Pete Townshend’s 80s Solo Success

The Who is rock royalty and a huge influencer of popular music starting in the mid-1960s right into the early 1980s.  Helmed by two great vocalists, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the band was one of the pioneers of rock concerts and guitar-smashing histrionics.  Currently, Roger Daltrey is 80 years old and touring with his own band.  Pete Townshend has suggested that he’d like to have one more Who world tour, not for the notoriety or the music, but in his own words, “If I’m really honest, I’ve been touring for the money.”  For both artists  — and The Who as a band — it’s been a while since they’ve had a Top 10 hit.  In 1969 The Who peaked at #9 with “I Can See for Miles.” In 1973, Roger Daltrey had a #5 hit in the UK only with “Giving It All Away.” But back in the 1980s, Pete Townshend found success as a reliable solo artist.

Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend was born in 1945. The Who formed in 1964 and the original lineup consisted of Roger Daltrey (vocals), Pete Townshend (guitar), John Entwistle (bass), and Keith Moon (drums). Townshend is a multi-instrumentalist but is primarily known for his guitar talents.  In 1990, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of The Who.

While Townshend had released some solo efforts in the 1970s, it was the untimely death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 that put the band on hiatus, allowing Townshend to write and deliver his first commercially successful solo album, Empty Glass. This release included the top-10 hit “Let My Love Open the Door,” along with “Rough Boys”, both receiving heavy rotation on the then-nascent MTV.

Pete didn’t think “Let My Love Open the Door” was particularly interesting; his manager downright despised it.  Nearly all performed on synth, it was a departure from Townshend’s usual guitar lead songs and was a surprise to both when it found success.  Nevertheless, listeners liked it enough to cause it to peak at #9 on the Billboard charts. Another release from the same album, “Rough Boys” was more in line with Townshend’s rock-guitar style and was accompanied by a music video.  Townshend suggested it was about friends he knew who were gay and the lifestyles they pursued, denying that it reflected any suggestions regarding his own lifestyle.  It reached #39.

In 1982, he followed up with the album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, which included the minor hit “Slit Skirts.”  Townshend suggested the title referred to movie cowboy heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood who each had “eyes like slits.”  Of the song: “Slit Skirts,” he revealed that the song is about getting to that place in middle age “where you really feel that life is never going to be the same—you’re never going to fall in love again, it’s never going to be quite like it was—and it’s a song about getting drunk, being maudlin and sentimental.”   Because he didn’t release the song as a single, it played often on rock radio.

A second song, which was a non-album release, “Face Dances, Pt. 2” also received some attention.  This was a time when Townshend was buried in songwriting, producing both solo material and songs for The Who’s next two albums Face Dances and It’s Hard.

Starting in 1983, he released a series of compilation albums entitled Scoop, Another Scoop (1987) and Scoop 3 (2001).  The contents of each included unreleased demos of Who songs (“Behind Blue Eyes”) and other new material that was either partial or unreleased.

He followed Scoop with White City: A Novel (1985), a concept album that was accompanied by a short story about growing up poor in West London in a district called White City.   The music from the album was meant to support the novel’s narrative, which shadowed Townshend’s impoverished childhood.  Two songs found moderate success “Face the Face” (#26 in the US) and “Give Blood” (although it didn’t chart).

Closing out 1989, Townshend turned his attention to writing musicals with the release in 1989 of The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend, based on a novel by Ted Hughes (Crow, The Hawk in the Rain).  This album included contributions by Roger Daltrey and Who bassist John Entwistle.  The track “A Friend is a Friend” peaked at #3 on the Mainstream Rock Chart.

After finding commercial success during this decade, Pete dropped out of sight, only periodically releasing any material, mostly live albums.  His latest album, a cover of music from The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia was released in 2015.  The material was performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

While this album marked the end of releases from Pete Townshend, it’s also possible, if he has his way, that we’ll experience one final tour of The Who.  This would assuredly include both The Who’s hits and songs from Townshend’s success in the 1980s and would reflect that short period when he established success away from his bandmates.

-Will Wills

Photo: Pete Townshend, 2008 (Kubackeck via Wikimedia Commons)


Will Wills — a native-born Italian, raised in the US — does a killer impersonation of Mario (“a-letsa-go!”). Generally, you’ll find him frenetically bouncing between software development at a large US firm, leading a local dance/pop band, playing COD and watching MST3K. Yes, he’s sleep deprived, but you can follow his resulting incoherence at @WillrWills or his band at @WillsAndTheWays or his blog, "A Day in a Monkey's Life," if you’re suffering from insomnia, too.

5 comments on “Pete Townshend’s 80s Solo Success

  1. Mark Hudson

    “HALF of the song writing team that is part of The Who” ??? Please explain.

    • I’ve reread this article multiple times and could not find this comment. Perhaps it’s been corrected/modified? Otherwise I completely agree with you. I’m sure the author “can’t explain” that statement.

  2. Don Klees

    Considering how frequently The Who toured from the mid-90s onward, is it really accurate to say that Townsend dropped out of sight after the 1980s?

  3. Jonathan Cronin

    Hiding Out, from White City (truly underrated record) is one of his best song, ever. A simply beautiful song, catchy as hell!

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