Any fan of the Who knows that Pete Townshend was, by and large, the driving force behind the band’s career, especially in terms of songwriting prolificacy, for the past five decades. From the early pop-structured hits like “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation,” and “Substitute,” to the more conceptual, ambitious songs of Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia, Townshend was nearly solely responsible for providing the soundtrack to the lives of many an angst-filled teenager and young adult. With hundreds of songs under his belt from the Who’s 11 studio albums, plus contributing his talents to fellow musicians like David Gilmour, and generating songs that never quite got to shine due to failed projects like Lifehouse, his best-known work doesn’t even skim the surface. Not. Even. Close. Townshend’s songwriting career is, undoubtedly, rich and abundant, and it certainly rings true not only with the Who, but his solo career as well.
Recently, 11 of Pete Townshend’s solo albums have been remastered and released digitally. While these records never shared the same commercial success as the Who’s albums, his artistry, honesty, and vulnerability are unparalleled. For those who are less familiar with Townshend’s career outside of the Who, here’s a taste of what you might expect, broken down album by album.
1) Who Came First (1972)
In 1970 and 1972, Townshend collaborated on two tribute albums dedicated to his spiritual guru, Meher Baba, titled Happy Birthday and I Am, respectively. Like the aforementioned albums, Who Came First takes on a more domesticated, acoustic approach (with subtle touches of the synthesizer scattered throughout the record), in contrast to the Who’s bombastic Who’s Next, released the year before. Comprised of devotional prayers, a cover of Jim Reeves’ country ballad “There’s a Heartache Following Me” (a favorite of Meher Baba’s), and demos from Townshend’s abortive concept album, Lifehouse, contributions are also made by Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces, singer Billy Nicholls, and musician Caleb Quaye, all of whom were fellow disciples of Meher Baba.
2) Rough Mix (1977)
What was initially meant to be Ronnie Lane’s next solo album — with Townshend appointed as the producer — their partnership ultimately conceived this collaborative record in 1977. While the title track is the only song penned by both, “Heart to Hang Onto” is sung by both artists. The remaining songs written and performed by Townshend and Lane alternate on the record; “Till the Rivers All Run Dry,” however, was written by country artist Don Williams. With guest musicians like Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, and Charlie Watts appearing on the album, Rough Mix is the perfect, cohesive blend of Townshend’s careful acoustic licks and orchestral arrangements and Lane’s otherwise looser, folk and country-inspired compositions.
3) Empty Glass (1980)
Despite his two previous records, Pete Townshend sees Empty Glass as his first official solo album. What turned out to be his most commercially successful record to date, the 1980 release — a far departure from the sounds of Who Came First, Rough Mix, and, well, anything the Who recorded up to that point — was also his most emotionally visceral, covering an array of subjects like his substance abuse, marital struggles with his then-wife, Karen, and the death of his beloved bandmate, Keith Moon. Townshend’s sexuality was also a big topic of discussion amongst fans and critics alike, due to the ambiguous nature of “Rough Boys” and “And I Moved,” the latter initially written for Bette Midler. Amid the turmoil throughout the record, however, “Let My Love Open the Door,” which Townshend dismissed as “just a ditty,” reached #9 in the US and became his only Top 10 hit.
4) All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982)
By 1982, New Wave was all the rage, and Pete Townshend wanted in. Freshly sober, the very, very unusually named, synth and drum machine-heavy All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes is, to some of Townshend’s fanbase, an acquired taste. Like Empty Glass, it contains autobiographical moments of introspection, subtly (or not-so-subtly) referencing his sobriety in songs like in “Exquisitely Bored” and “Somebody Saved Me,” while Townshend’s relationships with his wife and bandmates became increasingly more estranged, as depicted in “Face Dances, Pt. 2.” In the dawn of MTV, Townshend released a VHS tape accompanying the album, containing a handful of music videos which are — if the above video is of any indication — avant-garde for its time. Akin to David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” and Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” all of these videos helped define the art form in its embryonic state.
5) Scoop (1983)
Nearly 20 years after the Who formed, Pete Townshend released the first of three compilation albums, Scoop, mainly containing Who demos spanning their entire career up to that point, as well as a few solo tracks. For die-hard Who fans like myself, it’s such a treat jumping from track to track, Townshend’s vocals more mature and confident than the previous song; the difference between the archaic recording of “Circles,” where his nasally, Nina Simone-influenced vocals are profoundly apparent and a song like “You Came Back” is staggering. Not to mention the attention to detail in all of the songs’ arrangements — most of the instruments played by himself unless stated otherwise — is a true testament to his ingenuity.
6) White City: A Novel (1985)
Townshend’s first concept album as a solo artist, White City, tells the story of the tumultuous tensions between races, classes, and lovers residing in the West London neighborhood close to where he grew up. Rich in musical textures, with the help of David’s Gilmour’s rickety guitar chords and John “Rabbit” Bundrick’s fervent keyboard playing, the tracks are meticulously layered, creating a cacophonic harmony amongst the chaos. Like All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, a VHS release accompanied the album, this time a 60-minute movie starring Townshend (whose acting is, in a word, dreadful) as the protagonist’s friend. While not a particularly riveting plot, Townshend’s performance of “Face to Face,” as seen above (with his daughter, Emma, joining in around 1:15 into the video), is one of the very few redeeming efforts in the film. I mean, get a load of that jacket!
7) Deep End Live! (1986)
Townshend and his short-lived supergroup, Deep End (featuring David Gilmour, Rabbit Bundrick, and a slew of other musicians), performed two benefit shows at London’s Brixton Academy, the first of which was abridged into this 1985 release. Deep End Live! features songs from his career with the Who, his solo records, and captivating renditions of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You” and the English Beats’ “Save It For Later,” which reinforced that, despite the Who’s “breakup,” Townshend’s mixed reviews as a solo artist, and his ever-increasing hearing loss, he was still a force to be reckoned with.
8) Another Scoop (1987)
Dedicated to the memory of Townshend’s father, Clifford, Another Scoop is yet another delightful amalgamation of demos, outtakes, and unreleased recordings, most of which were intended for the Who. Compared to the first installment, Scoop, the majority of the tracks are significantly more fleshed out than the ones leaning toward rudimentary; Townshend’s then-father-in-law, Ted Astley, composed mesmerizing orchestral arrangements for three tracks, “Brooklyn Kids,” “Football Fugue,” and “Praying the Game.” A number of synthesized sequences also made the cut, a couple of which were to appear on the Who’s scrapped album, Siege. And just when you thought you’d heard everything, you even get to hear Townshend threaten to smack his child. How precious!
9) The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend (1989)
What was meant to be a musical adaptation to poet Ted Hughes’ children’s story, “The Iron Man” — Townshend appointing himself, fellow bandmate Roger Daltrey, Deborah Conway, Nina Simone, and John Lee Hooker as characters — is an overambitious flop. Cringeworthy from beginning to end, especially upon hearing the late, great Nina Simone, playing an alien, repeatedly demanding, “I want fast food!” in the aptly-titled “Fast Food.” As a whole, The Iron Man lacks the gumption demonstrated in Townshend’s preceding records, not to disparage Nina Simone or John Lee Hooker in any way. But let’s be honest, as someone who tries not to blow too much smoke up Pete Townshend’s ass, this is my cut-off point.
10) Psychoderelict (1993)
[NOTE: The first 44 seconds of the above video is not exactly considered safe for work, so please proceed with caution. However, I highly recommend fast-forwarding to 2:04. Just trust me on this.]
Two years after Townshend shattered his wrist in a bicycle accident, Psychoderelict was released. A rock opera interspersed with spoken word, it’s to be listened to as though the tracks are being played through the radio. The protagonist, Ray High (named after Ray Davies and Nick Lowe) is a dwindling rock star, down on his luck and hitting the bottle, and is, for the lack of a better term, catfished by a radio personality in order to get a jump start on his career again. Like The Iron Man, the record in its entirety is lackluster and utterly forgettable, as the dialogue renders it nearly unlistenable. The music-only release, unfortunately, did not fare well with most fans either, as many of them, myself included, find it to be too contrived, self-indulgent, and pretentious. Pete Townshend? Pretentious? Now I’ve heard everything!
11) Scoop 3 (1994)
The last and final record of the Scoop trifecta*, Scoop 3 contains newer, unreleased material, as opposed to the earlier home recordings we’d grown accustomed to in the first two Scoop albums. Nevertheless, this tightly-curated release is peppered with delicate instrumentals intended for Siege, exquisite outtakes from Quadrophenia and The Iron Man, and surprisingly delightful demos for the Who’s Face Dances and It’s Hard. As someone who has the tendency to rid the previously mentioned Who albums from their memory, Townshend’s recording for “Did You Steal My Money?” captures the very essence of what the song should have sounded like, as the Who’s version completely falls flat, like much of Face Dances and It’s Hard. If there’s one thing to take away from Scoop 3, it’s that some demos are better left as demos.
Like what you hear? Do you dislike The Iron Man and Psychoderelict as much as I do? Want to hear more of Pete Townshend’s solo catalog? Check out the Spotify playlist below!