In addition to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, The Who were another of the bands leading the British Invasion in the mid 1960's. Like the Stones, their style reflected the influence of early rhythm and blues, however unlike the Beatles, their music and lyrics were aggressive and exhibited an extremely rebellious edge. In addition to their lyrical and musical innovations, The Who are credited with a long list of breakthrough achievements that continue to influence rock music today.
The Who began in 1963 as a Chicago blues inspired group called The Detours, with Roger Daltry (1944) on vocals, Pete Townshend (1945) on guitar, and John Entwistle (1944-2002) on bass. After changing their name to The High Numbers and releasing the single, "I'm in the Face," the group replaced their original drummer with Keith Moon (1946-1978). Although the record was not a big seller, they soon gained a following among young Brits. Under the new management of two young filmmakers, Christ Stamp and Kit Lambert, the band changed their name to The Who and began to play regularly in London's arty Soho district.
After three months their aggressive stage antics, including the frequent (and expensive) destruction of equipment, gained the attention of the young rebellious Brits known as "Mods," short for Modernists- an underground movement among the more rebellions and fashion conscious British youth devoted to Motown, Motor scooters, and amphetamines.
As Pete Townshend began to write increasing amounts of original material for the band, their sound began to shift away from their blues roots towards a more inventive, early rock based sound. Additionally, the lyrics Townshend wrote tapped into the attitudes of restless youth. They were soon picked up by the English version of Decca Records to record Townshend's first single "I Can't Explain." Following an appearance on Britain's number one rock television show, the song shot into the top ten.
But it was the second anthemic single "My Generation," that best reflected The Who's ability to lyrically and musically capture the volatile discontent and desperate attitudes of the underground Mod scene. The lyrics, delivered with an intentional stutter (an attribute of heavy amphetamine use) embody the spirit of youthful rebellion in lines such as "why don't you all f-f-fade away. Don't try and dig what we all s-s-say. Things you do are awful c-c-cold." And hope I die before I get old." The single became the theme for their debut album, The Who Sing My Generation, and established the band as a force to be reckoned with.
The Who's stage act and lyrics became more dramatic with the release of their second album A Quick One (titled Happy Jack in the U.S.) foreshadowing what was to come. Fans came to expect the band's now infamous destruction of equipment at the end of performances that included the incorporation of feedback, distortion and deafening volume. While they were simultaneously gaining a reputation as the most destructive rock band, they were also considered the loudest, a feat that would eventually be documented by the Guinness Book of World Records in a 1976 concert.
Like the Beatles, The Who also released a concept album that parodied and paid tribute to their influences. However, The Who Sell Out (1967), was ground breaking as it established the group as the first Pop Art Band. In addition to their wardrobe, which incorporated popular signs and symbols such as the Union Jack flag, The Who's third release musically reflected the increasing global fascination with pop culture by fusing actual advertising jingles and samples into their music. The more artistic inventiveness behind the Who could also been seen as their writing ability matured. After their first US tour, the group took time off to finish what has been considered their magnum opus, the rock opera, Tommy, the story of a pinball obsessed deaf, dumb and blind kid. The double album was the first of it's kind, and inspired a film (starring lead singer Roger Daltry in the lead role of Tommy), as well as an award winning Broadway musical. The album featured the hugely successful singles, "Pinball Wizard," and "See Me, Feel Me," among others.
During a two year hiatus the band released a live album and collection of greatest hits eventually returning to the studio to record Who's Next. The album was again hailed by critics as groundbreaking, being the first hard rock album to incorporate a significant amount of synthesizer music on the now classic "Baba O'Riley". The album also yielded the group's finest ballad, "Behind Blue Eyes", as well as the follow up to "My Generation", "Won't Get Fooled Again."
Townshend authored another rock opera in 1973, Quadrophenia, which documented the gritty Mod scene in mid-60's London through the eyes of a young man. Although Quadrophenia was not as well received as Tommy, the film it inspired has endured as an underground classic.
The Who continued to enjoy immense success and notoriety with the release of four albums over the next five years, all of which reflected Townshend's superior writing talents, and ability to portray his angst in an accessible yet poetic way.
In 1978, tragedy struck the band as their drummer Keith Moon died, overdosing on a drug he was taking to cure his alcoholism. Drummer Kenney Jones replaced Moon, but tragedy struck the band again as eleven fans were trampled to death at a 1979 Cincinnati, Ohio concert. The Who released their final album It's Hard in 1982, and although all of the members have pursued solo careers, Townshend's has been the most well-received. John Entwistle died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2002, just before The Who was scheduled to tour again. The remaining members of the band continued the tour as a dedication to John's memory.
Page author: A.E.