Early life and education
Townshend was born on 19 May 1945, at Chiswick Hospital, Middlesex (now west London). He came from a musical family: his father, Cliff Townshend, was a professional alto saxophonist in the Royal Air Force's dance band the Squadronaires and his mother, Betty (née Dennis), was a singer with the Sydney Torch and Les Douglass Orchestras. The Townshends had a volatile marriage, as both drank heavily and possessed fiery tempers. Cliff Townshend was often away from his family touring with his band while Betty carried on affairs with other men. The two split when Townshend was a toddler and he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother Emma Dennis, whom Pete later described as "clinically insane". The two-year separation ended when Cliff and Betty purchased a house together on Woodgrange Avenue in middle-class Acton, and the young Pete was happily reunited with his parents.
Townshend says he did not have many friends growing up, so he spent much of his boyhood reading adventure novels like Gulliver's Travels and Treasure Island. He enjoyed his family's frequent excursions to the seaside and the Isle of Man. It was on one of these trips in the summer of 1956 that he repeatedly watched the 1956 film Rock Around the Clock, sparking his fascination with American rock and roll. Not long thereafter, he went to see Bill Haley perform in London, Townshend's first concert. At the time, he did not see himself pursuing a career as a professional musician; instead, he wanted to become a journalist.
Upon passing the eleven-plus exam, Townshend was enrolled at Acton County Grammar School. At Acton County, he was frequently bullied because he had a large nose, an experience that profoundly affected him. His grandmother Emma purchased his first guitar for Christmas in 1956, an inexpensive Spanish model. Though his father taught him a couple of chords, Townshend was largely self-taught on the instrument and never learned to read music. Townshend and school friend John Entwistle formed a short-lived trad jazz group, the Confederates, featuring Townshend on banjo and Entwistle on horns. The Confederates played gigs at the Congo Club, a youth club run by the Acton Congregational Church, and covered Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, and Lonnie Donegan. However, both became influenced by the increasing popularity of rock 'n' roll, with Townshend particularly admiring Cliff Richard's debut single, "Move It". Townshend left the Confederates after getting into a fight with the group's drummer, Chris Sherwin, and purchased a "reasonably good Czechoslovakian guitar" at his mother's antique shop.
Townshend's brothers Paul and Simon were born in 1957 and 1960, respectively. Lacking the requisite test scores to attend university, Pete was faced with the decision of art school, music school, or getting a job. He ultimately chose to study graphic design at Ealing Art College, enrolling in 1961. At Ealing, Townshend studied alongside future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood; future Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury also studied there soon after. Notable artists and designers gave lectures at the college such as auto-destructive art pioneer Gustav Metzger. Townshend dropped out in 1964 to focus on music full-time.