Pete's Memoirs parts 15-17

Martin Bailey mbailey at
Wed Mar 28 07:04:36 CDT 2007

These have appeared this week at:

Most interesting (apart from the "nudists cuddling"!) is the last chapter, which discusses the origins of Trilby's Piano.  It seems that part of Wire & Glass, at least, was autobiographical.

I didn't think that Unchained Melody was released until the 60s.  I remember hearing that this is most covered song ever - I think much more than 5.


Fifteen <> 
My father's record was released 31st July 1956. In October of that year he received a royalty statement of £15 2s 6p. There were pop charts by that time, and I got a taste of the high life and the promise of celebrity. My father the pop star. He was a local hero. "A new Star! Cliff Townshend and His Singing Saxophone-UNCHAINED MELODY". Although my father never got a hit ('Unchained Melody' was covered by at least five other artists, three of whom I think charted simultaneously) seeing his handsome face on posters in the local record shops brought closer for me the prospect of one day becoming famous, and marrying a beautiful girl.

That summer we had all gone as usual to the Isle of Man. While the band played at the beautiful Palace Ballroom in Douglas I loved to wander around the gilded gallery, smartly dressed in my white shirt and blazer. On one occasion two pretty teenage girls sat either side of me and began to tease me. They were dressed in the full skirts and petticoats of the day, with pretty shoes and low-cut bodices. I felt very much like the little boy I really was, their overload of perfume made me swoon. They snuggled up to me and in a familiar way began to discuss-over my nose which darted back and forth between the sight and scent of each heaving cleavage as though watching a tennis match-which member of the Squadronaires they each fancied. One girl immediately claimed the drummer. So the other took her time and eventually selected my father. 'That's my dad!' I shouted, confused as to why the girl seemed disappointed. The incident set my heart on becoming a performing musician.

In 1956 popular music was not rock 'n' roll. That had not yet arrived. I was regarded by my parents as having little musical talent other than a 'thin, nasal, soprano voice'. I could play, and later collected, harmonicas. In the absence of any other musical instrument in the house, and forbidden to touch my father's clarinets or saxophones, it was an affordable and solitary option.
Posted by Pete Townshend at 2:37 PM <> 53 comments <>  <>

Sixteen <> 
A friend at school encouraged me to join the Sea Scouts; I was impressed with his smart uniform and badges. He took me to meet the troop leader and I was immediately signed up for a 'bunkhouse weekend' by way of introduction. My father interviewed one of the leader's assistants and was very suspicious about him. We arrived on Saturday and spent the afternoon trying to tie nautical knots from a chart, which neither of the two adults present could themselves manage. After a pleasant fry-up lunch it seemed as though the light began to quickly fade and we were hurried to the boat for a short trip up river. We pootled up the river slowly, the inefficient engine droning steadily. As we swept down past The Old Boathouse at Isleworth, the Nazareth House convent, the London Apprentice public house and the ancient ferry crossing at Syon, I began to hear the most extraordinary music. It was sparked off by the sound of the outboard motor and the gentle, swift, swooping motion of the boat travelling down river. Within the moan of the engine I heard violins, celli, horns, harps and finally voices. The voices increased in numbers until I could hear millions of angelic threads, it was a sublime experience and I began to swoon.

At the very height of my euphoric transport the boat grated up against the muddy foreshore at the troop's hut. The engine stopped. I immediately came to full consciousness, but was left in great distress. I felt bereft, cold, deserted and began to shiver and quietly weep. One of the men put his coat around me and led me up to the camp where I was settled by the stove to warm up. A few moments later I was standing naked in a cold shower that was set up behind the bunkhouse. It was almost dark, and there was a stark bulb behind the two men who stood watching me shiver as the freezing water sprayed over me. 'Now you are a real Sea Scout,' they said. 'This is our initiation ceremony.' What followed needs no description. What is discomforting for me today is that this obvious exposure to homosexual interest in me was preceded by such a divinely momentous spiritual revelation. I have never confused the two of course, even at ten year's old I was street-wise enough to have some idea what was going on and I never went back to the Sea Scouts. The revelation on the river was formative and fundamental to the way I listen to music, indeed to the way I exist as an artist and experience all art. I look into, beyond and through, to find the real uplift, the source of beauty.
Posted by Pete Townshend at 2:36 PM <> 52 comments <>  <>

Seventeen <> 
I tried hard to enliven my mind. I regularly visited the museums in South Kensington. I was ruthlessly non-academic. I wrote stories constantly and drew hundreds of pictures, mainly of battles. I became obsessed drawing the plans of a fantasy fleet of huge, double-decked, articulated touring buses. This linked in some way both the happy times of my childhood on the Squadronaires' band coach and the unknown future, the rock and roll circus, the endless road that lay ahead. My fleet contained school rooms, play rooms with electric train-sets, swimming pools, cinemas, music rooms, and-as I approached puberty-I added a large articulated vehicle to contain a nudist colony with a 'cuddling room'. I had no idea what might happen when nudists cuddled while travelling in a huge coach at fifty miles per hour, but I guessed it would be pretty interesting. One terrific idea was a ramp that allowed motor-cycles and small cars to be loaded and unloaded while the slower mother-coach was in motion. I drew the machinery from several angles, if I built it today it would work perfectly. I regularly sang in a church choir too, my friend David urged me to do so-we had made a fortune together singing carols in the neighbourhood, just the two of us. My parents still resisted the idea I had any musical talent.

Whenever we made a family visit to Horry and Dot's, I got to see not only my beloved grandparents, but also my Aunt Tril. In her room was a piano, which became a real attraction for me, because it was the only piano in my life. Tril could read music and played light classics and popular songs, but was shy with me, and never tried to teach me very much. She would entertain me with palm-readings and interpretations of the Tarot, all of which she claimed indicated I would be a great success in every way-or at least live a 'large' life. She provided me with drawing paper and complimented my rapid sketches. After a time in her company I would always drift to the piano and-looking sideways to check that she was properly engrossed in her knitting, crochet work or a book-began to play. The instrument was never quite in tune, and I explored the keyboard until I found the combination of harmonics I was after. Then, I would repetitively play the same series of notes over and over, listening through the surface and deeply into what piano-tuners call 'overtones', the harmonics and resonances that all musical instruments produce as a characteristic of their timbre. One day at Trilby's piano I found some chords which quickly sent me into another euphoric trance, this time the music that was releasing me was in my own head. My body buzzed all over and my head was full of the most complex and disturbing orchestral music, which in my own mind I was both hearing and, in a manner of speaking-because I seemed to be able to influence its movement and complexity-composing. 'That was beautiful,' said Tril, looking up. 'Really, really lovely. You are a real musician.' She was the first person ever to recognise my musical ability, to tell me I had musical talent.
Posted by Pete Townshend at 2:35 PM <>

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