Take Five: Great Deep-dive Tracks from Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend is widely acclaimed for many things; at or near the top of that list is his songwriting for The Who. But also worthy of praise – and further investigation – is Townshend’s solo work. Beginning with 1972’s Who Came First, he has released six intriguing solo albums. That count doesn’t even include Rough Mix, his 1977 collaboration with Ronnie Lane, his nine live albums, three compilations, three boxed sets or the several albums he made dedicated to his spiritual master, Meher Baba.

But even within Townshend’s primary studio albums, there’s a wealth of great music to explore. Perhaps most well-known among the tracks on those records are Townshend’s five charting singles: “Rough Boys,” “Let My Love Open the Door,” and “A Little is Enough” (all from 1980’s Empty Glass); “Face Dances, Pt. 2” (from All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes); and “Face the Face” from White City: A Novel. Another track from White City, “Give Blood” was a popular and oft-played video on MTV.

Look beyond the hits and you’ll discover many other great songs on Pete’s solo records. Here are five great deep-dive solo tracks from Pete Townshend.

“The Sea Refuses No River” from All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982)
Coming on the heels of the Platinum-selling Empty Glass, Townshend’s third solo album was met by confusion from fans and mixed reviews from critics. But time has been kind to the album, which is now accepted as an important work from one of rock’s premier songwriters. Like many of the album’s tracks, it does stuff a lot of words into a pop melody, but “The Sea Refuses No River” – a rare co-write with Townshend’s guitar tech Alan Rogan – features some of Pete’s best lyrics as well as a stirring, breathtaking arrangement.

“Crashing by Design” from White City: A Novel (1985)
Though not truly billed as such, Townshend’s 1985 album was essentially a soundtrack album for a long-form dramatic film he made, one in which he appears but is not the main character. The fictionalized story is set in a “council estate” (aka government housing project) near where Townshend grew up. “Crashing by Design” features great vocals and searing guitar work.

“Fire” by The Who from The Iron Man: The Musical (1989)
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s original version of “Fire” was released in 1968, on The Who’s Track Records, and produced by Townshend. At the time, Brown was one of rock’s most incendiary and flamboyant front men, as well as one of rock’s most versatile vocalists. This version – a kind of Who “guest spot” on a Townshend solo LP – recasts the song in the band’s signature style.

“English Boy” from Psychoderelict (1993)
A narrative-concept album, Psychoderelict weaves together elements of Townshend’s earlier projects for The Who including Who Are You and the then-unproduced Lifehouse. Released at the peak of the grunge era, the dialogue-infused album was poorly received and met with negative reaction from many critics. And while it’s idiosyncratic, Psychoderelict’s best material ranks with the greatest music Townshend has ever written. And “English Boy” is a standout cut. Released more than three decades ago, Psychoderelict is nonetheless Pete’s most recent solo album to date.

“Guantanamo” from Truancy: The Very Best of Pete Townshend (2015)
The third collection attention to survey the best from Townshend’s solo work, 2015’s Truancy also featured a pair of previously-unreleased songs. As its title suggests, “Guantanamo” is a bluesy political protest song about the U.S. military prison in Cuba where nearly 800 prisoners were held after the 9/11 attack, many without trial. (Today, nine years after that song’s release, 30 men remain at Guantánamo; 10 of them have yet to have their day in court.)