Members: Roger Daltrey (vocals, tambourine, harmonica, guitar), John Entwistle (bass, French horn, piano, vocals, 1961-2002), Pete Townshend (guitar, organ, synthesizer, piano, vocals, 1962-present), Keith Moon (drums, percussion, vocals, 1964-78), Kenney Jones (drums, 1979-88)
The Who evolved from Acton-area combo The Detours, formed in 1959 by 15-year-old ruffian Roger Daltery, who initially played guitar. In 1961, he recruited bassist John Entwistle into the band, which purveyed the era’s instrumental rock (The Shadows, The Tornados, etc.) The following year, 30-year-old Doug Sandom assumed the drum seat.
The Detours stabilized in late 1962 when Daltery became the singer and they hired Entwistle’s friend, guitarist Pete Townshend, to round out the lineup. The band opened for some of England’s leading pre-Beatles rock acts, including Shane Fenton & the Fentones and Johnny Kidd & the Pirates. After learning that the name Detours was already in use, the band changed its name to The Who.
By early 1964, The Who were drawing crowds on the London club circuit. They secured an audition with Fontana Records, but complaints arose over Sandom’s drumming. He was promptly cut from the band, which used a stand-in drummer for several weeks. In April, they were approached by 17-year-old drummer Keith Moon, who broke a drum skin during his audition. His arrival completed the classic Who four-piece that would last for 14 years.
That spring, The Who hired publicist Pete Meaden as their manager. He suggested they change their name to The High Numbers and adopt the mod image. Under this guise, the band issued issued the single “Zoot Suit” (b/w “I’m the Face”) on Fontana in June 1964. Meaden penned the lyrics for both sides. When the single failed to chart, the band reverted back to The Who and fired Meaden.
The Who were then taken under the managerial wing of filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who filmed the band during a gig at the Railway for use in a promo film. At a subsequent date, Townshend (a six-footer) accidentally broke the neck of his guitar against the low ceiling of the Railway and, in a rage, smashed the instrument against the stage. At the close of the following week’s set, Moon kicked his bass drum afield. These antics, along with Townshend’s windmill strum and Daltrey’s mic-cable whipping motions, became features of The Who’s live act.
The Who released their debut studio album, My Generation, in December 1965 on Brunswick. It features six songs per side, eight of them Townshend originals, including “It’s Not True,” “La-La-La Lies,” and “Much Too Much.” The closing track, “The Ox,” is a group-composed instrumental in the vein of “Wipe Out.” In addition to the hit title-track, “The Kids Are Alright” and “A Legal Matter” were issued as singles. Also included are covers of James Brown (“I Don’t Mind” and “Please, Please, Please”) and Bo Diddley (“I’m a Man”).
In the U.S., the album was released on Decca as The Who Sings My Generation with a different cover and an altered tracklist. “I’m a Man” is replaced on this version with “Instant Party” (aka “Circles”), a track under legal red tape back home.
1966: “Substitute,” “I’m a Boy,” A Quick One
In March 1966, The Who issued the non-album single “Substitute” (UK #5), a three-chord strum-along with ironic lyrics. It was the first release on Robert Stigwood’s short-lived Reaction Records label. The song was initially backed with “Circles,” but Talmy had that pressing withdrawn via court order. An unused instrumental from the Graham Bond Organization, “Waltz for a Pig,” became the b-side. “Circles” was covered later that year by Le Fleur de Lys. The Who finally issued the song that November on their Ready Steady Who EP, which also features Townshend’s “Disguises” (later covered by The Jam) and three covers.
Meanwhile, The Who scored another hit with the August 1966 single “I’m a Boy” (UK #2). The song, which deals with a boy being forced to act like a girl, stemmed from Quads, Townsend’s abandoned concept about a future society in which gender engineering is the norm.
The Who’s second album, A Quick One, appeared in December 1966 on Reaction. It was recorded that fall at IBC, Pye, and Regent Sound Studios with Lambert at the console. The goal was to have each member write at least two songs for the album. Entwhistle, initiating his role as the band’s secondary writer, contributed the creeping dark-comedy ditties “Boris the Spider” and “Whiskey Man.” Moon also wrote two numbers, including the circus instrumental “Cobwebs and Strange.” Daltrey, in his only writing credit for the band, contributed the 113-second “See My Way.” Townshend composed the album’s four remaining originals, including “Run Run Run” and “Don’t Look Away.” The album concludes with his nine-minute, six-part suite “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” Though initially developed at Lambert’s insistence to fill the running time, it was Townshend’s first “rock opera,” a concept he’d explore in full on future albums.
A Quick One was accompanied by the non-album single “Happy Jack,” a comedic number with an accompanying slapstick video. The song was added to U.S. Decca pressings of the album, issued in February 1967 as Happy Jack.
1967: “Pictures of Lily” and The Who Sell Out
In April 1967, The Who issued the non-album single “Pictures of Lily,” a harmony-pop number concerning a teenage boy’s lustful obsession with an old-time pinup. The boy falls in love with the subject, only to learn that she’s been dead since 1929. The pinup in question is purportedly based on Edwardian actress/socialite Lillie Langtry (1853–1929). The song features a French horn solo by Entwistle, who penned the b-side “Doctor, Doctor.”
That summer, the band (minus Entwistle) rush-recorded cover versions of The Rolling Stones hits “The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb.” The Who did this to help Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, then jailed on drug possession, make bail. However, the pair had already been freed by the time the single hit shelves.
The Who’s next single, “I Can See for Miles,” was issued that September in the U.S., where it became the band’s only top 10 hit (#9) on the Billboard Hot 100. The Townshend original, with its phasing and modulated, elongated chorus, was written a year before its recording. In the U.K., the single was backed with the brassy Entwistle number “Someone’s Coming.”
The band released their third album, The Who Sell Out, in December 1967 on Track (UK) and Decca (US). It was recorded at multiple studios in London (IBC, Pye, De Lane Lea, CBS), New York (Talentmasters), and Los Angeles (Gold Star) and co-produced by Lambert and Stamp. The album begins with the phased raga-rocker “Armenia City in the Sky,” written by band-friend Speedy King. Other songs on side one include the psych-tinged Townshend originals “Tattoo,” “Our Love Was,” and the pre-released “I Can See for Miles.” Side two features the descending vocal trade-off “Can’t Reach You,” Enwistle’s sinister “Silas Stingy,” and the band’s second mini-opera “Rael (1 and 2).” The tracklist is interspersed with short comedic numbers, spoof radio bumpers, and spoken-word announcements. The front and back cover depicts each member in a mock advertisement for a giant-sized food or hygiene product.
Who’s Next (1971)
The Who by Numbers (1975)
Who Are You (1978)
Face Dances (1981)
It’s Hard (1982)
“Imagine a Man”: acoustic plucking polychordal descent from B… Angelic vocal from Roger… Light piano, sparkly accents… Thundersous drumroll chordal strumming heralding the bridge… Harmonized refrain “you will see the end”… Intensity rises then rescinds without bursting out…. lyrics about the mortality of celebrities (no man is an island) and how it clashes with his childhood ideals of wealth and fame
“How Many Friends”: F mid tempo strum/ light twangy leads… Delicate, tender vocal from Roger on the verses… Chorus plunges from a windmill strum in C/ drum roll… Forceful, emotive chorus line… Choice refrain “that love me”… Mid-section chromatic descent from Cm… Twangy light soloing over redoubled chorus… “more than a handshake”… Entwhistle, deep in the mix, emerges with a run before the last chorus… Deals with the artificial, lonely life of the celebrity (examine verses)
The band’s classic 1964–1978 lineup became legendary in its own time as a powerhouse live act with four distinct and head-strong personalities. Fusing virtuosity with conceptual innovations like the rock opera, The Who were instrumental in developing rock from a state of flexible foundationalism to full-blown maximalism between the late ’60s and early ’70s.
- My Generation (1965)
- A Quick One (1966)
- The Who Sell Out (1967)
- Tommy (1969)
- Who’s Next (1971)
- Quadrophenia (1973)
- The Who by Numbers (1975)
- Who Are You (1978)
- Face Dances (1981)
- It’s Hard (1982)
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