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Along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Who complete the holy trinity of British rock. The group began as fashionable London mods, playing a self-styled brand of "Maximum R&B," but became much more: the pioneers of rock opera, a powerhouse arena act, and among the first rock groups to successfully integrate (rather than merely fiddle with) synthesizers. Their smashed guitars and overturned (or blown up) drum kits symbolized the violent passions of a band that mixed four distinct and powerful sounds: Pete Townshend's alternately raging or majestic guitar playing, Keith Moon's nearly anarchic drumming style, John Entwistle's facile, thundering bass lines, and Roger Daltrey's impassioned vocals.
Ever since guitarist and main songwriter Townshend declared in "My Generation," "Hope I die before I get old," he has been embraced as a high-minded spokesman for rock & roll, a role he assumed (he claims) reluctantly. Nonetheless, for the much of his career with the Who Townshend explored rock's philosophical topography, from the raw rebelliousness of "My Generation" and adolescent angst of "I Can't Explain" to such ambitious songs as "Love Reign O'er Me." That the Who continued to perform (and repackage their catalogue) well into the new millennium irked critics and old fans, but respect for the band's classic work has never waned.
All four band members grew up around London – Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle in the working-class Shepherd's Bush area. Townshend's parents were professional entertainers. He and Entwistle knew each other at school in the late-1950s and played in a Dixieland band when they were in their early teens, with Townshend on banjo and Entwistle on trumpet. They played together in a rock band, but Entwistle left in 1962 to join the Detours. That band included Roger Daltrey, a sheet-metal worker.
When the Detours needed to replace a rhythm guitarist, Entwistle suggested Townshend, and Daltrey switched from lead guitar to vocals when the original singer, Colin Dawson, left in1963. Not long after that, drummer Doug Sandom was replaced by Moon, who was then playing in a surf band called the Beachcombers. By early 1964 the group had changed its name to the Who, and not long after, the excitement inspired by Townshend's bashing his guitar out of frustrating during a show ensured it would become a part of the act.
Shortly thereafter, the group came under the wing of manager Pete Meaden, who renamed them the High Numbers and gave them a better-dressed Mod image. The High Numbers released an unsuccessful single, "I'm the Face" b/w "Zoot Suit" (both written by Meaden), then got new managers, former small-time film directors Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. By late 1964 the quartet became the Who again, and with Lambert and Stamp's encouragement they became an even more Mod band, with violent stage show and a repertoire including blues, James Brown, and Motown covers, solely because their Mod audiences loved that music. In fact, despite the billing, the Who's original songs were anything but classic R&B.
The group's demo of "I Can't Explain," with sessionman Jimmy Page adding guitar, brought them to producer Shel Talmy (who had also worked with the Kinks) and got them a record deal. When "I Can't Explain" came out in January 1965, it was ignored until the band appeared on the TV show Ready, Steady, Go. Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon overturned his drums, and the song eventually reached Number Eight in Britain. "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" also reached the British Top Tem, followed in November 1965 by "My Generation." It went to Number Two in the U.K. but only reached Number 75 in the U.S. But the Who were already stars in Britain, having established their sound and their personae. Townshend played guitar with full-circle windmilling motions, Daltrey strutted like a bantam fighter, Entwistle (whose occasional songwriting effort revealed a macabre sense of humor) just stood there seemingly unmoved as Moon happily flailed all over his drum kit.
After the Who's fourth hit single, "Substitute" (Number 5 U.K.), Lambert replaced Talmy as producer. Their second album, A Quick One (While He's Away) (Happy Jack in the U.S.; Number 67, 1967), included a 10-minute mini-opera as the title track, shortly before the Beatles' concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band. The Who also began to make inroads in the U.S. with "Happy Jack" (Number 24, 1967) and a tour that included the performance filmed at the Monterey Pop Festival in June.
The Who Sell Out (Number 48, 1967) featured mock-advertisement songs and genuine jingles from offshore British pirate radio stations; it also contained another mini-opera, "Rael," and a Top Ten hit in England and the U.S., "I Can See for Miles." In October 1968 the band released Magic Bus (Number 39, 1968), a compilation of singles and B-sides, while Townshend worked on his 90 minute opus, Tommy. The story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy turned pinball champion-pop idol turned autocratic messianic guru was variously considered both pretentious and profound. Most important, however, Tommy was the first successful rock opera. The album hit Number Four in the U.S., and its first single, "Pinball Wizard," went to Number 19.
The band would perform Tommy in its entirety a handful of times – -at London's Coliseum in 1969, at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House on June 6th and 7th, 1970, and on some dates during its 1989 reunion tour. Excerpts, including "See Me, Feel Me," "Pinball Wizard," and the instrumental "Underture," were thereafter part of the live show. Troupes mounted productions of it around the world (the Who's performances had been concert versions), and Townshend oversaw a new recording of it in 1972, backed by the London Symphony and featuring Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Sandy Denny, and Richard Burton, among others. In 1975 Ken Russell directed the controversial high-pop film version, which included Eric Clapton ("Eyesight to the Blind"), Tina Turner ("Acid Queen"), and Elton John ("Pinball Wizard"), as well as Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, and Jack Nicholson. Moon (as the lecherous Uncle Ernie) and Daltrey (in the lead title role) also appeared in the film.
Bits of Tommy turned up on Live at Leeds (Number Four, 1970), a juggernaut live set, which was followed by Who's Next (Number Four, 1971), a staple of FM rock radio. It included Townshend's first experiments with synthesizers – "Baba O'Riley," "Bargain," "Won't Get Fooled Again" – three songs that Townshend originally conceived as part of another rock opera entitled Lifehouse. The singles comp Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy (Number 11, 1971) was followed two years later by the Who's second double-album rock opera, Quadrophenia (Number Two, 1973), a tribute to the tortured inner life of the Mods. It too was a hit and became a movie directed by Franc Roddam in 1979, with Sting of the Police in the wordless role of the bellboy.
While the Who were hugely popular, Quadrophenia signaled that Townshend was now a generation older than the fans he had initially spoken for. As he agonized over his role as an elder statesman of rock — as he would do for years to come — the Who released Odds and Sods (Number 15, 1974), a compilation of the previous decade's outtakes. The Who by Numbers (Number Eight, 1975) was the result of Townshend's self-appraisal ("However Much I Booze"); it lacked the Who's usual vigor, but yielded a hit single in "Squeeze Box" (Number 16, 1975). The band could dependably pack arenas wherever it went, but it took some time off the road after By Numbers.
The group members — whose personality clashes are almost as legendary as their music — began pursuing more individual projects. Moon released a novelty solo disc, Two Sides of the Moon, which featured guest stars galore; Entwistle recorded two solo LPs with bands called Ox and Rigor Mortis. Daltrey also recorded solo; his first two efforts are widely regarded as mediocre and he only had one Top 40 hit in the U.S., "Without Your Love," from the McVicar soundtrack.
The Townshend-penned "After the Fire" received substantial video exposure when released in 1985. Daltrey found considerably more success as an actor. Besides Tommy, he starred in Ken Russell's over-the-top "biography" of composer Franz Liszt, Lisztomania (1975) and McVicar (1980), the true story of the famous British criminal John McVicar. In the mid-1980s he played the double role of the Dromio twins in a PBS production of Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors. He's also appeared on the London stage (The Beggar's Opera, 1991) and on British television (The Little Match Girl, 1990). In 1999 he played Scrooge in a stage version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol in New York City.
In 1970 Townshend contributed four tracks to Happy Birthday, a privately released, limited edition album recorded as a tribute to Townshend's guru, Meher Baba. The following year, I Am, a similar limited-edition Baba tribute album, was released. It contained another Townshend track, a nine-minute instrumental version of "Baba O'Riley." As both these records were heavily bootlegged, Townshend's response was to create an "offical" version of both albums. The result, Who Came First (Number 69, 1972), was Townshend's first "real" solo album. It included the tracks from Happy Birthday and I Am, plus new songs, and demos of the Who tracks "Pure and Easy" and "Let's See Action." His second solo release was a collaboration with ex-Faces Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix (Number 45, 1977), which featured a number of FM/AOR radio staples: "Street in the City," "My Baby Gives It Away," and "A Heart to Hang on To."
Meanwhile, punk was burgeoning in Britain, and the Sex Pistols among others were brandishing the Who's old power chords and attitude. Townshend's continuing identity crisis showed up in the title of Who Are You (Number Two, 1978), but the title song became a hit single (Number 14) that fall, and the album went double platinum. It was the last and highest-charting album of the original band.
The next few years brought tragedy and turmoil, and in a sense, the end of the Who in the death of Keith Moon. Moon always reveled in his reputation as the madman of rock, and his outrageous stunts, onstage and off, were legend. His prodigious drinking and drug abuse (he was once paralyzed for days after accidentally ingesting an elephant tranquilizer) had begun to diminish his playing ability. In 1975 he left England for L.A., where he continued to drink heavily. He returned to England and was trying to kick his alcoholism, but on September 7, 1978, Moon died of an overdose of a sedative, Heminevrin, that had been prescribed to prevent seizures induced by alcohol withdrawal. Although the group continued for another three years, each of the three surviving original members has stated repeatedly that the Who was never the same again.
In 1979 the Who oversaw a concert documentary of their early years, The Kids Are Alright (soundtrack, Number Eight, 1979), and worked on the soundtrack version of Quadrophenia (Number 46, 1979), which also included a number of Mod favorites performed by the original artists (such as Booker T. & the M.G.'s' "Green Onions" and James Brown's "Night Train"). Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces, replaced Moon, and session keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick began working with the Who. The new lineup toured, but tragedy struck again when 11 concert goers were killed — trampled to death or asphyxiated — in a rush for "festival seating" spots at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979. The incident occurred before the show, and the group wasn't told of it until afterward.
After 15 years with Decca/MCA, the Who signed a band contract with Warner Bros., and Townshend got a solo deal with Atco. His Empty Glass (Number Five, 1980) included the U.S. Top 10 hit "Let My Love Open the Door" and "Rough Boys," a song long believed to have been an angry reply to a punk musician who had insulted the Who during an interview. Much later, in a 1989 interview with writer Timothy White, Townshend denied that was the case, saying, "It's about homosexuality," and adding that "And I Moved" was as well. Townshend's admission of having "had a gay life," and the statement "I know how it feels to be a woman because I am a woman," came as a surprise to many, including his band mates.
In 1981 Townshend performed solo with an acoustic guitar at a benefit for Amnesty International, which was recorded as The Secret Policeman's Ball. His falling asleep onstage was the first public sign of his deepening drug addiction. Since the year before, Townshend had been abusing alcohol, cocaine, and freebase cocaine mixed with heroin. He subsequently developed an addiction to Ativan, a tranquilizer he was prescribed during treatment for alcoholism. Ativan combined with freebase and heroin resulted in a highly publicized, near-fatal overdose during which he was rushed to the hospital from a London club. Townshend subsequently underwent electro-acupuncture treatment and cleaned up in 1982.
Amid all this, the revamped Who soldiered on. Face Dances (Number Four, 1981) included the hit single "You Better You Bet" (Number 18, 1981) and "Don't Let Go the Coat." But Townshend later called the new lineup's debut album a disappointment. One month after Face Dances came out, the Who's former producer/manager, Kit Lambert, died after falling down a flight of stairs; he was 45. (Pete Meadon had died three weeks before Moon, in 1978.)
Townshend released the wordy All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (Number 26, 1982), and soon followed it with the group's It's Hard (Number Eight, 1982), an album Daltrey has since been quoted as saying should never have been released. It produced the group's last Top 30 hit to date, "Athena" (Number 28). The Who then embarked on what they announced would be their last tour, ending with a concert in Toronto on December 17, 1982.
Although the group officially broke up then, the Who have reunited to perform several times since. They appeared at Live Aid in 1985 and at a U.K. music-awards program in 1988. They celebrated the group's silver anniversary in 1989 with a 43-date tour of the U.S. which included guest-star-studded performances of Tommy in L.A. and New York, and later in London. For this tour Jones was replaced by session drummer Simon Phillips. It was also during this tour that Townshend, whose hearing was extremely damaged from years of listening to loud music through headphones, had to play standing behind a plastic baffle to block the onstage noise.
Townshend also released a number of solo projects throughout the 1980s: Scoop (Number 35, 1983) and Another Scoop (Number 198, 1987) collect demo tapes, home recordings, and sundry tracks of historical interest to fans. White City — a Novel (Number 26, 1985) is a concept piece, the soundtrack to a long-form video of the same title and includes "Face the Face"; The Iron Man: The Musical is the star-studded (Daltrey, Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker) soundtrack to Townshend's rock opera based on a children's story by poet Ted Hughes. Deep End Live!, released with an accompanying live video, barely scraped into the Top 100.
Townshend wrote in the liner notes to the 1994 box-set career retrospective Thirty Years of Maximum R&B: "I don't like the Who much . . . " Through the years of his derisive attitude toward the group has rung false at worst, disingenuous at best. In fact, Townshend's pride (and joy) in performing with the Who was abundantly clear during the band's 2000 tour, when he introduced it, happily, as "the fucking Who."
Despite Townshend's other projects and endeavors, including an editorship with book publisher Faber and Faber and publication of his collected stories, Horse's Neck (1985), the Who legacy endures. In 1993 the Broadway production of Tommy won five Tony Awards, including one for Townshend for Best Original Score. The next year saw the release of Townshend's PsychoDerelict (Number 118, 1994), a concept album that includes pieces written originally for the Lifehouse project. An examination of rock stardom's ravages, PsychoDerelict was also performed as a theater piece and filmed (it was subsequently broadcast on PBS). That year he also embarked on his first solo tour with a set list that included a number of Who classics, including "Won't Get Fooled Again." In February 1994 Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle reunited for Carnegie Hall performances in celebration of Daltrey's 50th birthday. Accompanied by a 65-piece orchestra, the trio was also joined by guest stars including Sinéad O'Connor, Eddie Vedder, and Lou Reed, and the show was filmed for cable television.
Two years later, the group recruited drummer Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) along with a 12-piece backing band and embarked on a series o dates in which they performed the Quadrophenia album in its entirety for the first time. Townshend again stuck to rhythm guitar to preserve his hearing, leaving electric guitar duties to his brother Simon Townshend.
In 1999 Townshend reunited the band again for a charity concert at the House of Blues in Chicago, which led to yet another reunion tour the following year. This time around, however, the Who toured as a quintet: Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, Starkey, and John Bundrick on keyboards, with Townshend returning to electric guitar. The no-nonsense approach resulted in glowing reviews hailing the group's 2000 shows as some of their best in nearly two decades. A live album, Live: The Blues to the Bush/1999, was issued online via a partnership with Musicmaker.com, and the band even began talking about the possibility of a new studio set in the future. To cap their year, the Who received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards.
In the midst of all the Who activity in late 1999 and 2000, Townshend returned yet again to his lifelong Lifehouse project. The BBC broadcast a Lifehouse radio play in December 1999, and in February 2000, Townshend performed the rock opera himself at London's Sadler's Wells Theater. Shortly thereafter he released a six-disc box set, Lifehouse Chronicles, on his own Eelpie label via his Web site; a single-disc version, Lifehouse Elements, was released in stores by Redline Entertainment. Daltrey has continued planning his pet project, a film biography of the life of Moon.
In October 2001, the Who appeared at the Concert for New York City, a 9/11 benefit, where the band was received with the most warmth of any act on the evening's program. But before they could continue on the road again the following summer, John Entwistle died of a cocaine-fueled heart attack in his hotel room. Townshend and Daltrey went out anyway, with session bassist Pino Palladino filling in and Pete's brother Simon handling background vocals and rhythm guitar. In 2004, Townshend and Daltrey recorded a pair of new songs, "Old Red Wine" and "Real Good Looking Boy," for a compilation. (The Who have released more compilations since their initial breakup than they did studio albums before it.)
In July 2005 the Who appeared in London as part of Live 8. In October 2006, the band released Endless Wire, their first new album in 24 years. It reached Number Seven and received middling reviews. November 2007 saw the DVD release of Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, an extensive band documentary containing new interviews and much unseen archival footage. Tours followed in 2008 and 2009, capped off by an appearance at the Super Bowl Halftime show in 2010.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Andy Greene contributed to this story.