The Who (1964-present) represent one of the defining British Invasion bands. The Who could have easily been placed in the punk rock genre as one of the first true punk bands. They exhibited punk characteristics of violence, aggressive behavior (on and off stage), attention to fashion trends, and a healthy disrespect for authority. Their early fans could be thought of as the first punk fans but without the mosh pits. Their fan base was made up of largely testosterone driven males ready to raise hell at every Who show. The Who would be the most unsightly group of individuals to emerge from the mod movement in London. Guitarist Pete Townshend was tall, awkward, and thin, and bassist John Entwistle was a huge stoic bear of a man. Keith Moon was a wild anarchist behind the drums and Roger Daltrey portrayed the tough guy definition of a thug. There wasn’t a sex symbol in the band. Besides punk, they would also exert a big influence on hard rock and heavy metal bands.
Pete Townshend (1945- ) was born in West London into a musical family where his father, Horace Townshend, was a composer and entertainer. Pete learned to play the harmonica, guitar, piano, and later the banjo. He learned the basics of dixieland jazz and the blues. Townshend formed a band, The Confederates, in the spring of 1958 with some school friends that included a trumpet player, John Entwistle (1946-2002). Soon, they worked as a duo. Townshend focused on electric guitar, adding an amplifier, while Entwistle made his own bass guitar after hearing the guitar sound of Duane Eddy. Entwistle had met singer and guitar player Roger Daltrey (1944-), who led a band called The Detours. Daltrey approached Townshend and asked if he was interested in joining The Detours, who were popular and had many gigs. The Detours played a whole gambit of styles from country to popular tunes, to Cliff Richard songs, and even “Hava Nagila.” Townshend informed him that he was interested.
Both Townshend and Entwistle joined The Detours with Daltrey playing lead guitar. Soon, Daltrey fired the lead singer, Colin Dawson, and took over lead singing responsibilities. Along with their drummer Doug Sanden, The Detours played regularly at clubs all around London. Meanwhile, a hard-hitting drummer named Keith Moon (1946-1978) was playing in the surf rock band, The Beachcombers; one of the premier working bands in Northwest London. The Detours and The Beachcombers shared some common musical ground since they both played rock n’ roll classics and ballads. Both groups were keenly aware of the impact of important rock styles and the rising fame of The Beatles and other British Invasion bands. The Detours, however, began to move away from covering top hits, concentrated on rhythm and blues, and added more Delta influenced blues. They also rejected wearing suits and ties and soon adapted leather jackets and jeans. After appearing on TV, The Detours changed their name to The Who because Entwistle had heard that another band was called The Detours. They knew their band deserved its own name.
Pete Townshend was bringing many musical influences to his emerging style . Like his London guitar contemporaries Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton; Townshend primarily focused on blues legends such as Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf. By 1963, Townshend recorded his first song “It Was You” at a friend’s home studio. This song was covered by a Mersey beat band, The Naturals. The fact that Townshend’s song was recorded and published gave him the confidence he needed to further explore songwriting. It also allowed him to stand up to the very bossy leader of The Detours, Roger Daltrey. By the end of 1963, The Detours were set to open for The Rolling Stones. Townshend explained where he got one of his signature stage moves and said, “as Keith Richards waited for the curtain to open he limbered up by swinging his arm like a windmill. A few weeks later we supported them again at Glenlyn Ballroom, and when I noticed that Keith didn’t use the windmill trick again I decided to adopt it.”
The Who auditioned for Fontana Records in March 1964. Fontana liked their potential, except for drummer Doug Sandom. Keith Moon, when not working with The Beachcombers, would regularly attend The Detour’s gigs. One such night Keith approached the band looking to sit in. Sandom had already left the band and a session drummer playing with The Who that night allowed Keith to play a few tunes. A bystander in the crowd remembered, “The whole kit was shaking as if it had been caught in a hurricane, this kid was hitting the drums with so much venom it was as if he was holding them responsible for everything wrong in the world. By the time The Who thanked Keith, and asked the drummer to come back up to complete the set, the bass drum pedal was broken and at least one of the skins was torn. The hi-hat looked worse for wear as well. What was worse, the broken pedal ensured that the rest of the set sounded terrible, as if the session drummer wasn’t half as good as the kid… Keith had not even joined The Who and already the band was paying for his damages (the session drummer charged them for the broken gear).” Moon was excited about The Who, but was conflicted about leaving The Beachcombers. He loved his current band and he loved surf rock. After an inevitable conflict of multiple band bookings, Keith finally decided to leave The Beachcomers. The Who were now complete.
The Who had a manager, Helmut Gorden, who brought in publicist Pete Meaden to give the band an image makeover. Meaden was focused on linking The Who to the mod movement and its image of fashion, motor scooters, and lots of diet pills. Meaden dressed them in tailored white leather jackets, black pants, and French cut hairs. He booked them at the “in” mod clubs and began to build a strong following. Meaden then changed their name to The High Numbers (a number was a mod sub-group member who wore popular t-shirts with a numerical figure printed on the front. Meaden even wrote a few songs that he wanted the band to record. Shortly after, The High Numbers were approached by two young filmmakers looking to cast a band for a film project. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp saw the band at the Railway Hotel, where they had taken up a residency and where Townshend had smashed a hole through the low ceiling of the club with his guitar. They made the film and cast the High Numbers. Then conflict ensued when Lambert and Stamp offered to manage the band. Meaden eventually moved aside and Lambert and Stamp quickly returned the band name to The Who. The major labels were in search of bands that wrote their own tunes. Lambert and Stamp knew that Townshend could write and encouraged him to come up with some new material for the band. Townshend isolated himself and looked for inspiration in the music of Bob Dylan, Charlie Mingus, and John Lee Hooker. Townshend recalled, “I tried to divine what it was I was actually feeling as a result of this musical immersion. One notion kept coming into my head: I can’t explain. I can’t explain. This would be the title of my second song, and I was already doing something I would often do in the future: writing songs about music.”
During the summer of 1965, The Who toured Holland and Scandinavia (causing a serious street riot in Denmark. Townshend worked on the material for their first album, My Generation. The tune “My Generation” was inspired by the Mose Allison composition “Young Man Blues.” Kit Lambert, as he often did, weighed in on the songwriting process and for “My Generation” suggested that they modulate to create some musical interest. Also, Daltrey had been experimenting with purposely stuttering when singing various songs and added that idea to “My Generation.” The song was perfect for an American teen audience that felt alienated and disconnected from their future. The lyric of “hope I die before I get old” spoke directly to teen angst and rebellion. One example of the constant volatility of life in The Who happened at a live performance in May of 1966 at the Ricky Tick Club in Newbury, England. Bruce Johnston, of the Beach Boys, was visiting Keith Moon and recalled in horror the events of the gig. Johnston said, during the ‘My Generation’ finale, when Keith kicked over his drums, a cymbal hit Pete in the leg; in retaliation Pete went to swing his guitar into his speaker stack, and it caught Keith’s head instead… all of a sudden they got in the biggest fight I’ve ever seen. Guitars are swinging, everybody’s just in a frenzy.” As a result of the carnage, Moon quit the band. This was typical for the feuding Who. Moon was back in the drum chair by the next week.
A Quick One was the second Who album and was released in 1966. Pete wrote a collection of six songs and put them together into a “mini-opera.” This song collection was a humorous story about an unnamed woman and “Ivor the engine driver.” Each tune told an unfolding story of adultery and the six tunes helped The Who break through the three-minute song barrier. The album was released in time for Christmas in 1966 and went to number five in Britain. This was a significant period for the band since all members were now involved in the songwriting process. Said Townshend, “My reign set aside as an individual from the rest of the group was over and the group was becoming a group. It was only then that we started to work together musically.” The Who Sell Out was released in late 1967, almost too late for the Christmas market. The album didn’t chart well, nor did it sell as well as the first two albums. However, the single “I Can See For Miles” had been previously released and did reach the top ten. The Who Sell Out was a concept album of songs that were commercials and jingles. It featured a spoof cover divided into four panels that showed each band member “selling” a product. Townshend did write another “mini-opera” with the song “Rael” on the second side but much of it was cut down to fit the album.
In 1967, The Who and Jimi Hendrix both performed at the Sunday night finale of the Monterey Pop Festival. Both performed an explosive and instrument smashing set. Monterey was a huge moment for The Who that would lead to a number of sold-out tours in America. Also in 1967, The Who appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Moon had the idea to place tons of flash powder (dynamite in his bass drum) and at the end of “My Generation,” he created a tremendous explosion sending cymbal shrapnel into his own leg. The explosion caused Townshend to sustain temporary hearing damage and suffer burns to his hair.
The Who followed many successful American tours with four groundbreaking albums from 1969 to 1973. The mini-opera concept was now a familiar direction for Townshend and he was inspired to expand his musical ideas, moving to a full-length rock opera in the form of a double album. 1969’s Tommy proved to be an innovative and powerful vehicle for the concert stage. The basic storyline was about a boy who became deaf, dumb, and blind due to traumatic events that occurred in his home life when he witnessed his father commit murder. Tommy’s extraordinary talent for playing pinball proved to be a cathartic experience. Through his spiritual journal, he was healed and returned to a normal world of sight and sound. The critical success of Tommy gained the distinction of fine art. Tommy was first premiered by The Who in its entirety at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in England. In the film version of Tommy, directed by Ken Russell, brought it to a wider audience. In 1993, a new live version of Tommy debuted on the Broadway stage. “Pinball Wizard” did give The Who a song that could stand on its own outside of the whole Tommy storyline; thus allowing them to receive solid radio airplay. Pete Townshend’s acoustic guitar rhythm throughout the tune was aggressive and flowing. It created a rhythmic bottom that allowed Moon’s constant drumset flourishes and Townshend’s own overdubbed power chords to embellish the feel. “Pinball Wizard” has been covered many times, most notably by Elton John (recorded for the Tommy movie), Alice Cooper, and Rod Stewart with The London Symphony Orchestra.
Pete Townshend next turned his attention to an ambitious project called Lifehouse. Townshend looked to create a science fiction work that revealed visionary glimpses of the role that computers and synthesizers could play in futuristic music. The plot of Lifehouse was about a society that banned music and a government that controlled all aspects of society. When the complexity of the project failed to attract investors, the songs from Lifehouse formed the essence of what many feel was The Who’s masterpiece, Who’s Next. Not a weak song on the album, Who’s Next featured “Baba O’Riley,” “Bargain,” “The Song is Over,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and the Who’s anthem (and often live finale) “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The album was recorded by Glyn Johns (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2000) who engineered tremendous recorded sounds from the band. He was able to get Keith Moon to play with more discipline when the music needed to settle into more of a groove. Many music critics have praised Who’s Next as one of the greatest albums in rock history.
1973’s Quadrophenia was The Who’s second full- length rock opera. The storyline was about an English mod named Jimmy from the era of the mods vs rockers sub-culture. However, Quadrophenia was riddled with problems from the beginning. The storyline that was hard to follow, especially for American audiences. Many synthesizer parts made it difficult to perform live and it was recorded under challenging circumstances. Still, Quadrophenia was an album of great historical significance. It successfully introduced a young generation to the past mod culture and the time of zoot suits, diet pills, and street-fighting weekends. Quadrophenia served to link The Who to their first fans from their early days when they worked the London clubs in the 1960’s. Later, after the initial punk movement came and went, Quadrophenia served as a model for a full-scale mod revival in England.
The Who by Numbers was released in 1975 as The Who was struggling with personal issues and much public fighting. Townshend felt that the band was losing their relevance and were perceived, even by themselves, to be too old to play rock. The album took a long time to record and the lone hit was “Squeeze Box.” The Who By Numbers did peak at number seven on the British charts and “Squeeze Box” was a hit in America. The Who’s eighth studio album, Who Are You, was released in 1978. Who Are You continued Townshend’s complex arrangements and use of multi-layered synthesizers. Some of the song themes were directly related to the Lifehouse project. The song “Who Are You,” went to number fourteen on the American charts and featured keyboardist Rod Argent.
Who Are You would be the last album for rock drumming legend Keith Moon, who died on September 7th, 1978, only three weeks after the album’s release. Moon’s death was ruled accidental when he overdosed on Heminevrin, a drug used to treat alcohol withdrawal. The album cover of Who Are You showed an eerie picture of the band with Moon sitting in a chair with a sign that said “not to be taken away.” The Who were devastated with the loss of Keith Moon and it looked like that could be the end of the band. Eventually, a replacement was found, Kenny Jones, formerly from The Faces.
1981’s Face Dances was the ninth studio album for The Who. On this record, Kenny Jones replaced the late Keith Moon. The song “You Better You Bet” became one of their featured live tunes on tour. Face Dances served as a successful comeback for the band after the loss of Keith Moon and the album went to number four on the American charts. 1982’s It’s Hard would be the last Who recording until 2006. It was also the last recording for John Entwistle. One day before a new tour of America in 2002, John Entwistle died from heart attack at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Townshend and Daltrey released a statement “The Ox has left the building-we’ve lost another great friend. Thanks for your love and support.”
In the great void of time between later Who album releases, the 2000 Lifehouse Chronicles release was a box set of the material from the abandoned Lifehouse rock opera. Lifehouse Chronicles gave Townshend closure to this project that he wanted so badly to complete. It consisted of six CDs. 2006’s Endless Wire was the first new recording by The Who in twenty-four years! A Townshend mini-opera, “Wire and Glass,” was featured on the album. At this time, The Who consisted of Townshend, Daltrey, Pino Palladino on bass, Simon Townshend on guitar, John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboards, and Peter Huntington on drums (as regular drummer Zak Starkey-son of Ringo Starr was unavailable). Townshend and Daltrey were both very happy with Endless Wire and it energized The Who to continue touring the world.
The Who had a groundbreaking and prolific career eleven studio albums, twelve live albums, twenty-five compilation albums, four EP’s, fifty-eight singles, four soundtracks, three documentaries, and stage and film productions of the albums Tommy and Quadrophenia. No rock band has ever played with such unbridled energy and passion!!
The Who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.