Recently I heard someone say that they had been listening to the Pete Townsend book “Who I Am” on their daily commute. Since my commute to work is a little over an hour, it sounded like something that might be interesting to me. I am always interested in musicians lives, and learning more about how they create, how they live, and the people they interacted with through the rise to fame. Often if I read or listen to a book, I end up getting a whole new perspective on that person (or their band) – and I listen to their entire musical catalogue knowing more than I ever did about how it was created. It gives a new depth and meaning to the songs (for me).
Let me start by saying that I was never an avid fan of the Who. I don’t know why. In my own band I have played Can’t Explain, Squeeze Box, and probably Substitute. I know Magic Bus, Bargain, Baba O’Riley, Who Are You, and the other standard hits that have been reveled on radio for decades. To me they were just one of the standard rock bands you heard on the radio growing up.
When I downloaded the audiobook “Who I Am” from audible, I thought it was interesting that it was narrated by Pete Townsend himself (the entire book). This was not only unusual, but it provided a very unique backdrop for everything I was about to learn because it was entirely within his voice (literally). As Pete talks you can hear how excited he gets about certain parts, laughing away, and others when he reminiscently laments about mistakes, life lessons, and things he’s learned along the way.
There are so many things I could tell you about this book that would make you want to read it. As a musician, or just as a music lover. I can break down the reasons into 3 categories: artistry, musical history, and musicianship.
The Artistry of Pete Townsend
I have never read (or listened) to a biography where the author was able to recall his life in such uncanny detail decades later. Details of his childhood are available in startling detail, but his description of them results in a minds eye painting of unusually vivid imagery. You will hear about an event in a point and place in time, and the description might include the time of day, how he felt, weather or climate, and descriptions of the scenery that leave nothing to the imagination. He seems to remember not only his entire state of mind at any point in time, but also the entirety of his surroundings. Many people hire ghost writers for these sort of things, but I’m certain Pete did all his own writing, and the narration really brings it to life. I now have a great respect for him now as both a writer, and an orator having read this book.
Additionally there are so many things I did not know about Pete. I didn’t know that he was a true artist, having studied art in school, and attending an art college. He was not only a sculptor, but had his band at the time (The Detours) not been making so much money he would have alternatively become a graphic designer. He designed The Who logo (and many others).
Later when you read about how he concepted and wrote music, composed songs and lyrics, and the underlying themes and meanings of entire albums you will likely begin to understand the true meaning of the word “artist”. There are very few people that have done what he has – largely on his own apart from the band. Granted they ultimately performed what he created, but for the most part he had to take it to them to be interpreted.
As crazy as it sounds, before reading this book what I knew nothing of Pete beyond being the crazy guitar smashing guitar player for The Who, and his reputation for being somewhat of an asshole. Having read the book I now see him from the true artist and genius he is. I don’t say that lightly.
Musical History, As Influenced by Pete Townsend
I like to read musicians biographies because I learn tidbits of information the help me to understand a bit about what happened “behind the scenes”. You find out what circumstances might have caused certain songs or albums to come to be. I learned so many things in this book, I can’t list them all here. Suffice to say if you read it as well you will find out as much as I did – but here are the things that really stood out to me:
Pete Townsend invented the Marshall stack. This is something I truly knew nothing of. Moving away from Vox amplifiers in search of something louder and more aggressive Pete was one of the very first customers of James Marshall. We all know about the first JTM45 combo being produced for Eric Clapton, but you may not know about Pete using the very first Marshall heads with giant 8×10 speaker cabinets. Pete would haul 2 heads and 2 8×10 cabs with him to every gig. The were so huge and hard to transport, he asked James Marshall could he cut them in half and make two 4×12 cabinets that he could “stack”. And this is how the “Marshall stack” was created.
Pete Townsend turned Jimi Hendrix on to Marshall amps. Consider everything that you know about Jimi Hendrix. Chas Chandler brought him from New York to England to create a band and record him. But he had yet to find or define his signature sound using Marshall amps and feedback. In fact Pete had been breaking ground on stage for a few years creating feedback live with his giant amps and Rickenbacker guitars – something he was known for. He and John Entwistle had been using 200 watt Marshall Major heads live and had one of the loudest stage volumes heard, rivalled by maybe only one band (Vanilla Fudge). Because of this Chas asked Pete to help Jimi select what amps might be best for him, and Pete recommended him using either Marshall or Sound City. Eventually Pete moved on to use Sound City (which eventually became of course Hiwatt). When Cream and Hendrix toured the states with Marshall stacks, they because known for their adoption (even though the “stack” was basically created by Pete Townsend and John Entwistle, and the Marshall Major amps (which were experimental) were pioneered by them as well.
Pete Townsend’s Affect on Stage Performance. There are definitely some assertations within the book where Pete may express his opinion about what his affect was on others. There is no denying that the influence of both Pete and The Who has had direct impact on generations of musicians all over the world. Pete claims that “Live at Leeds” (released in 1970) was the first guitar driven heavy rock album of its time – even stating that he believes it to be the beginning of the heavy metal movement (pre-dating Sabbath). It seems Pete believes this because of a review at the time stating that Live at Leeds was the heaviest guitar album of all time to date. I believe that it certainly contributed in a way that I hadn’t thought about before, but I don’t think of it as a defining metal record.
I do, however, believe that Pete took stage performance to a new level. Now, decades later, the music stands solely on its own. But unless you were actually there seeing them live pre-1980, or view old performance footage you miss the entire performance and entertainment factor. Even though he stole the “windmill” from Keith Richards, without his 4 foot vertical stage leaps and stage antics would there ever have been a David Lee Roth or Eddie Van Halen performing the way they did? They pretty much were the first to set the bar for how a rock band should perform on stage. There is a nod in the book describing how David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust were directly created by Bowie attending a Who show.
Beyond the stage performance they were certainly the first to use volume, stacks of amps, and feedback the way that they did. They also invented destroying your instruments and gear on stage. I think that some people see this as a schtick – much like the makeup of Kiss. When you read the book you’ll see not only does Pete see this as peformance art, but direct references to the artist which influenced him to start doing it on stage.
Here’s a 1966 video showing his use of the huge 8×10 stacks of Marshalls with Rickenbacker guitar, examples of feedback, destroying gear on stage, along with all the preliminary examples of stage prowess:
Here’s a later performance of them on stage at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1976:
The Musicianship of Pete Townsend (and The Who)
Vere rarely do we talk about the musicianship of somebody who plays only one instrument. Such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, a virtuoso – but only known for playing one instrument within one genre. I think that true artistry and musicianship is unusual when it transcends and spills over to other areas. If you didn’t know anything about Pete Townsend or The Who you might not think of him as a much of a ground breaker…until you read this book.
We already talked about Pete pushing the barriers of live performance, including volume, feedback, and destructive performance. He was also able to drive music concepts to new levels with his song writing abilities and album themes like Tommy and Quadrophenia.
What you probably don’t know about is Pete’s experience creating home recording studios from the early to mid 60’s and beyond. He had so much success recording with his own home studio, he set up a separate company to install and configure them for other musicians. He was one of the first musicians to have and use a multi-track tape recorder in a home studio.
The “Concept Album” and Rock Opera: If you were a child of 70’s or 80’s (or after), then The who rock opera Tommy (1969) may have escaped you altogether. But at the time, nothing like it had ever been created other than maybe Sgt. Pepper. The concept album Quadrophenia came after that – with its own story to tell. It goes well beyond being a musician or song writer when you’re able to create an entire production such as this.
The Synthesizer Alchemist: Another barrier broken by Pete was the use of synthesizers, and one of the first to use them on a recorded rock album. Most of the discerning listening public do not know that all of these tracks, such as the entire sequenced backing track to Baba O’Riley – were entirely created by him in his home studio. Then he brought them to the band studio, where they played their parts to his track. Pete used and programmed some of the first sythesizers ever created and firmly believed that people with nearly no musical ability would be able to use them to create music. So does this also make Pete the definitive founder of all of EDM by default?
If you are a Who fan – you should love this book. If you are not a Who fan, you may become one by reading this book. If you like to read and get different discerning points of view and insight into tight musical communities of the 60’s and 70’s you will enjoy this. Especially the tales of interaction with Hendrix, the Stones, Eric Clapton, Bill Graham, and many, many others. You even get the unique blow by blow of the legendary Woodstock performance including how The Who almost didn’t sign on to perform (and how they got them to).
I highly recommend this book both as a guitarist and a musician, but most as a lover of rock history and those who defined it.