Peter Townshend Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.