MORE than any other band that hit America's shores during the British invasion, The Who embodied youthful rebellion. Initially a rhythm-and-blues outfit, The Who put forth a lean, muscular sound featuring Roger Daltrey's vocals, Pete Townshend's rhythm guitar, John Entwistle's bass, and Keith Moon's drums — a simple garage-band set-up that belied the innovations that were in store for the group. But as rock and roll approached its adolescence, The Who gave adolescence a voice: as sung by Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend's lyrics translated the rage, longing, irony, and vulnerability of youth into a cathartic musical experience. Although the group is best remembered for its stadium-rock antics — Townshend's dramatic leaps and bloodied-finger windmill guitar strokes, Daltrey's twirling microphones, the notorious destruction of their instruments and their ear-splitting decibel levels — it was in the recording studio where The Who left its mark on rock and roll.
Townshend's roots don't reveal much in the way of source material for his anthems of teen angst. He was born in London just ten days after the Nazi surrender, and he enjoyed a typical, middle-class upbringing, though his parents, Cliff and Betty Townshend, were both musicians in Royal Air Force orchestras. When he was thirteen, young Pete and his friend John Entwistle began playing in a Dixieland band, with Pete on banjo and John on trumpet. They drifted apart for a couple of years, but after Townsend abandoned his banjo for the guitar and Entwistle traded in his trumpet for a bass they reconnected in a fledgling rock combo.
Entwistle was eventually lured away by another Shepherd's Bush chum, Roger Daltrey, who sang for a group called the Detours. Townsend tried his luck at art school, but before long he, too, became a Detour. In late 1963, Pete Meaden and Helmut Gordon took over management of the band, arranged for a recording contract with Fontana Records, and changed their name to the High Numbers. The High Numbers' first single, "I'm the Face"/"Zoot Suit," did not sell well, prompting Gordon and Meaden to fire the group's middle-aged drummer in favour of the young and volatile Keith Moon, who had previously played for a surf band called the Beachcombers.
The High Numbers quickly developed a following among the Mods, a movement of close-cropped young Brits enamoured of Motown hits and motorscooters. Two young filmmakers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, took notice of the group and took over their management. In short order, they changed their name to The Who, a gimmicky moniker designed to elicit clever newspaper headlines (and, later, album titles). Lambert and Stamp managed to land the group a date at Soho's Marquee Jazz Club, where they continued to play for three months straight, generating an enormous amount of buzz with their unusually aggressive stage antics.
Around this time, Townshend decided to try his hand at song writing, and he came up with "I Can't Explain," a moving rocker about adolescent longing. Lambert and Stamp interested the American branch of Decca Records in the single, which convinced the English Decca to release the record as well. (The English Decca, having already made the gargantuan blunder of turning down the Beatles, couldn't risk making the same mistake with The Who.) The band performed "I Can't Explain" on England's number-one rock television show, Ready, Steady, Go, where the audience participated in an orchestrated, "spontaneous" outburst of screams at the end of the song, and the record shot into Britain's Top 10.
Even more successful was the adrenal, anthemia "My Generation," in which Townshend's lyrics have a hopped-up, stuttering Mod telling the older generation to fade away. The song's catchphrase "hope I die before I get old" captured the urgency of youth and later set up the middle-aged Townshend and Daltrey’s for smart-aleck questions from self-satisfied rock journalists. The song became the basis for the band's first album, The Who Sing My Generation, released in 1965. Their debut album established Townshend's writing as the true spirit behind The Who, but Daltrey's assertive, throaty vocals were no less accomplished.
By the time My Generation hit the shelves, Townshend and company had earned a reputation as one of the loudest, most violent acts in England. By accident earlier in the band's career, Townshend had hit his guitar neck on the ceiling of a club, got frustrated, and smashed the whole thing to pieces. After the incident made the group something of a media sensation, the band used it for publicity value. They'd created the monstrous (not to mention expensive) expectation in fans that they would destroy their instruments at the end of their shows. It was something of a letdown if they didn't. When Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon followed suit on his drum set, while Daltrey’s drove his mike stand into the amplifiers. Only Entwistle refused to take part in the melee; he remained anchored to his spot onstage, playing a steady lick amid the crashes, squeals, and feedback.
The Who's second album, A Quick One (titled Happy Jack in America), gave the band an opportunity to show off their versatility. Producers Lambert and Stamp encouraged each member of the band to contribute to the album, leading to the notable discovery of John Entwistle's amusingly morbid songwriting bent on songs like "Boris the Spider" and "Whiskey Man." But the most interesting contribution was Townshend's "A Quick One While He's Away," a mini-opera about a woman who has a liaison with a truck driver while her husband is gone, admits it, and is forgiven. Townshend's increasing taste for drama foreshadowed The Who's later groundbreaking glory in rock opera.
The Who Sell Out (1967) was an amusing concept album designed to pay tribute — and mock — the recently banned pirate radio stations. The tracks were linked together by funny faux advertising jingles and bogus announcements, but it was far from merely a joke album: Townshend's song writing matured on songs like "I Can See for Miles" and "I Can't Reach You," while "Rael" laid the musical foundation for their next album.
That same year The Who played the United States for the first time, starting off with a memorable appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival alongside Jimi Hendrix, which segued into a tour with Herman's Hermits. The tour was notable for the band's raucous antics off-stage as well as on. Drummer Keith Moon etched his way into the bad boys of rock history book with a particularly enthusiastic drinking binge on his twenty-first birthday in Flint, Michigan. Moon ruined several cars with fire-extinguisher foam, then dove into an empty swimming pool, smashing his front teeth. All told, the boys in the band did $15,000 worth of damage to their hotel, and were henceforth banned from Holiday Inns worldwide. But the incident planted the seeds of legend for The Who, and since then no rock group worth its salt can respectably refrain from occasionally trashing a hotel room.
An extended hiatus in 1968 allowed Townshend the time to revisit a piece he had started writing when he was nineteen. It was an ambitious song cycle about a "deaf, dumb, and blind kid" who "sure plays a mean pinball." Released as a double-album in 1969, Tommy was hailed as a breakthrough by critics, who noted Townshend's invention of rock opera. Although the story was laden with clunky symbolism, Townshend's opus won him raves for song writing, thanks largely to the standout "Pinball Wizard" and "See Me, Feel Me." Even the stodgy Life magazine declared that "for sheer power, invention, and brilliance of performance, Tommy outstrips anything that has ever come out of a recording studio." Townshend was doubtful of the astounding reception of the album: "We went from the ridiculous to the sublime — being told we were musical geniuses when really we were just a bunch of scumbags," he later said.
Following the Tommy hoopla, The Who decided to take some time off and reward their longtime fans with a live album (Live at Leeds) and a greatest-hits collection (Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy). Townshend, though, was already planning his next masterpiece, a futuristic multimedia extravaganza called Lifehouse. Never completed, the project pushed Townsend to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Trying to salvage some songs from the fiasco, the group released Who's Next in 1971. It was quickly hailed as another work of genius, and was one of the first rock albums to make significant use of synthesizers. Daltrey was at the height of his vocal powers, and Townshend was plumbing the spiritual yearnings he had been experiencing for some time — "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" were seventies answers to "My Generation" and encapsulations of post-Woodstock malaise, while the haunting "Behind Blue Eyes" was the band's best ballad ever.
The group revisited the rock opera in 1973 with another double-album, the brilliant Quadrophenia. Townshend's elegy to the Mods, the piece was more thematically ambitious and subtle than Tommy, as Townsend represented the four members of The Who as different facets of the album's confused "quadrophenic" narrator. "The Real Me," "Love, Reign O'er Me," and "The Punk Meets the Godfather" were the standout tracks, as the band managed to pull off symphonic melodies on an epic scale, again utilizing synthesizers in a groundbreaking manner. But, unlike Tommy, the opera failed to capture the imagination of fans or critics, and the tour that followed was a series of often confusing attempts by Townshend to explain what he was writing about.
In retrospect, many have deemed the record one of the band's best, and though they would make four more albums, Quadrophenia is often thought of as their last hurrah. Not to say that The Who were diminishing in popularity — quite the contrary. They devoted themselves to touring during the seventies, putting on some of the most ambitious stadium concerts ever seen. The band used seventy-two speakers, fourteen tons of equipment, and introduced lasers to rock and roll for the first time. At The Who's rainy 1976 concert before 76,000 at Charlton Football Grounds in England, the Guinness Book of World Records measured the event as the loudest-ever rock show. An all-star film of Tommy, featuring Daltrey in the lead and Moon as Uncle Ernie, earned a mixed reaction in 1975, but increased the band's already enormous notoriety.
As the band's fame and touring spectacle grew ever larger, the music ventured into tamer territory. The Who by Numbers wasn't particularly ambitious, though it featured several memorable songs. Townshend's "Squeeze Box" was a serviceable hit, but it seemed more like something Entwistle would come up with. The tone of the album was sombre, a recorded history of Townshend's early midlife crisis: "However Much I Booze" portrayed his feeling of being trapped in his rock-star destiny, while "How Many Friends" was a disillusioned stab at fame's inevitable hangers-on, and "Blue, Red, and Grey" was a tender evocation of life's glories made all the more poignant by the sadness of the songs that surrounded it.
But while Townshend verbalized his angst, Keith Moon seemed to actually live it out — to an inevitable and ugly end. The drummer asphyxiated on his own vomit after overdosing on a drug he was taking to battle alcoholism. He left behind a legacy as "Moon the Loon," the lovable eccentric of rock, but 1978's Who Are You — released a few days after his September 7 death — revealed what a heavy toll his fast life had taken on his once-formidable talents as a drummer. Ironically, the album's cover depicted Moon sitting in a chair marked "Not to be taken away."
Who Are You lacked the inspiration of the band's previous efforts, and it seemed the group would simply disband after Moon's death. The Kids Are Alright, a documentary on The Who released in 1979, seemed like a fitting epitaph. But the band hung on, replacing their fallen bandmate with ex-Faces drummer Kenney Jones, and hitting the road in 1979 for a U.S. tour that would include the notorious Cincinnati concert at which eleven fans were trampled to death. The new Who didn't release another album until 1981, when they put out Face Dances — a pallid effort whose highlights were John Entwistle's "The Quiet One" (an interesting autobiographical song: "I ain't quiet — everybody else is too loud") and the nostalgic pop-rock of Townshend's "You Better, You Bet." The Who's last studio album, 1982's It's Hard was a commercial success, but hardly a fitting finale — it was just tuneful enough to whet a new generation's appetite for The Who's past glory, and a farewell stadium tour of America proved an enormous money-maker for everyone involved.
The Who released numerous greatest-hits and rarities compilations since disbanding in 1982, and they occasionally reunited, Not surprisingly, Pete Townshend has had the most vital solo career of the ex-Who members, releasing several well-received albums but seldom hitting the highs he reached with The Who. His greatest success came thanks to his old friend Tommy, which was revived as a Broadway musical in 1993, and earned him a Tony Award. Roger Daltrey, meanwhile, tried his hand at Shakespeare and various acting assignments, while John Entwistle remained relatively quiet during the 80s and 90s, save for appearances with his eponymous band during the Left for Dead tour.
In 1996, the trio reunited with a backing band and guest star Billy Idol for a Quadrophenia tour, which reaffirmed the original album's great value even as it emphasized how little the latter-day Who seemed like a rock band. Although not billed as ‘The Who’, this tour – which stretched through to Spring 1997 – was basically a Who tour to fans and critics alike.
The Who’s popularity and myth as a fearsome live act grew throughout the late 1990s as more and more young bands on both sides of the Atlantic drew inspiration from the power of the group’s recordings.
In 1999, the band revived an old tradition of playing Christmas shows in London, the scene was the band’s old stomping ground of Shepherd’s Bush. Over three nights the played blinding powerhouse sets to the crème of the British rock fraternity. Newly energised by the addition of Zak Starkey on drums, these shows saw a rebirth of the band and a renewed vigour, which led them to tour the US in one of their most successful tours of all time.
The Who were back and this time, to stay.
The US tour led to UK arena dates and to some very memorable nights at the Royal Albert Hall in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. The Who were at the height of their powers and getting some the best reviews of their career. To top it all the band performed at The ‘Concert For New York’ at Madison Square Garden and it was agreed that not only did they blow the roof off of the place, but they cemented themselves once and for all as New York’s favourite band of all time.
Inevitably all of this activity led to talk of a new Who record but the band were not ready to commit to that just yet, then, in June 2002 on the eve of another massive North American Tour, tragedy struck The Who once again – John Entwistle died as a result of heart failure in a hotel in Las Vegas. He was only 57.
Although distraught at the loss of their friend, Daltrey and Townshend carried on with the tour, drafting long-time Townshend collaborator Pino Palladino as a bass man. There was a firm belief that John would have wanted the tour to continue and now, almost a year on from the loss of their great friend, Roger and Pete have vowed to work together again and not to let John’s death be the final chapter of The Who.
Meanwhile Who music still forms part of the soundtrack to life in 2003 with Who songs being used in numerous movies/TV shows including the themes to two of the US’’s top TV shows CSI and CSI-Miami
From here on in, all bets are off, who knows what the future will hold?