A breath rippling by: Jem Records Celebrates Pete Townshend

By Bob Bennett


You’ve heard of The Who….. with their malevolent live performances, smashed guitars and record-setting sound volumes.

Never was a band composed of more diverse personalities.  They literally fought on stage at times and yet when the anarchy came together, they were the best live band in the world.  The Who was no accident, it was a purpose-built mod meets rocker machine that was terrifying to witness up close and yet could touch the teenage soul instantly like a kind word from a stranger.  The Who never had a Top 10 hit* in the US, but you didn’t doubt their power because your dad or someone’s brother was really into them.

Feeding the machine was the songwriter, Pete Townshend, a skinny brooding art student who ripped off the power chord sound of The Kinks to produce their first hit, “Can’t Explain.”  It was no love song he had penned, or maybe it was.  Pete was an enigma in interviews, simultaneously self-effacing and brutally caustic.  In the age of flower power, he was the punk who smashed Abbie Hoffman with his guitar while The Who were assembling to play at Woodstock and Abbie grabbed a band mike to address the crowd.

While other quartets were writing sunny pop songs that climbed the charts with perfect harmonies, Pete was in his bedroom studio channeling a young man’s feelings about rejection, unrequited love, fashion, freedom and political rage.  He was/is a multi-instrumentalist who delivered perfectly crafted demo tapes to The Who which would be faithfully executed like a hammer hitting a nail or like a car-sized pinball careening through a canyon of monstrous bumpers and lights.  The songs were the stuff of violent nightmares and achingly tender dreams.


He said “You can go sleep at home tonight If you can get up and walk away” (Pete Townshend, “Who Are You”)

Off stage, Pete was hermit-like in his slavish devotion to the craft of song writing.  He learned to recognize what songs were “Who songs” and which were something else.  Pete created a 9 minute mini-opera and then invented the rock opera with Tommy.  His “Who songs” were sung by a golden-haired street tough with blue eyes, but behind the songs was Pete ever trying to capture the perfect note and shine a light on the demons that prowl invisibly through our world.  Over time, Pete’s solo recordings outnumbered his “Who songs” (albeit with overlaps).

Jem Records Celebrates Pete Townshend was released in August 2022 (following 2 similar compilations for Brian Wilson and John Lennon).  The formula is brilliant: new bands creating fresh takes of their favorite Pete Townshend compositions. Jem credits Pete Townshend with creating the power pop genre, and that’s high praise from a company that over a 50 year span broke bands like The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, ELO, The Cure, Genesis into the US market.

Their President, Marty Scott, has created a beautifully crafted paean to his favorite musician that will delight fans (old and new). Did I mention Marty is the guy who brought Cheap Trick to fame by pressing 10K copies of  a concert recording that he simply entitled Cheap Trick Live at Budokon?  3 million pressings later…..

Opening the album is a hauntingly familiar sound that is comforting and yet different.  It is the opening sequence of Baba O-Riley (the “Teenage Wasteland” song) expertly rendered on a mandolin rather than on Pete’s Lowry organ.  When the 42 layered tracks of Lisa Mychol’s vocals came in, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  Sally, take my hand!

Next, is a track from Tommy called “I’m Free” played by The Grip Weeds. Keith Moon’s fat drum sound is perfectly replicated within a muscular analog band sound — these guys own the New Jersey studio where many tracks on the album were produced.  They artfully capture the “swing” of the song in a way that reminded me of how both Pete and Keith would often play unabashedly just off the beat.

A couple of tracks later, Nick Piunti delivers a suitably beefy version of “The Seeker” with a wonderfully staccato opening using what must be P-90 “soapbar” pickups on a Gibson SG Special like Pete often played.  If you are the type who listens to the words …the names of the muses that Pete consulted in the song (e.g. Bobby Dylan and Timothy Leary) have been changed to Little Steven and another DJ(?).   The swagger here is palpable and reminiscent of the brawniness of the early 70’s Who, when Pete was strutting across stages in his white jumpsuit and Doc Marten boots.

There are 14 tracks total, each providing a familiar yet weirdly great take on songs that you may know by heart.  It’s like listening to an alternate reality where The Who took Pete’s demo tapes as a starting point rather than replicating them.  It also revealed (for me) hidden bits of lyrics I’ve previously missed. This respectful compilation – complete with excellent liner notes and mod “target” artwork – will be a permanent part of my collection, and I laughed when I realized that the opening and closing tracks are identical to Who’s Next!

*Pete’s had a “Top 10” hit called “Something In The Air” (performed by Thunderclap Newman) which reached #1 in the UK for 3 weeks in 1969.  His “Let My Love Open The Door” broke the Top 10 as a solo effort in 1980.

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