As the mastermind of the Who, Pete Townshend is an unparalleled creative force. He’s a genius guitar innovator, pioneer of both punk (smashing all those instruments) and prog (coming up with all those rock operas), forward-thinking visionary, and all-around ass-kicker.
We can’t even begin to express our gratitude to the creator of the windmill move— which everyone who’s ever picked up a guitar has tried at least once. To celebrate seven decades of Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend living, working, and absolutely slaying among us mere mortals, here’s a playlist of his top seven guitar moments.
“My Generation” (1965)
It all begins here. “I Can’t Explain” may stand as the first single released by the Who (and a classic in its own right), but the unprecedented power of Townshend as a composer and a rhythm guitarist truly detonated to full effect on “My Generation.” As Andy Summers of the Police once wrote in Rolling Stone, “He’s like the original punk. The big, ringing chords [Pete] used in the Who were so musically smart… He more or less invented the power chord, and you can hear a sort of pre-Zeppelin in the Who’s Sixties work. So much of this stuff came from him.” Specifically, you can hear it all explode to life on “My Generation.”
That sweet, irresistible opening riff of “Substitute” is at once so enchanting and so subtle that only upon later contemplation does it sink in how sharp and sophisticated Townshend’s guitar innovation is here. On “Substitute,” Pete crafted a gorgeous pop structure and then subverts it from within using jazz chords and sneaky, almost sideways playing. The final result is bliss for the listener so total it takes a few spins to realize what a milestone Townshend pulls off here in six-string song craft.
“Young Man Blues” (1970)
The Who had been regularly covering Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” in concert before immortalizing their rendition of the number on their game-changing 1970 release, Live at Leeds. The song opens the album, announcing that, however intense anyone’s previous experience of the Who might have been, what’s happening here represents an entire new beast. Heavy metal loomed high and hard on the way.
As any human with working ears did at the time, Townshend was enamored with and continually stunned by the seemingly impossible might and mastery of Jimi Hendrix. “Young Man Blues” makes it loud and clear (emphasis on the loud part) that Pete had been absorbing the possibilities Hendrix laid out on the guitar. Here, Townshend channels his own version of that inventiveness and energy into the Who, and no live album has rocked harder ever since.
“The Real Me” (1973)
The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia commences with “I Am the Sea,” a two-minute soundscape of piano tinkles, far-off wailing, and crashing ocean waves. “The Real Me” explodes up out of that, an outburst of rage and a plea for human connection that seems propelled forward by piercing horns, John Entwistle’s fleet-fingered bass, and, as always, Keith Moon’s machine gun demolition drumming. But the wrecking ball impact of “The Real Me” is driven by Pete Townshend’s rhythm guitar that is simultaneously monstrous in scope and tightly controlling of the inner chaos being communicated by the lyrics and other instruments.
“Rough Boys” (1980)
Three down-stroked guitar chords open Pete Townshend’s solo hit, “Rough Boys.” Pete plays that triple set-up five times in succession, creating a cascading sound that bounces up once he starts singing and the band swings into action. It’s a uniquely hypnotic, deceptively simple riff that only Pete could conceive and pull off, and the rest of “Rough Boys” follows that lead.
Townshend dedicated the single to the Sex Pistols and the lyrics include declarations on the order of “Rough boys, don’t walk away/I very nearly missed you/Tough boys, come over here/I want to bite and kiss you.” Pete creates a two-fisted puzzle with “Rough Boys,” with his guitar weaving a spell that amplifies the questions raised by the words. As Alice Cooper once put it: “I still don’t know exactly what he was trying to say with that song, but I love it, whatever it is. Pete’s an amazing mystery.”
“Who Are You” (1978)
At first, it’s tough to even notice the guitar “Who Are You,” as the song opens with a funky, ear-grabbing synthesizer that builds into high-pitched backing vocals that beguilingly repeat the title (just try to sing along when that starts), and then the whole thing collapses into the combustive, combative onslaught of Roger Daltrey’s hard-sung vocals and Keith Moon’s drum assault.
Behind (and on top of) it all, of course, is Pete Townshend. His moment to step out front occurs during the breakdown of “Who’s Next,” when he goes head-to-head with that synth loop and noodles out a loaded, witty succession of plinks and plunks and deliciously liquid licks. There’s jazz in there, and blues, and flawless understatements of rock— all of which light the fuse for the big bangs to come right as the song’s raucous round-up kicks into overdrive.
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971)
You pick up a guitar. You strap it to your shoulder. You strum, you pick, you try a little solo. You riff. Then you riff harder. Then you start really cutting loose, really tearing it up.
Suddenly, as though driven by an invisible, omnipotent, all-commanding force, your left hand holds down a power chord and you right arm swings up in a full circle, slamming down the fret board with one gargantuan stroke. And then another. And another. And another. You’re making full circles with each impact. You’re one with the instrument. You’re one with the music. You’re the god of thunder and you’re riding the lightning. Go around again. Pow!
What you’re actually doing—what everyone who grabs a guitar is doing all the time—is channeling Pete Townshend’s signature windmill technique. More specifically, you’re plugging into Pete’s playing on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the Who’s most monumental anthem from Who’s Next, an album of nothing but monumental anthems.
The song also includes Roger Daltrey’s single greatest scream, immediately following the song’s quiet synthesizer breakdown, and ushered in by Pete’s windmill-driven superpower-chords. Everyone in rock has played guitar parts like that ever since. No one can equal what Townshend does with that sound and that fury on “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Happy birthday, Pete. And many, many more.