Few bands in the history of rock & roll were riddled with as many contradictions as the Who. All four members had wildly different personalities, as their notoriously intense live performances demonstrated. The group was a whirlwind of activity, as the wild Keith Moon fell over his drum kit and Pete Townshend leaped into the air with his guitar, spinning his right hand in exaggerated windmills. Vocalist Roger Daltrey strutted across the stage with a thuggish menace, as bassist John Entwistle stood silent, functioning as the eye of the hurricane. These divergent personalities frequently clashed, but these frictions also resulted in a decade's worth of remarkable music.
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 with Townshend's furious guitar chords, Entwistle's hyperactive basslines, and Moon's vigorous, chaotic drumming. Unlike most rock bands, the Who based their rhythm on Townshend's guitar, letting Moon and Entwistle improvise wildly over his foundation, while Daltrey belted out his vocals. This was the sound the Who thrived on in concert, but on record they were a different proposition, as Townshend pushed the group toward new sonic territory. He soon became regarded as one of the finest British songwriters of his era, as songs like "The Kids Are Alright" and "My Generation" became teenage anthems, and his rock opera, Tommy, earned him respect from mainstream music critics.
Townshend continually pushed the band toward more ambitious territory, incorporating white noise, pop art, and conceptual extended musical pieces into the group's style. The remainder of the Who, especially Entwistle and Daltrey, weren't always eager to follow him in his musical explorations, especially after the success of his first rock opera, Tommy. Instead, they wanted to stick to their hard rock roots, playing brutally loud, macho music instead of Townshend's textured song suites and vulnerable pop songs. Eventually, this resulted in the group abandoning their adventurous spirit in the mid-'70s, as they settled into their role as arena rockers. The Who continued on this path even after the death of Moon in 1978, and even after they disbanded in the early '80s, as they 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. However, there's little argument that at their peak, the Who were one of the most innovative and powerful bands in rock history.
Townshend and Entwistle 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, but Entwistle departed in 1962 to play in the Detours, a hard-edged rock band featuring a sheet-metal worker named Roger Daltrey. By the end of the year, Townshend had joined as a rhythm guitarist, and in 1963, Daltrey became the group's lead vocalist once Colin Dawson left the band. Within a few months, drummer Doug Sandom had parted ways with the Detours, and the group added Moon, who had previously drummed with a surf rock band called the Beachcombers. The Detours changed their name to the Who in early 1964.
As the group struggled to get a break, Townshend attended art school, while the remaining three worked odd jobs. Soon, the band became regulars at the Marquee club in London, which is where Townshend first smashed one of his guitars out of frustration with the sound system; the destruction would become one of his performing signatures. Soon, the group cultivated a small following, which led to the interest of manager Pete Meaden. Under the direction of Meaden, the Who changed their name to the High Numbers and began dressing in sharp suits in order to appeal to the style- and R&B-obsessed mod audience. The High Numbers released one single, "I'm the Face"/"Zoot Suit," which was comprised of two songs written by Meaden. After the single bombed, the group ditched him and began working with Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two fledgling music business entrepreneurs who had previously failed as film directors. Instead of moving the band away from mod, Lambert and Stamp encouraged them to embrace the movement, offering them 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." By late 1964, they had developed an enthusiastic mod following. At the end of 1964, the Who signed with Decca on the strength of Townshend's "You Really Got Me" knockoff, "I Can't Explain." The group entered the studio with producer Shel Talmy, who previously worked with the Kinks, and the single 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. "I Can't Explain" reached the British Top Ten, followed that summer by "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere." That fall, "My Generation" climbed all the way to number two on the charts, confirming the band's status as a British pop phenomenon. An album of the same name followed at the end of the year, and early in 1966, "Substitute" became their fourth British Top Ten hit.
Following "Substitute," the Who acrimoniously left Talmy, and Lambert became the group's producer. Lambert and Stamp decided that every member of the Who should contribute songs to the group's second album in order to generate more revenue. Although the ploy meant A Quick One was uneven, Lambert's presence allowed Townshend to write the title track as a ten-minute mini-opera, an idea he would expand over the next few years. Upon its 1966 release, A Quick One became another British hit. In America, the group was ignored until A Quick One was retitled Happy Jack and its title track reached the Top 40 in 1967. By that time, the group had already eclipsed A Quick One with The Who Sell Out, a concept album constructed as a mock-pirate radio broadcast. The album featured "I Can See for Miles," which became the group's first Top Ten hit in America. That year, the group also appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival.
During 1968, the Who delivered their final mod single, the bizarre "Dogs." By that time, the mod audience had declined considerably, and the single bombed, sending Townshend into seclusion to write a rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy with a gift for pinball. As he worked on the record, the compilation Magic Bus was released in America.
The Who returned in 1969 with the double concept album Tommy, which was acclaimed as the first successful rock opera. The album became a huge hit, earning positive reviews from mainstream publications as well as underground rock magazines. Tommy climbed into the American Top Ten as the group supported the album with an extensive tour, where they played the opera in its entirety, including dates at the London Coliseum and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In some respects, Tommy became too successful, since it soon overshadowed the Who themselves; it was performed as a play across the world and would eventually be filmed by Ken Russell in 1975 (the movie starred Daltrey) — plus, in 1993, Townshend turned it into a Broadway musical with director Des McAnuff.
While the legacy of Tommy would prove formidable, in 1970 Townshend was stumped about how to follow it up. As he worked on new material, the group 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. Eventually, he settled on a sci-fi rock opera called Lifehouse, which he intended to be strongly influenced by the teachings of his guru, Meher Baba. Townshend also intended to incorporate electronics and synthesizers on the album, pushing the group into new sonic territory. The remainder of the Who wasn'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 of the now-abandoned Lifehouse project and recorded Who's Next with producer Glyn Johns. Boasting a harder, heavier sound, Who's Next became a major hit, and 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.
The success of Who's Next prompted Townshend to attempt another opera. This time, he abandoned fantasy in order to sketch a portrait of a '60s mod with Quadrophenia. As he wrote the album in 1972, he released Who Came First, a collection of private recordings and demos he made for Meher Baba. Around that time, Entwistle, frustrated at his lack of songwriting input in the Who, began his own solo career, pursuing his with more dedication than Townshend. Quadrophenia was released as a double album in 1973, and although the band attempted to play the music on tour, technical difficulties prevented them from doing so.
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. During this hiatus, the group released the rarities collection Odds & Sods. Meanwhile, Townshend continued to work on songs for the Who, resulting in the disarmingly personal The Who by Numbers in 1975. The record and its accompanying tour became a hit, but following the tour's completion, the band officially took an extended hiatus. The Who reconvened in 1978 to release Who Are You. Instead of responding to the insurgent punk movement, which labeled the Who as has-beens, the album represented the group's heaviest flirtation with prog rock since Quadrophenia. The album became a huge hit, peaking at number two in the American charts and reaching platinum. Instead of being a triumphant comeback, though, Who Are You became a symbol of tragedy, since Moon died of a drug overdose on September 7, 1978, mere months after the record's release. 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. Eventually, they decided to continue performing, but all three surviving members would later claim that they felt the Who ended with Moon's death.
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 working on new material in 1979. Before they released a new record, they released the live documentary The Kids Are Alright and contributed music to Franc Roddam's cinematic adaptation of Quadrophenia, which starred Phil Daniels. The Who began touring later in 1979, 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.
Following the Cincinnati concert, the Who slowly fell apart. 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. 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. The following year, they released It's Hard and embarked on a supporting tour billed as their farewell to fans. The live Who's Last was released in 1984 as a commemoration of the tour.
The farewell tour didn't turn out to be the final goodbye from the Who. While Entwistle and Daltrey slowly faded away, Townshend continued recording to relative success. However, the Who still haunted him. The group reunited to play Live Aid in 1985, and three years later, they played a British music awards program. In 1989, Townshend agreed to reunite the band, with Jones being replaced by session drummer Simon Phillips for a 25th anniversary tour of America. 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. The Who reunited again in 1994 for two concerts to celebrate Daltrey's 50th birthday.
Following the success of his Broadway adaptation of Tommy, 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 that was ignored by the press. In October 2001, they played the Concert for NYC benefit for families of the victims of the September 11 attacks. In late June 2002, the Who had once again regrouped and were about to kick off a North American tour when Entwistle died at the age of 57 in Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel. In 2006, Townshend and Daltrey released the mini-opera Wire & Glass, their first collaboration as the Who in nearly a quarter century. The full-length Endless Wire, which included the EP, was released later that year.
Content provided by All Music Guide. Copyright 2007 All Media Guide, LLC.