“As one of the key figures of the British Invasion and the mod movement of the mid-‘60s, the Who were a dynamic and undeniably powerful sonic force. They often sounded like they were exploding conventional rock and R&B structures” (Erlewine). With four distinct personalities ranging from the manic Keith Moon to the quiet John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey’s “thuggish menace” (Erlewine), The Who fronted the mod movement during the mid-‘60s British Invasion. “These divergent personalities frequently clashed, but these frictions also resulted in a decade's worth of remarkable music” (Erlewine). As the band’s primary writer, Pete “Townshend continually pushed the band toward more ambitious territory, incorporating white noise, pop art and conceptual extended musical pieces into the group's style” (Erlewine). Even with the success of the ambitious rock operas Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973), “the remainder of the Who…wanted to stick to their hard-rock roots, playing brutally loud, macho music” (Erlewine)
on masterpieces such as Who’s Next (1971).
The Who also gained a reputation for their live performances, which were aggressive both in their assault on listeners’ eardrums and the band’s instruments. The Who marched well into the ‘70s as “arena rockers” (Erlewine) with few peers. However, the death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 derailed the band. They recorded two more studio efforts in the early ‘80s, but garnered lackluster reviews.
The Who “reunited numerous times in the late ‘80s and ‘90s to tour America. The group's relentless pursuit of the dollar was largely due to Entwistle and Daltrey, who never found successful solo careers, but it had the unfortunate side effect of tarnishing their reputation for many longtime fans” (Erlewine). Townshend and Daltrey even plowed forward with reunion plans in 2002 despite Entwistle’s death on the eve of the tour. “However, there's little argument that at their peak, the Who were one of the most innovative and powerful bands in rock history” (Erlewine).
Credit Entwistle with pulling The Who together. Entwistle and Townshend “met while attending high school in the Shepherd's Bush area of London. In their early teens, they played in a Dixieland band together, with Entwistle playing trumpet and Townshend playing banjo. By the early ‘60s, the pair had formed a rock & roll band” (Erlewine).
Meanwhile, “a sheet-metal worker named Roger Daltrey” (Erlewine) was the guitarist in The Detours, a band formed “in London in the summer of 1961” (Cady). They “started off performing covers of pop tunes, but quickly progressed to loud, hard-edged covers of American rhythm-and-blues” (Cady).
Entwistle was recruited by The Detours in early-’62 and, at his suggestion, “Townshend had joined as a rhythm guitarist” (Erlewine) by the end of the year. Daltrey became the band’s lead singer in 1963 when original vocalist Colin Dawson left and then, in April 1964, original drummer Doug “Sandom was encouraged to leave the band” (Cady). “Young maniacal drummer Keith Moon” (Cady), “who had previously drummed with a surf-rock band called the Beachcombers” (Erlewine), “insisted on performing with The Who at a gig. He smashed their replacement drummer’s foot pedal and was accepted into the band” (Cady).
During this personnel shake-up, the band “discovered a rival group also named The Detours” (Cady) and, at the suggestion of “Pete's art school friend Richard Barnes” (Cady) changed their name to The Who.
Under the management of Pete Meaden, they changed their names again to High Numbers and became the “favorite group” (Cady) of “a new British youth movement called the Mods, young men who dressed in stylish clothes and wore their hair short” (Cady). “Numbers were what Mods called each other and the High implied…use of ‘leapers,’ the speed tablets that Mods took to allow them to party all weekend” (Cady). The group “began dressing in sharp suits in order to appeal to the style and R&B-obsessed mod audience…and…released one single, ‘I'm the Face’/’Zoot Suit,’ which was comprised of two” (Erlewine) “old R&B songs with new lyrics about Mods” (Cady) “written by Meaden” (Erlewine). The single failed and “the band's name reverted to The Who” (Cady) and they ditched Meaden as a manager.
Top 10 Success in the U.K.:
“Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two fledgling music business entrepreneurs who had previously failed as film directors” (Erlewine), stepped in. Lambert and Stamp encouraged the band to continue to embrace the Mod movement and offered the band “advice on both what to play and what to wear, including pushing the target T-shirt that became a key visual signature. The group reclaimed the Who name and began playing a set that consisted entirely of soul, R&B and Motown — or, as their posters said, ‘Maximum R&B’” (Erlewine).
“Kit and Chris pushed Pete to begin writing songs for the group, specifically one to attract The Kinks’ producer Shel Talmy. Pete adapted a song he had already written called ‘I Can’t Explain’ to The Kinks’ style and won over Talmy. The Who signed a contract making Talmy their producer for the next five years. He in turn, signed them to Decca Records in the U.S” (Cady).
“I Can't Explain” “was released to little attention in January 1965. Once the Who appeared on the television program Ready, Steady, Go the single shot up the charts, since the group's incendiary performance, featuring Townshend and Moon destroying their instruments, became a sensation” (Erlewine).
It was not the first time The Who had smashed their instruments on stage. Interestingly, though, there are differing accounts of the first instrument smashing incident. One version says “Pete accidentally cracked the neck of his guitar on a low ceiling during a show. The next time they played there, fans called for Pete to smash his guitar again. He did and Keith followed it up by smashing his drum kit” (Cady).
Another account says that it was “at the Marquee club in London…where Townshend first smashed one of his guitars out of frustration with the sound system” (Erlewine). Either way, coupled with Pete’s “windmilling style of guitar playing, adapt[ed] from a stage move of Keith Richards,” (Cady) the antics would become part of the band’s “performing signatures” (Erlewine).
In any event, the Ready, Steady, Go appearance propelled “I Can’t Explain” into “the British Top Ten, followed that summer by ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.’ That fall, ‘My Generation’ climbed all the way to number two…confirming the band's status as British pop phenomenons” (Erlewine). “It was a defining ode to the Mod outlook on life, with the singer stuttering from amphetamine-overdose crying out ‘I hope I die before I get old’” (Cady).
“Roger was the leader of the group at the time, a position he controlled with his fists” (Cady). “Pete’s increasing abilities as a songwriter” (Cady) – “he soon became regarded as one of the finest British songwriters of his era” (Erlewine) – “threatened [Daltrey’s] position, especially after…‘My Generation’” (Cady). Because of Roger’s violent ways, he was briefly ousted until he “promised to be a ‘peaceful perce’” (Cady).
From Success to Sell Out:
“At the same time, The Who released their first album, also called My Generation. Kit and Chris were “distressed by Decca's lack of marketing…[and] broke the band’s contract with Talmy and signed the band with Atlantic in the U.S. and Reaction in the U.K. Talmy struck back with countersuits, almost halting the release of the band's next single ‘Substitute’” (Cady); the song would become the Who’s “fourth British Top Ten hit” (Erlewine). The suit “was eventually settled with The Who paying record royalties for the next five years to Talmy and reverting to Decca in the U.S. This settlement, along with the band’s extremely expensive act of equipment-smashing, soon left The Who in severe debt” (Cady).
“To generate more revenue” (Erlewine), “Lambert and Stamp decided that every member of the Who should contribute songs to the group’s second album” (Erlewine). “John…wrote two peculiar ditties, one about a ‘Whiskey Man’ and the other about ‘Boris The Spider.’ It was the beginning of John as an alternate songwriter for the band, a songwriter with a dark sense of humor” (Cady).
“Pete wrote a mini-opera to close the album. ‘A Quick One While He's Away’ is the story of a woman who is seduced by Ivor the Engine Driver” (Cady). “The album was named A Quick One both for the mini-opera and the slight sexual innuendo” (Cady). It “became another British hit” (Erlewine) but was ignored in America until “it was renamed Happy Jack, after the single” (Cady).
In the summer of 1967, the group “appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival” (Erlewine). This “brought The Who to the attention of the San Francisco hippies and the rock music critics that would soon form Rolling Stone Magazine. Pete, with his constant pontificating, could always be relied upon for copy, and he helped sell the band in the U.S. as a ‘thinking man’s’ band” (Cady).
During this same time, “Keith's reputation as a hellraiser would be cemented at his 21st birthday party (when he was actually 20) held at an after-show party in a Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan. All that actually happened was that birthday cake got mashed into the floor, a fire extinguisher was sprayed on cars, ruining their paint jobs, and Keith broke out a tooth when he slipped in the cake while running from the police. With time and many embellishments by Keith, this turned into an orgy of destruction climaxing with a Cadillac at the bottom of the hotel swimming pool. In any event, The Who were banned for life from Holiday Inns and this along with their occasional smashing up of hotel rooms became part of the band’s and Keith's legend” (Cady).
Concept Albums – Pirate Radio and a Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Kid
Next up on the recording front was “The Who Sell Out, a concept album constructed as a mock-pirate radio broadcast” (Erlewine) that “would later be considered one of their best” (Cady). “The album featured ‘I Can See for Miles,’ which became the group's first Top Ten hit in America” (Erlewine). “While [The Who’s] fortunes increased in the U.S., …‘I Can See for Miles’…barely got into the Top Ten in Britain” (Cady) and “The Who Sell Out did not sell as well as their previous [albums]” (Cady).
“During 1968, the Who delivered their final mod single with the bizarre ‘Dogs.’ By that time, the mod audience had declined considerably, and the single bombed” (Erlewine). “During this downturn, Pete quit using drugs and turned to the teachings of Indian mystic Meher Baba…[Pete’s] following work would reflect what he learned from Baba’s teachings. One such idea was that those who can perceive earthly things are unable to perceive the world of God” (Cady). Pete subsequently wrote “a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy with a gift for pinball” (Erlewine). “Removed from…earthly perceptions [he] can…see God. When cured, he becomes a messiah figure” (Cady).
The resulting “double concept album Tommy…was acclaimed as the first successful rock opera” (Erlewine). “The group supported the album with an extensive tour, where they played the opera in its entirety” (Erlewine) and “it became the highlight of their show” (Cady). When they performed Tommy “at the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969, the climax of the opera, ‘See Me, Feel Me,’ …played just as the sun rose over the festival. Captured on film…in the movie Woodstock, Tommy and The Who became international sensations” (Cady).
Tommy would go on to be “performed as a play across the world and would eventually be filmed by Ken Russell in 1975 (the movie starred Roger Daltrey) — plus, in 1993, Townshend turned it into a Broadway musical with director Des McAnuff” (Erlewine).
“Townshend was stumped about how to follow it up” (Erlewine). “To buy time before the next project, The Who “released Live at Leeds in 1970, as well as the single ‘The Seeker.’ The following year a singles collection called Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy was released” (Erlewine).
“By late 1970 Pete had the idea for the next project…a science-fiction story about virtual reality and a boy who rediscovers rock music. The hero would hold an endless concert and at the end find the Lost Chord which would take them all to nirvana” (Cady). “Townshend…intended to incorporate electronics and synthesizers on the album, pushing the group into new sonic territory. The remainder of the Who weren't particularly enthralled with Lifehouse, claiming not to understand its plot, and their reluctance contributed to Townshend suffering a nervous breakdown. Once he recovered, the group picked up the pieces…and recorded Who's Next…Boasting a harder, heavier sound, Who's Next” (Erlewine) “became another international hit and is considered by many as The Who's best album” (Cady). “Many of its tracks — including ‘Baba O'Riley,’ ‘Bargain,’ ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ ‘Won't Get Fooled Again’ and Entwistle’s ‘My Wife’ — became cornerstones of album-oriented FM radio in the ’70s” (Erlewine). “‘Won't Get Fooled Again’ became the band's closing song for the rest of their career” (Cady).
Another Rock Opera
“With growing fame, the members of The Who began to chafe under the burden of being the voice for Pete's songs. John was the first to launch a solo career with the album Smash Your Head Against the Wall released shortly before Who's Next. He would continue to record solo albums through the early 1970's, giving vent to his dark, humorous songs. Roger also began a solo career after building a studio in his barn. His album Daltrey yielded a Top Ten British single ‘Giving It All Away’” (Cady).
Pete also released a solo effort, 1972’s “Who Came First, a collection of private recordings and demos he made for Meher Baba” (Erlewine) while beginning work on another rock opera. “It was to be a history of The Who” (Cady), but developed into the story of “Jimmy, a mod fan of The High Numbers in 1964. He works a dirty job to make money to buy a GS motorscooter, hip mod clothes and enough leapers to get him through the weekend. The heavy doses of speed cause his personality to split four ways, each personality represented by a member of The Who. His parents discover his pills and kick him out of the house. He travels to Brighton to relive Mod’s glory days but finds the head Mod reduced to a lowly bellboy. In despair he takes a boat out to a rock in the sea in a violent storm and has an epiphany (‘Love, Reign O'er Me’)” (Cady).
“Quadrophenia developed problems shortly after recording. It was to have been mixed for the new four-channel quadrophonic system, but the technology was too inadequate. Once mixed down to stereo, the rich sound tended to bury the vocals, to Roger's consternation. On stage, The Who tried to recreate the sound by playing along to backing tapes. The tapes, however, refused to cooperate and often led to chaos. In addition to all this, Keith's wife left him shortly before the tour, taking their daughter with her. Keith drowned his sorrows in booze and whatever else he could get his hands on. At the San Francisco show that opened the U.S. tour, Keith passed out in the middle of the show and was replaced by Scott Halpin, a member of the audience” (Cady).
Losing Focus…and the Light of the Moon
“The Who began to fragment after the release of Quadrophenia, as Townshend began to publicly fret over his role as a rock spokesman; in private, he began sinking into alcohol abuse. Entwistle concentrated heavily on his solo career, including recordings with his side projects Ox and Rigor Mortis, as Daltrey alternately pursued an acting career and solo recordings. Moon, meanwhile, continued to party, celebrating his substance abuse and eventually releasing the solo album Two Sides of the Moon, which was studded with star cameos” (Erlewine).
“The next Who album, The Who By Numbers [was] a dark, bitter look at Townshend's soul” (Cady). “The record and its accompanying tour became a hit, but following the tour's completion, they officially took an extended hiatus” (Erlewine). “After a particularly loud concert on this tour, Pete noticed he had a ringing in his ears that wouldn't stop. A trip to the doctor revealed that he tinnitus and would soon go deaf if he didn't cease touring” (Cady).
“In early 1977 Pete signed the final papers dissolving The Who's ties to Lambert and Stamp. He left the meeting only to run into two members of the Sex Pistols, the new punk sensation that seemed to be the new broom that would finally sweep The Who away. It ended with Pete drunk in a doorway told to move on by a policeman” (Cady).
“This became the song ‘Who Are You’ the title track of the next Who album” (Cady). “The album represented the group's heaviest flirtation with prog rock since Quadrophenia [and] …became a huge hit” (Erlewine). “Instead of being a triumphant comeback, though, Who Are You became a symbol of tragedy” (Erlewine). Keith “was in sorry shape. He had gained a lot of weight, had become a severe alcoholic, and looked a decade older than his true age of 30” (Cady). “On September 7, 1978, mere months after the record's release” (Erlewine),
Moon “died of an accidental overdose of pills he had been prescribed to control his alcoholism” (Cady).
Marching Lamely Forth
“Since Moon was such an integral part of the Who's sound and image, the band had to debate whether continuing on was a wise move” (Erlewine). “Many thought The Who should have called it quits after Keith Moon's death” (Cady). “Eventually, they decided to continue performing, but all three surviving members would later claim that they felt the Who ended with Moon's death” (Erlewine).
“Hiring Kenny Jones, a former member of the Small Faces, as Moon's replacement, as well as keyboardist John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick to round out the lineup…The Who began touring…but the tour's momentum was crushed when 11 attendees at the group's December 3, 1979 concert at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum were trampled to death in a rush for choice festival seating. The band wasn't informed of the incident until after the concert was finished, and the tragedy deflated whatever goodwill they had” (Erlewine). “It was decided to keep on touring, but doubts of its appropriateness remained” (Cady).
“Following the Cincinnati concert, the Who slowly fell apart” (Erlewine). Despite his 1980 solo album Empty Glass being “hailed as the equal of his work with The Who” (Cady), “Townshend became addicted to cocaine, heroin, tranquilizers and alcohol, suffering a near-fatal overdose in 1981. Meanwhile, Entwistle and Daltrey soldiered on in their solo careers” (Erlewine). Roger also “released McVicar, a excellent, gritty film in which he played a real-life bank robber” (Cady).
“The band reconvened in 1981 to record and release Face Dances, their first album since Moon's death. The album was a hit but received mixed reviews” (Erlewine). “It was judged to be inferior to the band's previous standards and to some sounded as if it were made up of leftover tracks from Pete's Empty Glass album” (Cady).
“The following year, they released It's Hard” (Erlewine), an album the group had crafted to “reflect their concerns over the growing tensions of the Cold War…It's Hard…also explored the changing role of men in the wake of feminism. Critics and many Who fans, however, disparaged it as much as Face Dances” (Cady).
“The tour of the U.S. and Canada which began in September 1982 was billed in advance as The Who's farewell tour. The final show was broadcast closed-circuit around the world from Toronto December 12th, 1982. After the tour The Who were supposed to record one final album to fulfill their contract. Pete began work on an album called Siege, but quickly abandoned it. He met with the other band members and said he felt he could no longer write songs for them. After obtaining an early settlement of their record contract, Pete announced the end of The Who at a press conference December 16th, 1983” (Cady).
The Final Tour – Again and Again and Again
“It wasn't long before The Who made a return appearance. On July 13th, 1985, they were reunited to perform at the charity concert Live Aid which had been put together by Bob Geldof to aid starving Ethiopia. The Who were to have performed a new song by Pete, ‘After the Fire,’ but lack of rehearsals led them to play only some old favorites. ‘After the Fire’ subsequently became a solo hit for Roger” (Cady).
“Townshend continued recording to relative success” (Erlewine) and “Roger and John struck off on their own during the late 1980’s. In addition to extensive acting work in films and television, Roger launched a solo tour in 1985. John did the same in 1987. They played much smaller venues than the stadia of old, but loyal Who fans continued to support them” (Cady).
“In February 1988 The Who reunited again to receive the BPI Life Achievement Award. They played a short set after the awards at Royal Albert Hall. Pete was then writing a new rock opera based on the children's book The Iron Man written by Ted Hughes. In addition to other stars, Pete called in Roger and John for two tracks which were billed on the album as The Who. This reuniting of the band led to talk of a reunion tour, and after much cajoling of Pete, a new tour came about in the summer of 1989” (Cady).
“It was billed as The Who's 25th anniversary tour, but it was a radically different group on stage than had been there in 1964. Pete stuck mostly to acoustic with another guitarist playing lead” (Cady). Jones was “replaced by session drummer Simon Phillips” (Erlewine). “The shows featured the first complete performance of Tommy by The Who since 1970 and climaxed in Los Angeles with an all-star concert featuring Elton John, Phil Collins, Billy Idol and others” (Cady). “Whatever goodwill the Who had with many fans and critics was squandered on that tour, which was perceived as simply a way to make a lot of money” (Erlewine).
Pete’s next endeavor was an adaptation of Tommy “into a stage musical which incorporated many elements of Townshend's own life story…The Who’s Tommy opened on Broadway April 23rd, 1993. Who fans had a mixed response but the New York and London theater critics loved it and it won Pete both a Tony and a Laurence Olivier Award” (Cady).
“The Who reunited again in 1994 for two concerts to celebrate Roger Daltrey's 50th birthday” (Erlewine). “Following this Roger and John toured the U.S. playing Who songs with Pete's brother Simon on guitar and Ringo Starr's son Zac Starkey on drums” (Cady).
Townshend decided to revive Quadrophenia in 1996, reuniting the Who to perform the piece at the Prince's Trust concert in Hyde Park that summer. The Who followed it with an American tour in the fall, which proved to be a failure. The following summer, the Who launched an oldies tour of America which was ignored by the press” (Erlewine).
“In October 2001, they played the Concert for NYC benefit for families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. In late June, 2002, The Who had once again regrouped and were about to kick off a North American tour when John Entwistle died at the age of 57 in Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel” (Erlewine).
Do Two Make The Who?
Daltrey and Townshend soldiered on, even recording a couple new tracks for a 2004 compilation and, in 2006, released Endless Wire, their first full-length studio album in nearly a quarter century.