The Who

Origin: London, England

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Genres: Hard Rock, power pop, Rock

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The Who are an English rock band formed in London in 1964.  Their classic lineup consisted of lead singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist and singer Pete Townshend, bass guitarist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon.  They are considered one of the most influential bands of the 20th century, selling more than 100 million albums worldwide.

The Who have received many awards and accolades for their recordings and their influence.  The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 where their display labels them “prime contenders for the title of World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.”  Seven of the group’s albums appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” more than any act except the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.  In 2009, “My Generation” was selected for preservation in the United States National Recording Registry.

The loud volume of the band’s live show influenced the approach of hard rock and heavy metal.  Proto punk and punk rock bands such as the MC5, the Stooges, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Green Day cite the Who as an influence.

The Who’s contributions to rock music include the development of the Marshall stack large PA systems, use of the synthesizer, Entwistle and Moon’s playing styles, Townsend’s feedback and power chord guitar technique, and the development of the rock opera.

Founding Who members Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle grew up in Acton, London and attended the same grammar school.  Townshend and Entwistle became friends and formed a jazz group.  Entwistle originally played guitar but struggled with it due to his large fingers and moved to bass.  Daltrey who was in the year above had trouble fitting in at school, and discovered gangs and rock and roll.  He was expelled at 15 and found work on a construction site.  In 1959 he started the Detours, the band that evolved into the Who.

Daltrey spotted Entwistle by chance on the street carrying a bass and recruited him into the Detours.  Entwistle suggested his friend Townshend for guitarist.  When they became aware of another band with the same name the Detours changed their name.  Townshend liked “the Hair,” while his roommate suggested “the Who.”  As the leader of the Detours Daltrey chose “the Who.”  The Who met Keith Moon when he was performing with a band called the “Beachcombers.”  Moon played a few songs with the group, breaking a bass drum pedal and tearing a drum skin.  The band were impressed with his energy and enthusiasm, and offered him the job.

The Who’s managers decided that the group would be ideal to represent the growing mod movement in Britain which involved fashion, scooters and music genres such as rhythm and blues, soul and beat.  They were renamed the “High Numbers,” and dressed in mod clothes and released the single “I’m the Face” to appeal to the mods.  When the single failed to catch on the band reverted back to the Who.

The Who became renowned for their stage image.  Daltrey used his microphone cable as a whip on stage; Moon threw his drumsticks in the air mid-beat; Townshend mimed machine-gunning the crowd while playing guitar with a fast arm-windmilling motion.  One evening Townshend accidentally broke the head of his guitar on the low ceiling of the stage.  Angered by the audience’s laughter, he smashed the instrument on stage, picked up another guitar and continued playing.  The following week, the audience were keen for a repeat and Moon obliged by kicking his drum kit over and thus auto-destructive art became a feature of a Who live set.

“My Generation” was the single that garnered the Who notice in Britain.  Townshend originally wrote the song as a slow blues number, but after several abortive attempts it was turned into a more powerful song with a bass solo from Entwistle.  The song used gimmicks such as a vocal stutter to stimulate the speech of a mod on amphetamines.  The song became the group’s highest charting single in the UK peaking at number two.

In 1966 Townshend wrote his first long-piece of music with the song “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” from the album A Quick One.  The song is a suite of fragments about a girl who has an affair while her lover is away, but is ultimately forgiven.  The album is unique in Who lore in that it is the only album where all four members wrote songs for the album.  It was on this album that John Entwistle composed “Boris the Spider.”  The album was quickly followed by the hit singles “Happy Jack,” and “Picture of Lily.”

While the Who were a commercial success in England they had yet to conquer America.  That all changed after their first major US appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival.  The group’s performance still involved smashing guitars and kicking over drums.  Jimi Hendrix was also on the bill and known for smashing his guitar.  While the Who preceded Hendrix on stage it was Jimi who gained the most notoriety.  Nevertheless the Who’s appearance gave them recognition in America.

Shortly thereafter the Who released the single “I Can See for Miles,” which became their best-selling American single peaking at number nine.

By late 1968 Townshend began plotting the Who’s next album about the life a deaf, dumb and blind boy, and his attempt to communicate with others.  That album became Tommy with some of the songs inspired by the teachings of Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master.  Released in 1969 Tommy became a critical and commercial smash selling more than 200,000 copies in America in its first two weeks.  The accompanying single “Pinball Wizard,” further catapulted the album’s sales.  In 1974 Tommy was turned into a star-studded film with Daltrey starring as Tommy.  Townshend was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.  The movie generated more than $2 million in revenue in its first month, while the soundtrack reached number two on the Billboard charts.

In August 1969 the Who performed at the Woodstock Festival.  With the festival running late the Who did not take the stage until 5 a.m. where they played most of Tommy.

By 1970, the Who were widely considered one of the best and most popular live rock bands in the world.  They decided a live album would help demonstrate how different their stage performances were compared to Tommy.  They booked a show in Leeds, England, which became Live at Leeds often considered one of the best live albums of all time.

Tommy secured the Who’s future making them millionaires.  Townsend next set out to follow-up Tommy and began working on Lifehouse, which was to be a multi-media project symbolizing the relationship between an artist and his audience.  Tensions grew with the other three member of the band who just wanted to record another album believing Lifehouse was too complicated.   Things deteriorated until Townshend had a nervous breakdown and abandoned Lifehouse.

The abandoned Lifehouse material became one of the Who’s most critical and commercial favorites.  When Who’s Next was released in 1971 it shot straight to number one in the UK and into the top five on the album charts in America going on to sell more than three million albums.  Two of its singles “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Baba O’Riley” are early examples of synthesizer use in rock.  Many of the songs on Who’s Next became concert staples and are in constant rotation on radio worldwide.

By  1973, the Who began recording the album Quadrophenia about the mods and its subculture, set against clashes with Rockers in early 1960’s Britain.  The story is about a boy named Jimmy, who undergoes a personality crisis, and his relationship with his family, friends and mod culture.  The music features four themes, reflecting the four personalities of the Who.  Townshend played multi-tracked synthesizers, and Entwistle played several overdubbed horn parts.  Quadrophenia was a commercial and critical smash going to number two both in England and America.   Quadrophenia was eventually turned into a film with straightforward acting rather than musical numbers as in Tommy.  The film co-starred Sting as a fellow mod and was a critical and box office success in the UK helping to revive briefly revive the mod movement.

In 1977 the group reconvened for the recording of their next album, Who Are You.  It was a difficult recording process for the band.  By this point Moon was so unhealthy and his drumming so poor that Daltrey and Entwistle considered firing him.  Moon’s playing improved, but on one track, “Music Must Change”, he was replaced.

In May, the Who filmed another performance at Shepperton Sound Studios for The Kids Are Alright.  This performance was strong, and several tracks were used in the film. It was the last gig Moon performed with the Who.  The Kids Are Alright was completed in 1979 and provided a retrospective of the band’s career.

Who Are You was released in 1978 becoming their biggest and fastest seller to date.  The album contained the massive hit single, “Who Are You,” inspired by a depressed and drunken Pete Townshend episode where he was passed out in a doorway, where a policeman said he would not be arrested if he could stand and walk.

Since Moon’s health prevented the band from touring the Who did a series of promotional television interviews while working on the soundtrack for the band documentary The Kids Are Alright.

On September 6, 1978, Moon passed out following a Paul McCartney party celebrating Buddy Holly’s birthday.  Moon had overdosed on tablets prescribed to combat his alcohol withdrawal and was discovered dead the following morning.  The day after Moon’s death Townsend announced that the band would go on.  Genesis drummer Phil Collins asked to replace Moon but by this time Townsend had already chosen Faces drummer Kenny Jones.

In December 1979, a crowd crush at a Who concert in Cincinnati killed 11 fans.  The tragedy was partially the result of festival seating, where the first to enter get the best positions.  Some fans outside mistook the band’s soundcheck for the concert and attempted to force their way inside.  As only a few entrance doors were opened a bottleneck ensued with thousands trying to gain entry and the crush became deadly.  The band were deeply shaken upon learning of it and requested that appropriate safety precautions be taken in the future.

The Who released two studio albums with Kenny Jones as drummer, Face Dances (1981) and It’s Hard (1982).  Face Dances produced a top twenty hit with the single “You Better You Bet.”  Both albums sold well and were received critical acclaim.  The single “Eminence Front” from It’s Hard became a hit and a live staple at the band’s concerts.

By this time Townshend had fallen into a depression questioning the Who’s relevancy.  He  also briefly became addicted to heroin.  While Daltrey and Entwistle were content touring and playing the hits Townsend wanted the Who to become a studio act.  Townsend won out in the end and the Who played their farewell concert in Toronto in 1982 with the Clash as the opening act.

Beginning in July 1985, with Live Aid the Who reunited over the years.  The Live Aid event was the last time that Jones played with the Who.

In 1991, the Who recorded a cover of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” for an Elton John & Bernie Taupin tribute album.  It was the last recording to feature John Entwistle.

In 1999, the Who performed as a five-piece band with keyboardist Rabbitt Bundrick and Zak Starkey as drummer on board.  Critics were delighted to see a rejuvenated band with a basic line-up comparable to the tours of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The Who played concerts in the UK in early 2002 in preparation for a full US tour.  On June 27, 2002 the day before the first date John Entwistle was found dead of a heart attack at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas with cocaine as a contributing factor.

The US tour began at the Hollywood Bowl with touring bassist Pino Palladino.  The loss of a founding member of the Who caused Townshend to re-evaluate his relationship with Daltrey, which had been strained over the band’s career.  He decided their friendship was important, and this ultimately led to writing and recording new material.

In 2004, the Who released “Old Red Wine” and “Real Good Looking Boy” (with Palladino and Greg Lake  respectively, on bass) on a singles anthology, The Who: Then and Now, and went on tour.

The Who announced 2005 that they were working on a new album.  Endless Wire, was released in 2006, as their first full studio album of new material since 1982.  The album charted top ten in America and the UK.

In 2015 the Who headlined that year’s Hyde Park Festival celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary.  All studio albums were reissued on vinyl, the new compilation, The Who Hits 50!  In September 2015, all remaining US tour dates were cancelled after Daltrey contracted viral meningitis.

In January 2019, the Who announced the Moving On! Tour and a new album to be released the same year.

Reference –

The Who discography

Sacramento’s K-ZAP 93.3 FM plays the Who.  All part of 50 years of Rock, Blues and More, 24-7 on our station’s stream at K-ZAP.ORG/LISTEN/

Check out the Who performing “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”