The Who, with songwriter, guitarist, and keyboard player Pete Townshend, vocalist Roger Daltrey, bass player John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon, became one of the most enduring parts of the British invasion of the 1960s. With hits like “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation,” the band became a symbol of the era’s youth movement. They helped define and popularize the concept of the rock opera with the critically acclaimed “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.” Despite setbacks, such as the death of Moon and long dry spells during which the group was considered disbanded, the Who has managed to maintain its following, which has been augmented by the ranks of fans who were babies when the band first burst upon the music scene. As David Gates reported in Newsweek, “after the Beatles and the Stones, they’re it. ”
The roots of the band that would become the Who grew early. Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle were school acquaintances during their adolescence in London, England. Particularly close were Townshend and Entwistle, who played together in a Dixieland band
Group became the Who in 1964; members included Pete Townshend (full name, Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend; born May 19, 1945, in London, England; son of Clifford [a musician] and Betty [a singer] Townshend, mother’s maiden name: Dennis; married Karen Astley, 1968; children: Emma and Aminta), songwriter, guitarist, keyboard player; Roger Daltrey (born March 1, 1944, in London, England) vocalist; John Entwistle (born September 10, 1944 [one source says October 9, 1946] in London, England) bass player; Keith Moon (born August 23, 1946, in London, England; died September 7, 1978, in London, England) drummer; Kenny Jones (born September 16, 1949, in England) replaced Moon as drummer.
Entwistle, Daltrey, and Townshend performed in a group called the Detours, 1962; added Keith Moon and changed their name to the High Numbers, 1963; changed group name to the Who, 1964; drummer Keith Moon died, 1978; added Kenny Jones as drummer, 1979; group disbanded, c. 1983; reformed to appear at Live Aid, 1985; reformed with Simon Phillips replacing Jones, and Steve Bolton, for a reunion tour, 1989. Appeared in films, including Tommy, Quadrophenia, and The Kids Are Alright.
Awards: Many gold and platinum albums.
Addresses: Home —(Townshend) The Boathouse, Ranelagh Dr., Twickenham, TW11QZ, England. Office —(Townshend) c/o Entertainment Corporation of America, 99 Park Ave., 16th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10016–1502. Record company—Warner Brothers Records, Inc., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, Calif. 91505.
when they were thirteen. Eventually they lost interest in that type of music and both became enamored of rock and roll, but while Townshend went to an art college, Entwistle joined a group called the Detours with Daltrey. When the Detours concluded that their guitarist was inadequate, Townshend was recruited. By 1962, they were one of the most popular attractions in London’s small clubs.
In 1963, the Detours came under the management of Pete Meaden and Helmut Gordon, who changed the group’s name to the High Numbers in hopes of appealing to England’s new “Mod” youth culture—Mods valued psychedelic drugs, and it was hoped that “High” would be interpreted as a reference to intoxication. Also in keeping with the image, Meaden and Helmut decided that the band’s thirty-five-year-old drummer was too old to attract young fans and should be replaced. While in the throes of these changes, the High Numbers recorded an unsuccessful single, “I’m the Face.” With the drumming question unresolved, they were playing at the Oldfield Hotel in Greenford when a drummer from a surf band asked if he could sit in with them for a few sets. The High Numbers and their managers liked what they heard, and Keith Moon joined the group.
Shortly afterwards, the High Numbers again came under new management, film directors Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. Lambert and Stamp suggested yet another name change, and this one stuck. As the Who, the band attracted even more attention, gaining a reputation in London’s clubs for violent stage antics like Townshend’s now famous guitar-smashing and Daltrey’s equally renowned twirling his microphone cord like a lariat. As for Moon, countless critics have described his manner with the drums as “attacking” or “destroying.” Entwistle, perhaps for contrast, stood relatively still while playing his bass. By the end of the same year, 1964, the Who had also landed a recording contract with Decca Records (later MCA). Their first major single, “I Can’t Explain,” was released early in 1965. Though the disc was only moderately successful in the United States, it made the top ten of the British charts. A string of English hits followed, including 1965’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “My Generation,” 1966’s “The Kids Are Alright,” and “Happy Jack,” 1967’s “I Can See for Miles,” and 1968’s “Magic Bus.”
The Who gained important U.S. exposure with their appearances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969, and their following in the United States had been growing steadily since the release of “My Generation”; but their star did not really rise there until the advent of their rock opera, “Tommy.” Townshend’s story of “Tommy,” a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes both a phenomenal pinball player and a sort of messiah, changed the way rock music was perceived. The Who performed “Tommy” in serious opera houses all over the world, including the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen in Denmark, the Cologne Opera House in Germany, and the Champs Elysees Theatre in Paris, France. Their presentation of “Tommy” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City was judged one of the greatest rock concerts of all time by Rolling Stone.As the magazine concluded, the rock opera “directly challenged the cultural establishment’s dismissal of rock as three-minute segments of cacophony.”
In addition to gold albums, such as 1971’s Who’s Next and Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, the Who also created a second rock opera, which they released on the 1973 album, Quadrophenia. Like “Tommy,” “Quadrophenia” was primarily written by Townshend and also eventually became a successful film; the latter creation centers on a member of the Mod culture named Jimmy, whose diverse character aspects reflect those of the Who’s members. But the band was beginning to age—in fact, the theme behind 1975’s The Who by Numbers was the question of whether older rock musicians could retain their relevancy.
The Who suffered its first major setback in 1978 when Keith Moon died of an overdose of an anti-alcoholism drug. Though Kenny Jones was enlisted to take over drumming duties, the band continued to have problems, including some close calls with drugs on Townshend’s part. A1979 concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, further lowered the Who’s morale when eleven people were trampled to death in the crowd’s rush to get to the seats. The group changed to Warner Brothers Records to release Face Dances in 1981 and It’s Hard in 1982, but despite hits like “You Better You Bet,” “Athena,” and “Eminence Front,” most of the Who’s members felt these albums were not of consistent quality with their previous work. Townshend told Rolling Stone reporter Steve Pond: “I think the Who stopped two albums too late.” Also, the group was never completely at ease with Jones’s style of drumming, and missed Moon. As Townshend confided to Pond, “the fact of the matter is, there is a ghost… . There’s the ghost of the void which is left when the person is gone.” After a farewell tour that ended early in 1983, the Who disbanded.
The band reunited in 1985, however, to perform for Live Aid, the concert effort for Ethiopian famine relief. The Who came together again in 1989 for a reunion tour, despite the problems created by Townshend’s debilitating tinnitus, a hearing problem probably caused by his many years of exposure to the high decibel levels of the group’s music. For the 1989 tour, Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle were joined by drummer Simon Phillips—who is said to recall Moon’s energetic style—and guitarist Steve Bolton. Fred Goodman reported that “for most of [the tour’s] shows…the Who rumbled and thundered with the authority of a freight train…the group brought an urge and verve to many of its warhorse anthems.” The proceeds from two performances of “Tommy” benefited charities for autistic and abused children; the proceeds from another two concerts featuring the Who’s hits over the years went to Special Olympics.
My Generation, Decca, 1966.
Happy Jack, MCA, 1966.
The Who Sell Out, Decca, 1967.
Magic Bus, Decca, 1968.
Tommy, Decca, 1969.
Live at Leeds, Decca, 1970.
Who’s Next, Decca, 1971.
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Decca, 1971.
Quadrophenia, MCA, 1973.
Odds and Sods, MCA, 1974.
The Who by Numbers, MCA, 1975.
Who Are You, MCA, 1978.
The Kids Are Alright, Polydor, 1979.
Hooligans, MCA, 1981.
Face Dances, Warner Brothers, 1981.
It’s Hard, Warner Brothers, 1982.
Marsh, Dave, Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, St. Martin’s, 1983.
Newsweek, July 3, 1989.
Rolling Stone, June 4, 1987; July 13, 1989; August 10, 1989.
Formed: 1964, London, England
Members: Pete Townshend, guitar, vocals (born London, England, 19 May 1945); Roger Daltrey, lead vocals (born London, 1 March 1944). Former members: Kenney Jones, drums (born London, 16 September 1948); Keith Moon, drums (born 23 August 1947; died London, 7 September 1978); John Entwistle, bass (born London, 9 October 1944; died Las Vegas, Nevada, 27 June 2002).
Best-selling album since 1990: Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
The Who's golden age was over by 1980; by then the British band had consolidated enough of a reputation as a live act and had produced sufficient material to ensure an upper berth in the pantheon of rock performers. Along the way, the group's history was peppered by the same tragedies that scarred many of the leading groups that came to prominence in the 1960s.
Addiction and death (two original members of the four-piece band have passed on) have marked a story that has been sustained, in the last two decades, primarily through touring. Yet the magnificent body of recorded material, which flowed principally from the musical pen of guitarist Pete Townshend from 1964 to the end of the 1970s, confirms the Who's glittering standing in the gallery of greats. Their potent blend of raw rock and roll, white R&B, and incisive lyrical commentary coupled with their awesome power as a live outfit left a deep imprint on their fans and generations of young bands who followed.
The product of London's nascent rock scene of the early 1960s, the band first emerged as the High Numbers and was linked to the ferment of the mod subculture: fashion-conscious young men and women who dressed with a sharp elegance and subscribed to the sounds of the British blues revival and American soul. In 1964 the High Numbers issued a single, "I'm the Face," the B-side of which was "Zoot Suit." The single's failure led the group to hire two new co-managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. The group's name was changed to the Who, and a residency at London's famous R&B venue the Marquee quickly followed.
In a stunning burst of energy, the Who then released a sequence of singles that left a deep impression on the British pop charts: "I Can't Explain," "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere," and "My Generation"; the last was speedily adopted as an anthem of fast-living adolescents. "People try to put us down / Just because we get around" sings Daltrey, reflecting on a new confidence and optimism infusing British youth culture. But it was Townshend's line, "Things they do look awful cold / Hope I die before I get old," that distilled the spirit of this youthful assault and reflects perceptively on the notion of a generation gap between adults and the young.
The energy and aggression of their shows were soon legendary, and the smashing of their instruments onstage became a notorious aspect of their live appearances. This element of the Who's persona, embodied particularly in the excessive behavior of drummer Keith Moon when on tour, helped to form the band's mystique.
By 1966 Townshend's songwriting abilities had been further showcased in tracks like "Substitute" and "I'm a Boy." Yet there were unusual aspects to their progress—they did not manage to ride the early British Invasion wave that allowed the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and others to make headway in the United States.
Tommy and After
The spring of 1967 brought the group belated transatlantic recognition as their live gigs in New York won applause. Their appearance that same summer at the Monterey Festival in California, the first-ever open-air rock event, stole the show. In the fall, "I Can See for Miles" gave them a hit in both England and the United States. In the spring of 1969, the larger vision that Townshend had already hinted at was unveiled when "Pinball Wizard" trailed the arrival of Tommy, a double-album odyssey, inspired by a short story by the British journalist Nik Cohn, that related the experiences of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy with a penchant for playing pinball. As the first single famously announces, "But I ain't seen nothing like it in any amusement hall / That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball."
The band's status as perhaps the premier live act of the period was confirmed some months later when the Who took the stage at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 and proceeded to deliver a memorable, powerful set. Yet their insistence that they be paid in cash before going on stage at the event, the high tide of the hippie subculture, left almost as great an impact as their performance. The tour album Live at Leeds (1970) captures some of their live electricity, and the song "Won't Get Fooled Again" (1971) stunningly voices the political frustrations of the previous decade.
In the early 1970s Tommy began to take on a life of its own. In 1972 it became a stage musical, one of the first rock operas, and 1974 saw the release of the movie version, directed by Ken Russell and featuring Elton John, Tina Turner, and a number of other notable stars.
With Quadrophenia (1973) the Who's creative conveyor belt kept rolling. Another double album with a strong conceptual thread, the piece looked back to the mid-1960s, when the fashion-conscious mods, fans of the Who, clashed with their rivals the rockers, followers of earlier rock and roll. Although the collection spawned some single successes, like "5.15," the focus of the band was drifting as a series of solo projects took group members in different directions.
Dissolving and Re-forming
In 1978 Keith Moon died of an overdose of a drug that he was taking to battle his alcoholism; it was an unsurprising conclusion to a life that had been lived to the extreme. By the beginning of 1979, former Faces drummer Kenney Jones had been drafted to replace him. The early 1980s saw the band tread water in many ways, and by 1983 the group announced its dissolution. But the Who re-formed to play at Live Aid, the transatlantic live event that featured dozens of rock and pop acts in a benefit concert for African hunger charities. A decision to return to touring in 1989 proved that the split had been far from final.
Townshend's prodigious appetite for work resulted in a fine solo album, Empty Glass, in 1980. He also became involved with the literary publishing house Faber in an advisory capacity—they had already published his short stories; in 1989 he collaborated with the British poet laureate, Ted Hughes, in creating a musical version of Hughes's children's story The Iron Man.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the Who have continued to play and tour intermittently. Townshend issued a further concept work in 1993 with Psychoderelict, a musical piece interspersed with dialogue, and that same year Tommy enjoyed a successful Broadway incarnation. Daltrey's fiftieth birthday celebration in 1994 brought a galaxy of stars, including Lou Reed and Eddie Vedder, to Carnegie Hall.
In 1996 Quadrophenia was mounted in a well-received revival in London's Hyde Park, but the group's ensuing tours seemed to rely too heavily on the legacy of the past and made less impact. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the band was present at the New York benefit concert for victims of those events.
In June 2002 the original lineup suffered a further major blow when John Entwistle died of a heart attack on the eve of another U.S. tour amid news that Town-shend, Daltrey, and Entwistle were working on their first new material in more than twenty years. Although the tour still proceeded as a tribute to the man they nicknamed the Ox, with Pino Palladino on bass and Zak Starkey on drums, the Who could not escape dark headlines.
At the start of 2003, Townshend, whose solo profile had been relatively low for some time, was propelled into the media glare once more with his arrest for having allegedly accessed an Internet site devoted to child pornography. Townshend asserted that he had been researching a project on the nature of child abuse.
The Who, like the Rolling Stones, produced a collection of albums and singles in their first decade that sustained their reputation long after the peak of their creative output had passed. Their outstanding sequence of early singles prefaced their more sustained, keynote works, Tommy and Quadrophenia. Yet those acclaimed concept albums, which enjoyed life as stage shows and movies, have become almost a burden to their principal creator.
Townshend, a proven master of the three-minute single by the end of the 1960s, has spent most of his professional life since striving to make bigger statements. In so doing he has attracted criticism for the very scale of his ambition, often from those nostalgic commentators who still remember him fondly as the young mod with an extraordinary capability for devising one-off pop classics.
My Generation (MCA, 1965); A Quick One (Happy Jack) (MCA, 1966); The Who Sell Out (MCA, 1967); Magic Bus (MCA, 1968); Tommy (MCA, 1969); Live at Leeds (MCA, 1970); Who's Next (MCA, 1971); Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (MCA, 1971); Quadrophenia (MCA, 1973); The Who by Numbers (MCA, 1975); Who Are You (MCA, 1978); Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (MCA, 1994).
A. Neill and M. Kent, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of the Who, 1958–1978 (London, 2002); L. D. Smith, Pete Townshend: The Minstrel's Dilemma (London, 1999).
Still regarded in the late 1990s as one of the greatest rock bands of all time, the Who were bold innovators who changed the face of popular music forever. Having planted the seeds of heavy metal, art rock, punk, and electronica, the Who are almost without peer in their range of influence upon subsequent music. The Who boasted a dynamic singer and stage presence in Roger Daltrey, a powerful virtuoso bassist in John Entwistle, and one of the world's greatest drummers in the frenetic Keith Moon. But the guiding genius of the Who was guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, who wrote and arranged each song, and recorded the guitar, bass, drums, and vocals onto a demo before presenting it to the band to learn and perform.
Born in West London in 1945, Townshend attended Ealing Art school, where he learned about Pop Art and the merging realms of high and low culture. When he formed the Who, he found a suitable audience for this background among a youth subculture called the Mods, who wore Pop Art clothing and sought out stylish new music and amphetamine-driven dance styles. The Who's manager, Kit Lambert, encouraged the band to adopt the Mod look and write significant songs that would appeal to Mods. Their early hit, "Can't Explain" (1964) expressed adolescent frustration, followed by the angst-ridden "My Generation" (1965), one of the great rock anthems of the period.
The Who were most famous for outrageous stage performances. Townshend specialized in "windmill" power chords, in which he would swiftly swing his arm 360 degrees before striking a chord. The Who often smashed their instruments at the end of a show, with Townshend shoving his guitar through the amplifier and Moon smashing through the drumskins and kicking over the entire drum set. Despite their commercial success, the Who remained in debt until 1969 because of this expensive habit.
The Who released their first album, The Who Sing My Generation in 1965. Their next album, A Quick One (1967; renamed Happy Jack in America) featured a miniature "rock opera" on side two, a series of five songs narrating a tale of suburban infidelity. The Who Sell Out (1968) satirized commercials, again revealing their interest in Pop Art. Magic Bus (1968) was the best album of their early period but offered no hint of the grandeur of their next project, a full-scale rock opera. The double album Tommy (1969) told the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who, after a miracle cure, becomes a cult leader. The album was influenced by Townshend's involvement with his guru, Meher Baba. If spirituality was an unexpected theme from the author of teen frustration and masturbation, the music was an equally bold advance, establishing Townshend as a versatile guitarist and ambitious composer. Nevertheless, responses to Tommy were mixed, partly due to the difficulty of following the story. Charges of pretentiousness were frequent. The artistic audacity of Tommy left the Who with a formidable dilemma—where do you go from here?
The Who followed up the rock opera with the raunchy, visceral Live at Leeds (1970), but soon Townshend grew ambitious again, formulating another opera, Lifehouse. Eventually the concept was abandoned, and the better half of the songs written for the project were released as Who's Next (1971), which many regard as the greatest rock album ever made. Among its highlights are "Behind Blue Eyes," "Teenage Wasteland," and one of the greatest rock songs of all time, "Won't Get Fooled Again," a masterpiece of overwhelming power, featuring incredible performances by each band member. Who's Next made innovative use of synthesizers and sequencers, anticipating electronic music, and it established the Who as a major creative power in rock. The following year, Townshend released a solo album, Who Came First, devoted to Meher Baba.
Townshend then embarked upon yet another opera, based on the raw passions of youth rather than philosophical ideas. Quadrophenia (1973) told the story of the Mods and their rival subculture, the Rockers. The story was simpler than Tommy but still rather confusing. However, the Who had grown musically since their first opera. Townshend was a more sophisticated arranger and made greater use of piano (played by himself) and horns (played by Entwistle). Quadrophenia was regarded as Townshend's masterpiece, the definitive expression of adolescent angst, combining the ambitions of Tommy with the virtuosity and emotional power of Who's Next. Both Tommy and Quadrophenia were made into movies, the former an awkward musical starring Daltrey, the latter a gritty drama which helps to explain the album's plotline, as well as the cultural milieu in which the Who developed. For most Americans, the movie version of Quadrophenia is a prerequisite for understanding the album.
The triumph of Quadrophenia left the Who in the same quandary that Tommy had: where do you go from here? They avoided the question with Odds & Sods (1974), a mixture of singles, B-sides, and leftovers from the Lifehouse project. For a hodgepodge, it was a fine album. The Who by Numbers (1975) was quieter, with thoughtful, introspective lyrics. Who Are You (1978) found the Who delivering up-tempo rock again. The lengthy title song was a worthy follow-up to "Won't Get Fooled Again." The entire album was reminiscent of Who's Next, packed with powerful songs, and again featuring innovative use of synthesizers. Unfortunately, Keith Moon died shortly afterwards from an overdose of anti-alcoholic medication.
Following this tragedy, Townshend withdrew to record the fascinating Empty Glass (1981), his finest solo album. Moon was replaced by Kenny Jones of the Small Faces, and the Who recorded two albums, Face Dances (1981) and It's Hard (1982), before breaking up. Then came countless collections of rarities, outtakes, B-sides, demo tapes, etc., testifying to the Who's enduring popularity, although respect for the group was compromised by the weakness of the post-Moon albums and by various anticlimactic reunions in the 1980s and 1990s. Townshend remained prolific as a solo artist but tended to rely overmuch on concept albums. He published a book of short stories, Horse's Neck, in 1985.
Barnes, Richard. The Who: Maximum R & B. London, Eel Pie, 1982.