The Who started out life as The High Numbers in 1964. Originally a archetypal Mod band, their first single was ‘I’m the Face’ in July 1964. By early 1965 Townshend, Entwistle, Daltrey and Moon had become the Who. They had three hit singles in UK before the release of their first album. ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’ (featuring one of the first recordings of guitar feedback) and the awesome ‘My Generation’ all made the top ten in UK.
‘My Generation’ was a magnificent slab of amphetamine anger with its ‘hope I die before I get old’ philosophy and the stuttering vocal of Daltrey, which imitated the stuttering speech of the pillhead. They released a top 5 album of the same name but during this period, the Who’s best work was on singles.
The next batch of hits were all solid gold Townshend penned classics ‘Substitute,’ ‘I’m a boy,’ ‘Happy Jack,’‘Pictures of Lily,’ and ‘I Can See for Miles’ were all huge UK hits. Only Dylan and the Beatles rivalled Townshend’s lyrical ambition. Songs about masturbation and transvestites intermixed with more political observations, and performed with his trademark windmill style of guitar thrashing made him utterly unique. His outsized nose and gangling limbs made him an unlikely but compelling guitar hero.
Their second album, A Quick One While He’s Away in December ’66 was a mix of original rock, quirky pop and a bit of Motown in their superb cover of ‘Heatwave.’ The title track was a mini-opera in itself
But beneath the cocky swagger of the self styled ‘Orrible ‘Ooo, Townshend was suffering from self-doubt. The shuddering classic,’ I Can See for Miles’ was a song he’d held in reserve to be used only in emergency, feeling he had nothing as good left in him.
The band played the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, which really announced them to America for the first time. Shepherd's Bush’s finest hooligans blew away the shocked hippies with a storming set packed full of working class aggression and swagger, and not a single reference to peace, love, flower power or beautiful people. This gig helped their third album The Who Sell Out reach the top 50 in the States.
But it was 1969’s Tommy that was to make the Who the global superstars they were to become in the 70’s. A rock opera about a deaf dumb and blind boy is typically odd choice of subject matter for Townshend, but across the double album were several stunning songs, the first of which, ‘Pinball Wizard’ was a hit single in March 1969.
The band toured Tommy incessantly. Playing it in full to rapturous audiences, including Woodstock. Townshend hated Woodstock. The band were spiked with acid and he attacked Abbie Hoffman with his guitar as he tried to get on stage. Ironically their performance, as the sun was rising, was a spine-tingling transcendent moment in rock.
Live, the band had become a raging musical machine. Daltrey’s full throated vocals, Entwistle's perpetually inventive bass playing synchronised instinctively to Moon’s utterly unique, perpetual motion drumming. Moon never used a high hat. He invented a drumming style all of his own. Indeed, his drumming was a perfect illustration of his character. Wild, anarchic, thrashing and magnificent. Moon played like he was falling into the drums. His thunderous almost inhumanly energetic performances have all but defined rock drumming. There will never be his equal. And of course there was Townshend, now dressed in a white Clockwork Orange style boiler suit, bouncing around the stage, whipping the living daylights out of his Gibson SG. Townshend mastered the art of turning rhythm guitar into a lead instrument.
Live at Leeds, recorded at Leeds Town Hall in 1970, is the perfect live document of just how staggeringly good all the years of touring had made them. Live at Leeds lays claim to be the best live album ever made. Now available on CD in totality, it is essential listening. Their version of Mose Allison’s ‘Young Man Blues’ is especially masterful. It went top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic
Townshend began work on ‘Lifehouse,’ a follow up concept album to Tommy but abandoned it, keeping a couple of the songs for 1971’s Who’s Next. This is an album that deserves to be in anyone’s top 10 rock albums of all time. It contains 3 all time classics, ‘Baba O’Reilly,’ ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and the climactic ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’
A restless, creative, Townshend had begun learning how to program early synths, and brought this to expand the band's sound. Lyrically, he was as surgical and bitter as ever “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” is about as concise and perfect statement of the modern human condition as any made in the 20th century. At this time he began studying the works of Maher Baba.
Who’s Next made 4 in US and 1 in UK, but it was 2 years before the next album Quadrophrenia was released. Drawing on the band's own Mod history, it was another concept album of sorts. Once again, full of big dramatic rock gestures like ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ and the triumphantly hedonistic ‘5:15.’
Ken Russell made a crazy movie of Tommy around this time and all the material was re-recorded for it. So, it was 1975 before the Who By Numbers came out. Often dismissed, this was a tighter, slimmer album of songs and included one of Townshend’s best compositions in ‘Slip Kid.’ Needless to say it was another top ten record.
Townshend fully embraced the punk movement, seeing it as a resurrection of the original rock 'n' roll spirit. The admiration wasn’t always openly reciprocal however. 1978’s Who Are You was to be the last album with Keith Moon on drums. It was a spiky record. The title track was inspired by Townshend’s passing out drunk in a doorway and being woken by a policeman who didn’t recognise the rock star. Who Are You also had a typically doubled edged lyrical meaning. Pete always being keen on self analysis and introspection, as on earlier songs like The Seeker.
Moon was still doing his rocket-fuel driven drumming craziness. Although only 32, a life of strong drink and stronger drugs had taken its toll. He looked much older. Moon the Loon’s brand of insanity is well documented, but to his many fans and friends, it seemed like he was an accident waiting to happen. After a party on 7th September 1978 he died of an overdose of heminevrin while watching a Fu Manchu movie.
To replace Keith Moon was impossible and some fans felt they should never have tried. Kenney Jones played the drums for two albums but Moon would always be the only drummer the Who could ever call their own. Face Dances was thin on good material, It’s Hard really was hard work, but both sold very well.
To all intents and purposes that was the end of the Who. They reformed to play Live Aid. Townshend struggled with addictions but eventually cleaned up and released solo albums that dented the charts but nothing more. A 25th Anniversary tour of America occurred in 1989, and though well attended it was largely seen as just a huge money making exercise. (Like that’s a bad thing!)
Throughout the ‘90s there were performances of Quadrophenia and Tommy, along with the odd tour, but no new Who material as such. In June 2002, on the eve of a North American tour Entwistle died at the Hard Rock hotel in Las Vegas. He had cocaine and brandy in his blood and hookers on his bed. It’s just the way he would have wanted it. He was only 59.
The tour went on and late 2003 there is talk of Townshend once again writing new material for him and Daltrey to perform as the Who.
The Who were as loud and as powerful a rock band as ever got on a stage. Townshend is one of the finest songwriters England has ever produced. The combination of these elements made the Who a very, very special band who will always be influential to every new generation of bands.