The Who – Introductory Page

The Who

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Who were the Who? An auto-destructive art school experiment? Proto-punk rabble rousers? Power pop craftsmen? Rock opera purveryors? Arena rock bombasticators? They were all of that and more. But they were also quite a bit less. There’s absolutely no question that the Who were a dynamic combination of virtuosic musicians who often made for a volatile conglomeration on an interpersonal level but musically created an inimitably dynamic sound. People often use “inimitable” hyperbolically, but in this case I mean it literally. No one sounds like the Who, and it’s impossible to try to sound like them without completely ripping them off. A sound that got bigger and more bombastic as time went on to conform to the material the band had to work with, but really didn’t change all that much on a basic level. It was able to sustain its mighty self with only a couple of oft-used riffs and not many chords. This was largely thanks to the individual contributions of bassist John Entwistle, also known as Thunderfingers for his booming, dexterous lead bass style, frontman Roger Daltrey and his big-lunged “YEAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH”-ing, and of course Keith Moon “the Loon,” the ultimate id drummer. But ultimately, the Who were, are, and always will be about the sound and vision of their guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend. His complexes, his angst, his ego, his anxieties, his spirituality, his sometimes baffling high-art “concepts,” his melodies, his power chords, his… big nose. Without all that stuff, the Who might as well have been Rush. With it, at their peak—which, one could argue, lasted for the entirety of Keith Moon’s tenure in the band, from 1965 straight through to Moon’s death in 1978—they were an unstoppable force.

Today, most of us know the Who as the third pillar of the Holy Trinity of British Invasion bands (though if you’re very young and uninformed, you probably know them as “the old creepy bald guy and the other guy that looks like Orville Redenbacher who they show on VH1 Classic all the time playing that Teenage Wasteland song”). But, sales-wise, they never reached the same level of popularity of the Beatles and Stones – not in England, and especially not in the US. They didn’t make any more than a negligible commercial impact Stateside until their star turn at Monterey Pop in 1967, and they only ever managed one top 10 single over here, and never managed a number one album. That can partially be explained by the fact that, right from the beginning, Townshend’s songs were a bit too clever and high-brow for the average 13-year old screaming girl to fully appreciate (that is, if I’m allowed to refer to songs about masturbation and cross-dressing kids “high-brow,” though if the point of comparison is “She Loves You,” then I think I can”). But it’s also because the Who were quite a bit younger than their rivals and didn’t get their foot in the door in time for the initial ‘64/’65 boom.

The band originated in the West London suburb of Acton, and evolved from a local band called the Detours. The Detours’ leader was Roger Daltrey, a sheet metal worker with a diminutive stature, a bad temper, and a penchant for punching people in the face (which didn’t die when the Who became successful. Just ask Pete). Townshend, an art school twerp, and Entwistle, his stoic, sardonic childhood friend, were his support (Moon didn’t join until early 1964, when he was 17, after he sat in with the band for the second half on a gig after approaching them from the audience and nearly destroyed the kit). Soon, the Detours changed their named to the Who, and then to the High Numbers, at the urging of their then-manager, Peter Meaden, who wanted them to market them to Mods, who were basically pill-popping British teenagers who loved American R&B and were really into fashion. The Who weren’t really Mods and thus weren’t into any of those things as much as, say, the Beatles were (they were more into trad jazz), but the marketing strategy worked, and Mods became the Who’s early fan base. But not before the band hired new management—Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp—changed their name back to the Who, and Pete started writing songs like “My Generation” that spoke to not only Mods, but disaffected teenagers everywhere from every era.

Early on, the Who made their name mostly on shock value – Pete smashing his guitars and doing windmills, his chaotic feedback-drenched interludes, Moon’s destructive antics. But Pete began to grow frustrated with his inability to make his genius power pop singles land with a wider audience. And thus, the Who made their great transformation from schoolboy humor and smashing guitars to their rock opera phase… also known as their World’s Loudest Band Phase, aka the reason why today Pete Townshend is deaf and Roger Daltrey sounds like Yoda when he sings. Two of Pete’s big rock opera concepts came to fruition (the career-altering Tommy and the less beloved but superior Quadrophenia) and one didn’t (his lost masterpiece Lifehouse, whose remains became perhaps the Who’s best album, Who’s Next), and the process turned the Who into Serious Artists and arena heroes of the highest order.

The post-Quadrophenia era is where the legend started to slip. Pete had a mid-life crisis, then Keith died and the band decided to carry on without him with the aid of Faces drummer Kenney Jones, which I think everyone in retrospect agrees was a pretty rotten idea. The band’s legacy has since been horribly diluted by a seemingly never-ending series of cash-in reunion tours that continue to this day, even after Entwistle’s death in 2002, featuring Townshend and Daltrey as the Two, erm, the Who. It also doesn’t help that they’ve pillaged their own back catalog more than any other classic rock outfit that I can think of (unless you count Jimi Hendrix, and he’s been dead the whole time), releasing a new greatest hits comp seemingly every six months. The Who Sell Out, indeed. This explains why the above list of albums I plan to review isn’t 100% comprehensive, as it doesn’t include every redundant comp, reissue, and live album they’ve put out. But I’ll hit on all the essential points. And I really mean “essential” here. Like I said, at their best—and sometimes even at their worst—the Who produced a sound that cannot and will never be matched.



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