Pete Townshend: The Mt. Rushmore of Songwriters Part 3

Clockwise from top left: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend

PART 1 of this series on the greatest songwriters in popular music focused on the partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles, and PART 2 discussed Ray Davies of the Kinks. This third and final part of the series on the Mt. Rushmore of songwriters will focus on one of the most talented, ambitious, and visionary writers to emerge from the 1960s rock is, of course, Pete Townshend of the Who. Like Davies, Townshend did not have a collaborator and worked on his own. However, while the label of genius can be applied without hesitation to all of them, I feel that it is most applicable and accurate when describing Pete, for reasons which I will get into below.


Peter Townshend was born in London in May 1945 a week after the war in Europe had ended. He was raised in a musical household; his father, Cliff, had been in the RAF dance band the Squadronairres and had a few minor hit records. However, his parents' marriage was volatile and during a prolonged separation, Pete was sent to live with his grandmother, who he has subsequently labeled as "clinically insane." Eventually his parents reconciled and he rejoined them. Growing up as an only child until his brothers were born in 1957 and 1960, he was a lonely and introverted child whose world changed once he went to see Rock Around the Clock at the movies, going to multiple viewings. Joining up with schoolfriend and future Who bass player John Entwistle, they first got caught up in the trad-jazz craze in Britain before gravitating to rock and roll. John was a member of the Detours, a band run by a boy a year ahead of them at school, Roger Daltrey (who remembers Pete in his schooldays as "a nose on a stick"). 

Eventually changing their name to The Who and recruiting a fantastic 17 year old drummer named Keith Moon, the band's lineup was completed in 1964. While their repertoire had to this point relied mainly on the blues, surf, and R&B covers they liked, as well as covers of Beatles and other popular songs of the era, eventually Pete began writing songs for the band, starting with their first single released late that year, "I Can't Explain." (Pete has long acknowledged that his affinity for a rival London band, the Kinks and their songwriter Ray Davies, was the inspiration for the sound and structure of "I Can't Explain"). Encouraged by Who managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, Pete not only began writing more songs, but was one of the first, if not THE first, rock musicians in Britain to set up a dedicated and fully functioning home studio. In doing so, he could be more ambitious with the music he wrote and could also bring fully formed demo recordings into the studio to play for the rest of the Who to review. As the years went on and the Who's career progressed, Pete moved on to ever more ambitious songs, including the two rock operas he wrote (Tommy and Quadrophenia) and the aborted concept piece Lifehouse which was salvaged for the superb Who's Next album. As will be discussed below, by the time of the late 1960s, his demos were so fully formed and complete that, in many cases, identical arrangements were used by the Who (albeit with their own fantastic talent enhancing the songs).

From his earliest songs that dealt with youthful confusion and aggression ("I Can't Explain," "My Generation," and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" for example), Pete showed an ability to express the emotions and thoughts of his audience through his own experiences, and it's a talent he would continue to refine and perfect as he grew in experience and stature as a writer. Initially, the Who were, along with the Kinks, a classic 60s singles band, releasing a string of successful and perfectly crafted pop singles including the aforementioned songs. Subsequent hits included more sophisticated, whimsical, and mature songs like "Pictures of Lily," "Substitute," "I'm a Boy," and "Happy Jack." By 1967, however, they were becoming more album-oriented, with their minor masterpiece The Who Sell Out (trailed by the exception single "I Can See For Miles," which inspired Paul McCartney to write "Helter Skelter") emerging at the end of the year. However, similar to the Kinks, they saw a sharp decline in their singles chart success in 1968 and had to spend most of the year on the road in order to stay financially afloat. 

It was during this year that the band worked hard recording Pete's first fully realized concept album, Tommy. He had gained experience writing cohesive extended pieces of music such as the title track of 1966's A Quick One album and the overall loose theme of 1967's The Who Sell Out. The aborted Lifehouse concept (whose songs make up the bulk of 1971's Who's Next) and his magnum opus, 1973's Quadrophenia, showed that he was among the masters of this genre. While the overarching story of Tommy was relatively straightforward, the deeper meanings have always been a bit obtuse. With Lifehouse, Townshend was simply too ambitious for the technological limitations of the time. However, with Quadrophenia he touched upon a story that was instantly relatable to just about anyone who listened to it: that of teenage disaffection and confusion with the world. These concept albums stand the test of time not only because of the quality of the songwriting, arrangements, and band performances, but because Pete was able to use very few linking pieces and instead built the entire albums around strong, standalone songs that work on their own as well as within the framework of the album. Thus, you can listen to classics like "Pinball Wizard," "I'm Free," "The Real Me," "The Dirty Jobs," "Love Reign O'er Me," etc outside of the context of their respective albums and still enjoy them; more than that, as standalone songs they still have something to say to the listener.

An aspect of Townshend's genius is in the way he is able to use emotions as the driving force behind so much of his best work. I've often said that the Who were one of the few bands that could make you want to punch out in one instant and weep the next, all within the same song. Perhaps no song epitomizes this more than the superb "Bargain" from Who's Next, which captures one of Townshend's greatest songs set to one of the best ensemble performances of the band's career; verses and choruses full of feeling and energy contrast with the quiet middle section that offers a more tender, cerebral slant on matters before the bombast resumes, all with one of his most beautiful lyrics. He did of course write outright heavy rock songs, but even these had an element of experimentation to them, such as the looped Lowry organ put through a wave filter that pulses underneath all nine minutes of "Won't Get Fooled Again" or the guitar solo patched through a synthesizer envelope filter on "Going Mobile." Indeed, starting in the late 1960s, Townshend became one of the first rock musicians to incorporate the newly developed synthesizers and he remained on the cutting edge of the technology's development and application. Whether it was the burbling pattern that was the basis for "Baba O'Riley," the gorgeous orchestrations throughout the entire Quadrophenia album, or the ambitious  and meticulously constructed neo-classical synthesizer backdrops on the Who Are You album, Townshend's sophisticated and audacious use of synthesizer technology in rock music elevated him from status of mere songwriter to that of a composer, with all of the pretensions (fair or not) that it brought.

Perhaps the most overlooked and under appreciated aspect of Pete's songwriting genius is his lyric writing. It's certainly an aspect that I feel has not gotten its due over the years. While it's true that in Roger Daltrey and his voice, he had the perfect instrument with which to express his words, without Pete writing the words, Daltrey would have had nothing to sing. To give absolutely deserved credit, Daltrey managed to take Townshend's lyrics, which were oftentimes quite personal to Pete, and convey them in the perfect way. There are very few times ("However Much I Booze," for example) where Roger felt uncomfortable enough with the lyric being too personal and left Pete to sing lead. There are so many examples of Townshend's brilliant lyric writing, from the simple aggression of "My Generation" (and the line that has haunted him to this day, "I hope I die before I get old") to whole swaths of Tommy and Quadrophenia. In the interests of not making this article even longer than it already is, I'll choose some of my favorite examples.  There is the wholly perfect love song to God in the aforementioned "Bargain," where the singer years to suffer and lose all that he has in order to become one with the Lord. "Time is Passing," in addition to being a lost gem of a song contains such powerful lines extolling the quasi-religious virtues of music as a higher force: "there are echoes of it splashing in the waves, and an empire of dead men leave their graves." Whether it's looking at the world and the power of music and humans to change things for the better ("Pure and Easy"), musings on aging ("Slip Kid"), the restless creative spirit pushing him ever onward ("Music Must Change"), allegorical science fiction ("I'm a Boy") or cheeky double entendres ("Pictures of Lily," "Mary Ann With the Shaky Hand"), Pete has shown repeatedly that he's one of the most literate and thoughtful of rock's lyricists. How many other 22 year olds could write a superb rumination on what it means to be a man ("Tattoo") and wrap it up in a bit of Ray Davies-style humor to boot? Perhaps no other writer of his generation took rock music so seriously, or asked so much of it.

On a personal level, besides the Who being one of my favorite bands for as long as I can remember, Pete's songs have, like those of Lennon/McCartney and Davies, meant so much to me. Not only have they inspired and influenced my own songwriting and guitar playing, but they have quite literally saved my life (or at least my sanity!). In particular, Quadrophenia is an album that means more to me than just about any other record in the world. It not only helped me during some emotionally harrowing times in my teenage years (and to be fair, what I was going through with friends, girls, and my parents was ultimately trivial and just a normal part of growing up when I look back on it as an adult, but at the time it was serious to me), but in the years since then, I've used it as a way to get a handle on my emotions. The story arc helps to reaffirm that things will eventually be all right if the storm can be weathered. Pete's songs are always emotional, thoughtful, and impactful and continue to be among my very favorites of all time.

While John Entwistle certainly wrote some fantastic songs for the Who ("My Wife," "Someone's Coming," and "Heaven and Hell" among others), it was Pete Townshend who was the creative force in the band, writing the vast majority of their songs and shaping their overall artistic direction. More than even the other three writers profiled in this series, I would say that Pete Townshend was a true innovator in the way he incorporated synthesizers into his sound and in the way he utilized his home studio to pioneer recording techniques and devise methods and technical innovations that are now commonplace in professional recording studios. Quite simply, while Lennon, McCartney, and Davies are brilliant writers, perhaps none of the four of them lives up to the title of genius as much as Pete Townshend.


  1. For my money, the greatest composer/musical genius of the last 100 years --at least-- is Todd Rundgren. And he was an enormous influence on Townshend, fwiw. Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Antonio Carlos Jobim are all, certainly, deserved of their place in any 'genius songwriters' pantheon, as are McCartney and Lennon. Pete and Ray have, undeniably, been brilliant, as has Laura Nyro, Robert Lamm, and Ian Anderson, each at various points, naturally. All geniuses. The sounds Hendrix created connote to "genius" creations, too. I'm in a real 'Townsend' phase right now, with 'Sell Out' through 'Quadrophenia' forming the crux of his 'glory years' output. Nice article.

    1. Thanks for the kind words on the article...I appreciate it!

      Rundgren is certainly an incredibly talented guy, not only as a writer but as a producer. I'm personally not a huge fan of his although I do like several of his songs. He also produced one of my favorite albums of all time (XTC's Skylarking), even if the band themselves hated the experience of working with him :-).

      I agree with you on Townshend, that period from Sell Out through Quadrophenia is incredible. It's amazing how much he matured and progressed a songwriter from the early years (when even then he was writing great pop singles). What's your favorite work of his?

  2. Hey Drew, and apologies for a belated response -- fought 'the crud' for a solid week. Ugh...

    It's great to see some incisive commentary poke through the din of critics flatulating on the artistic sublime of hip hop's newest sensation. Vomit. Keep up the good work!

    As these things go, it's difficult to pinpoint any one particular work; I vacillate between 'Sell Out' and 'Tommy' but, if pressed, I'd probably opt for 'Sell Out'. And from one of the greatest-ever years in music, too. Both Pete and Ray Davies gave us a fantastic bossa cut in '67, the sultry Braz-sounds of Jobim having long worked their way into the collective consciousness of pop culture's music making elite. Then, of course, 'pop music' being rife with creativity and innovation, unlike the morass of mediocre drivel that today's mindless masses revel in... I digress!

    Townshend had such a great touch on acoustic by this early stage... remarkable. I guess I could pick the collection of songs apart, but then I'd have to write a book -- such is their depth and transcendence. There seems, to me, to be a strain that's a bit melancholy; these songs are hauntingly beautiful. I think there's an undercurrent of seriousness not really present in Pete's writing before -- his 'Help'/'Rubber Soul' threshold maybe(?), musically and lyrically, both. This is one gem after another, and the whimsical nature of the jingles actually works and helps to reinforce, by way of contrast, the spellbinding vibe of the songs, themselves. And they ARE spellbinding.

    Daltrey's vocals are perfect, throughout... ditto for Pete. Entwistle and Moon were not just thrashers (as the throng is wont to regurgitate), but really dynamic players who 'serve the song'. The sparse production also adds to the music's beauty, and all the more noteworthy given the heady stew of '67-era kitchensinkism's afloat.

    Pete stayed the course and dropped this pearl on an unassuming culture that was, perhaps, a little jaded by the onslaught of pop music brilliance that was de rigueur, ca. 'Summer of Love' and, in one fell swoop, signaled that he had arrived.

    Ironically enough, 'The Who Sell Out' was Pete's watershed moment, bidding 'farewell thee mainstream'...

    It is genius, and I LOVE it.

    1. Totally agree with you Sell Out, it's a fantastic album and quite a leap forward for the entire band from the first two albums (both of which I also like a lot). It really did point the way forward to what became Tommy. It's also nice to see you point out Pete's acoustic playing as this is one of his greatest strengths and something I think gets overlooked when discussing his musicianship. One of my all-time favorite moments of his on record is the acoustic playing in the "Overture/It's a Boy" from Tommy. It still blows my mind even all these years later having heard it probably a thousand times.

      One thing going back to your original comment on Rundgren...when I saw Ringo Starr in 2014, Todd was in the band and he played a few of his songs. Great musician, but a VERY strange guy, at least on stage! Several people around us mentioned after the show that his stage banter and antics on stage were quite that typical of him?

  3. The All Starrs' gig is a wind down affair for Todd; it couldn't possibly run more antithetical to his musical ethos regarding the sustenance of inspiration, slogging through the same top 40 hits night after night. Yet, he enjoys the comradery of hopping on a 'magic bus' with a bunch of friends, and the downtime in not having to spearhead tour operations or helm 'front man' duties. As such, it's a party... there's nothing precious about it for him. I think the stage banter and antics are his way of deterring (otherwise) would-be boredom.

    Patti Smith once wrote "Todd has no heroes," and she was right. He's always been so acutely aware of his own incredibly gargantuan talent that he never knelt at the altar of 'rock royalty' to begin with, Beatles or otherwise (the annals of rock 'n' roll history being littered with entitled A-list behemoths having suffered his acerbic tongue, never mind Partridge, who I like a lot). And, yes, while he comports himself with more restraint and tact as the years wind down, he still, not unlike Townshend, is unwilling to compromise his perception of the unbridled truth, which is why they're both such great interviews!

    At the height of her success, Laura Nyro, probably his biggest influence, was even turned down upon asking him to lead her band, such was his confidence (at 20 years old, ca. '68, no less) in, and understanding of, the importance of his own musical pursuits. I recall in an interview from 1970 how Townshend (then, in his most creative years) cited Todd as being the most interesting thing he was listening to. 10 years later, he'd say, "I think what really worried me about the prospect of him producing my solo album was that I’m influenced by him enough as it is."

    My perception is that there are three types of listeners as regards Todd Rundgren:

    1.) Those who kneejerk to 'Bang the Drum' or some other 'post-glory years' fare and, thereby, draw uninformed conclusions (do we initiate newbies to the brilliant Beatle cannon by pointing them in the direction of Revolution #9 or 'Yellow Submarine'? No!).

    2.) Those who've heard but, simply, don't have 'ears'...

    3.) Those who are absolutely awe-struck by his abundantly-filled catalog of incomprehensible genius.

    Your "Rushmore" is primo, and all music lovers have theirs. Todd towers o'er the lot on mine.

    1. Very well said. He's definitely an interesting cat, and one who has gotten a lot of respect from other more supposed geniuses (for instance, there's a famous exchange between Todd and Lennon in the early 1970s where they traded insult letters back and forth in the press). Now, I consider Lennon a genius in the very narrowly defined parameter of his collaboration with the Beatles in particular and with McCartney specifically. But post-1970, I think Lennon was the one who showed he needed McCartney MUCH more than the reverse. And Todd, to his credit, has never needed ANYONE. Very similar, as you also pointed out, to Townshend in that regard, although Pete had the luxury of a stable band of collaborators to communicate his vision. Did Todd have a stable lineup for much of his career or did he rotate a lot?

      I think one thing we can probably agree on coming out of all of this is that there aren't ANY musical geniuses in the current generation of musicians (if you can even call them that) out there these days.

  4. I'm late to the game on this but I just had to put my two cents in. Your decision to put Townsend and Davies on your Rushmore could not have made this gal any happier. I enjoyed your entire commentary on both of them.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! They're two of my favorite songwriters and, in my opinion, two of the greatest ever. I think Ray especially gets overlooked although that's been changing in recent years. And Pete is the very definition of a genius, especially with his pioneering use and development of home recording technology, synthesizers, and computers.

      What are your favorite songs and albums by them?


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