Ten days after Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied forces in WWII, Peter Townshend was born, on May 19, 1945. Friendless as a child, often bullied over the size of his nose, he spent much of his time reading and savored family trips to the Isle of Man. Although he began learning to play guitar at the age of 11, he eventually chose instead to study graphic design at Ealing Art College. While there he became so heavily intrigued by American R&B, the music of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Booker T. & the MGs that he dropped out to pursue a career in music. In 1961 Townshend’s childhood friend, bassist John Entwistle, joined The Detours, a band led by guitarist Roger Daltrey. At Entwistle’s suggestion Townshend was accepted into the band as a rhythm guitarist. After lead vocalist Colin Dawson quit, Daltrey assumed his role, leaving full guitar responsibilities to Townshend. As The Detours’ popularity increased they discovered their name was already taken and as a suggestion from Townshend’s roommate Richard Barnes they chose “The Who.” Drummer Doug Sandom was replaced by Keith Moon and the lineup that would change the face of rock music was secured. Townshend’s natural songwriting inclination quickly evolved and he began furnishing songs that garnered the attention of record labels, producers and a growing fan base. During The Who’s first U.S tour in March of 1967 Townshend began experimenting with LSD which swayed his songwriting style. He also developed an interest in the teachings of Meher Baba, all of which led to a musical concept about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who could only experience sensations through music. In 1969 The Who released their monumental rock opera, Tommy and Townshend established himself as one of the world’s eminent rock songwriters. The album was unprecedented in its originality and led even classical composer Leonard Bernstein to comment that its “sheer power, invention and brilliance of performance outstrips anything which has ever come out of a recording studio. It was an essential recording that played a major role in the establishment of the classic rock genre.”
The Who offered a memorable appearance at the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969 in support of Tommy and Townshend’s signature windmill technique magically served as a grand image, a message to the entire world that The Who were an integral part of music’s future. They followed with the release of Live At Leeds which demonstrated not only the band’s colossal energy but also Townshend’s captivating mastery of the guitar and is commonly recognized as one of the greatest live albums of all time. While his performance at Leeds may have lacked the virtuosity and lead guitar wizardry characterizing a Jimi Hendrix or Duane Allman performance, it nonetheless presented a guitarist who, like Keith Richards, was able to create inventive atmospheres and textures that distinctively belonged to and defined The Who. In 1970 Townshend began work on his next project, a second rock opera called Lifehouse. His idea was to create a piece that would explore the relationship between the musician and the audience. The concept never resonated with the other band members who, often confused by its direction, preferred to put out a more standard rock record. Townshend became so distraught and overworked that he suffered a nervous breakdown and Lifehouse was discontinued. The pieces left from the shattered project became the material for the band’s epic Who’s Next released in August of 1971. Remarkably, in spite of its troubled formative process, it is one of the greatest statements to come out of rock music. Townshend may not have been able to finalize his original concept but the details, the ideas, like the intricate beauty of individual snowflakes during a blizzard, held inherently wondrous beauty. From the anthemic “Baba O’Riley” and the revolutionary “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to the somber “The Song Is Over” and the mesmerizingly moody “Behind Blue Eyes,” the album is one of rock’s ultimate masterpieces and is true testament to Townshend’s genius as a composer and musician.
Like a star surrounded by orbiting planets, Townshend provided energy and direction for bands to come while serving as an absolute example, a source for infinite creativity and artistic endeavor. His indelible influence is at the very heart of the development of rock music.