Classic Rock Legends: History of The Who

Formation of The Who’s nucleus

The classic lineup of the legendary English rock band The Who consisted of Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon.

Two of the original founders of the Who, Townshend and Entwistle, met while both were students at a high school in London. The two formed together a Dixieland jazz group The Confederates, with Townshend playing the banjo and Entwistle on the trumpet. However, the pair turned to evolve themselves as a rock and roll act, as rock and roll had been increasing in popularity.

Entwistle left to join another emerging rock and roll band The Detours, fronted by Roger Daltrey, who used to have a day job as a sheet-metal worker during those days. In addition to lead guitars, Daltrey also played trombone. Townshend followed Entwistle’s path to also join The Detours. By then, Daltrey gave up his guitar duties and took the chores as a lead vocalist. During this period the band’s sound continued to evolve.

Among The Who’s earliest influences were James Brown, Booker T. & the MG’s, Eddie Cochran, as well as the bands that The Who played alongside with, such as Screaming Lord Sutch, and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, the last-mentioned band being the Detour’s biggest influence. The Detours later changed their name into The Who. Later, the band’s original drummer left, and the group added a new member Keith Moon who had previously played with a surf rock band.

Early Mod years

After having been with a couple of managers, the group handed their management again over to Peter Meaden. Under his direction, The Who changed their name into the High Numbers, and started to wear sharp suits in the Mod style. The group, as the High Numbers (their name based on the Mod vernacular) released one single which quickly fizzled out. As a result, the group sacked Meaden, the High Numbers recruited two budding entertainment entrepreneurs, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. The two men, who had tried their hand in directing films but failed, saw the group play on their regular venue at the Railway Hotel somewhere in London.

Lambert and Stamp found an affinity with the group, and advised them that instead of turning away from the Mod scene, the two men told them to even embrace it. The group, and in particular Townshend, were also encouraged to write their own material. Lambert and Stamp also advised them on what to play and what to wear, and later made a promotional film featuring the group at Railway.

At this point, the group renamed themselves back to The Who and highlighted their repertoire that consisted of soul, blues – or as their slogans proclaimed “Maximum R&B.”
The Who later discovered their famed onstage persona by accident. While on one of their Railway gigs, Townshend accidentally smashed his guitar while throwing it up towards the venue’s low ceiling, above the high stage. The audience’s laughing reaction incited his anger even more, proceeding to smash the guitar over and over until it was left in pieces. Then Townshend picked up another guitar and smashed it as well.

His destruction of the instruments on stage that night later made a lot of buzz, and people came in to the Railway, keen to see Townshend smash another instrument. Keith Moon followed suit by attacking his drum kit. At first, his managers were appalled, but seeing that the band’s destructive attitude onstage, Lambert in particular encouraged the band to smash more instruments as this kind of gimmick helped bring a lot of publicity to them.


Professional and financial difficulties

Townshend, as The Who’s principal songwriter, came up with one of their earliest original songs “I Can’t Explain.” The band and their managers thought that it had a great potential as a single. American producer Shel Talmy, who had produced The Kinks records (and these records include the eventual hit song “You Really Got Me,”) was eager to sign The Kinks to the American Decca Records. The Who followed this with another contract from the Decca Record’s English division.

Talmy went on to produce the single “I Can’t Explain.” At first when it was released, it received little attention, but after The Who’s appearance on Ready, Steady, Go television show, the single climbed to the UK charts, finally peaking at #8 in early 1965.

During the 1960s, The Who’s popularity continued to increase. Their first album My Generation was released in 1965. The title track, written by Townshend, was a powerful song highlighted by Entwistle’s memorable bass solo. “My Generation” peaked at #2 on the UK charts, the highest-ranking single of any chart the group has ever achieved. “My Generation” only landed at #74 on the US, but as time passed it has become one of the classic rock songs. “My Generation” indeed has become one of the 1960s most iconic anthems.

By the mid-1960s, the group and their managers had already split with Talmy, whose practices were eventually met with dissatisfaction. It led to the sudden end of their contract. The acrimony between them and Talmy continued as the managers and Talmy were trying to vie for The Who’s creative control and royalties. As a result, it ended up with Talmy owning the master tapes.

Another, the band’s routine of smashing instruments on stage led them to incur high debts, as these instruments were too expensive, even if this routine generated the publicity from the audience to check out their music. Despite the publicity, huge sales from their records and the well-attended concerts, the debts were still an outstanding concern for the group and their managers.

Townshend’s success at writing their singles inspired their managers to arrange the deal that each member to contribute their own songs. This was also seen as a way to alleviate the band from some of their mounting financial difficulties.


The result of the effort was 1966’s A Quick One, their second studio album. One of its tracks was the Townshend-penned “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” It was released as “Happy Jack” (also the title of the album) in the US. It became their first US Top 40 hit at #24, while in the UK it peaked at #3. The success was followed by “Pictures Of Lily” which reached its peak position at #4.

Radical change in musical style, and American breakthrough

By the mid-1960s, changes had come their way that only added to their challenges. The popularity of Mod was fading, and Ready Steady Go ceased its broadcast. The Who found themselves in a tight competition with more hard-rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Cream.

Realizing that hitting it big in the US is of top consideration, The Who’s managers arranged for them to do a package tour in the US. Following the well-received tour, they were next invited to the Monterey Pop Festival, their first-ever major US appearance.

Tommy LP; the band’s musical and artistic differences

The Who released their third album The Who Sell Out in 1967, which featured the single “I Can See for Miles.” The single became their first American Top 10 hit, peaking at #9, even higher than the #10 UK singles position. It has become one of The Who’s classic tunes.

Tommy – A successful attempt at “rock opera”

In 1969, The Who released their fourth studio LP Tommy, their most ambitious effort to date. It was a concept album, presented in two discs, about the life of a “deaf, dumb and blind kid.” The majority of the album’s songs were written by Townshend, and produced by manager Kit Lambert. This was billed at that time as the first-ever full-scale “rock opera” production. The concept worked, as it received critical praise and commercial success. And it was their breakthrough US album, having sold two million copies there. Overall, the album has sold over 20 million units worldwide. Now, Tommy is part of the Grammy Hall of Fame.

After some five years, The Who was finally now at the forefront of British music, only next to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Tommy had transformed The Who from a rock group that thrived only on hit singles into a widely acclaimed music band. The success of Tommy also gave Townshend a great impetus in his endeavor to push his band into another musical territory.

Townshend had become somewhat of an experimental tunesmith among the group members, especially after the success of Tommy. He would combine a number of genres such as rock, pop, opera, in lush and drawn-out pieces. Some of his band mates weren’t too keen on following his lead as they had always wanted to play simple, straight, guitar-driven and masculine hard rock.


The Who as arena rockers; Quadrophenia LP

In the 1970’s band still remained together recording and touring, and during much of the decade they settled in their newfound image as arena rockers. They subsequently released other albums Quadrophenia (1973), The Who By Numbers(1975), and Who Are You (1978). They had also overseen the production of the Tommy’s film adaptation.

Quadrophenia was another of the Who’s successful “rock opera” LP’s. Like Tommy,Quadrophenia featured two discs, and was also a concept album. This time though, the story centered on the album’s protagonist, a boy named Jimmy who had four distinct personalities, and these personalities were symbolic of each of the Who’s four members. Quadrophenia became a massive seller, and in the US it sold over a million copies going platinum in the process. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, their highest-charting album yet ever as The Who would never have a #1 album in the US.

Keith Moon’s death, and the Who in later years

Keith Moon was known as the “shocker” among the band members, as he was bent on destroying things for no apparent reason – from his drum kits to hotel room furniture. Drugs and drinking even exacerbated such destructive behavior.

In September 1978, Moon was found dead of overdose. The pills he had been taking at that time were meant to cure his alcohol addiction. Kenney Jones replaced Moon behind the drum kit.

The Who was even more determined to carry on after Keith’s death. They still soldiered on, continuing well into the early 80s with albums Face Dances (1981) andIt’s Hard (1982) before disbanding. However, The Who reformed occasionally for a few appearances, such as Live Aid and Qudrophenia’s anniversary tour in 1996. In 1999, the band had resumed their full touring schedule, with Zak Starkey (The Beatles’ Ringo Starr’s son) on drums.

Entwistle died in 2002, therefore abruptly stalling their album plans. The two surviving original members, Townshend and Daltrey, chose to continue recording. The result was Endless Wire in 2006, which reached both the US and UK Top Ten album charts.

Townshend and Daltrey, helped by backing musicians, still continue to tour. But there have been reports that The Who will withdraw from the limelight for good, just after their 50th anniversary tour which is slated for 2015. The Who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, assured of rock royalty.