Pete Townshend

TrackAlbum
Pure And EasyWho Came First
Sheraton GibsonWho Came First
My Baby Gives It AwayRough Mix
Street In The CityRough Mix
Let My Love Open The DoorEmpty Glass
Rough BoysEmpty Glass
Exquisitely BoredAll The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes
Give BloodWhite City
Face The FaceWhite City
A Friend Is A FriendThe Iron Man

Pete Townshend photo 1

© Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery

 

 

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Pete Townshend playlist

 

Contributor: David Lewis

One of the best composers to come out of the sixties, Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend has an immense legacy. If he’d done nothing but My Generation, we’d likely still be talking about him. But the Who were one of the best post-Beatles bands. Incendiary anger and boundless joy combined. Townshend wrote for the Who, changing or at least evolving rock and roll in the process. Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia are essential listening for anyone considering themselves a rock fan, as is the run of spectacular singles from My Generation through to Won’t Get Fooled Again (roughly…).

Townshend is a restless soul and, even though he set the direction for the Who and wrote most of the songs, he was still able to write solo works. If those songs didn’t have the explosive impact of the Who, it’s only because the Who was a thermonuclear bomb – Quadrophenic as Townshend stated artistically in that astounding work. And the film is just as good.

Nonetheless, the solo career of Pete Townshend is significant and represents some of his best work, and is just as worth listening to. Of course, there are flat spots, and misfires. Pete has rarely taken the safe route. Yes, he has a ‘sound’ – you can tell a Townshend song, but he continually pushes the boundaries of his art. And his solo career is mostly the stuff that wouldn’t quite work in the Who.

These 10 tracks don’t include any from his spiritual releases of the late sixties/early seventies, written for and about his beliefs at the time. The ones I have chosen come from his ‘official’ solo career. They allow us to see Pete without the frustrations and limitations of that highly satisfying and seemingly unlimited band, The Who.

 

Probably Pete’s most popular solo composition, Let My Love Open The Door, from 1980’s Empty Glass, is a lovely keyboard ditty. He is quite incapable of dull – very capable of charming and gorgeous. Yes, it sounds very late 70s, early 80s, but that’s part of its charm. Pete mastered the synthesiser early. Glyn Johns has long argued that Pete is the only composer who can use one musically. This is fun, infectious and disposable, but never quite leaves.

 

The second one from Empty Glass, his most consistent solo album, is the controversial Rough Boys. Seen by some as a ‘coming out’ song, Pete has said it was more observations from the outside of the homosexual lifestyle. What the theme is and how it applies to Pete’s life is none of my business, but this is a great song. Pete and the rest of the Who were punks before it had a name, and the blistering riff, the transgender lyrics, and its unashamed stance chimes very well with a punk aesthetic. Few punks did it as well as an angry and confused Townshend on the right day.

 

Townshend admitted it was the stupidest name for a record, but All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982) is an excellent album. Exquisitely Bored is a wonderful little vignette. Also, at the time of writing, Sydney is in lockdown – so I know exactly what he means.

 

His 1985 album White City: A Novel was an attempt to write about his early life. It’s a bit muddled and hard to follow as a concept on the album. But it has some great songs. Give Blood features Simon Phillips, David Gilmour and Pino Palladino. Pete wanted to work with these three – some of his favourite musicians – so he wrote the song quickly. Both Phillips and Palladino ended up in the Who.

Face The Face is my other choice from White City. Again, in lesser hands its lyrics would be trite and semi-clever. Yet in the hands of a master, Face The Face is a powerful rock song. Filled with verb and noun homonyms: face the face, judge the judge, plan the plan, etc, it’s another blistering rocker which is nothing less than compelling. The concept of the albums may not always work, but the songs themselves are masterful.

 

A Friend Is A Friend is from The Iron Man musical – written by Pete, based on the novel by Ted Hughes. The cast is pretty awesome – Deborah Conway, a great Australian vocalist, was in the 1989 soundtrack. The song works both inside the musical and as its own thing, which is what musical songs should do. A great lyric and a very fine vocal performance by Pete. The film (with Vin Diesel) called The Iron Giant sees Pete with an executive producer credit, though little if any of his work appears.

 

Backtracking to the seventies, from his first solo album Who Came First (1972) comes Pure And Easy which has the typical hallmarks of a Townshend composition. It’s great, and it’s got a nice solo which reminds us how fine a guitarist Townshend is. It’s also a fine vocal.

 

Sheraton Gibson is another one from Who Came First and it reminds us what an excellent acoustic guitarist he is. It’s about the loneliness and homesickness of touring, “I’m sitting in the Sheraton Gibson playing my Gibson and boy do I want to go home”. One of the themes of Pete’s work, I think, is his ability to take something that a lesser songwriter would try and fail at, and make it great. There are many songs about the boredom of touring. Few of them are good. Even fewer are great. This is one of the very best of them.

 

In 1977, Pete teamed up with Ronnie Lane for the outstanding Rough Mix album. John Entwistle appears on some tracks, as does Clapton, Charlie Watts, Rabbit Bundrick (later of the Who) and Ian Stewart. It’s possibly Townshend’s greatest project outside the Who.

My Baby Gives It Away opens the album, and it’s a scorcher. Ronnie wrote some of the songs, Pete wrote some. They collaborate on one. Ronnie regretted that Pete really didn’t want to co-write anything. To be fair, it never really occurred to Pete, I think, that he could co-write and he didn’t want to try. But the two great Mods could have written something outstanding together. My Baby Gives It Away chugs along with a drive and a passion that lifts it to one of Townshend’s better rockers.

Also from Rough Mix, Street In The City is another one of those songs that many songwriters try at and fail to do. A streetscape – seemingly written while looking out a window, or walking down a street. Townshend is in the top rank of songwriters – coming just behind Lennon-McCartney really. An exceptional word picture that works as poetry, and as a song.

Pete Townshend could have been satisfied with the Who – one of the great rock bands – a top 5 band really. But his restlessness, his range of lyrical and compositional themes and his own stubbornness meant he couldn’t stay within the boundaries of the Who – a group where he did the lion’s share of the writing. His solo work may be patchy, but at its best it is superb. He has made some terrible mistakes, said and done some stupid things, but musically he is rarely bettered.

 

 

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Pete Townshend fan site

Pete Townshend discography

The Who official website

Pete Townshend biography (AllMusic)

David Lewis is Australia’s best jazz mandolinist, unless you can name someone else: then he’s Australia’s second-best. In any case, he’s almost certainly top 100. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost, and also plays guitar, banjo and bass professionally. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website. David is also the co-author of “Divided Opinions” and “Politics, Protest, Pandemic: The Year That Changed Australia”, both derived from an established podcast on Australian politics.

TopperPost #970

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jul 20, 2021

    Excellent Toppermost – as you know I am not the biggest The Who fan in the world but the music here was consistently interesting and inventive. Is it just me or is there a strong Ray Davies influence here at times – particularly from the post-76 Kinks sound?

  2. David Lewis
    Jul 21, 2021

    Thanks Andrew. Pete revered Ray Davies, and I noticed today that ‘Substitute’ and the Kinks ‘All day and all of the night’ are similar. Perhaps it’s no more than the style of the time, and Townshend has openly admitted being inspired by other songs, and his devotion to the Kinks, but as far as I can tell, never publicly admitting the connection so I might be wrong. But yes, the Ray Davies approach looms large in the Townshend ouevre.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Jul 22, 2021

      I remember an article in I believe Musician Magazine in the early mid 1980s where Ray claimed Pete approached him about doing an album together, which he decided not to, that Pete wound up doing with Ronnie Lane. Now I don’t know if that is true and Ray almost rivals Dylan rewriting his history on an interview by interview basis.
      The thing I remember is Ray saying he didn’t know if they would have pulled it off as Pete is the only person in the industry more neurotic than him,

  3. Glenn Smith
    Jul 24, 2021

    Nice work Dave as always. I’d probably have gone harder on Rough Mix and included Heart To Hang Onto and Keep Me Turning, both songs that would have been obliterated as Who songs but which are gems in that gem of an album. Another beauty worth mentioning is his cover of The Beat’s Save It For Later on his 1985 live album Deep End Live, a brilliant rework of that little pop classic.
    We forget just how big Empty Glass was, I wouldn’t be surprised if it outsold most Who records. He tells a great story that when working on All the Best Cowboys his American record label rang him and said that they’d like the new album to be “the same as Empty Glass…just different”. Finally I love Face the Face and I’m probably one of the few people who liked the White City film.

  4. Colin Duncan
    Jul 26, 2021

    Thank you very much, Dlew. I enjoyed reading this Toppermost and listening to Townshend’s music. This music is all new to me, yet I return to The Who singles all the time. I was lucky to see the Who round about 1969 or 1970 and it was one of the greatest concerts I have ever seen. Great music and great performances. I think some of the silly things he said and did put me off him, but I read the autobiography and his explanations, so your article will spur me on to seek out his solo music. Great article and well written as always, Dlew. Many thanks, Dunc.

    • David Lewis
      Jul 27, 2021

      Thanks Dunc. Looking back over it, I’m surprised I didn’t mention his memoirs apart from the cover at the end. They are among the very best of that patchy genre. Pete’s honesty and self deprecation are refreshing. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      And Glenn, a part of me just wanted to do the Pete songs on Rough Mix…. such a brilliant album. I thank you for pointing me to it.
      Calvin – I hadn’t heard that, but what an album that might’ve been. Or it could have been terrible. It wouldn’t have been mediocre, that’s fir sure.

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