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Pete Townshend

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Pete Townshend

Imagine one were charged with a quest to compose a catalog of the greatest and most influential lyricists of the rock and roll genre. Such a roster would inevitably include names like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Elton John; however, if one were to scroll a little farther down the list they would come across a man named Pete Townshend. Townshend ascended to fame as the lead guitarist and principle songwriter for a rock band called The Who. Through his work with The Who as well as the compositions of his solo career Pete Townshend has come to be known as a tremendously respected figure in the musical world as well as one of the must influential members of the unique ideological movements he touched.

Townshend was born Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend on May 19, 1945 in London, England. As the child of two professional musicians he began developing his instrumental skills at an extremely young age and was even experimenting with a guitar by the time he was twelve years old. In the year 1961 Townshend formed a rock band with his high school friends John Entwhistle and Roger Daltrey. This band, originally named The Detours, would quickly evolve into the infamous group called The Who, which continues to produce music today. (“Pete Townshend")

In the early stages of Pete Townshend’s career with The Who he wrote songs and produced music which resonated with a clear theme of none conformity. He composed numerous songs designed to mock the state of contemporary society and highlight a

cultural affliction in which he felt his generation had become alienated (Townshend). These assertions helped the band direct their art to an individual musical movement and audience known as “Mods.” This hyper-rebellious derivative of rock and roll quickly and emphatically embraced The Who (“Pete Townshend"). Pete Townshend once said, “It was the first move that I have ever seen in the history of youth towards unity, towards unity of thought, unity of drive and unity of motive” (Townshend). In many ways Townshend became the Mod’s most significant vessel as his lyrics provided a thunderous and eloquent embodiment of the movements fundamental ideals. Townshend’s radical identity was augmented by his erratic actions in the midst of live performances. Such behavior included whirling his arms against his guitar strings in his infamous windmill motion as well as repeatedly and systematically demolishing the band’s equipment. To most people the act of smashing a perfectly good, and shockingly expensive guitar into a functional speaker might seem pointless and idiotic, but to Townshend and his fans it was a beautiful release of chaotic energy which epitomized their violent “teenage aghast” (Townshend).

In the early stages of Townshend’s musical career he wrote a number of hits that mirrored the philosophy of the Mods including “I Can See for Miles,” “Who are you,” and “I Can’t Explain.” However, Townshend composed one song that, above all others, became the unofficial anthem of the most significant youth movement ever to storm Great Britain. The work in reference is the fittingly titled song “My Generation” which was released on October 29, 1965(“Pete Townshend"). In the first lines of this acclaimed song Townshend writes, “People try to put us down/ Just because we get around.” His words are designed to criticize some of the accepted rules and scruples of society while

simultaneously declaring the ideological independence of his contemporaries. In the following line Townshend continues his signature defensive attitude with respect to the more conservative facets of society when he writes, “Things they do look awful cold.” Finally, at the end of the song’s first stanza Pete Townshend solidifies the rebellious nature of his anarchistic ballad with perhaps the most memorable line of his expansive career when he declares, “I hope I die before I get old”(The Who).

All in all the earlier and most volatile stage of Pete Townshend’s participation with The Who is clearly characterized by the aggravated “Mod” era of which he was an indispensable figure; however, for all Townshend’s screaming denouncements of conformity and destructively combustible performances his early lyrical stylings where, in essence, extremely shallow and limited. Townshend himself admitted, “The whole structure of our early songs was very, very simple” (Townshend). Furthermore, during the 70’s he fell victim to drug addiction in what he described to Rolling Stone Magazine as a “Two year binge,” of cocaine and alcohol abuse during which he nearly overdosed on multiple dangerous occasions. In 1979 Townshend experienced another horrific event when eleven fans were trampled to death at a Who concert. When he emerged from this treacherous period he seemed to have significantly matured mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Evidence of this intangible transformation can be found in the compositions he produced during his more recent work with The Who as well as his prolific solo career.

For the most part Townshend had left behind the confusion and adolescent defiance through which he had first risen to fame. The void it left was filled by a deeper and infinitely more profound discussion of a number of specific political and social issues. Townshend addressed his personal growth during an interview when he stated, “As a individual, it’s given me incredible freedom and all. I know that I don’t have to do things like I used to” (Townshend). Townshend never ceased to address the many problems plaguing the modern world; he simply focused his previously blind rejection of authority into a much more intelligent form of expression. In this period he expanded beyond the realm of music to write essays, books, magazine editorials, newspaper articles and scripts; however,



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