On Empty Glass, his second solo album, Pete Townshend chronicled the personal tumult he was experiencing and initiated an adult style of songwriting that helped reenergize the singer-songwriter tradition in the Eighties.
Eight of the ten songs were written following Who drummer Keith Moon's death late in 1978. In December of 1979, during the band's American tour, eleven fans died in a preconcert crush outside Riverfront Coliseum, in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the members of the Who were repeatedly dismissed as worn-out ancients by Britain's scornful punks.
Amid the turmoil, Townshend resolved to make a solo album. "In a way, I've got the punk explosion to thank for making that decision," he said at the time. "It freed me. It allowed me to be myself. It dignified me, in a way, to be cast to one side. I felt uneasy with the way the Who were inevitably on the road to mega-stardom. . . . [It] was the most important thing I've ever done for me — to allow me to have a new beginning, to actually grow."
On Empty Glass, Townshend's ambivalent obsession with punk dominates both the lyrics and the music. Produced by Chris Thomas, who'd recently worked with the Pretenders and the Sex Pistols, the album was raw, muscular and focused in a way the Who never would be again.
Although he'd begun a spiral of booze and drugs that would lead to a bout with alcoholism and a temporary split with his wife, Karen, Townshend pledged in "A Little Is Enough" to make the best of their fitful marriage. "I was able to very easily put into words something that had actually happened to me when I was a thirty-four-year-old," he said. "It's very emotional, but it's also very straightforward and clear."
Of course, a literal reading of a songwriter as complex as Townshend can be deceptive, as in "Rough Boys" and "And I Moved" (written for Bette Midler), taken by some as confessions of homosexual lust. Townshend said, "A lot of gays and a lot of bisexuals wrote to me congratulating me on this so-called coming out. I think in both cases the images are very angry, aren't they? In 'Rough Boys,' the line 'Come over here, I want to bite and kiss you' is about 'I can scare you! I can frighten you! I can hurt all you macho individuals simply by coming up and pretending to be gay!' And that's what I really meant in that song, I think."
He dismissed "Let My Love Open the Door" as "just a ditty," but it charted as high as any Who single ever had, reaching Number Nine. "If I disagree with the fact that [Empty Glass] is the best work I've done in a long time, I would be fooling you," Townshend said in 1982. Later, he admitted that the Who seemed much less viable as a result: "I think the only thing that really went wrong was that I realized, as soon as Empty Glass was finished, 'Hey, this is it. I'm not able to achieve with the band what I've achieved here.'"