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The Who

The Who

Fact Sheet

Musical genre:Rock  
Country  England, UK
Years active1964-1983
The Who is a British rock band. They were noted for the dynamism of their live performances and for their thoughtful music, including Tommy, one of the first rock operas. While not a heavy metal band themselves, their distorted guitars, epic songwriting, and over-the-top stage show were an influence on the genre.


In its early days, the band was known as "The High Numbers" and played mostly rhythm and blues. They changed their name to The Who and became the most popular band among the British Mods, a social movement of the early 60s who rejected the older style of music favored by the Rockers.

From the beginning, The Who drew attention because all three musicians, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon played, in effect, lead parts, yielding music at once more cacophonous and sophisticated than standard-issue rock tracks. The Who were natural showmen: Singer Roger Daltrey was a dynamic front man, twirling his microphone on the end of its cord while Townshend played chords on his guitar with great windmill -like sweeps of his arms, and the maniacal Moon bashed and crashed like no drummer ever before him. Through it all, Entwistle stood still, seemingly bored by the whole thing, and played intricate, innovative bass lines. At the end of their live performances in their first years, the band would sometimes smash their instruments and explode smoke bombs, signalling that they had given the audience all they had. (They were also notorious for treating their hotel rooms and dressing rooms the same way.)

The band soon crystallized around Townshend as the primary songwriter (though Entwistle would also make the occasional contribution). Townshend was at the center of the band's tensions, as he strove to write challenging and thoughtful music, while Daltrey preferred energetic and macho material (Daltrey would occasionally refuse to sing a Townshend composition and Townshend would thus sing it himself), while Moon was a fan of American surf music.

The Who's first hit single was the Kinks-like "I Can't Explain" in 1965, but they vaulted to fame with their album, My Generation. The album included such mod anthems as "The Kids are Alright" and the title track "My Generation", which contained the famous line, "Hope I die before I get old". Another early favorite, showing Townshend's way with words, was "Substitute", which included the line, "I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth." The hit single "Pictures Of Lily" was possibly one of the most accomplished of all European contributions to psychedelic music.

The Who's shows have often had an extraordinary decibel output. For a period of time during the 1970s, they were listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the loudest rock band in the world, though other bands have since taken the title. Townshend's partial deafness is well documented; popular legend has it that the members of the band suffered permanent hearing loss and tinnitus from their loud concerts, though Townshend maintains that the true cause was listening to the music at high volume through headphones. One story also claims that Townshend's hearing loss was the result of standing too close to an explosive Moon had placed in his drum kit and detonated at the conclusion of a performance on the Smothers Brothers variety show.

Although they had great success as a singles band, the Who, or more properly their leader Townshend, had their sights set higher, and over the years their music became more complex and their lyrics more provocative and involving. Townshend also wanted to treat the Who's albums as unified works, rather than collections of unconnected songs. The first sign of this ambition came in their albums The Who Sell Out, which played like an all-Who playlist from an offshore radio station (The Who completed the effect by adding actual jingles and their own commercials); and A Quick One, which included the extended, multi-themed song "A Quick One, While He's Away". Tommy, the first commercially successful rock opera, followed. Meher Baba's spiritual teachings influenced Peter Townshend's songwriting after about 1968. He is credited as Avatar on the Tommy album.

Townshend then attempted an even more ambitious concept album, the Lifehouse project. Although it was a perpetually unfinished for many years (the work was finally released by the BBC as a radio play in 2000), the Who included some of the project's best songs in Who's Next, which would become their most successful album. Who's Next was followed by the Who's final rock opera, Quadrophenia (which was based on the story of the Mods and Rockers, particularly riots between the two factions at Brighton). Other later albums were more personal, and Townshend eventually transferred this personal style to his solo albums.

In 1978 the band released Who Are You, a move away from epic rock opera and towards a more radio-friendly sound. The release of the album was overshadowed by the drug overdose death of Keith Moon. Moon was replaced by Kenney Jones. The following year was nearly as harrowing: On December 3, 1979 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a stampede for seats at Riverfront Coliseum during a Who concert killed eleven fans. Band members were not made aware of the deaths until after the show, and they were reportedly devastated.

The band would release two more studio albums in the early 1980s, and in 1980 embarked on the first in a series of farewell tours. The band stopped recording new material settled into intermittent forays on the "nostalgia tour circuit" as Townshend focused on solo projects such as The Iron Man and Psychoderelict, a forerunner to the eventual release of the radio work Lifehouse. Their best-known reunion tour occurred in 1989.

Just before the outset of a tour in the summer of 2002, John Entwistle was found dead. A coroner's investigation revealed that while not technically an overdose, the modest amount of cocaine was indeed implicated in what amounted to a simple heart attack, given years of prior cocaine use. After a brief delay, this tour commenced with bassist Pino Palladino filling in for Entwistle.

The band

The band's original members were:
  • Roger Daltrey - lead singer
  • Pete Townshend - lead guitar/main songwriter
  • John Entwistle - bass guitar
  • Keith Moon - drummer
Following Moon's death in 1978, he was replaced by Kenney Jones. Following the band's break-up in the early 1980s, on later tours drums were handled by Simon Phillips and Zak Starkey.

Following Entwistle's death in 2002, he was replaced on the 2002 tour by Pino Palladino.

After originally performing as The High Numbers, the band chose to take a shorter name because concert posters at the time typically ran a list of band names, devoting one line to each band; They reasoned that even if they were at the bottom of the bill their name would be printed in larger type because it was short.