By John Curley
The Who have packed many adventures into their 50 years. Starting in West London and performing before a small but loyal fanbase, the band grew quickly with the passage of time, to the point where they were performing in many countries and had followers numbering in the millions. Unfortunately, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle were lost along the way. But today, vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend continue their musical partnership that began in 1962 with the then 17-year-old Townshend joining the then 18-year-old Daltrey’s band, The Detours. This year, the 71-year-old Daltrey and the soon-to-be-70-year-old Townshend hit North America for what they have been quoted as saying will be the band’s last major tour.
Since the upcoming tour by The Who marks their 50th anniversary and is being billed as “The Who Hits 50,” here are our choices for the top 50 things that we love about the band (not necessarily in any kind of order):
The band did not call it quits after their 1982 “Farewell Tour”
Whether or not The Who should have carried on after the 1978 death of Moon could be the subject of a very spirited debate among rock fans. After all, Led Zeppelin did disband following John Bonham’s death. But many of The Who’s fans who didn’t have the opportunity to see the band during their prime years are grateful that they did carry on. While there have been quite a few years of inactivity from the band, including a large portion of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, The Who has performed live pretty regularly since reuniting in 1996 for the “Quadrophenia” tour.
The band let Daltrey back in after he’d been fired in 1965
Daltrey was fired by the other three members of the band in 1965 following a fight with Moon. Daltrey had a temper and had tired of Moon’s antics. But the other three had grown weary of Daltrey’s habit of lashing out with his fists if things didn’t go his way. Prior to the band’s initial success, Daltrey had toiled in a day job as a sheet-metal worker. Facing a grim future without music, Daltrey swallowed his pride and apologized to the band, promising to behave himself in the future, and was let back in. Rock history would have been quite different had Daltrey not been reinstated. One scenario had Boz Burrell, later of Bad Company, taking Daltrey’s place as lead vocalist. Another had Townshend going solo while Entwistle and Moon would form a new band. That band was to be called Led Zeppelin.
Interviews with band members, particularly Townshend, have often been fascinating looks into the band’s mindset and creative process. And Townshend’s interviews have usually been brutally, and sometimes painfully, honest.
Townshend’s “Who I Am” autobiography
Long rumored to be penning an autobiography, Townshend finally released it in 2012. Titled “Who I Am,” the book is full of terrific stories about his life and the history of the band. It’s a must-read for any serious rock fan.
Stories of Keith Moon’s pranks
The drummer was notorious for blowing up drum kits and destroying hotel rooms in creative fashion, and we loved to hear about every story — real or imagined. The tale of Moon driving a car into a hotel swimming pool, which actually never happened, has become legend. But the hijinks at Moon’s 20th birthday party at a Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan, when The Who was one of the support bands on a tour of America with Herman’s Hermits, got the band barred from that hotel chain for life. (That party was billed as Moon’s 21st birthday so that he could drink without being hassled for being underage.)
Townshend’s guitar windmill
When The Who (then known as The High Numbers) supported The Rolling Stones at a show in 1964, Townshend witnessed Keith Richards limbering up before the show doing a windmill-type guitar stroke with his right arm. Thinking he was copying a trademarked Richards stage move, Townshend did it at that show and has been doing it ever since. It has been one of the most copied and iconic stage moves in rock. (When Townshend discussed the origin of his windmill with Richards years later, Richards had no memory of doing it.) Townshend’s windmills have sometimes been so violent that his fingernails get torn off. A windmill at one 1989 show put the whammy bar on the guitar through his right hand, an incident that almost left him unable to play guitar.
Townshend and Moon are interviewed on Good Morning America in 1978
While doing promotional work in America for The Who’s 1978 album “Who Are You,” Townshend and Moon sat for an interview with ABC-TV’s Good Morning America on August 7, 1978. (The full interview can be seen in excellent quality on YouTube.) The program’s host, David Hartman, clearly had no idea what to make of Moon. The interview is a bit poignant, as well, because Hartman asked Townshend and Moon if they could see the band still working together in 15 years’ time, and Moon said that he thought that the band would be working together in some capacity. Moon died one month after the interview in London at the age of 31.
A Quick One, While He’s Away
For their second studio album in 1966, The Who took a different approach to songwriting in that each of the members of the band would contribute songs to the album. Even by doing that, they were still a few songs short of a complete album. Kit Lambert, the band’s co-manager, suggested to Townshend that he should write a mini-opera to complete the album. The result, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” tied together several ideas into a cohesive track. The Who’s performance of the song as part of “The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus” in 1968 was one of the highlights of the show and is featured in “The Kids Are Alright” film.
The Who’s roots in Shepherd’s Bush, West London
Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle all grew up in the vicinity of Shepherd’s Bush in West London and attended the same school. Daltrey first asked Entwistle to join his band, The Detours, and then Entwistle brought his friend Townshend into the band. (Moon was from Wembley, North London, and joined the band in 1964 when they were known as The High Numbers.)
Solo albums by The Who’s members
The solo albums by the band’s members let them express thoughts and ideas they wanted to pursue that might not be a good fit for The Who. Among the highlights from the solo catalog of The Who’s members are Entwistle’s “Too Late The Hero,” Daltrey’s “McVicar” soundtrack and Townshend’s “Empty Glass.” The “Empty Glass” album included the big radio hit “Let My Love Open The Door.” That album’s success irked Daltrey, and he stated publicly that Townshend should save his best songs for The Who and not for his solo work.
Their musical influences
The artists that influenced The Who are quite disparate. Daltrey was a big blues fan, and the band did quite a few blues covers early in their career. Townshend was influenced by Bob Dylan, among others, and had come from a family of musicians. His father was a saxophonist and his mother was a singer. Entwistle was hugely influenced by Duane Eddy and was also the only member of the band that could read music, having played in the band at his school. He played the French horn bit in “Pictures of Lily.” Moon was a surf music fan and convinced the band to record a cover of Jan and Dean’s “Bucket T.”
One of the best live bands on the planet
OK, maybe not so much now. But in their 1960s and 1970s heyday, they were among the most powerful, visually and musically, and loudest bands around.
Their impact on fashion
The Who’s Mod years had an impact on fashion in the U.K., as they were known for wearing Union Jack jackets and pop-art T-shirts on stage. This look was later replicated during the Mod revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s that was brought about by the release of the “Quadrophenia” film. Daltrey’s fringe jacket and bare-chested look from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s was copied by many rock singers.
More than 100 million records sold worldwide
One of the bigger bands of the British Invasion, The Who’s catalog has been one of the larger sellers in rock. The Who has what is among the most loyal fan bases, so that plays a role in sales, as does radio airplay and the use of some their songs as the themes of the various shows in CBS-TV’s CSI franchise.
Townshend along with other guitarists, such as The Kinks’ Dave Davies, was a pioneer in using feedback as part of his overall sound. The use of feedback added an edge to the power-pop songs of the day that had not previously existed.
The Marshall stack
Townshend was also among the first guitarists to use a Marshall stack. Jimi Hendrix and countless other guitarists followed suit.
The power-pop singles of the 1960s
While The Who came to be identified as an album rock band, they recorded quite a few terrific power-pop singles during their early years in the mid-to-late 1960s.Among these were “I Can’t Explain,” “Substitute,” “Circles,” Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “I’m A Boy,” “Pictures of Lily,” and “Happy Jack.”
Who knew synthesizers could sound so cool? We have Townshend to thank for that. His innovative use of synthesizers on albums such as “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia” broadened the playing field for rock in the 1970s.
Electrified cover songs
Listen to the jaw-dropping cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” from “Live At Leeds” to back this up. The Who has recorded and performed many cover songs throughout its career. But the band had a knack for making these covers, from Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave” to Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” sound like originals. Keith Moon told Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 that all cover versions had been “Who’d.” That pretty much sums it up.
Great induction into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The band’s display at the Hall of Fame in Cleveland describes them as “prime contenders, in the minds of many, for the title of World’s Greatest Rock Band.”
“The Kids Are Alright”
A 1979 documentary put together by a young fan and filmmaker named Jeff Stein, it is able to transform any angst-ridden teenager into a Who fan after just one viewing. It serves as an excellent chronicle of the band’s Keith Moon era, and is a great tribute to the late drummer’s combination of genius and madness. The performances of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the film, which were shot at London’s Shepperton Studios in 1978, were Moon’s final live performances with the band.
Hit classic rock songs
The Who’s music has long been a staple of FM rock radio, from the progressive-rock stations of the late 1960s and 1970s to the classic-rock stations of today. In addition to their music being used as the themes for the various CSI shows, it has also been used in TV commercials. A current mobile-phone ad uses “I’m Free” from “Tommy.” While some fans have decried the sale of the band’s music for use in TV ads, Townshend has defended it.
The 100 Faces, a group of Mods led by “Irish Jack” Lyons, were The Who’s original fans in London during the band’s Mod days from 1964 to 1966. That original small group of supporters has grown into the legion of fans that have followed The Who over the years.
One of the loudest bands ever
Their volume in concert had the band listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s loudest band for quite some time. But that came at a price, as Daltrey, Entwistle and most notably Townshend have spoken publicly about their hearing issues over the years. Townshend is even shown in “The Kids Are Alright” film telling Moon that an ear doctor had advised him to learn to lip read.
Group backing vocals
Not pleased that session vocalists were used to record the backing vocals on their first single, “I Can’t Explain,” Townshend and Entwistle resolved to do a better job with backing vocals. And they did so in many songs, from “Bucket T” to “Who Are You.”
Sense of humor
One of the funniest bands around, The Who often used humor in concert with between-song patter. The back-and-forth between Townshend and Moon during live shows was often hilarious.
Their promo films and videos
The Who were making rock videos years before the term had been coined. They were called promotional films back in the 1960s. Since The Who’s co-managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were also filmmakers, making films of the band seemed a natural fit. The Who were filmed at the Railway Hotel in 1964 performing blues and rock covers when still known as The High Numbers. A promotional film featuring the group miming to “Substitute” was shot. And a truly great promotional film for the “Happy Jack” single was shown when the band performed the song in concert (The “Happy Jack” film can be seen in “The Kids Are Alright”). In the early 1980s, The Who’s videos from the “Face Dances” album — “You Better You Bet,” “Don’t Let Go The Coat” and “Another Tricky Day” — were shown in heavy rotation during the first year or so that MTV was on the air.
Townshend favored Rickenbackers early in the band’s career, but switched to Gibson SGs and Les Pauls because they were sturdier than Rickenbackers and could better withstand his demonstrative, and sometimes violent, playing style. In the early 1980s, Townshend began favoring Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
Their association with Brighton, England
The Who’s association with Brighton, England, due to gigs in their Mod days — as well as the prominent mentions on the “Quadrophenia” album and the city serving as a location of the “Quadrophenia” film shoot — has made Brighton a tourist destination for Who fans. There is a Quadrophenia Walking Tour that points out locations from the film. And the Brighton Pier and Grand Hotel (where Quadrophenia’s Ace Face/Bell Boy character, played by Sting, was employed) are must-sees for fans of the band.
The iconic poster featuring Townshend for The Who’s 1960s shows at the Marquee Club on London’s Wardour Street that bore the legend “The Who —Maximum R&B” has stood the test of time and is used on T-shirts today.
“Can anybody play the drums?”
Moon’s excesses started to affect his performances over time. This was never more evident than the time he passed out behind his drum kit at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1973 on the “Quadrophenia” tour. He had taken some pills before the show that were meant to tranquilize elephants. The pills did their job and rendered Moon unconscious after only a few songs. Disgusted with Moon’s folly and not wanting to cancel the show, an angry Townshend turned to the crowd after Moon had been carried off and asked, “Can anybody play the drums?” An audience member named Scott Halpin approached security and told them that he was a drummer. After answering a few technical questions about drumming, Halpin found himself behind the kit and performing with the band.
Probably the first punk song. Seriously, is there a more punk line than “Hope I die before I get old?” Added bonus: Entwistle’s epic bass playing throughout the song.
Live concerts being released on DVD
Recent years have seen the release of some great live footage of the band during Moon’s era on DVD. The first of these was The Who’s appearance at the Isle Wight Festival in 1970. Then, footage from the Kilburn show in 1977 that was shot for inclusion in “The Kids Are Alright” was released. The DVD set of the Kilburn show also includes footage from the 1969 London Coliseum show on the “Tommy” tour. The “Live in Texas ’75” DVD features a complete 1975 concert at the Summit in Houston, Texas. And the “Maximum R&B Live and Amazing Journey” DVDs include clips of the band playing live with Moon.
Townshend’s spirituality gave his songwriting deeper meaning. It began with “Faith in Something Bigger” and then his admiration for Meher Baba inspired the writing of “Baba O’Riley.” He turned toward spirituality following an awful LSD trip returning home from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. A friend introduced him to the teachings of Meher Baba. And Townshend’s interest in Meher Baba led to the recording of his first solo album, “Who Came First,” in 1972.
The Who has supported many charities over their long career, and were famously featured at the Concerts for Kampuchea, Live Aid and Live 8. And their work with the U.K.’s Teenage Cancer Trust and Teen Cancer America in the U.S. is well known. Daltrey is the patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust, and since 2000, has organized the annual series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall that benefit the charity. In 2004, Daltrey was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth for his work with the Teenage Cancer Trust, as well as his music career. See an interview with Daltrey on the band’s collective charity (known as Who Cares) in this feature’s sidebar.
“Live At Leeds” set the standard. But The Who are featured, and arguably steal the show, on other live albums, including the soundtrack to the “Woodstock” film, the “Concerts for the People of Kampuchea” album and the “Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus” album.
Activism for drug rehabilitation
After many years of drug abuse by Who members (with the notable exception of Daltrey), Townshend advocated for drug rehabilitation. In a 1985 radio interview, he said, “What I’m most active in doing is raising money to provide beds in clinics to help people that have become victims of drug abuse. In Britain, the facilities are very, very, very lean indeed . . . although we have a national health service, a free medical system, it does nothing particularly for Class A drug addicts — cocaine abusers, heroin abusers . . . we’re making a lot of progress . . . the British government embarked on an anti-heroin campaign with advertising, and I was co-opted by them as a kind of figurehead, and then the various other people co-opted me into their own campaigns. But my main work is raising money to try and open a large clinic.”
Guest appearance on The Smothers’ Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967
On September 16, 1967, The Who made a memorable appearance on CBS-TV’s “The Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.” The band mimed to two songs, “I Can See For Miles,” which was their latest single, and “My Generation.” The “My Generation” segment, which can be seen in the opening of “The Kids Are Alright” film, ended with Townshend and Moon trashing their gear. Moon had bribed the stagehands to load his bass drum with gunpowder, which led to an explosive finale. When the bass drum went off, Townshend was trashing his guitar in front of it. The explosion briefly set his hair on fire and caused him hearing problems. Moon didn’t escape unscathed. He was hit by shrapnel from his cymbal and can be heard yelling “Owww!” near the end of the segment. Mickey Rooney and Bette Davis were also guests on the show, and when Townshend and Moon started poleaxing their instruments, Davis fainted into Rooney’s arms backstage.
Boxed set of Brunswick 45 rpm 1965-66 singles
Over the years, The Who released more greatest-hits packages than they have new studio albums, something which has brought the group a good amount of criticism. But they sometimes do get it right. The recently released boxed set of 45 rpm singles put out by Brunswick Records in 1965 and 1966 featuring the original sleeves looks absolutely fantastic.
The Who as an influential band
While many punk bands in the 1970s derided most of the bands of The Who’s generation as “dinosaur rock,” The Who seemed to avoid the punkers’ ire in large part because they had been so influential to the punk bands. The Sex Pistols covered “Substitute,” for example. And The Who inspired many other bands, from The Jam to Pearl Jam to Green Day. And that influence went the other way as well, as Townshend wrote “Who Are You” following a night of drinking in London with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of The Sex Pistols.
Pete Townshend’s initial guitar-smashing incident at London’s Railway Hotel in 1964 is one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Even though Townshend has not smashed a guitar since a 2004 concert in Yokohama, Japan, some fans are still greatly disappointed when he fails to do so.
Daltrey as iconic lead vocalist
As the lead singer in a band with a maniacal drummer, a windmilling and leaping guitarist and solid bassist holding all of the chaos together, Roger Daltrey had quite a conundrum. That is, how could he possibly compete with the other three to get any attention onstage? Over time, Daltrey honed his stage persona to become one of the iconic lead vocalists of the late 1960s and 1970s by growing his hair out, wearing a fringe jacket that bared his chest and whipping his microphone around by its lead as if it were a lariat. As the voice of the protagonist in The Who seminal 1969 “rock opera” “Tommy,” Daltrey could quite arguably be called the focal point of the live shows for the tour that the band did in support of “Tommy.”
John Entwistle’s rock-solid presence and thundering basslines anchored The Who both visually and musically from the time he first joined the band as a teenager until his death in 2002. One of rock’s most revered and revolutionary bassists, Entwistle used the bass as the lead instrument in quite a few of The Who’s songs. Among those are “The Real Me” and “My Generation.” The loss of Entwistle’s bass was immediately noticeable on The Who’s 2002 tour, the road trek that they undertook shortly after he passed away.
Moon’s manic drum style
When Moon first joined The Who in 1964, no one had seen another drummer like him. His style was so unique and wild, more like that of a jazz drummer than a rock drummer. After Townshend began smashing guitars as part of the band’s live act, Moon quickly joined in by kicking over his drum kit.
The combination of swagger and introspection
One thing that sets The Who apart from the others is that the band is not a one-trick pony. The band rocked as hard as anyone around and, within seconds, could become wistful and introspective. The back-and-forth in “The Punk and the Godfather” from “Quadrophenia” is a perfect example of this. This is another point that could have been filed under “Pete Townshend’s songwriting,” since the guitarist’s gift to write songs had a lot to do with such swagger and introspection.
Fleshing out the idea of the mini-opera to a full-on rock opera and taking bits of “Rael” from The Who’s 1967 studio album “The Who Sell Out,” “Tommy” was an incredibly innovative undertaking when The Who began work on it in 1968. The story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy became the highlight of The Who’s live act throughout 1969 and 1970. As part of the tour in support of Tommy, The Who performed two memorable shows at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City’s Lincoln Center in 1970. “Tommy” was made into a feature film by director Ken Russell in 1975, and the rock opera went to the Great White Way with the 1993 Broadway production that was directed by Des McAnuff.
“Live at Leeds”
Recorded on February 14, 1970, it is simply one of the best live albums ever released. Listen to “Young Man Blues” on headphones and one word comes to mind: euphoric. The original 1970 release, packaged to look like a bootleg album, was a single LP that only contained portions of the concert. The full concert was released on double CD in 1994.
From the iconic cover to the innovative sound, the album explodes with rock enlightenment and attitude. It began as a project called “Lifehouse” that involved interactive live performances. Lifehouse was eventually abandoned, but the songs survived and were released in 1971 as “Who’s Next.” The songs from the album, including “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” have been staples of FM rock radio for years.
While “Tommy” and “Who’s Next” are The Who’s most lionized albums, “Quadrophenia” is, for many of the band’s most ardent fans, the peak of a wonderful career. It’s such a personal album that Townshend once said in an interview, “‘Quadrophenia,’ if you like, was my first solo album.” The Mod protagonist of the album, Jimmy, suffered from double schizophrenia, and the four facets of his personality mirrored those of the four members of The Who. While the album looked back wistfully on the band’s Mod years from 1964 to 1966 (a bit of 1965’s “The Kids Are Alright” is heard on the album), the album’s overall sound is quite progressive and makes a lot of use of keyboards and synthesizers. While the initial tour for “Quadrophenia” did not go well, as prerecorded tapes came in at the wrong times among other mishaps, the 1996-97 and 2012-13 tours that highlighted “Quadrophenia” were very successful. Director Franc Roddam’s 1979 film version of “Quadrophenia” is among the best films about British youth ever made, and it provided Sting with his feature-film debut.
The classic band lineup
The lineup that we have come to know as Pete, Roger, John and Keith were perfect for each other. As Moon once said, he could not see himself with anyone else. GM
— Editor Patrick Prince contributed to this article