From Mod-era “maximum R&B” to concept albums, rock operas and definitive classic rock tracks, the Who have reigned as one of rock’s most powerful, energetic and literate rock bands. At their best, they’ve distilled the pent-up energy and chaos of rock and roll into its purest form while investing their songs with lyrical depth and visionary insight.
In their prime, they were a unit whose individual personalities fused into a larger-than-life whole. Pete Townshend provided the slashing guitar work and wrote much of the material. Vocalist Roger Daltrey injected the songs with expressive muscularity and passion. Bassist John Entwistle anchored the band with his expert musicianship. Keith Moon, one of the greatest of all rock and roll drummers, embodied their explosive energy and anarchic wit. Entwistle and Moon combined to form one of the strongest and most unconventional rhythm sections in rock history.
In certain ways, the typical instrumentalists’ roles were altered in the Who. Townshend’s sluicing rhythm guitar served as the foundation upon which Entwistle, with his busy “lead bass” style, and Moon, with his melodic drum fills, embellished the songs. All of them were showmen, in their own way. In concert, the fiery Townshend frequently struck chords using his trademark “windmilling” style and would smash his guitar during the climactic “My Generation” finale. Daltrey made a natural rock and roll frontman who’d theatrically swing the microphone. “Moon the Loon” was also a visual spectacle, a blur of motion as he seemed to be all over the kit at once. Even Entwistle had a role to play: the stoic, unflinching bass player who was the calm eye of the surrounding storm.
How good were the Who? They were arguably the most divisively anarchic yet fiercely committed band in rock history, and they didn’t just command attention, they demanded it. As essayist Keith Altman wrote in appropriately breathless prose: “It is impossible to convey to anyone who never saw the Who onstage how totally opposed, combative, feuding, contentious, brawling, individually brilliant young musicians could blend into such a perfect gestalt of mind and music whose power, rage and compassion was both anguish and sheer unadulterated delight.”
Moreover, the Who engendered hardcore loyalty and commitment among its followers that was exceptional even in the rock realm. “For millions of rock fans,” wrote Who biographer Dave Marsh, “our hopes of creating a culture that abandoned voyeurism for involvement centered around the Who, a band that was honest with itself and with us as no other entertainers were willing to be…. The integrity, power and intelligene that animate [their] records, the compelling emotions evoked by their best music, the way that our lives were enriched by both are no illusion.”
The Who evolved in 1964 from a group called the Detours, a London-based quartet that performed rock and R&B in a hard-hitting style. The Detours included Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle and drummer Doug Sandon. Keith Moon, who’d played in a British surf group called the Beachcombers, replaced Sandon, and the Who’s classic lineup was complete. At manager Kit Lambert’s suggestion, they briefly changed their name to the High Numbers – releasing the 1964 single “I’m the Face” under that name – before reverting to the Who.
They came on as equipment-smashing Mods who brashly declared, “Hope I die before I get old,” in their stuttering anthem to mod culture, “My Generation.” The early Who demonstrated a mastery of the three-minute single, articulating the frustrations of adolescence in such combustible classics as “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “The Kids Are Alright” and “Substitute.” Townshend blossomed early as a brash, articulate songwriter, and Entwistle occasionally contributed some offbeat songs of his own, such as “Boris the Spider.” The Who’s initial albums, unlike those of such contemparies as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, included few cover versions.
Despite a string of classic singles, it wasn’t until the 1967 release of “Happy Jack,” a semi-acoustic piece of art-school whimsy, that the Who cracked the U.S. Top 40. A turn toward psychedelia and commercial satire yielded The Who Sell Out and its illuminating single, “I Can See for Miles.” This powerful piece of psychedelic pop became the Who’s biggest U.S. single to date, reaching Number Nine. The album also pointed the way toward Townshend’s embrace of grander conceptual works, as his songwriting became geared more toward albums than singles.
The songs on The Who Sell Out were linked by radio jingles and mock advertisements that made it play through like a segment from Radio London, a popular “pirate radio” station operating offshore in Britain. Beyond the amusement it offered, the concept undergirding The Who Sell Out pointed up the fact that rock musicians, despite their best intentions, were inevitably part of the business of selling things. The moral ambiguity hinted at here foreshadowed the much deeper connections that would bind rock and roll to lucrative corporate marketing interests in the Eighties and beyond.
By this point, Townshend and the Who had turned their attention from singles to their antithesis: internally coherent, concept-driven albums. In 1969, they released the conceptual Tommy, a double-album about the spiritual path of a “deaf, dumb and blind boy” and his followers. As Who chronicler Richard Barnes wrote, Townshend’s Tommy was as a “metaphorical story device that put across the idea of different states of consciousness. The premise was that we had our five senses but were blind to Reality and Infinity.”
It is a mark of the Who’s rapid evolution that they would progress from the succinct, singles-oriented The Who Sing My Generation in 1966 to the thematic “rock opera” Tommy in 1969. To this day, the Who are revered for both sides of their musical split personality: the concise, classic singles and the ambitious, abstruse concept albums.
An excerpt from Tommy (“See Me, Feel Me”/”Listening to You”) provided a stirring highlight of the Who’s set at the 1969 Woodstock festival and the subsequent Woodstock film documentary. That performance was also notable for Townshend’s confrontation with hippie-activist Abbie Hoffman, whose spiel from the stage was terminated with a swift kick from the Who’s guitarist. “Later I realized his humilation on that occasion was fatal to his political credibility,” Townshend admitted years later.
At all stages of its career, the Who has been a dynamic live act. The Who documented this side of their personality with Live at Leeds, a warts-and-all concert recording packaged to look like a bootleg. From the ashes of Lifehouse, a concept album that Townshend abandoned in midstream, came Who’s Next. Released in 1971, it was a flawless album that helped define the sound and sensibility of rock in the Seventies. From the synthesizer-propelled dissection of “teenage wasteland” in “Baba O’Riley” to Daltrey’s electrifying scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Who’s Next endures as a classic-rock primer. The latter song also encapsulated the jaded view of youth culture toward the political establishment in a single, pithy line: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”
The Who returned to the concept format in 1973 with Quadrophenia, a hard-rocking examination of the life and times of the mod subculture in which the Who were raised. The principal character was a young mod named Jimmy. Townshend’s second rock opera also served as a window that illuminated the four distinct personalities within the Who. As Townshend wrote in his notes for the project: “One side of him is violent and determined, aggressive and unshakable. Another side is quiet and romantic, tender and doubting. Another side is insane and devil-may-care, unreasoning and bravado. The last side of him is insecure and spiritually desperate, searching and questioning.” By turns he was describing Daltrey, Entwistle, Moon and, last of all, himself.
The Who By Numbers, released in 1975, returned them to the discrete song format and gave them a hit with the salty “Squeeze Box.”
During those decades when they were actively creating, the band was often outspoken and combustible. Group conflicts often fueled their best work, providing a volatile dynamic that never quite led to a breakup (though they came close). Only the 1978 death of Keith Moon – who overdosed on medication taken for his alcoholism – interrupted the original foursome’s remarkable run. The Who recruited a logical replacement for Moon: drummer Kenney Jones, formerly of fellow mods the Small Faces.
The Who found themselves in the news again a year later when another tragedy struck. Their December 3, 1979, concert at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium was preceded by 11 deaths as fans stampeded to get into the venue.
The reconstituted Who recorded two more albums, Face Dances and It’s Hard. The first of these yielded a spirited hit single, “You Better You Bet,” that exhibited some of the spunk of the punk and New Wave movements that the Who had themselves inspired. It’s Hard was intended to close the Who’s career on a positive note. Pete Townshend had conquered various mounting addictions, notably alcoholism, which had very nearly killed him. It’s Hard, including such Who classics as “Athena” and “Eminence Front,” was among their strongest later albums.
Beginning in the Seventies, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle pursued prolific solo careers during the Who’s downtime. Townshend’s extracurricular debut – Who Came First, featuring songs written for and about his spiritual mentor, Meher Baba – appeared in 1972. His solo career reached a critical and commercial peak with 1980’s Empty Glass, which included the Top 10 hit “Let My Love Open the Door.” Daltrey’s early solo work found him recording songs by a then-unknown Leo Sayer. Entwistle indulged his morbidly humorous side on such early-Seventies albums as Smash Your Head Against the Wall and Whistle Rymes, which provided an outlet for his growing vault of songs. Even Keith Moon got into the act, recording the superstar-studded Two Sides of the Moon in 1975.
Despite their much-publicized 1982 “farewell” tour, which included two shows at New York’s Shea Stadium, the Who thereafter regrouped on a number of occasions. They came together for Live Aid in 1985. The Who revived their rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia for multi-night stands in big cities and, subsequently, for full-fledged concert tours. A 1989 concert tour found Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle buttressed by 15 additional musicians. Tommy was also successfully adapted to the Broadway stage in 1993, with Townshend’s blessing and involvement, and won five Tony awards. The next year saw the release of an exhaustive four-disc box set, The Who: Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, which included rare and unreleased material.
The Who regrouped to tour in 1996 and 1997. The impetus was Townshend’s remastering of Quadrophenia, which the group performed in its entirety in concert with a full complement of musicians. Onstage the Who were joined by keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick (who first toured with them in 1979), guitarist Simon Townshend (Pete’s younger brother), drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son), a five-piece horn section, backup singers and other musicians. These were the Who’s first concerts since 1989, and the European leg represented the group’s first tour of the continent since 1975.
They stripped back to a five-piece band for a series of live dates in 1999 and 2000. On the eve of a North American tour in June 2002, bassist Entwistle was found dead in his Las Vegas hotel room, having succumbed to a heart attack due to cocaine use. The tour’s start was delayed by three days, and Pino Palladino replaced him on bass.
Now reduced to a pair of founding members – Townshend and Daltrey – the Who issued Then and Now!, a compilation containing two new songs. In 2006 came Endless Wire, the Who’s first album of all-new material in nearly a quarter century. It included a 12-song mini-opera entitled Wire & Glass, demonstrating that Pete Townshend’s ambitions for the Who remained strong after more than 40 years of “Maximum R&B.” The group toured heavily during the second half of the decade and were halftime performers at Superbowl XLIV in Miami in 2010.
All the while, the Who’s catalog has been steadily upgraded. A reissue campaign in the early years of the new century saw My Generation, Tommy, Live at Leeds and Tommy released as double-disc “deluxe editions.” A massive expansion of The Who Sell Out came out in 2009, and Quadrophenia appeared in a deluxe edition and Townshend-assembled “Director’s Cut” box set in 2011.
The following year, the group issued The Who: Quadrophenia – Can You Still See the Real Me?, a documentary about the album, and that November the band hit the road for a tour, playing the album in its entirety. The lineup included Simon Townshend on guitar, Zakk Starkey on drums and Pino Palladino on bass. The tour was scheduled to continue into 2013.