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Pete Townshend


Pete Townshend was born into a musical family residing in West London. His father, Cliff, was a concert saxophonist and his mother, Betty, was a singer by trade. He was interested in music from a very early age and was encouraged to take piano lessons by a beloved aunt. He saw the movie Rock Around the Clock when he was eleven, and when his grandmother gave him his first guitar the next year he was hooked.  In 1961, when he was16, Townshend enrolled in Ealing Art School. A year later he founded his first band with his friend John Entwistle, a Dixieland duet featuring Pete playing the banjo and John on the horn. That band soon added Roger Daltrey, a sheet-metal welder, and morphed into The Detours, a skiffle-rock band. The band became aware of another band with the name The Detours so they changed their name to The Who in 1964. Soon afterwards they incorporated Keith Moon as drummer. This line-up, Daltrey as the lead vocalist and harmonica player, Townshend playing guitar, Entwistle on bass and Moon as the drummer, would proceed to revolutionize rock and roll for decades to come.
In September, 1964 Pete Townshend smashed his first guitar. Playing on a high stage at the Railway Tavern, Townshend accidentally broke the head of his guitar when it hit the ceiling. Incensed by the audience laughing at this malady, Townshend proceeded to completely demolish the rest of his instrument. He then picked up another Rickenbacker guitar and continued with the concert. Word quickly spread of Townshend’s onstage antics and a large crowd gathered for The Who’s next show. However this time Townshend declined to smash a guitar, instead Keith Moon wrecked his drum kit. Instrument demolition became an intricate part of The Who’s live performances. Their destruction of musical gear became increasingly more elaborate, culminating with the explosion of Keith Moon’s drum-set after the band played a set on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In the early days of the band they were better known for smashing their instruments than playing them. The incident at the Railway Tavern was one of Rolling Stone’s “50 Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll.”
In 1965 the band released its first single as The Who (the band had released a single under the name The High Numbers) “I Can’t Explain”. The song and the subsequent album, My Generation, were big hits both reaching the Top 10 in the UK. The band was an icon of the mod movement; in particular the songs “The Kids Are Alright” and “My Generation” resonated with the youth of the day. The band put out two more singles albums, A Quick One and The Who Sell Out, that were well received but Townshend had greater ambitions for the band. Instead of releasing a compilation of unconnected single songs he sought to create an album whose songs collectively told a story. In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone he referred to it as a “rock-opera”. The next year The Who released Tommy the first rock-opera in history.
Tommy was a landmark album in music history. It was almost instantly a commercial success and when The Who preformed it at Woodstock the year it came out, it cemented their superstar status. Initially critics were split; some thought that it was a tour de force while other objected to the album’s dark themes. In time, it has become thought of as one of the defining albums in the history of rock and roll. Life magazine put it best, “...for sheer power, invention and brilliance of performance, Tommy outstrips anything which has ever come out of a recording studio.” The Tommy tour saw The Who become the first rock band to ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
The following year The Who released the album, Live at Leeds, which is generally considered one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. In 1971 The Who came out with a traditional studio album entitled Who’s Next. Who’s Next was the band’s greatest commercial success, reaching number 4 on the US charts and soaring to number 1 in the UK. On this album Townshend is credited with pioneering the use of synthesizers. Who’s Next was followed by Quadrophenia in 1973, a work in the rock-opera vein about growing up in the early sixties. The Quadrophenia tour included a legendary show in San Francisco where drummer Keith Moon passed out during the show due to ingesting tranquilizers prior to going on stage. Townshend asked the audience, "Can anyone play the drums? - I mean somebody good." An audience member named Scott Halpin climbed on stage and the band performed the rest of their set with Halpin manning the drums. The Who made a movie version of Tommy in 1975, and Townshend received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. The next year they performed at Charlton Athletic Football Ground. It was listed as the loudest concert ever by the Guinness Book of World Records.
In 1978 The Who released the band’s eighth studio album, Who Are You. The album’s release was overshadowed by Keith Moon’s death due to an overdose on prescription drugs. Who Are You featured the title track, which became one of The Who’s biggest hits in the US. In 1979 The Who branched out and produced two films: one a documentary on the band’s tour exploits. and the other a film version of Quadrophenia.
The band replaced Moon with drummer Kenney Jones, previously of The Faces, and recorded two more albums Face Dances (1981) and It’s Hard (1982). For these records the band changed from its epic rock persona to a more radio-friendly sound. Many of the band’s legions of fans didn’t like The Who’s new direction. After the release of It’s Hard, Townshend announced that the band would embark on one more “farewell tour” and then become exclusively a stage band. In December, 1983 Townshend announced his decision to leave The Who and pursue a solo career.
Townshend’s solo breakthrough was the album Empty Glass which included the top-10 hit “My Love Opened the Door”. Throughout the 80s and 90s Townshend experimented with the rock-opera format releasing three story based albums: White City: A Novel (1985), The Iron Man: A Musical (1989), and Psychoderelict (1993). In the mid-90s Townshend reunited with the remaining members of The Who for a series of world tours. He continues touring despite John Entwistle’s passing in 2002. The band was ranked the 29th greatest artist of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine. 
Throughout his career with The Who, and later as a solo act, Pete Townshend has used (and smashed) a wide variety of guitars. In his early days with The Who Townshend played an SS De Luxe and 6-string and 12-string Rickenbacker semi-hollow electric guitars. However, as instrument smashing became more prevalent he switched to more popular and cheaper models including the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster. In the late-60s Townshend began playing Gibson SG Special models almost exclusively. In 1972 Gibson changed the design of the guitar he had been using so he switched to using a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe for much of the 1970s. In the eighties he mostly played Rickenbackers and Telecaster-style instruments. Since the late 80s he has used a Fender Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster both on tour and in the studio. 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. Townshend has many Gibson signature guitars including Pete Townshend Signature SG, the Pete Townshend J-200, and three separate Les Paul Editions.
The Who has made use of a variety of different amplifiers throughout the years including Vox, Fender, Marshall and Hiwiatt brands. Townshend has relied on Hiwiatt amps the most during his four decades in music. Pete figured prominently into the creation of what is referred to as the Marshall Stack in music circles. On the cusp of the popularity of Jim Marshall’s guitar amplifiers, Townshend ordered a batch of these amps in addition to several speaker cabinets. Originally the speaker cabinets housed eight speakers and stood nearly six feet high. At the suggestion of Townshend, Marshall cut the speakers in half, with each cabinet containing only four speakers and made them stackable. Thus the Marshall Stack was born.
Pete Townshend’s legacy will always be tied to the band he co-founded. The Who will go down as possibly the greatest rock band of all time. Townshend’s wild stage antics and flamboyant showmanship have influenced and continues to influence generation upon generation of rock musicians. Townshend is a rock innovator of a rare breed who has pushed every boundary that society has tried to impose on him. He has achieved massive commercial appeal and critical success by just staying true to himself. So I say thank you Pete Townshend, thank you for just being yourself.    


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