Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend was born in London on May 19, 1945, the son of professional musicians: saxophonist Cliff Townshend of English big-band jazz group the Squadronaires, and singer Betty Dennis. When the American movie Rock Around the Clock came out in 1956, Townshend became obsessed with rock & roll. With the support of his parents, he learned guitar and banjo, and formed a Dixieland jazz band, the Confederates, in which he played banjo alongside schoolmate John Entwistle on trumpet. The two eventually began playing rock & roll as the Scorpions, with Townshend on guitar and Entwistle on bass. By the early 1960s, Townshend was attending Ealing Art college, where he discovered performance art and the blues. He and Entwistle joined singer Roger Daltrey's band the Detours, which, after adding Keith Moon on drums, eventually became the Who (see entry). The band began playing the pub circuit, with Townshend increasingly taking over spokesman and primary creative force.
Townshend's earliest songs for the Who, like "My Generation" and "Substitute," came to define London's mid-1960s mod scene and would have a profound influence on late-Seventies punk. But by the later Sixties and early Seventies — particularly in the Who's live performances — Townshend and the band had moved on to helping pioneer a meatier sound that would become known as heavy metal. By this time, Townshend also was toying with the idea of creating rock operas, and in 1967 he strung together a series of somewhat related songs mocking the radio business, and the Who released it as The Who Sell Out; in 1969 the band released Townshend's first major rock opera Tommy. Meanwhile, Townshend had become a follower of the Indian guru Meher Baba and began exploring devotional music, which led to his first solo album, Who Came First (Number 69, 1973), a compilation of gentler, more folk-based songs that included his adaptation of a Baba prayer, "Parvardigar," as well as one track from fellow Baba devotee Ronnie Lane of the Faces. (The album was later reissued with extra tracks including a demo version of the Who song "The Seeker.") That same year, the Who released Townshend's second major rock opera, Quadrophenia, a ambitious narrative about a mod who suffers from a split personality. He also dabbled in journalism in the early Seventies, penning articles for rock magazines including Rolling Stone and the U.K. Paper Melody Maker. (He later served in various roles in the publishing industry including acquisitions editor at Faber and Faber.) In 1975 director Ken Russell took Townshend's Tommy to the screen, with Daltrey in the title role and Ann Margaret as his mother, and featuring performances by some of the era's biggest rock stars including Elton John, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton.
In 1977 Townshend took time away from the Who to record a full-fledged collaboration with Lane, Rough Mix (Number 45, 1977), which featured guest appearances from rockers ranging from Entwistle to Clapton to Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, and included another Baba-inspired paean, "Keep Me Turning." The following year Keith Moon died of an accidental drug overdose, and Townshend began battling his own demons, including depression and substance abuse. While the Who continued recording and touring with Faces drummer Kenny Jones, Townshend released his third album apart from the band, Empty Glass (Number Five, 1980), which included his biggest solo hit, another Baba-inspired devotional song, "Let My Love Open the Door" (Number Nine, 1980). On Empty Glass, Townshend was more confessional than ever, baring raw emotions on tracks like "I Am an Animal" and "Rough Boys," in which he tackled the topic of homosexuality and teased journalists with hints of his own dalliances. In 1982 he released the ultra-arty, New Wave-inspired All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, which was generally panned by critics. Meanwhile, the Who recorded two more albums — Face Dances (1981) and It's Hard (1982) — before calling it quits temporarily in 1983. That year Townshend released his first edition of Scoop (Number 35), compilation of demo tapes he'd made of Who classics such as "So Sad About Us," "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Love Reign O'er Me," as well as unreleased songs. (Subsequent editions appeared in the late Eighties and early 2000s.)
In 1984, Townshend published a volume of short stories as Horse's Neck. Throughout the Eighties and into the Nineties, he returned to the narrative format in his music with a series of concept albums, the most successful being White City: A Novel (Number 26, 1985), a bleak story about urban tension, despair and decay. He followed that with an adaptation a Ted Hughes children's fable, The Iron Man: A Musical (1989) that included roles for Daltrey, John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone, and another ambitious but unsuccessful rock opera, Psychoderelict (1993). That year Townshend's stage adaptation of The Who's Tommy opened on Broadway and ran for two years. Beginning in 1989, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle reunited from time to time as the Who, and the band continued performing after Entwistle's death while on tour with the Who in 2002. In 2000 Townshend released The Lifehouse Chronicles, a sprawling, six-disc document of his aborted early-Seventies rock opera Lifehouse, which he had begun writing between Tommy and Quadrophenia. In the early 2000s Townshend also wrote new Who songs, and in 2006 the band — now just he and Daltrey — released Endless Wire (Number Seven), the first new Who disc since 1982; it yielded a minor hit, "It's Not Enough." In 2007, a rock opera Townshend had begun writing two years earlier as an Internet serial blog, The Boy Who Heard Music, debuted at Vassar College. Townshend kicked off the second decade of the 2000s with a highly publicized Who performance during the halftime show at the 2010 Superbowl.
Townshend was married for 32 years to Karen Astley, the sister of record producer Jon Astley and daughter of composer Ted Astley. They have three children: Joseph, Aminta and journalist and singer/songwriter Emma. The couple separated in 1994 and divorced in 2000. In 1996 Townshend began a relationship with his current partner, singer/songwriter Rachel Fuller.