided funds to a dispensary, school, hospital and pilgrimage centre.
In July 1976, Townshend opened Meher Baba Oceanic, a London activity centre for Baba followers which featured film dubbing and editing facilities, a cinema and a recording studio. In addition, the centre served as a regular meeting place for Baba followers. Townshend offered very economical (reportedly £1 per night) lodging for American followers who needed an overnight stay on their pilgrimages to India. "For a few years, I had toyed with the idea of opening a London house dedicated to Meher Baba", he wrote in a 1977 Rolling Stone article. "In the eight years I had followed him, I had donated only coppers to foundations set up around the world to carry out the Master's wishes and decided it was about time I put myself on the line. The Who had set up a strong charitable trust of its own which appeased, to an extent, the feeling I had that Meher Baba would rather have seen me give to the poor than to the establishment of yet another so-called 'spiritual center'." Townshend also embarked on a project dedicated to the collection, restoration and maintenance of Meher Baba-related films. The project was known as MEFA, or Meher Baba European Film Archive.
Townshend has been an active champion of children's charities. The debut of Pete Townshend's stage version of Tommy took place at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse in July 1992. The show was earmarked as a benefit for the London-based Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation, an organisation which helps children with autism and mental retardation.
Townshend performed at a 1995 benefit organised by Paul Simon at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theatre, for The Children's Health Fund. The following year, Townshend performed at a benefit for the annual Bridge School Benefit, a California facility for children with severe speech and physical impairments with concerts organised by Neil and Pegi Young. In 1997, Townshend established a relationship with Maryville Academy, a Chicago area children's charity. Between 1997 and 2002, Townshend played five benefit shows for Maryville Academy, raising at least $1,600,000. His 1998 album A Benefit for Maryville Academy was made to support their activities and proceeds from the sales of his release were donated to them.
As a member of The Who, Pete Townshend has also performed a series of concerts, beginning in 2000, benefiting the Teenage Cancer Trust in the UK, raising several million pounds. In 2005, Townshend performed at New York's Gotham Hall for Samsung's Four Seasons of Hope, an annual children's charity fundraiser, and donated a smashed guitar to the Pediatric Epilepsy Project.
On 4 November 2011, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend launched the Daltrey/Townshend Teen and Young Adult Cancer Program at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, to be funded by The Who's charity Who Cares. The launch, followed on 5 November by a fund-raising event, was also attended by Robert Plant and Dave Grohl.
Townshend has also advocated for drug rehabilitation. In a 1985 radio interview, he said:
“What I’m most active in doing is raising money to provide beds in clinics to help people that have become victims of drug abuse. In Britain, the facilities are very, very, very lean indeed ... although we have a national health service, a free medical system, it does nothing particularly for class A drug addicts – cocaine abusers, heroin abusers ... we’re making a lot of progress ... the British government embarked on an anti-heroin campaign with advertising, and I was co-opted by them as a kind of figurehead, and then the various other people co-opted me into their own campaigns, but my main work is raising money to try and open a large clinic.”
The "large clinic" Townshend was referring to was a plan he and drug rehabilitation experimenter Meg Patterson had devised to open a drug treatment facility in London; however, the plan failed to come to fruition. Two early 1979 concerts by The Who raised £20,000 for Patterson's Pharmakon Clinic in Sussex.
Further examples of Townshend's drug rehabilitation activism took place in the form of a 1984 benefit concert (incidentally the first live performance of Manchester band, The Stone Roses), an article he wrote a few days later for Britain's Mail on Sunday urging better care for the nation's growing number of drug addicts, and the formation of a charitable organisation, Double-O Charities, to raise funds for the causes he’d recently championed. Townshend also personally sold fund-raising anti-heroin T-shirts at a series of UK Bruce Springsteen concerts, and reportedly financed a trip for former Clash drummer Topper Headon to undergo drug rehabilitation treatment. Townshend's 1985–86 band, Deep End, played two benefits at Brixton Academy in 1985 for Double-O Charities.
In 1979, Townshend donated his services to the human rights organisation Amnesty International when he performed three songs for its benefit show The Secret Policeman's Ball – performances that were released on record and seen in the film of the show. Townshend's acoustic performances of three of his songs ("Pinball Wizard", "Drowned", and "Won't Get Fooled Again") were subsequently cited as having been the forerunner and inspiration for the "unplugged" phenomenon in the 1990s. Townshend had been invited to perform for Amnesty by Martin Lewis, the producer of The Secret Policeman's Ball who stated later that Townshend's participation had been the key to his securing the subsequent participation for Amnesty (in the 1981 sequel show) of Sting, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Phil Collins and Bob Geldof. Other performers inspired to support Amnesty International in future Secret Policeman's Ball shows and other benefits because of Townshend's early commitment to the organisation include Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, David Gilmour and U2 singer Bono who in 1986 told Rolling Stone magazine: "I saw The Secret Policeman's Ball and it became a part of me. It sowed a seed...."
Highlights of Pete Townshend's other public charitable efforts include the following:
A 1972 Tommy performance which raised nearly £10,000 for the Stars Organization for Spastics charity.
A 1979 Rock Against Racism benefit concert, organised to raise money to pay the legal costs of those arrested in a London area anti-racism demonstration. Townshend helped organise the show, topped the bill, and supplied the event lighting and equipment.
A 1982 Prince's Trust Gala Benefit performance.
Performing with The Who at the 1985 Live Aid concert.
A 2001 benefit show for San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse which raised approximately $100,000.
Organizing an online auction in 2000 to raise funds for Oxfam's emergency services to help those affected by floods in Mozambique and a combination of drought and food shortages in Ethiopia. Among the auctioned items were a selection of gold and platinum awards, letters from celebrities such as Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney, and musical instruments (including a smashed Rickenbacker guitar and the guitar on which Townshend composed the Who classic "Behind Blue Eyes"). The centerpiece of the auction, however, was a 1957 Fender Stratocaster which was given to Townshend as a gift by Eric Clapton after Townshend had helped arrange Clapton's 1973 recovery from his own heroin addiction, and comeback show at the Rainbow. The guitar was ultimately purchased by Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger and David Bowie, and presented to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Performing with The Who at the 2001 all-star The Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden, honouring policemen and emergency personnel killed in the 11 September attacks.
Performing at the Royal Albert Hall in a 2004 Ronnie Lane tribute show which served as a fundraiser for both Lane's family and multiple sclerosis research.
Performing with The Who at the 2005 Live 8 concert.
In 1998, Townshend was named in a list of the biggest private financial donors to the UK Labour Party. He refused to let Michael Moore use "Won't Get Fooled Again" in Fahrenheit 9/11, saying that he watched Bowling for Columbine and was not convinced.
Performing with The Who in Detroit in 2008, donating all profits to Focus: HOPE and Gleaners Community food bank.
Performing in New York City with The Who at the 12–12–12 Benefit Concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief in Madison Square Garden.
Operation Ore investigation and police caution
Townshend was cautioned by the British police in 2003 as part of Operation Ore. Following a news leak that suggested to Townshend that he was among the subjects of the investigation, he came forward to publicly state that on one occasion, he had used a credit card and paid $7 to register with a website advertising child pornography. Townshend, who had posted essays on his personal website in 2002 as part of his campaign against the widespread availability of child pornography on the internet, claimed that he had entered the site for research purposes and had not downloaded any images. A four-month police investigation, including forensic examination of all of his computers, established that Townshend was not in possession of any illegal downloaded images. The police elected to caution him, stating, "It is not a defence to access these images for research or out of curiosity." In a statement issued by his lawyer, Townshend said, "I accept that I was wrong to access this site, and that by doing so, I broke the law, and I have accepted the caution that the police have given me."
Townshend also released several albums dedicated to his spiritual mentor Meher Baba.
In 1968 Townshend helped assemble a band called Thunderclap Newman consisting of three musicians he knew. Pianist Andy Newman (an old art school friend), drummer John "Speedy" Keen (who had written "Armenia City in the Sky" for The Who to record for their 1967 album The Who Sell Out) and teenage guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (later to join Wings). Townshend produced the band and played bass on their recordings under the tongue-in-cheek pseudonym "Bijou Drains". Their first recording was the single "Something in the Air", which became a number one hit in the UK and a substantial hit elsewhere in the world. This was the only number one hit in the UK that Townshend performed on. (The Who had none.) Following this success, Townshend produced their sole album, Hollywood Dream.
Townshend also produced "Fire" by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown in 1968 that was No. 1 in the UK and No. 2 in the US.
In 1971, Townshend, along with Keith Moon and Ronnie Lane, backed Mike Heron (of the Incredible String Band) on one song "Warm Heart Pastry" from Heron's first solo LP, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. On the album notes, they are listed as "Tommy and the Bijoux". Also present on the track was John Cale on viola.
In 1984, Townshend contributed lyrics to two songs ("Love on The Air" and "All Lovers are Deranged") on David Gilmour's solo album About Face.
Through much of 2005, Pete Townshend recorded and performed alongside his girlfriend Rachel Fuller, a classically trained pianist and singer-songwriter.
In 2006, Townshend opened a website for implementation of The Lifehouse Method based on his 1971 Lifehouse concept. This website was in collaboration with composer Lawrence Ball and software developer David Snowden, with instrumentation by Steve Hills. Applicants at the website could input data to compose a musical "portrait" which the musical team could then develop into larger compositions for a planned concert or series of concerts.
Other appearances include:
"Because You're Young" with David Bowie on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Acoustic guitar on "Ball and Chain" with Elton John on Jump Up! (1982)
"Lonely at the Top" and "Hard Women" with Mick Jagger on She's the Boss (1985)
Guitar on "Town of Plenty" with Elton John on Reg Strikes Back (1988)
Acoustic guitar with Prefab Sprout on "Hey Manhattan!" on From Langley Park to Memphis (1988)
"Substitute" with The Ramones on Acid Eaters (1993)
"Joy" and "Gun" with Mick Jagger on Goddess in the Doorway (2001)
"Slow Burn" with David Bowie on Heathen (2002)
"Angry" and "Move Over Busker" on Paul McCartney's Press to Play (1986)
BRIT Awards 1983 – Life Achievement Award
Tony Award 1993 – Best Original Score (music & lyrics) – The Who's Tommy (tie)
Grammy Awards 1993 – Best Musical Show Album (as composer and lyricist of The Who's Tommy)
Kennedy Center Honors 2008
Honorary doctorate from University of West London, 2010
Classic Album Award for Quadrophenia from the Classic Rock Roll of Honour Awards at The Roundhouse, 9 November 2011, London, EnglandIn 2010