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Did The Who's Pete Townshend write this song about Syd Barrett?

There can be no doubting that Pete Townshend is a genius songwriter. Without his input, it is certain that English rock icons, The Who, would not have taken off. It was from him that the majority of their work derived, and aside from being a guitarist, Townshend is an adept multi-instrumentalist and has played keyboards, the banjo, accordion, violin and drums across his lengthy career; this dexterity helped him to bring The Who’s songs to life. 

However, Townshend is best known for his aggressive electric guitar style, one which had led many to perceive The Who as one of the first, if not the first, proto-punk bands. 

The Who’s creative mastermind, even more so in the days after the deaths of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, when it came round to him and frontman Roger Daltrey reforming with a new lineup in 2004 for their eleventh album, Townshend was again the man penning the songs. 2006’s album Endless Wire was the band’s first studio album since 1982, and the preponderance of it was a mini rock-opera entitled ‘Wire & Glass’, which was also released as an EP before Endless Wire hit the shelves. 

Typically Townshend, ‘Wire & Glass’ was a meta piece of work and referenced another of his creative endeavours. It’s based on his novella The Boy Who Heard Music, which was published through his official website in 2006. The book and opera are written from the perspective of Ray High, a fictional ageing rockstar. 

Much like with David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, High looks back on his career with his band The Glass Household. High also examines the drug-influenced mental breakdown which led to his current internment in a mental institution.

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At the time of release, Townshend explained that the Ray High character represents himself. However, many fans have posited that the story actually bears a resemblance to the decline of Pink Floyd’s ex-frontman and founding member, Syd Barrett. The psychedelic wizard’s battles with mental health struggles are well known, as is the fact that LSD use exacerbated what were perhaps underlying issues. 

However, Barrett never ended up in a mental institution. He became a recluse and retreated into himself, becoming a photographer and visual artist. So on account of this point, we can discount the claims that the opera was written solely about Barrett. He might have influenced the material in minor ways, but there’s no way of telling for sure. Weirdly, however, Barrett passed away only ten days before ‘Wire & Glass’ was released.

One could argue that the plot of ‘Wire & Glass’ is actually more in line with the life of ex-Fleetwood Mac frontman and founder, Peter Green, who did end up in a mental institution for a time. However, this is just speculative. We have to remember that at the time of writing, the mythologies of Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were well known, as was the age-old trope of the reclusive ex-rockstar, popularised in Todd Haynes’ 1998 flick Velvet Goldmine

It is probable that the aforementioned elements, Pete Townshend’s life and other things he witnessed whilst at his artistic zenith, will have influenced the narrative of ‘Wire & Glass’. Then again, it’s Pete Townshend, and he has a penchant for a rock opera and the dramatic, so it might not be based on anything tangible at all. We’ll let you make the decision yourself.

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