Short Disclaimer: You may or may not notice that I did not mention everything The Who have released, or all the people in their line-up at all times. Nor did I mention Tommy(the movie) or Quadrophenia (the movie). I wanted to focus on The Who’s music in their prime years, rather than their various reunions and films.
Pete Townshend: Guitar, vocals
Roger Daltrey: Vocals, harmonica
John Entwistle: Bass, vocals, French horn
Keith Moon (until 1978): Drums, vocals
Kenney Jones (after 1978): Drums
John Bundrick (after 1978): Keyboards
1964: Singles: I’m the Face
1965: Singles: I Can’t Explain, My Generation
1965: The Who Sings My Generation
1966: Singles: Substitute, I’m a Boy, The Kids Are Alright, Happy Jack
1966: A Quick One
1967: Singles: Pictures of Lilly, I Can See For Miles
1967: The Who Sell Out
1968: Singles: I Can’t Reach You, Dogs, Magic Bus.
1968: Magic Bus – The Who on Tour
1969: Singles: Pinball Wizard, I’m Free, The Acid Queen
1970: Singles: The Seeker, Summertime Blues
1970: Live at Leeds
1971: Singles: Behind Blue Eyes, Lets See Action
1971: Who’s Next
1971: Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy
1972: Singles: Join Together, Relay
1973: Singles: 5:15, Love Reign O’Er Me
1974: Single: The Rael Me
1974: Odds and Sods
1975: Singles: Squeeze Box, Slip Kid
1975: The Who by the Numbers
1978: Who Are You?
1979: The Kids Are Alright (Soundtrack)
1981: Face Dances
1982: It’s Hard
1991: Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (Box Set)
1996: My Generation – The Very Best of the Who
1996: Live at the Isle of Wight
2000: BBC Sessions
2002: Ultimate Collection
2002: Live at the Royal Albert Hall
2004: Then and Now: 1964-2004
Few bands in rock history have had the talent, ability, energy, and impact as The Who did from the mid 60’s to the late 70’s. Starting as an offshoot of the British Invasion, the Who evolved to become one of the most powerful and one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands of all time. Though by definition they weren’t a super-group (the members were not already established as premier musicians before The Who took off), they arguably had the talent to be one. Destroying equipment, blowing up bass drums, Townshend’s windmill, Daltrey’s tough guy attitude and rock vocal power, and Entwistle’s “eye of the hurricane” approach to the stage show and lead bass-playing are all defining parts of The Who that make them a legend in their time and into today.
Pete Townshend was the artistic leader of the band, and he constantly moved them in new directions to reach areas no rock bands had been and few have been since. Aside from his artistic creativity, his guitar playing was very good. He is often overlooked because he did not do many solos or much flashy guitar work, but he fit the band perfectly. Not only was Townshend a capable guitarist, but his song writing ability is up there with the best. Townshend also sang background vocals and occasionally lead vocals, making him even more valuable to the band. Roger Daltrey, the singer of the group, started as a great singer with solid range and glimpses of power. His versatility allowed him to progress into a power-rock front man, and his amazing stage presence propelled The Who’s live shows throughout their career.
But the real focus of The Who is usually on the rhythm section (or in The Who’s case, the lead instrumental section). John Entwistle was a pioneer in bass playing, as he was one of first players to show that bass could be the lead instrument in rock music. He immediately made his presence known in The Who with his heavy sound and distorted bass, like the fills in My Generation . Entwistle also added solid backup vocals, which gave The Who more dimensions in their vocal harmonies. And then ,of course, there is Keith Moon. Moon was a defining aspect of The Who, and a key part of why they were so different from almost all other bands. His attacking drum style, blazing speed, and constant fills would become a trademark of The Who, especially in their live show. Although Keith is usually noted for being a crazy man on the drums, he tends to show a significant amount of control on their studio albums. There are more fills than other drummers, but enough restraint so as not to ruin the track. Instrumentally, Entwistle and Moon led the band. Townshend was a good guitar player, but he usually found himself pounding out power-chords and solid riffs in the role of a rhythm player while John and Keith took the role as lead players. That is not to say that Pete never played lead or that he could not solo, however.
Townshend and Entwistle first met each other in high school, and initially played in a Dixieland band together (John was on trumpet and Pete was on banjo) in 1962. In 1963, Entwistle left to play bass for the newly formed Detours, with singer Roger Daltrey already in place. Soon, Townshend joined them band on guitar. Not long after, there was a drumming void, and Keith Moon was added to the band. They changed their name to The Who in 1964. After struggling for a few months to progress, the band met an interested manager in Pete Meaden. Under his direction, the band became known as the High Numbers and began wearing suits and playing more of an R&B style. Their first single contained I’m the Face/Zoot Suit , but it faired poorly. Meaden was cut, and they reformed as The Who. I Can’t Explain was the band’s next single, and it did much better. After the band played a TV performance that featured Moon and Townshend destroying their instruments, The Who starting gaining popularity.
The band’s dynamics in this time period are very interesting. Each member had vastly different personalities, which often led to disputes and arguments, sometimes even violence onstage. Instead of keeping these altercations private, The Who made them well-known. They became notorious for their violent demeanour and aggressive stage act, but instead of having a negative effect on the band, the result was that their popularity continually grew. It is important here to stress the Who’s significance to the Mod movement in London at the time. The hundred of mods in the audience became a medium through which The Who could let out their pent-up aggression. In these years, The Who soon became the Mod band, the voice of the rebellious teenagers, soon to represent what rock and roll would become: a defiant escape from the previous generation and a defiant statement against it.
As I Can’t Explain had jumped to the British Top Ten, the band was now ready to record an album. The Who Sings My Generation was built around the title track, also released as a single. The album showcases the raw style of the band early in their career. There is noticeable influence of R&B, blues, and Motown, added into the Who’s style of power rock. Its lasting legacy to music is undoubtedly My Generation . This song displays the defiant attitude of the band and Townshend’s infamous, “hope I die before I get old” line. The rebellious nature of the song even became somewhat of an influence on the future punk movement, which would start to see its true beginnings in just a couple years. Also seen here are instrumental statements of Entwistle and Moon. As mentioned before, Entwistle’s fills are remarkable. The end of the song features Moon all over the drums, producing a wall of sound that no other drummer of the time could even hope to emulate. The song would also become a key part of their live show for the upcoming years.
The single Substitute was released shortly after that album, and met more British success. The song itself is a solid pop tune with great drumming and good vocals. The Band again prepared for more studio work. The Who’s next record would prove to be an interesting one, to say the least. Titled A Quick One (in Britain) or Happy Jack (in America), it would expand on the base of The Who to showcase a wide variety of music. The tracks range from the circus type music of Cobwebs and Strange (which features amazing drumming from Moon, it’s somewhat of a mini drum solo) to the ten minute mini-opera of the title track, A Quick One . This is Townshend’s first experiment with a lengthy piece that centered on a theme. The plot concerns a woman who cheats on her husband while he is away for a long time. Musically, the song moves through six movements that run together successfully. Also on the album were the strange Happy Jack and even stranger Boris the Spider , both of which are solid and are now well known tracks. The most important parts of this album were the fact that the band was certainly showing signs of evolution (which were necessary to further develop and survive as the 60’s died out), and the mini-opera concept Townshend was starting to create. This idea would become more important on the band’s next album, and eventually reach a climax on Tommy.
Their next record, The Who Sell Out (1967), is debatably a concept album that centers on a mock radio broadcast program. Between nearly every song, there is a short mock radio jingle. The album even includes the band advertising certain products in song form, as the title would suggest. There are some rather obvious examples of this, such as Heinz Baked Beans , and other examples that can actually stand alone as solid songs, like Odorono . There is even some dabbing in psychedelia (after all, it was 1967) like on Armenia, City In the Sky . The Who take full advantage of the studio to produce this record, though the music itself still has a bit of the raw essence of the early Who. These early albums do not tend to present the loud raucous Who that their live show represented; instead, there is a strong sense of melody and control. Moon shows remarkable constraint (for him, at least) on songs like Tattoo . Sunrise, I Can’t Reach You, and Our Love Was showed Townshend’s softer side as a songwriter. I Can See For Miles was the only the album’s top ten hit and the only track that got radio play and it features great singing from Roger and typical Keith Moon drumming. However, the real climax of the album is Rael , and religious conceptual experiment. The Who even develops some of the instrumental themes for Tommy on this song (mostly from songs like Sparks or The Underture ). They were now only a short step away from a full-blown concept album.
The Who’s live show was growing in popularity, size, volume, etc, as they became a bigger band over the last few years. Destroying their equipment was now a standard part of their nightly show. In fact, The Who destroyed so much equipment and gear, that they were actually in debt for a few years, despite the success of their albums and singles. Ironically, the band had stopped smashing their instruments by the time they had enough funds to actually afford doing it. In 1967, The Who performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in front of 200,000 people. Two years before the legendary Woodstock, a festival of this magnitude was a great tool to help launch the band into their upcoming power rock years. In 1968, The Who continued to release singles, including the ever-popular Magic Bus . To help keep momentum, they also released Magic Bus -The Who on Tour , a collection of some early singles and some album cuts not available previously.
Through the rest of 1968, Townshend worked on what would be considered by many the band’s artistic peak. He developed an interesting concept and a complex plot that moved through the life of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who plays pinball. Tommy , released 1969, is a double-album and a conceptual masterpiece. The album is known for being the first very successful rock-opera (and one of the first in general). Tommy was met with great commercial success, especially in America. The plot, though confusing at times, is generally easy to follow. An interesting aspect of Tommy is in the religious themes it develops. By the end Tommy becomes such a powerful figure for fans seeking salvation (Sally Simpson ). Musically, the album is unquestionably strong.
The Who were able to use great vocal harmonies and soft melodies in combination with their naturally loud and upfront style to produce an ideal mix of the two. Moon is excellent without being over-powering, and Townshend’s song writing may have peaked here with impressive lyrics throughout the whole album. There are also instrumental movements like Sparks and The Underture , both of which relate to a strong musical theme. Combined with unbelievable songs like Amazing Journey, The Overture, Acid Queen, Pinball Wizard, Christmas, I’m Free, We’re Not Gonna Take It , and a great album structure, Tommy is an album that by itself would have made The Who’s career great.
Tommy was the peak of the early Who, and soon the band would undergo changes that would dominate their style in the 70’s. Touring to support the album, their live show grew in magnitude. Often they would play the entire album all the way through, each night reproducing the epic plot. 1969 also brought about another event that would have lasting effects on The Who: Woodstock. The legendary music festival was the basis for further evolution in the band’s sound. The power of their live show was now all but unmatched, and it thrived off performances of epic songs such as the See me, Feel me climax. Roger Daltrey especially evolved during this time. In these years, he became Tommy to the audience, a sex symbol and a leader of the band on stage.
Not to say that he was outshining the other members, however. In 1970, The Who decided to d0cument their astounding show with their release of Live at Leeds . The original LP featured rousing versions of Summertime Blues and Young Man Blues , along with a 15-minute version of My Generation that experiments with the Tommy themes. This album is regarded as one of the best live albums ever released, and it’s no wonder why. It is still widely considered one of the best live performances ever recorded. A two-disc Deluxe Edition of the album is now available, which features Tommy performed almost in its entirety.
Later that same year, The Who also played at the gigantic Isle of Wight Festival. With over 600,000 fans in attendance, The Who delivered a spectacular set. The material is similar to that of Live at Leeds , with new songs like Water, I Don’t Even Know Myself, Spoonful/Twist and Shout , and an abridged version of Tommy . The show is now available on DVD as well as CD. The Who’s momentum in 1970 to 1971 was also supplemented by the release of Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy , a collection of early singles, as well as the release of The Seeker as a new single. The new song gave audiences a feel for the type of sound that The Who would produce during the upcoming years.
After the release of a record that stretched the idea of what was possible by four guys on a stage with just their instruments, The Who decided to use the studio to their full advantage on their next album. Synthesizers drive the album, and there use here was one of the first times a band used them so effectively. However, Pete was having difficulty with the album’s concept. Townshend’s original idea was a project titled Life house , which supposedly dealt with science fiction and a utopian society, but the idea was becoming increasingly complex and spiralled out of control. In response to the stress build up and complications, Townshend suffered a nervous breakdown. After his recovering, The Who picked up the pieces of Pete’s failed work and came up with their 1971 release, Who’s Next (this album is said jokingly by many to be the greatest failure in the history of rock music). The new album carried a much heavier sound than their previous studio work, and was very synthesizer-driven.
This is evident right from the start of the album. There are definite beginnings of The Who’s “arena rock” era, which would last basically all of the 70’s. Hard rock anthems like Baba O’Riley, Bargain, Behind Blue Eyes, and Won’t Get Fooled Again all became very popular and received extensive play on FM radio. It also contains popular fan songs like My Wife and The Song is Over . Who’s Next is usually thought of as the band’s best album, and is probably their most popular.
After more touring with the new material The Who were ready to go back into the studio. Determined to overcome his previous “failure” and do another Tommy so to speak, Townshend prepared to create another complex concept album. He moved through many possible ideas, each time getting involved in them for a period and then abandoning the concept. Eventually, Townshend settled on looking back at the time he knew best: the Mods. The double-album Quadrophenia was crafted together and released in 1973. The album’s concept dealt with a youth, Jimmy, growing up in 60’s and struggling to find himself in a mod society. Despite starting with a much stronger story than Tommy originally had, Quadrophenia’s plot suffers from being underdeveloped. Townshend tried to incorporate four vastly different personalities into his central character, each of which reflected a member of the band, but this too was left underdeveloped and only weakened Quadrophenia as a thematic album.
Ultimately, the record’s attempted concept was too complex for the mass Who audience to understand. The album is also very studio heavy, meaning that its complexities (horn sections, various studio effects, overdubs, etc) made it very difficult for the band to replicate it live, unlike most of their earlier material. Despite these negative points about the album, the music overall is very well done. Standout tracks include The Real Me, The Punk and the Godfather, I’ve Had Enough, 5:15, and Love Reign O’Er Me. The Real Me features some amazing bass playing, even by Entwistle’s standards, and Love Reign O’Er Me showcases Daltrey’s undeniable power and the emotional climax of the album. Quadrophenia also features what may be Keith Moon’s best studio drumming. However, the inability to reproduce the album’s sound on a tour would prove costly for the group, and caused them to take a step back.
After Quadrophenia , The Who began to drift apart slightly. Townshend and Entwistle were both interested in their own solo projects. Pete began to drink excessively, a habit that would plague him for the next several years. Moon was enjoying his rock star lifestyle of substance abuse and like Townshend, this would cause problems for him in the next few years. Regardless of this, Pete continued working on songs for The Who and for their next album. During their off year in 1974, The Who released Odds and Sods , another singles and album cuts collection pning The Who’s career to that point.
The band goes back to the basics on The Who by the Numbers , released 1975. The complex arrangements of the last album were replaced by basically pure rock music. Townshend’s lyrics were very emotional and personal. The album and its subsequent tour were both hits, but it did not stand up the level of their past four releases. The record’s strongest tracks were Slip Kid and Squeeze Box , with a number of other expressive songs like They Are All in Love and How Many Friends . After the tour, The Who was exhausted and artistically worn-out and agreed to take an extended break.
Very little would be heard from the band until they came back together in 1978 to work on their new album. The resulting record would be Who Are You , which was a relatively big success. However, the album is plagued with problems and inconsistencies. Alcoholism and substance abuse were taking their tolls on Townshend and Moon, and although their instrumental ability is still intact, there is the sense that the group is starting to fade. Moon especially during this time was very flakey. It was questionable whether he would turn up for sessions or not. Sometimes he would even forget parts of his drumming and have to relearn things in the studio. The album relied heavily on synthesizers and complex arrangements, and in some cases these are certainly overdone. The title track is the album’s biggest accomplishment. The commercial success of the record may have triggered The Who’s comeback, but it was not to be. On September 7, 1978, Keith Moon overdosed on a drug that was helping him get away from his alcoholism, and died.
Losing a band member like Keith Moon almost immediately implies that the band would not continue. Moon was a defining aspect of The Who for nearly 14 years, and he was certainly not replaceable. Almost no drummers could bring to a band what he brought to The Who. However, the surviving members elected to continue playing. Later they would all agree that The Who in fact did end with Keith Moon’s death. Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces, was hired as Moon’s replacement. Keyboardist John Bundrick was also added to the group, and they began working on new material and set up for a tour. They gained momentum through the release of The Kids Are Alright, a collection of video footage of the group’s entire career.
But their momentum and goodwill was crushed when they were informed about the deaths of 11 people after being trampled in a Cincinnati accident. Townshend fell deep into drug use now, and had an almost fatal encounter with heroin in 1981. Daltrey and Entwistle worked on their solo careers, but met limited success. The band reformed to release Face Dances (1981) and It’s Hard (1982). Though with some standout material (namely Eminence Front ), the albums pale in comparison to The Who of ten years ago. Their 1982 Tour was supposedly a goodbye to fans, as they were basically packing it in. The remainder of the 80’s saw numerous Who collections emerge, and finally in 1991 the band brought together a successful 4-disc box set. The three core members continued their solo careers, and have reunited a few times in the 90’s for brief tours and various benefits. When it looked as though the group was gaining steam, John Entwistle died in June of 2002.
The Who’s lasting legacy to rock music is one of the greatest ever left. They did what no band had done and very few have done. Between the early mod Who, the guitar-smashing mid 60’s Who, the concept/thematic album Who, and the unyielding arena-rock Who, few bands have changed as much as they did and covered so much area in music. Their legendary live show is still though off as one of the best rock has ever seen. With the super talented musicians they had, it is no wonder that The Who were able to produce so much good music and influence so many bands and artists of their time, and even now. Their music will indeed live on forever.
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