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 -- it took some five years to find their audience, but at the tail end of the 1960s they suddenly achieved a level of popularity rivaling the Rolling Stones, both as a live act and in album sales.
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, seemingly 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, rivaling John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, 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 & roll band featuring a sheet-metal worker named Roger Daltrey on lead guitar (and trombone!). By the end of the year, Townshend had joined as a rhythm guitarist, and in 1963 Daltrey gave up his guitar chores -- a consequence of his day job as a metal worker -- and became the group's lead vocalist after Colin Dawson (followed briefly by another singer named Gabby, who didn't last) left the band. The group's sound evolved rapidly during this period, and was especially influenced not only by American acts such as James Brown, Booker T. & the MG's, and Eddie Cochran -- each of whom had songs represented in the group's repertory -- but also one classic British act, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, with whom they shared a bill.
Johnny Kidd (real name Frederick Heath) had been together since the late '50s, and rocked the British charts with an original called "Shakin' All Over" (which Townshend and company also added to their set list); they'd built their reputation on their fierce renditions of American-style R&B, which relied heavily on a lean single guitar/bass/drums approach, with the single guitarist -- very unusual in England during this period in any recording act -- playing both the rhythm and lead parts. Hearing and seeing their presentation up close while playing support to them, Townshend was impressed and realized that he took naturally to that approach, and the Detours were down to a single guitar in short order. A name change also followed, as the group sought to keep its image and profile out in front of the curve of popular culture -- with the Beatles burning up the charts, something better and more striking that the Detours was called for, and between Daltrey and Townshend thrashing it out, they settled on the Who, which confused people in conversation at first but worked great (and memorably) on posters. Within a few more months, amid all of these changes, original drummer Doug Sandom -- who was considerably older than the others, and married -- had parted ways with the Detours, just as they were about to try and make the jump to cutting a record. In his place, the group added Keith Moon, who had previously drummed with a surf rock band called the Beachcombers.
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 and attracted 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, all in order to appeal to the style- and R&B-obsessed mods -- in the social order of early-'60s English youth, the mods were fiercely independent teenagers, originally of middle-class (by British standards) origins, who began gathering together in working-class clubs, initially around London, in the early '60s; they dressed somewhat like Edwardian dandies, and were mostly interested in dancing, which they could do for hours under the influence of the pills that they seemed to pop incessantly; they also lived their lives after work around likes and dislikes that could provoke verbal altercations and even physical violence under the right circumstances. Many R&B-oriented groups tried to cultivate relationships with the ranks of the mods, who were fiercely loyal and could fill clubs and help propel a record onto the charts -- among those who succeeded best, along with the Who, were the Small Faces ("face" being a part of mod slang) and the Move.
The High Numbers released one single, "I'm the Face" -- between their new name and the record, the band was pushing important buttons among their target audience, "high number" and "face" both being important parts of the vernacular. The record was, in typical fashion for the time, comprised of two songs written by their manager, Meaden -- though "I'm the Face," as a composition, wasn't much more than "Got Love If You Want It" retooled with mod lyrics. 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 -- Lambert was the son of composer Constant Lambert, while Stamp was the brother of actor Terence Stamp (best remembered today for his role as Julie Christie's roguish husband in the 1967 movie Far from the Madding Crowd), and both were anxious to make their mark in the now suddenly percolating and fermenting popular culture scene in England. It was Lambert who first spotted the group playing one night at the Railway Hotel, in the wake of the "I'm the Face" single, and brought Stamp in, and between the two they rescued the Who (or the High Numbers, as they were calling themselves at that moment). 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."
It was also during this period that, completely by accident, at a gig at the Railway Hotel, Townshend smashed his first guitar. It happened by accident, because of a temporary stage extension that the band had built, which was higher than the stage itself, and caused him to accidentally hit the ceiling with his instrument -- frustrated by his damaging of the instrument, and the crowd's reaction, he struck it again, and again, and soon it was in pieces, and it was only by using a 12-string Rickenbacker that he'd recently gotten that Townshend was able to finish the show. The following week, he discovered that people had heard about this, and had come to the Railway Hotel to see him smash his guitar. He eventually obliged with encouragement from Keith Moon, who attacked his drum kit -- and while Lambert and Stamp were at first appalled, Townshend smashed another guitar to pieces a little bit later with Lambert's encouragement, as part of his publicity campaign (and it worked, despite the fact that the journalist for whose benefit he committed the destruction never actually saw it). In reality, he didn't smash guitars at every show in those days, and what he was doing, in terms of generating feedback, sufficed in most audience's minds -- smashing the guitar, when it did take place, only punctuated the feedback. It did enhance their status with the mods, however, and by late 1964, they had developed an enthusiastic following -- they loved destruction as part of an act (at one point the Move were smashing television picture tubes on-stage; the Small Faces, by contrast, never needed anything so obvious, their one "gimmick" being little Steve Marriott screaming like a dervish).
At the end of the year, Townshend was able to present the group with an original song called "I Can't Explain," which owed a little bit to the Kinks hit "You Really Got Me," but had lots of fresh angles. Townshend's lyrics, in particular, gave a vivid, visceral impression of teenage angst and uncertainty that Daltrey could sing in his powerful, ballsy manner, while the band attacked the music full-bore, and the result was a song that was punchy, sensitive, and macho all in one, with a lean, mean lead guitar opening and break and even some harmonies in there as were expected in British rock & roll; even better, the words managed to be crude and bold and sensitive (in their peculiar way) -- it seemed like a great potential debut single for the newly rechristened Who. Not only did the band and their managers think so, but so did producer Shel Talmy, an American based in England who was already making lots of noise producing the Kinks' records (including "You Really Got Me"). Talmy got the band a contract with the American Decca Records label on the strength of "I Can't Explain" and followed this with a contract with English Decca (the two companies had been closely related at one time -- and were again as of 2000 -- but had divided into separate entities in the 1950s).
The single, produced by Talmy, was released to little attention in January 1965, but once the Who appeared on the television program Ready, Steady, Go, the record 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," which was virtually a mod anthem in all but name and declared the mod ethos to the world; "I can go anywhere (where I choose)" -- it actually wasn't that far removed from the mentality behind the Sparkletones' "Black Slacks," among other youth anthems of the early rock & roll era in its sensibilities, except that the Who made it sound resolutely English, and it was a huge hit in England. 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, comprised of the title song plus various R&B covers (especially of James Brown material) and some interesting originals, mostly by Townshend, on the U.K. Brunswick label. And early in 1966, "Substitute" became their fourth British Top Ten hit.
It was during this period that Lambert had an especially strong influence on Townshend as a songwriter. Lambert, the son of a renowned composer and arranger, introduced Townshend to a huge range of classical music, including the work of Sir William Walton (with whom Lambert's father had worked extensively), Darius Milhaud, and various Baroque figures. Townshend didn't change his style of writing, which was still developing and influenced by a multitude of figures and styles, including Jimmy Reed and Sonny Boy Williamson II, Eddie Cochran and Mose Allison, but he did end up broadening his way of thinking about composition and what one could do with songs and subject matter. Over the years that followed, Lambert would encourage Townshend to go beyond the mod-themed romantic subjects that would have seemed like a natural direction for his songs.
"Substitute," produced by Kit Lambert, marked the band's acrimonious split with Talmy, with whom the band and their managers were no longer happy working, and the end of the group's British Decca/Brunswick recording contract -- Lambert and Stamp also tried to scrap the American Decca deal, but that proved impossible. Starting with "Substitute," the band was now signed to Polydor in England, and issued on Reaction. There were, for a time, rival releases on Brunswick and Reaction as Talmy and Brunswick, and Lambert and Stamp with Reaction dueled with the group's fortunes, but the competition was eventually sorted out in Lambert and Stamp's (and the band's) favor. "I'm a Boy," issued in the summer of 1966, was the first Who single produced without some rival release on Brunswick entering the marketplace, and it (along with some of those Brunswick sides) showed just how far the band and Townshend had come in 18 months -- "Substitute" was a catchy song that carried with it a fascinating character study, and one with sociological overtones, no less, none of which got in the way of its appeal; "A Legal Matter" was a phenomenal romantic (or, really, non-romantic) "story" song with a narrative and a powerful quasi-dramatic singing role for Daltrey, and could almost have been part of a larger body of work, like a rock musical or something more ambitious; "The Kids Are Alright" was similar, a vest-pocket drama with great harmonies, a memorable guitar break (and opening), and a strong dramatic performance by Daltrey; and "I'm a Boy" was an eerie (for a pop song) example of sexuality and child abuse as subject matter, about a teenage boy who is feminized by his dominating mother, forced to dress in girl's clothing and act the part of a girl; it carried an amazing amount of exposition, and yet had plenty of room for the band's by now trademarked attack on their instruments, and Daltrey giving a strong vocal performance in what was very much a dramatic role in miniature. The band was essentially leading a dual existence artistically, generating immensely popular singles in England, which were gradually redefining the acceptable content and boundaries of pop/rock songs; what's more, their hard, manic approach to playing dressed those songs up as some of the hardest -- yet most melodic and complex -- rocking pop singles of the period. Though no one recognized it, the Who were having as profound effect on the rock & roll landscape as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.
That was in England. The story in the United States was very different. "I Can't Explain" had barely created a ripple, and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" did little better despite some publicity on the ABC television rock & roll showcase Shindig. Even with Decca getting behind "My Generation" for a major marketing push, the single only got to number 74, which was barely a shadow of what it did in England. And the British success was all well and good, but it wasn't enough -- with a string of hit singles in that market and one album under their belt, and all of the most creative methods that Lambert and Stamp could devise to keep the band in the press and maximize their audience and their bookings, they were not losing money as fast as they might have. But the instrument-smashing routine and the attendant effects (often involving flash-powder and damage to Moon's drums as well as Townshend's guitars) had been frightfully expensive, even if it had generated the press they needed to get people to check out their music; and even done more selectively, as it was after 1966, with as much skilled repair work as possible to salvage what could be reclaimed, it meant that the band was carrying an ongoing (and ever growing) debt that no other act had to concern themselves with, and drove the group's expenses through the roof. For all of their publicity, huge record sales, and well-attended concerts booked for top fees, the spectre of financial ruin was never far from the thoughts of their management, this despite the fact that Lambert and Stamp were now luxuriating in a new label imprint of their own under the Polydor umbrella, called Track Records -- and that Track had a new signing in late 1966, a transplanted American guitarist/singer named Jimi Hendrix. A breakthrough for the Who in America, or in the album market in a major way (or, preferably, both), was essential.
It was time to record a second album, and this time Lambert and Stamp as well as the band had a more ambitious agenda. They didn't totally abandon their covers of R&B -- the group liked doing them and the mod audience expected them -- but Townshend's success at writing their singles had inspired their managers. Lambert and Stamp decided that every member of the Who should contribute songs this time, in order to generate more revenue. Although the ploy meant A Quick One -- as the album was finally called -- 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. As it was, "A Quick One While He's Away" showed Townshend writing (and the Who singing and playing) in various idioms far beyond rock & roll, including faux western and faux operetta -- these were important moments for the players, getting dedicated rock & rollers Daltrey and Entwistle (who would just as soon have been crunching out covers of Eddie Cochran or something from the Vee-Jay Records song catalog, or something closer to "I Can't Explain") to go along and throw their full talents into the music, if even in a jocular fashion; and the track's successful extension of a narrative line across what amounted to several songs showed Townshend and company that this idea could be expanded upon. And one of the few moments of serious compromise in the song's production even seems to have anticipated one aspect of future interpretation of their music by an admirer -- for the final section, there should have been a group of cellos playing accompaniment behind the group, but the group couldn't afford to hire the necessary musicians, so instead the members did a peculiar kind of modified vocalise, singing a chorus of "cello cello cello cello," which worked beautifully on a musical level as well as adding a surreal edge to the finale; but heard 40 years later, that moment also uncannily prefigures Petra Haden's approach to recording her version of The Who Sell Out.
As it was, though they got relatively little recognition for it in the press, the Who were expanding the boundaries of pop music at least as far as anything the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or anyone else was doing at the time. And that was only part of the story -- A Quick One also provided a canvas for the blossoming songwriting of Entwistle, whose macabre humor shone through in comically engaging musical terms on the catchy "Boris the Spider" and "Whisky Man," the latter showing off his skills on the French horn. Moon's "Cobwebs and Strange" was also a suitable moment of light humor, and even Daltrey -- whose songwriting aspirations never rated too much of his attention -- contributed "See My Way." It might not have been a Beatles album in quality, but A Quick One had a diversity of sounds and creative voices, and a range to match anything the Beatles were doing.
Upon its 1966 release, A Quick One became another British hit, and the record also provided a minor breakthrough in America, where the album was retitled Happy Jack and its title track reached the Top 40 in early 1967. But to do that, they were forced to tour the U.S. as part of a package tour organized under the auspices of DJ-turned-impresario Murray the K. Booked alongside Cream (also a new act in America), folkies Jim & Jean, and Wilson Pickett, doing 15- or 20-minute sets five shows a day, the group got the exposure they needed to push the song onto AM radio, and finally become known to a wider public, even though "Happy Jack" was a totally atypical Who song, with its emphasis on harmony singing and its relatively restrained guitar part -- the band found itself in a situation amazingly similar to that of their mod audience rivals the Small Faces, who broke through in America around the same time with "Itchycoo Park," a song that was completely unrepresentative of their usual sound.
In the Who's case, they had a brace of sides cut between 1965 and 1968 that were either singles and EPs that were only released in England, or were singles (or their B-sides) that were only hits on the British side of the Atlantic: "Daddy Rolling Stone," "Shout and Shimmy," "Anytime You Want Me," "The Good's Gone," "In the City," "Call Me Lightning," "The Last Time," "Under My Thumb," and "Dogs," plus the Ready Steady Who EP (which included "Bucket T" and "Disguises"). These constituted virtually a "shadow" history of the group, and one that wasn't fully exposed in America until the 1980s and the release of the compilation Who's Missing (which still managed to miss a few of those odd tracks). One curiosity about the group from this period was the sense of humor that they showed at the drop of a hat. "Bucket T" was a cover of a Jan & Dean car song, which reflected Moon's enthusiasm for surf music, while "In the City" -- an Entwistle/Moon composition -- was a light-hearted piece of rock & roll fluff about adventure and girls; and "Shout and Shimmy" and "Anytime You Want Me" were serious R&B-based covers, showing Daltrey and the band at their most soulful.
All of these variations, minor and major, on the group's sound pointed to their sheer range, and also to part of the secret of their success -- that these four guys didn't have all that much in common musically or personally (and perhaps wouldn't even have especially liked each other if they'd met in any other context), yet they could pull it all together under one label as "the Who" and make it seem coherent, on two sides of a single, four or five EP sides, or a dozen LPs tracks, and much more subtly but equally successfully within the same song. In that sense, they were as complex and diverse as the Beatles, but hadn't fallen into the trap of aiming at pop/rock (or writing songs and making records that were impossible to do on-stage), and traded in wattage levels that were higher than those utilized by the Rolling Stones -- even their softest-sounding records, such as "Happy Jack" with all of its harmonies (the recording of which led to the studio antics by Moon that resulted in Townshend's jocular, chiding "I saw ya" tacked onto the fadeout), had a punchy, hard edge that allowed them to be done full-out on-stage. What surprised listeners who later heard the Live at Leeds album was how much their live performances sounded like their records, except that they'd have had it backward -- the Who's records captured their actual live sound.
The group quickly left Murray the K behind, and their next major milestone in the U.S.A. was playing the Fillmore in San Francisco. For that occasion, however, they had a problem that was the reverse of the Murray the K performances -- the latter had been too attenuated at 15 to 20 minutes, but to play the Fillmore their usual 40-minute sets were too short. In the Richard Barnes book Maximum R&B, it was recalled that they had to learn the entire mini-opera and the rest of A Quick One, which they had not been performing live, in order to lengthen their set. The Fillmore gig preceded the single most important show they'd ever played in America, at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June of 1967. That put them on a collision course with their Track Records labelmate Jimi Hendrix, in a duel before the audience and the cameras, to see who could end their set more outrageously. Hendrix won the day with his incendiary performance, but the Who acquitted themselves admirably with a destruction of their instruments that was still startling to see 40 years later, when the film was shown theatrically on the anniversary of the event.
They went right from Monterey to another U.S. tour, this time opening for Herman's Hermits, which was an impossible fit for both groups. The other British outfit, pop/rock favorites for three years, was still drawing an audience consisting mostly of younger teenagers -- and mostly girls -- enamored of Peter Noone, the cheerfully charming lead singer. Here were the four members of the Who, Daltrey all macho swagger and hardly "safe," backed by Townshend with his beak of a hooter, the stoic, ominously stone-faced Entwistle, and Moon the madman at the drums, doing hard R&B and a set of mostly edgy hard rock with their amps turned up to 11, trying to deal with crowds chanting "We want Herman"; the tour wasn't helped by the fact that, thanks to the publicity they'd gotten belatedly about their old British act, they'd been forced to go back to smashing instruments, so that Noone often came onto a stage littered with the pieces of one of Townshend's guitars. It was all so surreal that it's a shame no one filmed any of the shows along the tour, which did nothing for the band. Additionally, they felt awkward reverting to their old stage act, as they'd finished work on a new album, and an accompanying single, that represented a new phase musically.
The Who Sell Out was a concept album constructed as a mock-pirate radio broadcast, a loving tribute to the England's pirate radio stations, which had been closed in a government crackdown. (Those seeking a look at what pirate radio was like in England should check out the 1966 Secret Agent episode "Not So Jolly Roger," which is set at a pirate radio operation, at sea.) The group had thrown everything they had into the album in an effort to solidify their position in England and crack the U.S. market once and for all, including the song "I Can See for Miles" -- it seemed like a certain chart-topper, an explosion of excitement and controlled tension, all carried on a soaring, catchy melody line; Daltrey's performance was the best of his career to date, but he was matched by Townshend's slashing guitar and Moon's frenetic drumming, and Entwistle's anchor-like bass in the middle of it all. It took a lot of work at three different studios on two continents and two coasts -- including Gold Star in Los Angeles -- to get that sound; and the record so well in that department, and was, as a consequence, so difficult to play live that it became the only hit in the group's history that they abandoned attempting to do on-stage. It was aimed at going all the way, in the wake of the massive exposure they'd received in 1967, and did become the group's first Top Ten hit in America, and reached number two in England -- but that wasn't sufficient for what the band or their management needed.
The group spent much of the year 1968 seeing their singles "Call Me Lightning," "Magic Bus," and "Dogs" -- the latter growing out of Townshend's interest at the time in dog racing -- fail to sell in anything like their expected numbers, with "Dogs" not charting at all in its British-only release. Even Townshend hit a crisis of confidence in himself. Meanwhile, Track Records, squeezed for cash even with Jimi Hendrix's burgeoning sales, put together the delightfully bizarre Direct Hits, compiling the band's more recent singles (none of the Shel Talmy-produced sides on Brunswick were represented), which gave a good profile of their U.K. output up to that point. In the United States, Decca Records -- with only two actual "hits" by the group to work with, plus "Magic Bus" (which actually did unexpectedly well on that side of the Atlantic) -- declined to put out a similar package and, instead, assembled Magic Bus, an unacknowledged compilation album built around the hit and drawn from U.K. singles, EP tracks, and recent album tracks. It was misleadingly subtitled "The Who on Tour," and that's a lot of what they did in 1968, especially in the United States, but not the same way they had the previous year. Instead of playing to younger teenagers at shows headlined by Herman's Hermits, they were playing places like the Fillmore East, where they recorded one show for a possible live album, a plan that went awry when the show turned out to be not quite good enough to represent the group, and was abandoned entirely with the vast changes in their repertory that ensued in 1969. When they weren't making their first serious long-term headway in the U.S.A., the band -- mostly Townshend, in collaboration with Lambert on the early libretto -- was spending a lot of time devising and recording a large-scale work.
Tommy, as it was finally called, was released in May of 1969, more than a year and a half after their previous album. It was an improbable venture, as well -- even with all of the time spent on it, the recording wasn't nearly finished, at least as Townshend and company saw it, in terms of instruments they'd have wanted to include on certain songs, and Entwistle was particularly upset at the bass sound on the released recording. But there was no more time left, for overdubs or retakes or any more work on it -- the band, and Lambert and Stamp, were out of money and out of options, and Tommy was released as it was, work-in-progress though it was. And for the first time, the stars (and everything else) lined up in the Who's favor, especially in the United States. There was an established and growing serious rock press by then, with a dedicated audience on college campuses and high schools, and its writers seized on the album as a masterpiece. By then, the mainstream press had also started to take rock music seriously, and the Who were new enough and fresh enough, and Tommy ambitious enough so that it became one of the most widely reviewed and written about albums in history, and the Who along with it as artists.
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 in New York. In some respects, Tommy became too successful -- audiences expected it to be done in its entirety at every show, and suddenly the Who, who had once had difficulty extending their set for their first gig at the Fillmore, were routinely playing for two hours at a clip. The work soon overshadowed the Who themselves; it was performed as a play across the world, redone as an orchestrated all-star extravaganza (starring Daltrey and featuring Townshend's guitar), 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 kept the band busy touring for almost two years, Townshend was stumped about how to follow it up. As he worked on new material, the group released Live at Leeds in 1970, which gave them some breathing room (and yielded a hit single in the form of "Summertime Blues") as well as the single "The Seeker." 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 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," and "Won't Get Fooled Again" (which were both issued as singles), and Entwistle's "My Wife" -- became cornerstones of album-oriented FM radio in the '70s. The tour behind Who's Next solidified the Who as one of the two top live rock attractions in the world, with record fast sell-outs on some of the top arenas in the country -- along with the Rolling Stones, they ruled the arena rock landscape of the 1970s. And suddenly their history was of interest to millions of fans as never before, and as a follow-up to Who's Next, they issued Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, a 14-song retrospective of their singles -- many of which had never been on album -- that also sold in massive numbers.
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. He was also no longer working with Kit Lambert, who had lost influence with the group in the wake of the first rock opera -- during this period, the band would also leave Lambert and Stamp's management. As he wrote the album in 1972, he released Who Came First, a collection of private recordings and demos he made for Meher Baba. Entwistle had already begun his own solo career with the album Smash Your Head Against the Wall, and he followed this up with Whistle Rhymes, released the same day as Townshend's album. Quadrophenia was released as a double album in 1973, and it sold extremely well, but it proved to be a problem as a concert piece -- hardly anyone outside of England was familiar with its mod subject matter, and as the band embarked on an ambitious tour, it soon became clear that audiences hadn't had the time to familiarize themselves with the work, leading to a lukewarm response to much of the new material. And to make matters worse, Quadrophenia was very difficult to play live. Eventually, the group retooled its set, removing a handful of the more difficult parts of the opera, and performed an abbreviated version of Quadrophenia with some success.
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. Meanwhile, Daltrey was approaching the peak of his musical powers -- in the wake of performing Tommy on-stage for two years (as well the orchestral version, and the movie), plus the repertory on the Who's Next tour, he had become a truly great singer, and had found himself unexpectedly comfortable as an actor -- perhaps a by-product of singing all of those Townshend-authored "roles" from 1965 onward. He 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 was represented by the rarities collection Odds & Sods (1974), the contents of which overlapped and transcended any number of underground (i.e., "bootleg") collections that were trading freely among serious fans -- it was seized upon by eager fans and charted like a new release. 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, though its number eight placement in the U.S. reflected some modest diminishing of enthusiasm on the part of listeners -- Quadrophenia, despite being a rather expensive double LP (with full, illustrated libretto) and built around a somewhat outré subject, had reached number two on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the tour's completion, the band officially took an extended hiatus.
The late '70s saw the band start to succumb to the ravages of age, as well as the lifestyle inherent in professional rock & roll at their level. It was revealed that Townshend, after years of playing on-stage with the band, had permanently damaged his hearing. And on the 1976 tour, Moon collapsed on-stage just a few minutes into a show at the Boston Garden -- he recovered and seemed to laugh off the incident, while an audience member sat in behind the drum kit to allow the band to finish the performance. He continued to party like there was no tomorrow, and even brought up the notion of a possible successor, should one ever be needed, in the guise of ex-Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones. The Who reconvened in early 1978 to record Who Are You, which was released in August of that year, accompanied by a stunning promotional/performance video of the title song. 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 earning a platinum record award. Instead of being a triumphant comeback, however, Who Are You became a symbol of tragedy -- on September 7, 1978, not three weeks after the album's release, Moon died of a drug overdose. 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, and most fans would have agreed, at least until the release of Endless Wire in 2006.
They took Moon's own suggestion and hired Kenney Jones as his replacement, as well as keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick to round out the lineup, and 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, their solo careers losing momentum across the remainder of the decade, 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, minus Kenney Jones, who was replaced by session drummer Simon Phillips for something billed as 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 -- which, in all honesty, Daltrey and, especially, Entwistle needed. They ended up with the worst reviews in their history, and followed it up with a live album, Join Together, that was the nadir of their recording history, shapeless, flat, and, worst of all -- and most astonishingly for this band -- dull. The Who reunited again in 1994 for two concerts to celebrate Daltrey's 50th birthday.
The commercial success of the tour did have one positive effect on Townshend, helping to jump-start the effort to bring Tommy to the Broadway stage. It became a huge hit in this new venue and revived interest in the original recording, which reappeared in several different CD incarnations, the best of which -- the Mobile Fidelity ultradisc and the Universal "deluxe edition" -- finally presented it with the crispness and presence it deserved. Following his success with 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 New York City 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 to the best reviews that any Who album had gotten since Who Are You, 28 year earlier. The accompanying tour was similarly well-received, and for the first time since the 1980s there seemed to be a point to the group's continued existence, as something other than a money-making machine. On December 7, 2008, at a gala ceremony in Washington, D.C., Townshend and Daltrey, as the surviving members of the Who, received Kennedy Center Honors for their lifetime contributions to American culture -- and if the late Keith Moon were watching from wherever he is, he would probably have been too flabbergasted to crack a joke. ~ Bruce Eder & Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi