Peter Townshend Essay - Critical Essays

Townshend, Peter


Peter Townshend 1945–

British songwriter, musician, and essayist.

Peter Townshend has often been classified as the thinking man's rock musician. He has always been a self-conscious rock star, continually reexamining his work and rock's role in contemporary society.

The Who, including Townshend on guitar, Roger Daltrey on vocals, John Entwistle on bass, and Keith Moon on drums, was formed in 1964 at the height of the mod movement, and ever since then the group has been associated with youthful rebellion. "My Generation," their first major hit, has become recognized as an anthem of teenage rebelliousness and independence. Their dynamic stage presence, which capitalized on open aggression and destructive antics (they generally concluded their act by destroying their instruments) was considered a visual representation of the anger of frustrated youth. Townshend's work, however, transcends auto-destructive art. From the beginning he has been concerned with the problems of youth and maturity. Many of his songs examine the crises of adolescence in a witty and daring manner, such as "Pictures of Lily," which deals with sexual frustration and release.

Townshend's pre-eminent work is Tommy, which has been called the first successful rock opera. An extraordinary amount of hyperbole attended the release of Tommy, which perhaps makes it more vulnerable to retrospective criticism, but the work was successful as a coalescence of Townshend's concerns with sexuality, alienation, and spirituality. Since its initial appearance Tommy has gone through several reincarnations, from opera stage to movie, and has become a major institution of rock music.

Townshend's post-Tommy work has been more introspective as he has attempted to justify his work and understand his place in the world. As he says, "We're idealists. We think that rock and roll is more than just music for kids. Rock music is important to people because in this crazy world it allows you to face up to problems. But at the same time, to sort of dance all over 'em." The retrospective works, Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy and Odds and Sods, reflect Townshend's almost literary concern with his work as an oeuvre, both albums collecting unanthologized work and fitting it into the pattern of his thematic concerns. Townshend has always been able to detach himself from his career and image and examine their effects upon his life. Much of his later work, especially Quadrophenia and The Who by Numbers, is thus an examination of the role of the rock star and of the type of fan who needs such heroes to express his anger, frustration, and awkwardness.

Most recently, on Who Are You and his solo album Empty Glass, Townshend has grappled with the relevance and validity of his music, especially since the advent of New Wave, a style pioneered by the early Who. However, it is generally agreed that Townshend, perhaps because of his ability to identify musical changes and his willingness to accept them, is still a viable, powerful force.

Chris Welch

Since the [Who's] inception they have been bedevilled by ideas that haven't quite come off, by schemes that haven't always worked out, and by a confused battle for real acceptance.

While they have a tremendous image, the public, hardcore fans apart, have tended to regard the Who as either amusing or scandalous, but never musically valid.

The ideas of Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon have been smothered in a fog of feuding, and a clutter of broken amplifiers and blitzed drums.

Occasionally some of their musical promise has come through on the odd A or B side, while their first album ["The Who Sings My Generation"] was frankly a disappointment.

But ["A Quick One"] is a collection of compositions and treatments that captures the Who essence, humour, cynicism, nervous drive, violence, and delicacy….

Pete's musical achievement [to date is "A Quick One While He's Away"]—a sort of miniature pop opera, with a cute story about a girl who cries so much she becomes a big drag to all the neighbours, crying all day because her boy friend is a year late showing up. Then a wicked engine driver, played by John comes into the picture, and fills the duties unfulfilled by the absent cowboy. Then he shows up, and there is a big apology scene, followed by the cowboy's forgiveness. There are several sections, including a country and western bit and some 18th century music. It's fun, and a new departure for any pop group. (p. 11)

Chris Welch, "The Who Fulfilled—and a Mini-Opera, Yet!" in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), Vol. 41, December 10, 1966, pp. 10-11.

Robert Christgau

Since Townshend is a master of commercial usages, the indifferent success of his group [before 1969] is a curiosity. Despite his creative equipment, he has always required guidance. Until he met his first manager, Peter Meaden, he never thought in terms of image, and until he hooked up with his present advisers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, he didn't try to extend the images musically. The whole mod youth violence thing which Townshend perceived at the center of rock—and still does: the live set always includes "Summertime Blues," "Young Man Blues," and "My Generation"—finally came together on the great "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere," recorded in May 1965…. The lyrics redefined the punk machismo of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "The Wanderer," and the instrumental—pioneer feedback which has rarely been surpassed—enforced the mood.

Furthermore, the song epitomized the group's break-'em-up visual presentation, though it has since been replaced by "My Generation." Both were made for Roger Daltrey, the punkiest of all rock singers…. [Daltrey] has offended many with his James Brown imitations. Reportedly, Townshend finds him trying as well—he will only hit high notes under considerable duress—but Townshend has a genius for uncovering the good—the great—in conditions others would reject as intolerably confining, transforming necessity into freedom. The tendency in rock has been toward the prima donna and away from the group, but Townshend has resisted it, even moved in the other direction, thus preserving one of rock's most interesting qualities: the group as creative unit. "The only reason I'm successful as a writer is because I'm a writer for the Who," he says. "The only reason I'm successful as a talker is because I'm a talker for the Who." He manipulates the group as skillfully as he manipulates words and music. Each stage personality modulates Daltrey at the center. Daltrey projects the grimy heart of rock and roll more purely than Townshend ever could: he is a not-too-bright tough, not much of a singer, but absolutely cocky, swinging that mike, missing sometimes and who cares. Keith Moon has the same intensity, but he is playful instead of dangerous. Townshend, on the other hand, projects the danger at a more cerebral and self-conscious level. And John Entwistle is the burgher on the other side of every J. D.: he just stands there and earns his paycheck.

Youth rebellion—not merely asserted, but understood and in a sense indulged—infuses the Who. The same defiance underlies most white blues, but whereas the constrictions of rock are used by the Who to strengthen and complicate the message, the open-ended aab structure of blues lends itself primarily to demonstrations of stamina. White blues is physical music to the same extent that folk was intellectual. The unique virtue of the Who is that it is both, which makes the group, as Townshend says, the only rock and roll band left. (p. 36)

"Tommy" is the last of the grandiose rock masterpieces, a throwback to that mythic era of the distant past, about 18 months ago. Whatever follows will be an anticlimax—an exciting anticlimax, no doubt, but still an anticlimax.

"Tommy" is not the first rock opera…. But except for the Mothers' "We're Only in It for the Money," it is the first successful extended work in rock. Like Frank...

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David Walley

[Seeing the Who live, one is] overpowered by the sheer musicianship and raw power of the group. The more I think of the Who as a group, the more I feel that they make their biggest impact as a visual experience…. Seeing Tommy performed knocked me out up front, but hearing Tommy, with the libretto in my lap, is another and vastly different matter.

Before I proceed further, one thing I must clarify. Tommy is NOT an opera. A real opera is acted as well as sung; it has well-defined parts and recitative and many other characteristics. Tommy is a rock cantata: in other words, a piece of music which is primarily vocal—a sung piece. Yeah, the St. Matthew Passion is also a cantata, but that's not copping Townshend's vibes, nor making any real comparisons, although Tommy could be easily called a "Passion" in the traditional sense. In many senses, Tommy's journey to realization is very like Christ's, and his eventual desensification (Tommy, at the end, is "crucified" by the angry crowd and returns to his deaf, dumb and blind state). One can go overboard, however, with such an analogy and it would be foolish indeed to do a step-by-step comparison. Tommy is far better treated as the unique entity it is.

There have been rock masses before …, and a rock cantata is only the logical next step. In brief, Tommy is the story, on many levels, of a boy who becomes deaf,...

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Alfred G. Aronowitz

The Who is a group that was nurtured on gimmickery. I remember five years ago Brian Jones calling me up on the trans-Atlantic to play me the Who's first record from London. "That's not atmospheric interference you hear," he said. "That's the guitar player banging his guitar on the amp."

How far has the Who progressed since then? Their latest achievement has been to become the first rock group ever to play on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, an event which turned to be as transparent as all the fancy, tie-dyed silken see-throughs it attracted.

To see through one see-through is not to see through them all. Tommy is no more an opera than Albert Goldman is Renata...

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John Ned Mendelsohn

[The Who's Next is] an old-fashioned long-player containing intelligently-conceived, superbly-performed, brilliantly-produced, and sometimes even exciting rock and roll….

[After Tommy, the Who subtly toned down their stage act.] Townshend, whose semi-psychotic need to brutalize his audience used to drive him to smash shit out of his guitar at the end of every performance, has abandoned that mutually liberating strategy in favor of safer and saner climaxes during which he improvises on the ax long enough to render even a speeder comatose….

[Such] changes, it seems to me, derive from the group's perception of a need to demonstrate themselves Serious Artists instead...

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Dave Marsh

Who's Next is to the Who what the White Album must've been to the Beatles. After Tommy, which was a concept-rock summit, not, as commonly supposed, an introduction to a new genre, they were forced by their audiences to come back with another concept album, Live At Leeds which was mostly old stuff (substitute Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour and you've got it).

Now this. A fine fine record, one you can shake your ass to and think about both, one that does everything the Who can do in legend (which is a lot, just like the White Album was a lot). (p. 68)

Unlike the single, "Won't Get Fooled Again" is spread over eight minutes here. It...

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David Silver

Who Came First, Peter Townshend's first solo album, is a brilliant and moving album….

Who Came First is an amazing work. A whole load of words I haven't even seen written down since Meister Eckhart come tumbling out in trying to describe it—high quality ones like "incandescent" for a start and watch out for the others. As always with old panface Pete, the music manages to fuse high devotional feeling with commercial mastery resulting in powerful music. It's been like that right through: The Who's heaviest singles were the pride and joy of a necessarily defiant and dadaist generation; Tommy gave out Godhead while Orwelling us strongly against Godism; Who Came First is...

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Gary Herman

The years between 1964 and 1968 represented the adolescence of The Who as a group. Their early years were a host of garbled impressions and varied influences which they assimilated uncritically; their middle years show them, like their audiences, struggling for some kind of identity in the chaos of the world at that time; since about 1968 they have achieved the mark of maturity—the faculty of self-critical development.

Among the influences which the group did assimilate, artistic movements played the most important part. The music and stage act of the middle years shows influence from auto-destructive art, the Theatre of Cruelty and electronic or concrete music, besides the more obvious debts to...

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Dave Marsh

[Who Came First is a valid attempt,] but anyone who tells you [it] succeeds in anything like the way it could—or should—is buffaloing himself.

I am inclined to believe that Meher Baba is probably the best spiritual master Pete could have, if he has to have one. Baba books and such have always seemed trite to me, without a whole lot to add to the body of cosmic aphorisms, but since he spent most of his life in silence, one doesn't expect much. Whatever Townshend finds in Baba, he generally tempers it well, without the humorless posturing John McLaughlin, for one, has lost me with.

But, liking Baba and Townshend and the Who as much as I really do, I still don't like much...

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Lenny Kaye

Quadrophenia is the Who at their most symmetrical, their most cinematic, ultimately their most maddening. Captained by Pete Townshend, they have put together a beautifully performed and magnificently recorded essay of a British youth mentality in which they played no little part, lushly endowed with black and white visuals and a heavy sensibility of the wet-suffused air of 1965.

Nonetheless, the album fails to generate a total impact because of its own internal paradox: Instead of the four-sided interaction implicit in the title and overriding concept, Quadrophenia is itself the product of a singular (albeit brilliant) consciousness. The result is a static quality which the work never...

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Charles Shaar Murray

Townshend's Quadrophenia is a rather daunting proposition. Another Who double-album rock opera?…

The mind boggles, and you get the sneaking feeling that Pete Townshend has tried to out-Tommy Tommy and gone sailing right over the top.

The impression even persists when you start playing side one. The first thing you hear is a "Desert Island Discs" surf-crashing-on-the-shore sound effect in sumptuous stereo while distant echoed voices intone the four principal themes from the piece.

Then it suddenly cuts into "The Real Me", and you hear that sound, as uncompromisingly violent as a boot disintegrating a plate glass window at 4 a.m., and simultaneously...

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John Swenson

The Who have always been a full-blown enigma in a business normally insane to begin with. Of all the pop groups that surfaced in the British Isles almost a decade ago, they were considered one of the most unlikely to continue for long, as incessant punch-outs and constant mutterings about breaking up from within indicated that they were four totally incompatible individuals seemingly bent on mutual self-destruction. The force that held them in each other's orbits for ten years is perhaps the best observable example of the rock band gestalt, the strange magic that enables very ordinary people sometimes to form a whole that is not only greater than the sum of its parts but actually supports each one. (p. 48)...

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David Marsh

Townshend is the best rock critic we have ever had. When the Who decided to perform a surprise number at Madison Square Garden, they chose an obscure track from The Who Sell Out. But "Tattoo" isn't a random choice; the song is about sex roles, and the disfigurement of one's body in the pursuit of ambiguous beauty. It concerns getting tattooed and there's no more important historical precedent for contemporary unisex fashion than that ugly, painful process. (p. 48)

There are rock songs about rock songs—lately there seems to be almost nothing else—and there are movies about movies but all of them—save Townshend's—are worshipfully nostalgic. Having been through the rock mill for...

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E. Ira Childs

The nicest thing about Odds and Sods is that it gives us a chance to hear The Who working in the various versions of their evolving style sans Townshend's superstructure for the first time since Happy Jack….

The premiere cut is "Pure and Easy," which was written for Life House and recorded by Townshend for his solo album, Who Came First. The band's version here is predictably more spirited, [and they transform] the song from the spiritual meditation of a reflective composer into a celebration of the band and its audience. The rest of the tracks are uneven—some great ("Little Billy," "I'm the Face," "Put the Money Down"), some interesting in the context of...

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Pete Townshend

It was about 1967 that I started to think deeply about rock music and The Who's particular role in it. I began to believe strongly that we were being tied down too much to single records, to the 45s that had to be three minutes long, were released, got into the Top Twenty for a few weeks, then disappeared. I felt stifled and a bit frustrated. I felt that if I had to say everything on a record in three minutes maximum, then I wasn't ever going to say very much, in spite of the fact that I respected the limitations. A parallel situation, I suppose, would be someone like Ken Russell being restricted to making commercials. Or a novelist being tied down to writing only short stories. I felt, in fact, that rock music was...

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Steve Simels

[Tommy raised some complicated questions.] Like, for instance, what the hell was it, anyway? If it was, as they were claiming, an opera, how come the plot was so hard to follow?… Or was it, perhaps, as some suggested, really an oratorio, an interpretation seemingly borne out by the now infamous All-Star Christmas presentation of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra …?

Actually, all of Townshend's operatic pretensions were simply gimmicks, no different really from his outfitting the band in Union Jack T-shirts for publicity ends. What it finally came down to was that "Tommy" was just another Who album (though a bit more padded than usual) filled with some great Who...

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Dave Marsh

The Who by Numbers isn't what it seems. Without broadcasting it, in fact while denying it, Townshend has written a series of songs which hang together as well as separately. The time is somewhere in the middle of the night, the setting a disheveled room with a TV set that seems to show only rock programs. The protagonist is an aging, still successful rock star, staring drunkenly at the tube with a bottle of gin perched on his head, contemplating his career, his love for the music and his fear that it's all slipping away. Every song here, even the one non-Townshend composition, John Entwistle's "Success Story," fits in. Always a sort of musical practical joker, Townshend has now pulled the fastest one of all,...

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Lester Bangs

The Who may be painfully aware of their elder statesmanship, but they are aging gracefully and they ain't sold out yet. That's the concisest assessment possible of [The Who by Numbers], which is a tight piece of commercial and very 70's-technological rock craftsmanship; but beneath the sheen there's real agony….

We can break Townshend's new compositions down into three general categories (wimp, rave, world-weariness)…. [Townshend's] preoccupation with his own aging is by turns eloquent, self-indulgent, and plain syrupy. If all we had to go on was "Imagine a Man" and "Blue Red and Grey," we might easily write him off as soft in the head….

What he is beginning to forget...

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Bruce Malamut

The Stones paved the way for the Who so it's natural that Stones take less chances—they were the founders, they had to secure the foundation of the cosmology. The Who are their bastard child. Breathing the life of r & b which their father set in motion as the viable medium option, the Who are liberated to experiment away, outside the boundaries of the animus which birthed them. They take the blues less seriously, seem to enjoy to rock a little harder and accept the ultimate truth that purists are copyists. This is what sets the Who apart—not, just from their generation of musicians; from the history of rock 'n roll itself! The Who laugh as much at their roots as they love them. More specifically,...

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Loyd Grossman

[From the start the Who] established themselves as original talents and unflagging propagandists, visually and lyrically, of pop culture…. [They] began to record a string of Townshend-written songs which wittily and savagely (in both music and lyrics) dealt with generational hatred, masturbation, and other previously unarticulated subjects lurking in the back of teen-age minds yet ignored by previous rock songwriters. (pp. 53-4)

The Who were tougher and could be more distasteful than the Rolling Stones, even though their music and lyrics were rather more intellectual, because they knew how to use sonic brutality as a musical device. (p. 54)

The Who were talented and thoughtful...

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Dave Schulps

On Who by Numbers, perhaps the most intensely personal recording ever made by a major group, Townshend's bitterness toward his role in the rock world was unsettling, to say the least. Lines like "Goodbye all you punks, stay young and stay high, hand me my checkbook and I'll crawl off to die" haunted the listener. Despite most songwriters' complaint that they're being over-analyzed, lines like those could only lead listeners to anticipate the next offering like a housewife eagerly awaiting the next installment of All My Children….

Townshend-watchers will be delighted that Rough Mix shows him in a slightly more healthy frame of mind than Who by Numbers. Maybe his...

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Billy Altman

Rough Mix is a rather startling album because, as a writer who most of the time hides himself behind narratives, allegories and personaes, one is totally unprepared for the nakedness which Townshend shows here…. [Pete's] contributions here amount to some of the best songs he's written since—well, in retrospect I'd have to go back to The Who Sell Out as far as songs that hit the heart rather than the gut.

Townshend is looking back here, not at the Who, as in the Quadrophenia disaster, but at himself, and the closeness one feels between the singer and the song on his compositions here is truly affecting. "Heart To Hang Onto" is a haunting track about loneliness…. Each verse...

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Steve Turner

What made The Who strong and vital was the fact that they chronicled the feelings of a generation right from their teenage frustration through to their awakening interest in things Spiritual. It was then that the generation divided, got married, settled down and generally stopped following a single path. The pioneer days were over. How could anyone now possibly hope to speak for these people? If there's no single view or no single goal it's not possible for a single voice to speak representatively.

If it's remembered rightly it was at the time that 'Tommy' was released that the Beatles broke up and it was one year after Dylan's final prophetic album. Something definitely happened to 'our generation'...

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Chris Welch

[The Who's] music is their own easy tribute and memorial and not a flood of words. And yet the Who are about words, and images, and memories. They are about success and failure on an epic scale….

Somehow their presence with us is a reassuring constant, and they introduce a point of unity, a common ground of agreement in a rock world that is often split by dissent and riven by petty jealousies. In the midst of all squabbles, I don't know anybody who likes rock that doesn't like the Who.

There may be those who say they peaked with "I'm The Face," or feel they never wrote or played anything significant before "Quadrophenia." But of all the long-lived bands spawned in the amazing...

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Simon Frith

The Who by Numbers, was about survival…. Pete Townshend's concerns then were personal rather than public; he spoke for himself alone more than for the group. That record was muddled but moving. It asked the question, "What is it like not to die before you get old?"; it faced the puzzles of loyalty and love, friendship and regret. The subsequent Townshend/Lane LP, Rough Mix, seemed to mark the beginning of Townshend's mellow middle age. But Who Are You puts the emphasis back firmly on the group's rock mission: Townshend still wants to speak for his generation, still hears rock as the music of a community, still believes, in the importance of the Who as a group, as a symbolic rock community...

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Billy Altman

Who Are You is an album that has troubled me ever since I brought it home and listened to it for the first time. It is especially disconcerting that it should trouble me so much, because frankly, the last Who album I liked was Who's Next which is, after all, seven years old. Quadrophenia left me cold, but I respected it as an ambitious, almost heroic, failure and The Who By Numbers, which also left me completely unaffected, was conversely so non-ambitious and unassuming that its mere presence as a simple collection of songs seemed a plus. Who Are You, however, just gnaws at me, and I've been returning to it with a dark, almost demented fascination asking myself can it really be so...

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Christopher Petit

The Kids Are Alright, the cinematic equivalent of an authorised biography, is both monumental and fair evidence of the contradictions that have kept the Who going for nearly two decades: a mixture of the pretentious and the down-to-earth which was best summarised on their album cover "Who's Next?" which showed the band pissing against a monolith.

The film traces the band's development from deliberately remedial beginnings—the stutterings of "My Generation," the inarticulateness of "Can't Explain"—through "cultural" acceptance—Townshend talking fluently with Melvyn Bragg—to the fluid laser spectaculars of the Seventies shows.

If the band's mental development has always...

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Ted Whitehead

[Quadrophenia] is a splendid wallow in ferocious nostalgia: 1963 teenagers stuck in dead-end jobs, lumbered with beaten parents, and trapped in the suffocating British class structure, relieve their frustrations and escape their political identity by assuming the roles of Mods or Rockers, and beat each other up on Brighton beach. The general atmosphere of the early Sixties is accurately established, apart from a few prochronisms designed presumably to avoid alienating the contemporary youth audiences. The political consciousness is nonexistent, but then the political ignorance of the youth of the time was one of the major problems (if you like democracy). That problem is still with us. So is sex….


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Frank Rose

It's true, as Townshend suggests in Who Are You, the group's last album, that the new wave is going back to what the Who did 15 years ago. But that's the point. New wave returns to basics, to raw adolescent throb, stripping away the superstructure Townshend has spent 15 years trying to build. This is, after all, the creator of the rock opera. Yet too often what he's ended up with is adolescent throb with orchestra. It's not that Townshend is incapable of creating adult music, his Rough Mix album … speaks to his own generation as directly as My Generation did 15 years ago. It's more that he seems to view the Who as a means of intellectualizing the teen experience for the benefit of today's...

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John Swenson

Over the last ten years, the Who's greatest triumphs have followed their most bitter disappointments. After the highly successful Tommy in 1969, Pete Townshend's immediate attempts to come up with another large-scale project ended in failure: Lifehouse, an intriguing and futuristic rock & roll scenario, was never filmed. Parts of it, however, soon become the epic album, Who's Next (1971), Now Quadrophenia, Townsend's 1973 vinyl opus on Mods and Rockers, has been made into a brilliant movie after years of frustrating the Who's efforts to incorporate it into their concerts….

Townshend's writing for the Who has always been impressionistic. Images take precedence over...

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Patrick Carr

Finally, the Beak has exposed himself. With the alter ego Moon-clown dead and the Who alive and running at a healthy commercial clip, Townshend has at last constructed an album [Empty Glass] in tune with the lights which only he sees. Here he comes, then, with Wagner and the Sex Pistols and his synthesizer in his pocket and a lot on his mind.

Poor Pete. He doesn't have the sly loneliness of a Ray Davies or the leather eye of a Jagger or McCartney's mental flab; still spare and sparky and hardly even dazed by his early middle age, he just has his great intelligence, his rampaging doubts, his extreme intensity and his Remy Martin Cognac. This last item, his lubricant these past few years,...

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Dave Marsh

As a fundamentally religious artist, Pete Townshend fashions his music from sermons and confessions. (p. 71)

What makes Townshend singular is his insistence on not separating his most transcendent spiritual convictions from gut- and gutter-level rock & roll. It's been suggested (by Townshend, even) that rock itself is a religion, but that's not quite right. Let's say instead that rock is a spiritual medium as much as a musical one…. For Pete Townshend then, playing rock & roll well becomes an act of grace, while playing rock & roll badly is a brutal test of faith.

Townshend has been in a near-continuous state of spiritual crisis since Tommy, and you'd...

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