Happy 70th Birthday Pete.
In 1974 I was asked to write a profile of Pete Townshend for Melody Maker, and to mark Pete reaching his 70th I am reproducing it below, in two parts, today and tomorrow, virtually word for word. It was published on May 18, a day before Pete’s 29th birthday.
Since I researched and wrote this piece 41 years ago, Who scholarship has come in on leaps and bounds. Nowadays there are several detailed books on The Who by authors who have investigated their career in minute detail, many of them among the best rock biographies and chronologies ever published. None of these existed when I wrote this nor, of course, was there an internet to explore. As a result there’s a few mistakes and sweeping statements that make me cringe today, but there’s a certain naïve enthusiasm I quite like, and although I can’t remember how, I must have gone to some trouble to find out all this information. I had interviewed all four by this time, and asked questions about their early career but I was in New York in 1974 and didn’t have access to the MM’s cuttings library. The only Who book to have been published was Gary Herman’s pioneering biography in 1971, which I still have, and I think I talked to Nik Cohn a bit too, also Vicki Wickham and probably Peter Rudge.
A month later I saw The Who play four nights at Madison Square Garden.
This shot was taken at Jacksonville, August 7, 1976, one of the batch if pictures taken at this show and sent to me by Mark Starcke.
It may well have been pure chance that produced the most visually exciting guitarist in rock. If Pete Townshend hadn’t been born with a big nose he might never have picked up a guitar in the first place, and if he hadn’t accidentally bashed his fretboard against a low ceiling in a club at Acton one night long, long ago he might never have developed his peculiar – and totally original – style of playing.
It was in the earliest days of The Who, when they were called the Detours, that Townshend, imitating Keith Richards somewhat deliberately, spun his arm around propeller fashion, knocked his guitar against the roof and smashed the fretboard.
From that day onwards The Who was born. They were the most violent, antisocial, debt-ridden band of the sixties. Then they grew up, became superstars and millionaires but still have a genuine claim to being the most exciting live act in the business
Townshend, too, grew up. He watched and learned until it was time for him to become a trendsetter himself. He led The Who through stormy waters and watched them conquer the world.
He became one of the most eloquent spokesmen on rock in general, a man whose views are respected by all. He also found Meha Baba which transformed the fighting, angry young man into a sensitive, mature adult and musician.
Few can argue that, in the light of the day, Peter Townshend IS The Who. While his three colleagues undeniably contribute a great deal to his amazing little rock band from London’s Shepherds Bush, they would be the first to admit that without Townshend’s guiding light there would be no Who.
It was Keith Moon who told me, during a rare moment of seriousness, that Townshend was in his opinion, a true genius. Moon spoke in hushed, revered tones and meant exactly what he said.
Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend was born on May 19, 1945, in Chiswick Hospital, in West London. He attended Acton Grammar School and Ealing Arts College. He’s said often enough that he was a skinny, ugly youth who couldn’t pull birds and whose big nose made him a frequent subject of ridicule among his school mates. So he turned to the guitar, possibly subconsciously thinking that guitarists in groups could pull birds and joined the band that was later to become The Who.
At this time Roger Daltrey was the undisputed leader, the lead guitarist and the lead singer. Pete played rhythm guitar. Some say he always has.
First they were The Detours, then The Who, then The High Numbers and back to The Who again. Their first public appearance was in 1964 in Acton and their decision to change their name back to The Who coincided with the arrival of their managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp.
Lambert was an out of work film producer and Stamp was the brother of actor Terry. Both immediately realised the potential of The Who and immediately cashed in on the mod craze that was beginning to envelop the London area. They stuck their Who on at the Marquee Club on Tuesday nights, formed a fan club called the 100 Faces (a top mod was known as a “Face”) and encouraged the group to self-destruct at the end of their act.
Townshend would ram a Rickenbacker into his speaker cabinet, Moon would walk over his kit and Daltrey – the sharpest looking “Face” of them all – would snap his fingers and boast about the number of pills he’d taken that evening. Entwistle, of course, would just stand there.
There were records, too, all coming from the pen of Townshend who by this time had become the star attraction. Their first hit ‘I Can’t Explain’ was a deliberate rip-off from the Kinks’ chunky chord style. There was, in fact, a great deal of ripping-off in the early Who. ‘The Kids Are Alright’ was a dead-ringer for the Beatles, ‘A Legal Matter’ and, to a certain extent ‘Substitute’, were pure Rolling Stones, and all the while arguments were going on within the group because Keith Moon wanted them to harmonise like The Beach Boys and Roger Daltrey was after a rhythm and blues/black soul sound.
But Townshend steered a middle course and The Who became a competent if slightly controversial, pop band. They made excellent singles, like ‘I Can See For Miles’ with a superbly delayed chorus line, and ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ where Townshend began experimenting with the on/off switch on his electric guitar, and using feedback to good effect.
He also wrote what was to become the anthem of the mods and one of the greatest rock singles of the sixties, ‘My Generation’, still arguably the group’s most potent number and an important contribution to rock culture. The classic line “Hope I Die Before I Get Old” will stand forever.
Clues as to Townshend’s further capabilities were slipping out as the group sought to establish themselves firmly. Arguments will rage forever about who released the first concept rock album, but long before Tommy was even thought of The Who put out THE first rock opera, albeit a mini-opera, titled ‘A Quick One’.
It was the first time any band had recorded two or more songs linked together to form a story, but its significance on rock’s future was totally missed at the time. Concept albums had never been thought of before The Who put out their third album, The Who Sell Out. On this all the tracks on the first side were linked by commercials that sounded like pirate radio stations. Another first for Townshend – again before the world woke up to the fact.
Commercial radio, in fact, had a large hand in the growing acceptance of The Who. Lambert and Stamp were quick to realise the promotional potential of the pirate radio stations and they plagued the pirate deejays with Who singles.
There was also Ready Steady Go!, the ITV TV rock show hosted by Cathy McGowan on which The Who were frequent guests and on which Townshend, looking mean and moody, would parade his Union Jack jacket amidst “oohs” and “aahs” from the strictly mod studio audience.
For all their local London and South East success and their clique following, The Who lost money hand over fist. Various estimates as to their total red figures run well into six figures, mostly because of guitar damage, and they had yet to crack America where they toured with “bigger” English bands like Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five*.
In 1968 the tide turned. Townshend found Meha Baba and began work on what was to transform The Who into one of the biggest rock acts of all time. It also revealed him as one of the greatest creative talents in rock as well as the most visual instrumentalist.
This was Tommy, previewed at generous volume in a live performance before ecstatic critics at Ronnie Scott’s London jazz club later that year. Over three-quarters of Tommy came out of Townshend, including the electrifying ‘Pinball Wizard’ and the huge crescendo of ‘See Me, Feel Me’ which still remains the best climax to any piece of rock music to this day.
And while The Kinks had tried their hand at a rock opera a few months previously, it was The Who and Townshend who scored supremely, simply because they could put it over live with the most dynamic act in the world.
Townshend had begun phase two of his career. Now he was utterly respected and, unlike in previous years, considerably more approachable. He took Tommy on the road where it was received with wild adulation and in 1969 he was generally voted the most outstanding artist at the legendary Woodstock Festival.
He had also perfected the group’s stage act to such a degree that, although perhaps a little predictable, there was really no one to touch them on a live stage.
There was motionless Entwistle, lassooing Daltrey and flaying Moon. But standing majestically to stage right, his tall skinny frame angling like rubber, was the most incredible gymnast of them all.
Jumping, spinning, writhing, splitting, vaulting, and leaping as if in a trance, a spinning top whipped by the violence of the music he was playing, sometimes angry sometimes laughing, but always making that block chord in time with the spin of his right arm.
Tommy and that act brought financial rewards at last. They paid off their debts, bought big houses and big cars and slowed down considerably.
And it was at this point in their career that Townshend’s great dilemma took control. Having produced what was generally regarded as a masterpiece which elevated the group to the attention of serious music observers everywhere, how was he going to follow it up?
First there was the Live At Leeds album, a particularly good live set on which one track – the extended version of ‘My Generation’ – will stand out as one of their best recorded works. But it was hardly a follow-up to Tommy, more of a delaying tactic.
Part 2 tomorrow.
* DC5? Rubbish I know! Someone must have told me this.