‘Somebody Saved Me:’ Is Pete Townshend's New Audio Book Worth a Listen?

‘Somebody Saved Me:’ Is Pete Townshend's New Audio Book Worth a Listen?
Ross Belot, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In 2019, Pete Townshend, the guitarist and chief songwriter of The Who, released one of his periodic works of fiction, The Age of Anxiety. That title would have worked equally well for his new Audible audiobook, Somebody Saved MeWith a running time of two hours and one minute, the book covers the era of Townshend’s life from 1977 to 2002. Those years are bracketed by the death, in 1978, of the band’s legendary hellraising drummer Keith Moon, and 2002, when their bassist, John Entwistle died. (Cutting his audio book off in 2002 also avoids having to rehash the unpleasantness that would follow Townshend for years soon after.) This was a key period in The Who’s history, with Moon being replaced by Kenney Jones from The Faces, the band signing a big-money contract with Warner Brothers, and Townshend going with Atlantic Records’ subsidiary label Atco for his solo albums. These two deals meant that Townshend was on the hook for seven albums over seven years, which meant he needed to do a frantic amount of songwriting. And on top of that, there were the horrors of his band’s concert in Cincinnati in 1979, at which 11 people died.


Regarding Townshend’s songwriting during that period, in his 2012 autobiography Who I Am, he wrote:

One night all the band members had dinner at the Hilton with Kenney and his wife, Jan. The mood in the room was extremely high. Winning the point over Roger, I had insisted Kenney be made an equal partner in The Who. He would get a 25 per cent share in the new Who record deal Bill Curbishley had brokered with Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers. The deal was for $10 million for four new albums and a ‘Best of’, hopefully to be delivered within seven years or less.

Doug Morris, head of ATCO records, came to see me in London with a deal for three solo albums over five years, also for very good money.

‘Can you deal with both these contracts, Pete?’ Doug was asking the obvious question. The fabulous money aside, I was committed to seven albums over seven years. To do that I needed to write more songs per year than I’d ever managed before.

‘Yeah,’ I told Doug carelessly. ‘I can deal with it. I’m on a roll.’

The combined strain on Townshend caused him to spin out of control in a binge of late-night clubbing fueled by alcohol abuse, cocaine, and eventually heroin, leading him to detox in early 1982. He then decided to quit The Who the following year and become an editor for the British publishing house of Faber & Faber (which had been home to T.S. Eliot, one of the Townshend’s idols), before being enticed by the prospect of the big money of touring, starting in 1989. Initially, Townshend toured to help pay off John Entwistle’s massive debts, caused by over-mortgaging his 42-acre estate and 55-room mansion.

The Music Must Change

Townshend has been touring off and on ever since, with only occasional new material released, ending his songwriting routine of the 1960s and ‘70s, which featured a new Who album full of his compositions every two or three years. His songwriting skills exploded exponentially during that period, initially under the tutelage of first manager, Kit Lambert, whose father was Constant Lambert, the founding musical director of the Royal Ballet. Kit Lambert encouraged Townshend to go beyond the three-minute single with what he later called his “mini-opera,” “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” and then write a full-blown “rock opera” — 1969’s double album, Tommy. Its massive success allowed The Who to finally begin to pay off the enormous debts they had incurred through another indulgence Lambert encouraged: The onstage smashing of equipment by Townshend and drummer Keith Moon. However, much of the money that came in from Tommy went into the pockets of Lambert and co-manager Chris Stamp — and Allen Klein, who became infamous for his mismanagement of The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles’ Apple Records. As Townshend recently told the L.A. Times while promoting Somebody Saved Me:


In the early days of the Who, everything was split four ways except my writing royalties, which sustained me. I don’t know how the other guys got on, for heaven’s sake. We toured a lot and had hit records, but we didn’t make any money. After [the 1969 album] “Tommy,” somebody made a lot of money, but it wasn’t us.

People like Elton John and the Stones all seemed to be living in castles in the South of France. I had a little house in the London suburbs, with three bedrooms.

To be fair, in the early ‘70s, that “little house in the London suburbs” also contained one of the first artist-owned project studios (where Pete was writing the songs for Who’s Next and Quadrophenia in the form of the demos he recorded there). Pete commuted around town in his enormous 1965 Mercedes S600 six-door Pullman limousine, and his late night recording sessions were fueled by an endless supply of Remy Martin VSOP cognac. Rock and roll!

Related: The Music Industry Is in Crisis Because People Are Buying More Old Songs Than New

Pounding Stages Like a Clown

Today though, The Who’s tours are largely an exercise in nostalgia. Their latest tour, called, “The Who Hits Back,” features Townshend and Daltrey, the orginal band’s two surviving members, backed by Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey doing a very good Keith Moon impersonation on drums, Townshend’s younger brother Simon on guitar, and a 48-piece orchestra, dutifully playing sets which consist of wide swatches of Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, their singles, and a couple of new songs such as “Hero Ground Zero” and “Ball and Chain.” The latter of which, with its references to Guantanamo Bay, was taken as a cue by the audience to head to the beer concession, when I saw the band in Dallas on May 5. There was a bit of schizophrenia in the air, as the band next played “Join Together,” which featured images of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainian flags on the jumbotrons, eventually followed, ironically enough, by “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Part of The Who’s success in the 1970s was by largely eschewing overt political messaging, and seeing it badly shoehorned into the set in Dallas is a reminder of how important it was not to be bludgeoned by politics.


Did You Steal My Money? 

Somebody Saved Me begins with Townshend exploring how he wrote two of his best solo songs, “Let My Love Open the Door” and “A Little is Enough,” before telling the story that he had previously written about in his 2012 autobiography, Who I Am:

[A]ny pretensions I might have had to become a Born-Again Punk were quickly shattered when I was summoned to New York by Aaron Schecter, my New York accountant, who looked after Track Music, Inc, the US arm of my UK publishing company. There was a matter of great urgency I had to deal with. Without explaining to me what he was doing, or why, he walked me from my hotel to a large bank.

‘Go in,’ he said.

‘Why?’ I asked, confused.

‘Just walk in.’

I walked in, and approached one of the tellers, a pretty one. ‘Good morning, Mr Townshend,’ she said. Wow! I spluttered. A bank full of Who fans!

‘Pardon me, Mr Townshend,’ she corrected me. ‘I am not a Who fan. Would you like information on your account?’

‘I don’t have an account.’

‘Mr Townshend, we hold a number of accounts here with individuals the bank regards as important enough for us to remember their names and faces. You are one of those individuals.’

‘Right then,’ I said. ‘Can I have details of my account? What’s the balance?’

The girl fiddled about for a few moments.

‘You have one million, three hundred thousand dollars on high-interest deposit on call, and a further fifty thousand dollars in your main account. Would you like to make a withdrawal?’

‘No, thank you.’ I had never seen a million of any currency, apart from Italian lire, in my entire life.

Aaron had joined me at the desk.

‘Ask yourself, Pete,’ he said ‘why did you not know your money was here?’

He then slipped away. As I left the bank I bumped into Annie Leibovitz. ‘Hi Annie,’ I mumbled. ‘Take my photograph. I’m rich.’

The money was in a New York bank account, Townshend explains in Somebody Saved Me, because his first manager, Kit Lambert, had developed a heroin addiction and wanted to have the cash available to fuel it when he was in the States. 


The Godfather Meets the Punks

After a bit of legal wrangling back in London, Townshend was eventually awarded his money, and that night went to a club, met two of the Sex Pistols, and got quite drunk, which formed the basis of his 1978 song, “Who Are You.” As rock journalist Dave Marsh wrote in his 1983 history of The Who, Before I Get Old:

[Townshend left the club, but] walked only a few paces beyond the exit, then slumped into a nearby shop doorway, out cold.

He woke with a policeman‘s boot in his midsection. Townshend’s celebrated blue eyes fluttered open, fighting off the sun and a bitter headache. “Wake up Pete,” said the cop. “As a special treat, if you can get up and walk away, you can sleep in your own bed tonight.”

Townsend climbed to his feet and staggered away, a disheveled, slouching, humiliated and exhausted figure. He made it to the nearest tube station, bought a ticket to Richmond, took a cab from the station and dumped himself on his own doorstep. When he entered the house, Karen was waiting, annoyed and worried.

“Where have you been?” she asked.

“I’ve been to hell” groaned Pete and he went to bed. He wrote about it when he woke up, in a song called “Who Are You,” which captured the strain and humor of the period, the fundamentally ludicrous experiences of the evening. Townshend never needed much excuse to wallow in self-loathing, and the legal settlement, which ensured his wealth and killed his relationship with Kit Lambert, was better than most.


As Townshend explains in Somebody Saved Me, he used his newfound wealth on a variety of projects, including a Meher Baba devotional center in London, new recording equipment, a boat, and a cottage in Cornwall. Eventually, Townshend would also build a recording studio on a barge, which he still owns, a publishing company, a bookshop, and a business that rented out P.A. equipment to up-and-coming bands.


Already, Townshend was becoming massively overextended in both time and finances, and The Who were branching into film production, which had been the dream of their original managers. The Who seemed omnipresent during this period, arguably the peak of their career, with films such as The Kids Are Alright and Quadrophenia, constant touring, and best-selling albums, along with Townshend’s solo albums, 1980’s Empty Glass and 1982’s (very pretentiously titled) All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.

“Yeah, But It’s a Hit!”

One of the hit singles from Empty Glass was “Let My Love Open the Door.” In a funny anecdote early on in Somebody Saved Me, Townshend explains recording the demo of the song in his country house’s home studio — and inadvertently keeping his wife and their friends awake all night in the process:

In the excerpt, Townshend recalls writing the 1980 classic on the organ in his country house while entertaining guests. Realizing he had something special, the musician stayed up all night working on the song in his non-soundproofed studio — keeping his family and friends from catching a wink of sleep.

“I had this special studio which was supposed to be soundproofed, but the architect said, ‘I don’t do soundproofing. You can do that.’” Townshend recalled before adding that he never bothered with it. “I started to write this song and I thought, ‘F**k, this is definitely a hit.’ So I kept going.”

He continued, “[When I] looked at my watch, it was half past 4 and I managed to go to bed. I get up the next day at 2, and my guests and my wife and my kids are just black. And I say, ‘Yeah, but it’s a hit!’ Nobody had slept a wink.” Listen to the full clip below.

Somebody Saved Me’s blend of Townshend’s anecdotes and song demos is an intriguing concept, particularly given that Townshend’s home recordings became legendary among die-hard Who fans. The demos here are apparently a blend of the original backing tracks Townshend recorded in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but frequently beefed up with new drum and bass parts, and new vocals from Townshend. Since Townshend’s 1983 double album of his demos, Scoop, was my gateway drug to home music recording, I would have preferred to have heard the demos in their original form. Also, at 77, Townshend’s voice is, understandably, rougher than it was at the peak of The Who. (Compare the last song on Somebody Saved Me, “You Better, You Bet,” which has a vocal from about 1980, with the rest of the tracks in the audio book.)


So, ­­­is Somebody Saved Me worth a listen? Yes, if you’re a die-hard Who fan and want to relive the band’s empire-building period and the hangover that followed. It’s also for a good cause: Pete donated his fee from Audible, “half a million dollars,” he told the L.A. Times, to his charity, the Teen Cancer Trust in the UK. Otherwise, if you’ve already read Townshend’s 2012 autobiography, and Daltrey’s own 2018 life story, Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite, you may find this is covering much the same territory.

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