Collecting Pete Townshend

He made three little-known albums for Meher Baba

By this point in his life, Pete Townshend, the leader of The Who and partially deafened by exposure to high-volume on-stage music, can look back over a long and illustrious career.   He has become, perhaps unwillingly, a senior eminence in British rock – one of a handful of people like Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger who personify British rock, the “British Invasion,” and more.

In Townshend’s case, that “more” includes the authorship of what is widely, if erroneously, believed to be the first “rock opera,” Tommy. (The actual first rock opera was “SF Sorrow” by The Pretty Things, released on the album of the same name in 1968. It is credited with influencing Townshend to write Tommy, although, contradictorily, the claim is made that Tommy was begun when Pete was 19 – in 1964 – and finished when he was 22, a year before SF Sorrow was released. Whatever the case, Tommy was not recorded by the Who until 1969.)

Pete Townshend was born May 19, 1945 – virtually at the end of World War II – to Cliff and Betty Townshend.   Cliff was a musician who played in the Royal Air Force dance band, The Squadronaires.   Betty was a singer with the Sidney Torch Orchestra. Young Pete accompanied them on their tours of post-war Britain, getting an early introduction to professional music-making and showbiz.

While still in the Acton Grammar School Townshend joined his friend and schoolmate John Entwhistle’s Dixieland band, The Confederates, on banjo. He soon switched to guitar – and Entwhistle switched from trumpet to bass (later he would also play French horn). In 1961 Townshend left Acton for art college, but the next year he and Entwhistle joined another former Acton pupil’s band, The Detours.   That other pupil was Roger Daltry.   Thus three-quarters of the Who were already established as a band. Doug Sanden was the band’s original drummer, and they played support for such bands as the Rolling Stones, playing mostly classic R&B covers.

Sanden left the band in 1964, and various drummers filled in for him until one night, while the band was playing a gig in London’s Oldfield pub, a drunken patron who was dressed as a UPS driver insisted on sitting in on drums. That was Keith Moon, who quickly became the band’s permanent drummer. By then The Detours had become The Who, but their manager of the time, Pete Meadon, wanted to establish them as a “mod” band and changed their name to The High Numbers.   As The High Numbers, the group made one single, “I’m The Face,” b/w “Zoot Suit,” for Fontana (TF 480) in July, 1964. (Later that year Fontana re-pressed the single with the sides reversed, but using the same catalog number.) That single is now worth around $400 – if you can find a copy.  

In September, 1964, Kit Lambert took over as the group’s manager and changed their name back to The Who. And the rest is, as they say, history.

But what usually gets left out of that well-documented history are three albums Townshend participated in at the beginning of the 1970s. These grew out of his involvement with the guru and spiritual leader Meher Baba.   The LPs were published privately, in limited editions, by the Meher Baba Association, although some copies did show up at least briefly in some record stores.

The first was Happy Birthday (MBO-1), issued in 1970, in celebration of Meher Baba’s birthday (as apparently were all three albums). Townshend contributes six tracks (out of 11), dominating the album.   (Others who contributed were Ronnie Lane, of the Small Faces/The Faces, and Ron Geesin.) 

More interesting to Who fans is the second album, I Am (MBO-2), released in 1971. Townshend is present on only five tracks (out of eight), but one of them is the original version of “Baba O’Riley” – which, at 9:48, is almost twice as long as the augmented version which opens Who’s Next. On I Am the piece is entirely played by Townshend, who says of the synthesizer which dominates the piece, “Baba…it played itself?” (This would be Townshend’s first use of synthesizers, which showed up prominently on Who’s Next.)

Townshend had a smaller presence on the third album, With Love (MBO-3), released in 1972, appearing on only four of the album’s 12 tracks, and writing only three of them. (But some of the others on the album are Ronnie Lane with Ron Wood, Medicine Head, and Pete Banks – the first guitarist in Yes.) The album is an Eel Pie production – from Townshend’s own production company. (Townshend would subsequently release an album with Meher Baba compatriot Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix, in 1977.)

Collectors take note: Because most rock fans were never aware of these albums, they are not covered by any of the reference works available, but they are extremely rare and valuable and well worth seeking out. (29638 bytes)