Personalities | Pete Townshend | The Who’s Who of Rock | Guitar Heroes

A pioneering guitarist and the principal creative force behind The Who, Pete Townshend was born in Chiswick, London in 1941. The Townshends were a musical family – Pete’s grandfather was a musician, his father a dance-band saxophonist and his mother a singer. Consequently, a career in music seemed natural for Pete, and his parents encouraged him.

His first instrument was the banjo, which he played as a teenager in Dixieland outfit The Confederates with school friend John Entwistle. After leaving school, he attended Ealing Art College, where the bohemian atmosphere and emphasis on the exploration of new ideas left an indelible imprint on Townshend. When bassist Entwistle joined The Detours, a rhythm and blues group fronted by singer Roger Daltrey, Townshend, who had switched to guitar at the age of 12, followed him. With the recruitment of drummer Keith Moon, the classic Who line-up was complete.

Townshend’s reputation as a destroyer of guitars began by accident in September 1964, when he broke the neck of his guitar on the low ceiling of the Railway Tavern in Harrow, and then smashed the rest of it in frustration. The routine soon became part of the act, with Moon enthusiastically joining in by destroying his drum kit. The other aspects of Townshend’s physical approach – the windmilling arm, assaults on the strings and leaps into the air – Townshend claimed to have developed to hide the fact that he could not play the blues properly.

The Who’s unique sound was unleashed on their 1965 Kinks-influenced debut single ‘I Can’t Explain’. The song’s signature riff would be widely imitated. The second single, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’, featured the innovative use of feedback, as Townshend nailed down the rhythm and Moon fired out short drum solos. The Who’s first album, My Generation (1965), was a mix of rhythm and blues and pop, while the follow-up, A Quick One (1966), was significant in that it contained in the title track Townshend’s first conceptual piece.

In Britain, the Who were regarded as a singles band, and they had yet to crack America. After an uncertain year in 1968, the band released Tommy (1969), which was hailed as the first rock opera and was a major success in the United States. Live at Leeds (1970, reissued with extra tracks in 1995) captured the original line-up at its peak. Townshend’s blues riffs and solos on Mose Allison’s ‘Young Man Blues’ and his extended soloing on ‘My Generation’ are driving forces in the performances.

The Who were established as one of the 1970s’ major rock bands, and they consolidated their position with the acclaimed Who’s Next (1971) and a second rock opera, Quadrophenia (1973), which looked back to the band’s mod roots. In between, Townshend made his first solo album, Who Came First (1972). Shortly after the release of Who Are You (1978), Moon died and the future of The Who was thrown into uncertainty, but the band continued with ex-Small Faces and Faces...

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