March Through Time: Pete Townshend

As the primary songwriter for The Who, Pete Townshend created a staggeringly significant body of work. But he recognized that some of his material wasn’t right for the group, so he launched a concurrent solo career. (We won’t get into the way in which many of the songs on Face Dances and It’s Hard seem like Pete solo tunes.) Even if one sets aside his work with The Who – which one should not do – Townshend’s solo material is impressive. Here’s a quick look at it.

  • Who Came First (1972) – A modest release that feels a bit like a collection of demos, it nonetheless contains embryonic versions of some of Pete’s best songs.
  • Rough Mix (1977) – A collaboration with Ronnie Lane, this one has a very different feel from The Who (and from Pete’s other releases). More folk-leaning than one might expect.
  • Empty Glass (1980) – Pete’s answer to punk. It’s not punk itself, but the energy is there. It was a hit, and deserved that status.
  • All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982) – A deeply idiosyncratic release on the heels of a hit LP, this one mystified many. But I consider it a high water mark, with great songs and thrilling production values.
  • White City: A Novel (1985) – From this point out, Pete seems to have made the decision to steer clear of grand concepts with The Who, saving those for his solo albums. Overlooked at the time, White City (the film) was pretty interesting stuff, and the soundtrack is well worth hearing. Oddly, it’s of a piece with albums made around the same time by David Gilmour and Roy Harper (Whatever Happened to Jugula?). Trust me.
  • Deep End Live! (1986) – Featuring a crack band that included David Gilmour and a horn section, this shows Pete as his most gleeful. No concept, little pretension, and lots of energy.
  • The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend (1989) – When Townshend applies his creativity to the work of others, the results are, alas, less compelling. Interesting but somewhat short of essential.
  • Psychoderelict (1993) – This one came in for all manner of brickbats. I think it’s inspired – quite possibly great, even – and the songs are quite good. There also exists a “music only” version, but it’s best avoided (though I seem to be alone in that viewpoint). Get the one with the dialogue. It’s funny, and filled with the kind of self-knowledge and candor that characterizes Townshend’s best work. Sadly, this record from nearly 30 years ago is to date the last solo release from Townshend.

Also worth tracking down are the several albums made under the Scoop label, featuring Townshend’s demos. These show his skill as an arranger and songwriter, without the muscular context of The Who.