The Who

As promised in my previous post, which was a little teaser regarding Pete Townshend, here's my more in-depth post on one of the most legendary bands of all time, The Who.

From left to right (for anyone who doesn't know), Pete Townshend (guitar, vocals, piano, songwriting), Roger Daltrey (lead vocals), Keith Moon (drums), John Entwistle (bass guitar, vocals, trumpets/horns).

As with my Beatles post, I won't go into mega-detail on the backstory since it's been chronicled elsewhere multiple times (I can point you in the direction of some great books if you're really interested...leave a comment below if you'd like!), but bursting on to the scene in 1964, for the next 14 years until Keith Moon's untimely death in late 1978, The Who constantly pushed the boundaries of music both onstage and in the studio. Emerging from the London mod scene, they were initially billed as "Maximum R&B" and played a high-energy British version of early blues, R&B, and Motown styled music. After a brief dalliance with a young mod manager (who even convinced them to change their name to The High Numbers for a short time), they were managed by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who changed their name back to The Who and convinced Pete Townshend to begin writing original songs for the band. In doing so, Pete became the visionary and creative leader of the band, going to write probably 95% of all of their material, and in doing so he became the one songwriter of his generation who could stand toe-to-toe with Lennon and McCartney as among the greatest writers and composers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest of the 1960s/70s generation.

Musically, they are wholly unique. They were the first major band to utilize the now-commonplace 4-man line-up of vocals/guitar/bass/drums. Roger Daltrey was the first "rock god" frontman, commanding the stage with his presence, his vocals which could range from sweet and gentle to screaming and bombastic and everything in between, along with his trademark microphone twirling acrobatics. Speaking of acrobatics, Pete Townshend's stage performances have to be seen to be believed: jumping, kicking, scissor kicking, and windmilling his arm while he played heavy riffs, power chords (which he invented), feedback, quiet arpeggios and fingerstyle passages, and literally wringing every possible sound out of his guitar. Keith Moon was a non-stop whirling dervish behind the drums, helping to pioneer double-bass drum kits and drumming (from 1966 onward) and can best be compared to a cross between Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Animal from the Muppets (who was inspired by Keith Moon himself!).  With all of this going on, he was always on point and on tempo and was an excellent time-keeper (but certainly not in the traditional sense!), even according to Pete Townshend himself in his memoirs (I put this in because it's a common misconception non-musician fans tend to have of Moon's style). John Entwistle was the first bass virtuoso, who went on to inspire generations of bass players like Geddy Lee (among others) with his incredible speed, technique, and dexterity. In many ways during many of their jams, John was the lead instrument while Pete's riffing and chords locked in with Moon in the more traditional sense of "rhythm section" (listen to The Real Me, below, to see what I mean). He was also the first bass player to go with an overdriven sound and to pump it out at a volume equal to the guitar (up to the mid-60s, bass was always underneath and quieter than guitar in most bands). Here's a great example, and from as early as 1965, no less:

And a huge advantage they had over the only contemporary band that was in the same league as them, Led Zeppelin (who I also love to death) was that The Who had *THREE* vocalists (Roger, Pete, and John), which, both in the studio and onstage, let them sing 2 or 3-part harmonies that added additional depth and excitement to the music.

They were a band that loved each other but fought like crazy with each other, a band that sneered and gave a collective fist-shake to anyone who doubted them, a band that always looked like any of the 4 of them could and would kick your ass if you crossed them (contrast this with Pete's extremely cerebral and visionary aptitude as a songwriter), a band that could tug at the heartstrings at one moment and then sonically punch you in the gut a minute later, and a band that (as I always have liked to put it), was the aural and sonic personification of testosterone and energy itself. 

And that's just my introduction!

First, I'm going to break down The Who's career, which can be split into 3 eras (in my opinion). The first era, which would encompass 1964-1968, saw them combining high-energy and destructive live shows with quirky, humorous, and cerebral singles...think of them during this period as the first power-pop band, albeit one who routinely destroyed their instruments (and the stages in the venues!) at the end of every show.

Along the way, they pioneered the use of feedback and volume in rock music. Indeed, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle were directly involved with the development of Marshall amps and Marshall stacks in concert with Jim Marshall in London. Along the way, a former employee of Marshall's split off and established Sound City (shortly later rebranded as HiWatt) amps, which Pete and John are most famous for using. The result were amps that were VERY loud, but neither of them used distortion. Instead, the extreme volume and overdriving of the tubes produced natural distortion and balls to the tone, combined with the pickups in whichever guitars they happened to be using at the time.  Songs from this era include classics like I Can't Explain, My Generation, Happy Jack, I'm a Boy, I Can See For Miles (which inspired Paul McCartney to write Helter Skelter), and Pictures of Lily. The last song listed there is a perfect example (among many) of the very quirky British humor that ran through many of these's about a teenage boy who can't sleep at night, so his father gives him postcards featuring a nude pin-up to wank to, which helps the boy, except that along the way he falls in love with Lily only to find out she's long been dead ("she's been dead since 1929, oh how I cried that night!").

By 1968, after 3 successful albums and numerous successful singles, The Who were at a creative crossroads. While their live shows were getting longer, heavier, and receiving great fanfare from critics and audiences alike (bolstered by a triumphant showing at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival), they were adrift in terms of which direction to take next, summed up by their lost 1968 single, Dogs, which disappointed at #25 in the UK charts, although it arguably inspired many BritPop bands in the 1990s, most notably Blur's classic Parklife album.

Pete had been dabbling in conceptual pieces (the song "A Quick One, While He's Away" from 1966's A Quick One album, and the entire 1967 album The Who Sell out, which was set up to play like you were listening to pirate radio), and decided the time was right for the first rock opera, which would be a connected and thematic song cycle as album. This, of course, begat Tommy in 1969, which was a triumph for the entire band and also reversed The Who's fortunes. To this point, they were running dangerously low on money and only the constant and relentless gigging was earning them anything.

With Tommy, massive worldwide album sales and subsequent sold out megatours in 1969 and 1970 (where they played nearly the entire Tommy album in the middle of their 2-hour sets), the coffers were finally full and they ascended to the holy trinity of rock bands, which first was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, and later (after the 1970 Beatles breakup), The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones.

This brings us to the second era, which is considered to be their peak, from 1969-1973. They played Woodstock, the Isle of Wight in 1969 and 1970, and numerous gigs in between. Their live album Live at Leeds, considered by many to be the greatest live rock album of all time, was released in 1970, showing that by now The Who had become a well-oiled machine that could bludgeon you with the first stirrings of punk and heavy metal, yet never lost its knack for contrasts in volume and tempo (Pete's love of incorporating "light and shade" into their music). Another thing to note is that, visually, they were one of, if not, *THE* most exciting live bands ever. It's nearly impossible (at least for me) to not want to get up and jump around and headbang when watching and listening to cuts like these:

So what do you do as a follow-up? First, 1971's legendary album Who's Next, which rose from the ashes of an aborted Townshend concept vehicle, Lifehouse. The album contains some of their best work, including classics like Baba O'Riley, Bargain, Behind Blue Eyes, and Won't Get Fooled Again.

After that, how about *ANOTHER* rock opera, and probably Pete Townshend's artistic peak as a writer, Quadrophenia? This 1973 album is a personal favorite of mine...I am not exaggerating one bit when I say that it helped me make it through my teenage years and many tumultuous personal events during that time both alive and (relatively) intact. I hold it close to my heart even as a 33 year old man as one of my top 5 albums of all time.

By this time, they were getting a bit burned out and also tried to realize a feature film adaptation of Tommy, which brings us to their 3rd and final era, which is not decline so much as a lessening of the output, both on record and onstage, from 1974 until Keith Moon's passing in 1978.

Only two albums were released during this final period: 1975's The Who By Numbers, which is a sometimes bleak and sometimes optimistic, deeply personal diary of Pete Townshend's mind at the time as played by The Who, and 1978's Who Are You, which combined the new punk sounds with Pete's more operatic and bombastic treatments (The Who were the only one of the giant rock bands by the late 1970s that were not only not attacked as "dinosaurs" by the punk and new wave bands as well as the music press, but were still actively lauded by them. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The Rolling Stones were not so lucky). Both albums were successful, with Who Are You reaching the top 3 in the album charts in the USA and UK. Successful tours in 1975 and 1976 saw the band firing on all cylinders and playing some of the best shows of their careers, but Moon's sudden (although sadly, given how he lived his life, not unexpected) death in 1978 put an end to a band that had and continues to be one of the best of all time.

Although they would eventually continue on with a new drummer and various line-up configurations and continue to perform to the present day (John Entwistle subsequently died in 2002), most hardcore fans and Who purists (such as myself) consider the real end of the band to be 1978.

I do want to note that John Entwistle wrote several excellent songs for the band that were on their albums and singles...very quirky and containing his trademark wit and black humor, such as Whiskey Man, Boris the Spider, My Wife, Cousin Kevin, and others.

I hope you've enjoyed (and endured) my take on The Who...if you're already a fan, I'm sure you dug it, and if you're not, I hope I've inspired you to become one!


  1. Recently listened to Tommy for the first time in forever. Thematically, you have to admit that the story is pretty stupid. Musically, wow. Still amazing. The way all of the musical themes are woven into the album as a whole is really great, and a true testament to the old adage that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

    Is it just me, or do concept albums/rock operas bring out music that sounds really unlike anything the artists do otherwise? Tommy, The Wall, Clockwork Angels, the myriad of Kinks rock opearas albums (which I rank, best to worst: Arthur,Schoolboys in Disgrace, Preservation Act 1, Soap Opera (not "great," per se, but enjoyable," and Preservation Act 2...I don't count Village Green Preservation Society or Lola as "rock operas")...I'm sure there are others that I can't think of off the top of my head.

  2. Scenes From a Memory, Snow, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway...all concept albums/rock operas that fit with what you said, as well :-)

    I think the story of Tommy works better if you don't take it literally but think about the underlying themes Pete was going for...I've only learned many of these since reading his memoir (which I HIGHLY recommend, it was a great book). But I agree, musically it's still a towering achievement, especially given his youth (23 yrs old!) and the technology of the day. Quadrophenia is even more stunning, in my opinion.

  3. Yes, the underlying themes are pretty interesting...he seems, at least to me, to be critiquing new-age religions a few years before they really took off among his spirutally adrift generation.

    After having a child of my own, I can't listen to "Cousin Kevin" or "Fiddle About" without feeling very uncomfortable.

  4. I highly recommend his memoir...a really interesting and excellent insight into the man, and I learned a lot I didn't know.


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