he founding members of The Who, Roger Daltrey (vocals/guitar/harmonica/percussion), Pete Townshend (vocals/guitar/keyboards) and John Entwistle (bass/horns/keyboards/vocals), grew up in Acton, London and went to Acton County Grammar School. Townshend's father, Cliff, played saxophone and his mother, Betty, had sung in the entertainment division of the Royal Air Force during World War II. Townshend and Entwistle became friends in their second year of Acton County, and formed a trad jazz group. This lasted until Daltrey spotted Entwistle by chance on the street carrying a bass and recruited him into his act, The Detours.
So it started, featuring the membership of Daltrey on lead guitar, Entwistle on bass, Harry Wilson on drums, and Colin Dawson on vocals under the banner of The Detours. But Dawson soon left after frequently arguing with Daltrey, and after being briefly replaced by Gabby Connolly, Daltrey moved to lead vocals. Townshend, with Entwistle's encouragement, became the sole guitarist. Through Townshend's mother, the group obtained a management contract with local promoter Robert Druce, who started booking the band as a support act. In February 1964, the group became aware of Johnny Devlin and the Detours and changed their name to the preset The Who after struggling with names all the previous night to avoid marketing conflicts.
During a gig with a stand-in drummer in late April at the Oldfield, the band met Keith Moon, he would soon join the act.
The Who changed managers to Peter Meaden who tried to sell the group as a "mod" act; a growing movement in Britain at the time. He dressed them in mod styled clothing and renamed the act The High Numbers; this didn't work out as planned so Meaden was replaced as manager by two filmmakers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. The act reverted to calling themselves The Who and changed their set towards soul, rhythm and blues and Motown covers, with the slogan "Maximum R&B".
In June 1964, during a performance at the Railway, Townshend accidentally broke the head of his guitar on the low ceiling. Angered by the audience's laughter, he finished the tantrum by smashing the rest of his instrument on the stage, then picked up another guitar and continued with the show. The following week, the audience were demanded to see a repeat of the event. This time Moon obliged by kicking his drum kit over. From this point on, auto-destructive art became a feature of The Who's live set.
By late 1964, The Who were becoming popular in London's Marquee club, and a rave review of their live act appeared in Melody Maker. The acts was becoming ever more popular with pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline as well. Pirate radio was important for bands in the UK at the time since there were no commercial radio stations in the UK and BBC Radio played very little pop music.
The transition to a hit-making band with original material, encouraged by Lambert, did not sit well with Daltrey, and a recording session of R&B covers went unreleased. The members of the band were not exactly buddies either, apart from Moon and Entwistle who enjoyed hanging out together at nightclubs in the West End of London. It came to head after a tour of Denmark in September, which culminated in Daltrey throwing Moon's amphetamines down the toilet and assaulting him. Immediately on returning to England, Daltrey was handed the sack! He was reinstated on the condition that the group became a democracy without his dominant leadership.
This is when their most known hit came to be, My Generation that October. Townshend had written it as a slow blues, 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 simulate the speech of a mod on amphetamines, and two key changes.
The debut album My Generation (1965) featured the hit song as well as, among original material by Townshend, The Kids Are Alright, as well as several James Brown covers from the session earlier that year that Daltrey favored. But, after the record's release, The Who had a falling out with Talmy, which meant an abrupt end to their recording contract. The resulting legal scuffle saw Talmy holding the rights, which prevented the album from being reissued until 2002! The Who were then signed to Robert Stigwood's label, 'Reaction', and released their next huge hit single, Substitute. Townshend said he wrote the song about identity crisis, and as a parody of the Rolling Stones's 19th Nervous Breakdown.
In 1966 they released I'm a Boy, about a boy dressed as a girl, taken from an abortive collection of songs called Quads; Happy Jack and an EP, Ready Steady Who were also among those numbers. But conflict continued, on 20 May, Moon and Entwistle were late to a gig having been on the Ready Steady Go! set, where they were regulars at this time, with The Beach Boys' Bruce Johnston. During the performance of My Generation, Townshend attacked Moon with his guitar offering him a black eye; he and Entwistle quit the band only to return a week later. Shortly after, Moon performed with Jeff Beck on his song Beck's Bolero because he was, "trying to get Keith out of the Who".
By 1966, Ready Steady Go! had folded, the mod movement was becoming unfashionable, and The Who found themselves in competition with the likes of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. With so much local competition, a new market was needed. It was decided that commercial success in the US was paramount to the group's future and this led to their first major US appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival after a short tour package of New York. Hendrix was also on the bill, and was also going to smash his guitar on stage. Townshend accused Hendrix of stealing his act, and the pair argued about who would go on stage first; The Who won the argument. But it was Hendrix who got the last laugh, for The Who brought hired equipment to the festival, where-as Hendrix shipped over his regular touring gear from the UK, including a full Marshall stack. According to biographer Tony Fletcher, Hendrix sounded, "so much better than the Who it was embarrassing". But, all was not lost for The Who for their appearance at Monterey gave them recognition in the US, with Happy Jack reaching the top 30.
I Can See for Miles was a single Townshend wrote back in 1966 but refused to record it until he was sure it could be properly produced to his standard. It reached only 10 in the UK but became their best selling single in the US, at 9. The supporting tour saw the group in the US again with Eric Burdon and the Animals, including an appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, miming to I Can See For Miles and My Generation. Before the show, Moon bribed a stage hand to fill his kit with explosives. The hand loaded it with ten times the needed quantity. What was to be a pyrotechnic gimmick of blowing up his drum kit became the real deal when the resulting explosion threw Moon off his drum riser! His arm was cut by flying cymbal shrapnel, while Townshend's hair was singed and his left ear sent ringing; a camera and studio monitor were also destroyed.
The Who Sell Out (1967) was a concept album paying tribute to pirate radio; the act of which (absconding with a radio frequency and broadcasting without government license) had been outlawed in the UK August of that year. The disc included humorous jingles and mock commercials between songs, a mini rock opera called Rael and the previous single, I Can See For Miles. In defiance of the rising anti-consumerist preachings of the hippie counterculture, The Who recorded several real radio advertisements as well, including canned milkshakes and the American Cancer Society.
By 1968, Townshend had stopped using drugs and became interested in the teachings of Meher Baba. Those teachings influenced the next recording, Tommy for the album about the life of a deaf, dumb and blind boy, and his attempt to communicate with others. The platter contained Pinball Wizard, a track added so that New York Times journalist and pinball lover, Nik Cohn, would give the album a good review. The album sold 200,000 copies in the US in its first two weeks.
That August, The Who appeared at the now famous Woodstock Festival, despite being reluctant at first and then demanding $13,000 up front. The festival ran late, and they missed their scheduled time on Saturday night, 16 August, and didn't appear until 5am Sunday to play most of the Tommy album. During the performance, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman interrupted the set to give a political speech about the arrest of John Sinclair; Townshend kicked him off the stage stage shouting, "Fuck off my fucking stage!". At the end, Townshend threw his guitar into the audience.
The next recording, Lifehouse, was to be a multi-media production but ended off being abandoned when the band found it too complex and Townshend suffering a breakdown. Some of the completed material found its way onto the next album, Who's Next (1971), however. Reaching 1 in the UK and 4 in the US to eventually be certified 3-times platinum on tracks like Baba O'Riley and Won't Get Fooled Again, the album featured one of the earliest examples of synthesizer use in rock music. Over the following several years, more material from those abandoned Lifehouse sessions would find their way onto albums.
Rock Is Dead-Long Live Rock! was another abandoned effort. Tensions returned when Townshend believed Daltrey was only interested when the band made money, while Daltrey thought Townshend's projects were getting pretentious. In the case of Moon, he was loosing himself in excessive drinking and drugs use. When Daltrey audited of the group's finances he discovered that managers, Lambert and Stamp failed to keep complete expense records and wanted them sacked; Townshend and Moon wanted nothing to do with that idea! The management was eventually handed their papers in the end.
Quadrophenia followed in 1973 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. The album was their highest charting, peaking at 2 in both the UK and US.
What followed was a disaster of a tour, at the very start Daltrey resisted Townshend's desire to add keyboardist Chris Stainton (of Joe Cocker's band and former album session member) to the touring band. Being refused, Townshend found a work around by assembling the keyboard and synthesizer onto tapes to be played during the performances; a successful venture done on Baba O'Riley and Won't Get Fooled Again. This time, however, the technological choice let them down for the newer music was just too complex to properly incorporate the tapes at such short notice. At a gig in Newcastle, the tapes malfunctioned, Townshend threw a tantrum by calling sound-man Bob Pridden on-stage to chew him out, partially destroy the tapes and kick over all the amps. Lest we forget that tour rehearsals were interrupted when an argument between Daltrey and Townshend whereby Townshend was knocked out cold. Ohh, but it didn't end there for while on the US part in Daly City, California Moon passed out during the performance of Won't Get Fooled Again and Magic Bus. Townshend then asked the audience, "Can anyone play the drums? ...I mean somebody good." Audience member, Scot Halpin, filled in for the rest of the show. While in Montreal, Canada, the band (except for Daltrey, who had gone to bed) caused so much damage to their hotel room that the Canadian federal law enforcement arrested them.
The Tommy film followed in 1974 was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score while 1975 saw the arrival of the album The Who by Numbers; Squeeze Box was the hit single of the album.
On 6 December 1975, the act set the record for largest indoor concert at the Pontiac Silverdome; attended by 78,000 people.
On 31 May 1976, they played a second concert at the Valley. This show received a Guinness record as the world's loudest concert at 120 dB.
Late in 1976, Townshend went to The Speakeasy bar where he met the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones and Paul Cook. At the end of the friendly get together, he passed out in a doorway. A passing policeman told him that if he could get up and walk away he would not be arrested; that event inspired the title track of the next album, Who Are You in 1978 that peaked at 6 in the UK and 2 in the US. The album was not followed by a tour as Moon was too ill and the other members had tired of touring. That illness was from Moon's own drug and alcohol abuse; after Moon attended a party to celebrate Buddy Holly's birthday he returned to his apartment and ingested 32 tablets of clomethiazole, prescribed to help alleviate alcohol withdrawal; he was discovered dead later the next day.
The movie Quadrophenia arrived later in 1978 while 1979 saw the release of The Kids Are Alright, a retrospective of the band's career.
December of 1979 saw The Who became the third band to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.
On 3 December 1979, 11 fans were killed in a stampede at The Who's show that night at the Riverfront Coliseum, Cincinnati. Few entry doors were opened at the time the band was rehearsing and seating was a first-come-first-served arrangement. Even though the venue was not yet open, fans forced their way through the bottleneck of an entry to vie for the best seats thinking the show was about to start; the less fortunate were stampeded under foot. The band was not told until after the show fearing a riot by fans if the show had been halted. The band were very upset at the news to say the least. Since then all concert venue assign seats to tickets when seats are offered.
Townshend then released his debut solo album, Empty Glass (1980).
The next two The Who studio albums featured Kenney Jones as drummer, Face Dances (1981) and It's Hard (1982). Both sold reasonably well. Face Dances would yield a US top 20 and UK top 10 with You Better You Bet; the video for which would be one of the earliest on the new MTV.
More strife in the band ensued over whether they should tour or not, while Townshend found it increasingly difficult to motivate himself to write music suitable for The Who, and after he spent much of 1983 trying to write material for a The Who album owed to 'Warner' he decided to pay the company to release himself and Jones from the contract. Once that legal matter was resolved he announced his resignation from the band; effectively ending it. Townshend went on to release three more solo albums: White City: A Novel (1985), The Iron Man (1989, featuring Daltrey and Entwistle and two songs credited to The Who), and Psychoderelict (1993).
Many charity events and attempted reunions would come and go until a stable line-up emerged in 1996 with Townshend, Entwistle and Daltrey performing Quadrophenia with guests and Zak Starkey on drums at Hyde Park. In late 1999, The Who then performed as a five-piece for the first time since 1985, with John "Rabbit" Bundrick on the tour for keyboards and Starkey on drums. For the next decade the act toured with various members coming and going.
On 27 June, 2002, Entwistle was found dead of a heart attack at 57 at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. Cocaine was a contributing factor.
The concept album Endless Wire arrived in 2006 featuring Daltrey and Townshend along with a long list of guest musicians.
On 11 June 2016 in Newport, England, The Who embarked on their Back to the Who Tour 51!, a tour seen as a continuation of the previous year.
Footnote: What is 120 dB? The sound of the loudest possible thunder clap, almost as loud as a jet aircraft at takeoff, 32 times louder than the average vacuum cleaner: it is beyond the safety or pain thresholds for humans -- at 150 the eardrum ruptures...