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One of the most influential rock bands in the world
Over the decades, The Who have straddled genres and styles with ease. From a core element of the British Invasion to mod pioneers to arena rock giants, The Who have made each transition look natural and incredibly easy, all the while cementing their reputations as phenomenal musicians and songwriters.
The band’s earliest incarnation came when bassist Roger Entwistle and guitarist Pete Townshend met at school in West London, playing trumpet and banjo, respectively, in a Dixieland jazz band. Entwistle joined a rock band called The Detours, who featured one Roger Daltrey on guitar. Townshend followed his friend into the band and when roles were reshuffled, ended up as lead guitarist with Daltrey as frontman.
The band quickly honed their ferocious take on classic rhythm and blues, switching their moniker to the somewhat confusing-yet-memorable The Who. Just as the band were lining up sessions for their debut album, drummer Doug Sandom quit, to be replaced by The Beachcombers’ stickman Keith Moon.
Under the guidance of Pete Meaden, the band briefly changed their name to The High Numbers, releasing one single, I’m The Face, which was a commercial flop. Meaden was bought out by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (brother of actor, Terrence), who helped cultivate the group’s image, reclaimed their name and devised the world-famous target logo.
At one gig, Townshend accidentally damaged his guitar and, in anger, smashed it into pieces on the stage. At their next show, he discovered that the crowd had come expecting a repeat of the incident, and he duly obliged, accompanied by a frenzied attack on the drumkit from Moon. The Who’s reputation for rock ‘n’ roll excess was born.
The band appeared on the BBC programme Ready, Steady, Go in 1965, performing I Can’t Explain, their first single as The Who. A typically destructive performance helped the single into the UK Top Ten. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere followed later that year, before My Generation rounded out a good year for the band when it reached No.2. Their debut album, also named My Generation, appeared at the end of the year.
Following their fourth UK Top Ten hit, Substitute, the band turned their attentions to album number two. Lambert encouraged all band members to write material for A Quick One, resulting in an eclectic mix of styles, ranging from Entwistle’s sinister Boris The Spider to the epic melodrama of A Quick One While He’s Away.
Rising expenses from the band’s appetite for destruction made a US breakthrough a necessity, yet American success proved elusive up until A Quick One (released across the Atlantic as Happy Jack), which made a decent dent thanks to extensive promo work by the band, including appearances at the Fillmore and the Monterrey International Pop Festival.
The band’s third album was an homage to the UK’s pirate radio stations, which had recently been shut down en masse. The Who Sell Out, conceived as a fake pirate radio broadcast, reached No.2 in the UK album charts and became their first hit across the Atlantic, landing in the US Top Ten, thanks to the single I Can See For Miles.
Given some breathing room by two collections (Direct Hits in the UK and Magic Bus in the US), The Who started planning something capital-B big. That project was Tommy, an album the group considered unfinished but the rest of the world considered a masterpiece. Released in 1969, it went on to become one of the most widely covered records ever, becoming a film, directed by Ken Russell, and a Broadway show.
Following Tommy proved challenging. Live At Leeds gave Townshend some space to figure it out and he returned with Lifehouse, a sci-fi rock opera that delved into spirituality and synthesizers and was eventually abandoned in favour of Who’s Next. The band’s fifth studio album, Who’s Next abandoned the pretensions of Tommy and Lifehouse and proved one of their loudest and most popular records, showcasing the phenomenal talent of Keith Moon and yielding the hits Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again.
Who’s Next didn’t exactly result in a change of approach. In 1973, the band released another ambitious rock opera, Quadrophenia, although the band stripped away the spirituality and sci-fi elements and replaced them with a more tangible story about the life of a mod.
Cracks started to appear in the band’s façade after Quadrophenia. Townshend retreated from the spotlight, while Moon released a solo album and further embraced his infamous hedonism. Following the deeply personal The Who By Numbers in 1975, the band went on hiatus. They didn’t release another record until 1978’s Who Are You? However, a triumphant return wasn’t forthcoming. Later that year, Keith Moon died of a drug overdose.
Initially, the band hired Kenney Jones from The Small Faces and endeavoured to carry on. However, reviews for the ensuing albums were lukewarm and the band announced in 1982 that they were calling it a day. Not that The Who would ever lie down. In 1985, they reunited for Live Aid and in 1989, they hit the road again for a 25th anniversary tour. Live reunions continued right up until 2002, when Entwistle died.
Daltrey and Townshend stayed in each other’s orbit, collaborating on Endless Wire in 2006 and hitting the road once more. In 2012, they went back out on the road, touring Quadrophenia, culminating in a huge Wembley Stadium show that was released as a live album.
In 2019, the band released WHO, their first studio album since Endless Wire and only their second since 1982, which was greeted with enthusiastic reviews.