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The Who

Tailor-made for the Mod scene in the Brit Invasion mid-60s, and producing four chalk-and-cheese characters to boot (bovver-boy Roger Daltrey on vox, Pete Townshend of “windmill”-guitar style, the unassuming quiet bassist John Entwistle and the maniacal drummer Keith Moon), The WHO were pioneers of the zoot suit brigade, while the 70s saw them branch into hard-rock and the Rock Opera movie world. By regularly trashing their own equipment on stage, they effectively destroyed and renewed their own means of expression, always keeping it fresher than the competition. It showed in their records; singles and albums which constantly challenged the received wisdom of how an R&B/rock band should approach their subject. Fast forward five decades and the band are still a premier classic rock act, selling out huge arenas around the globe, even though they’ve lost their iconic rhythm section: Moon dying tragically in 1978 and Entwistle some 24 years later.
Formed in the Chiswick and Hammersmith areas of London, England in 1964 as the Detours, at a time when The BEATLES and The ROLLING STONES were top of the hit parade, Daltrey, dynamic songsmith Townshend, Entwistle and original older drummer Doug Sandom took the name The WHO. After making his impromptu mid-set debut at an early gig, manic sticksman, Keith Moon (from The Beachcombers) was immediately recruited in favour of the struggling Sandom. At his first show proper, Moon reportedly mystified colleagues by roping his drums to some pillars before the show. All became clear when the drummer proceeded to knock seven shades of proverbial shit out of them during a solo, the kit actually bouncing off the floor!
After initially hanging on the fish tails of the Mod scene, The WHO rubber-stamped their own identity through sheer force of will. Manager Pete Meaden introduced the band to the burgeoning scene and shaped their image accordingly as a musical voice for the sharply dressed, scooter-riding young rebels, a movement that Townshend in particular felt a strong affinity with, and whose frustrations he’d document in his early, indignant blasts of raw rock’n’roll.
A strutting, gloriously arrogant piece of R&B, the band’s debut one-off 45 (as The High Numbers), `Zoot Suit’ b/w `I’m The Face’ (a thinly disguised SLIM HARPO retread of `Got Love If You Want It’), was released the same month as the experienced managerial team of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence Stamp) took the reins from Meaden and began a concerted campaign for chart domination.
Later that year, the band reverted back to The WHO. By this time they had begun to perfect their powerful stage show, Townshend developing his ferocious “wind-milling” power-chord guitar style, while the band courted controversy and delighted crowds by smashing their instruments in a cathartic rage. Rejected by major labels, they eventually secured a deal with Decca in the States, through producer Shel Talmy. Released early ’65 in Britain via Decca’s UK subsidiary Brunswick, `I Can’t Explain’ introduced a more melodic sound and gave the band their first chart hit. The single climbed into the Top 10 after TV appearances on Ready Steady Go (which later adopted the track as its theme tune) and Top Of The Pops; `Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ following it later that summer.
For most people however, The WHO really arrived with the seminal rebel anthem, `My Generation’. A stuttering, incredibly focused piece of amphetamine aggression, it galvanised legions of disaffected youths and only The SEX PISTOLS ever equalled it for sheer snide factor. It reached UK No.2 and was closely followed by the similarly-titled debut album, MY GENERATION (1965) {*8}, a parent set which also included maximum R&B-like ditties like `Out In The Street’, `A Legal Matter’, two JAMES BROWN covers (`I Don’t Mind’ and `Please, Please, Please’) and the anthemic `The Kids Are Alright’, the latter probably Townshend’s most explicit alignment with his “Mod” following.
But if the kids were alright, The WHO’s deal with Talmy certainly wasn’t, or at least that’s what the band thought, and after releasing their next classic single `Substitute’ on a new label, they became embroiled in a court battle over the knob-twiddler’s right to produce the group. Despite Talmy winning a royalty on all the band’s recordings for another five years, The WHO came out fighting, releasing a string of consecutive hits including `I’m A Boy’ and `Happy Jack’; the latter possessed the same quirky Englishness that was the essence of Brit Invasion rivals The KINKS.
Highlighting 10-minute mini-opus entitled `A Quick One (While He’s Away)’, sophomore set, A QUICK ONE (1966) {*7} was a patchy, prototype of the rock opera concept Townshend would later refine towards the end of the decade. Elsewhere on the album, tracks like Entwistle’s `Boris The Spider’ and Moon’s gruesome twosome `Cobwebs And Strange’ (an instrumental) and `I Need You’ – but not Daltrey’s `See My Way’ – found some whimsical fairground banter; the only cover was Holland-Dozier-Holland’s `Heat Wave’.
The WHO only really began to make some headway in America after their incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67, while their wistful Top 5 ode to masturbation, `Pictures Of Lily’, was their first for Track Records.
Featuring not The ROLLING STONES double-header flop `The Last Time’ and `Under My Thumb’, third set THE WHO SELL OUT (1967) {*8} was a mock concept album containing the sublime `I Can See For Miles’, a spiralling piece of neo-psychedelia that had a spiritual partner in the equally trippy `Armenia City In The Sky’. Littered with fake radio jingles and commercials (`Heinz Baked Beans’ was a hoot), their playful trips found a nice balance to the introspective `Tattoo’, Sunrise’ and versions 1 & 2 of mini-opera `Rael’. Apart from an ill-timed live/on tour retrospective, 1968 was a quiet year for The WHO with only two songs `Dogs’ and `Magic Bus’ scraping into the UK Top 30.
TOMMY (1969) {*9} was the end result of Townshend’s experiments, a full-length drama in song recounting the unlikely tale of a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who finds a window out of his sensual deprivation through pinball and the religious fanaticism of his admirers. Dubbed the first “rock opera”, the double-album project was subsequently made into a typically flamboyant film by British maverick Ken Russell, who cast Daltrey as the mute `Pinball Wizard’ (a Top 5 hit). `I’m Free’, `Amazing Journey’, `We’re Not Gonna Take It’, `The Acid Queen’, `Fiddle About’ (penned by Moon & Entwistle), the 10-minute `Underture’ and the medley finale `Listening To You’ – `See Me, Feel Me’ were classic Townshend.
After this artful tour de force, the band released the legendary LIVE AT LEEDS (1970) {*8/re-cd*9} concert-set. Originally released with only six glorious tracks (three of them covers: Mose Allison’s `Young Man Blues’, JOHNNY KIDD’s `Shakin’ All Over’ and EDDIE COCHRAN’s `Summertime Blues’ – a minor hit), the record saw the group move into hard-rock territory with ease.
While The WHO worked on Townshend’s latest idea, the “Lifehouse” project, an ambitious but aborted attempt at following up Tommy, some of the material used in the concept was the basis for the landmark WHO’S NEXT (1971) {*10} album. The record heralded a harder rocking studio sound with the anthemic, synth-friendly `Baba O’Riley’ (aka “Teenage Wasteland”) and `Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (edited from 8 minutes to single edit hit). Immaculately produced, the record still stands as the quartet’s most confident and cohesive work and only No.1 album; the almost folky `Going Mobile’, the yearning `Behind Blues Eyes’ and `Bargain’ (not forgetting Entwistle’s `My Wife’) were as close to perfection as they’d ever peak, `The Song Is Over’ and `Getting In Tune’ were further evidence to Daltrey’s masterful vocal range.
Having concentrated on non-LP 45s for the preceding couple of years, `Let’s See Action’, `Join Together’ and `Relay’ (all UK Top 20 or thereabouts), Townshend finally created a follow-up to Tommy with UK No.2 set QUADROPHENIA (1973) {*10 or 11!}. A complex, lavishly embellished piece that saw him retrospectively examining the Mod sub-culture (and 4-way split persona of subject Jimmy) he’d so closely identified with in his teens. Running in at over 80 minutes, the magnum opus delivered on all fronts: theme, storyline, package and music. Prog-rock was king at the time (PINK FLOYD, YES, GENESIS, et al), but none of them could quite manage to garner the disaffected youth in the same manner as Townshend and The WHO; several examples were arguably `The Real Me’, `Cut My Hair’, `The Punk And The Godfather’, `The Dirty Jobs’, `Is It In My Head?’ and `I’ve Had Enough’ – side two also delivered by way of `5:15’ (lone Top 20 smash), `Sea And Sand’, `Drowned’, `Bell Boy’ (featured loveable rogue Moon as croaky-Cockney character), `Doctor Jimmy’ and tidal finale `Love Reign O’er Me’.
The classic-rock double-disc project was later made into a film, inspiring a whole new wave of neo-Mod bands at the turn of the decade. Although none of the band actually appeared in the subsequent 1979 movie as they had in 1975’s Tommy (DALTREY in particular had been maintaining a sideline in acting from Tommy onwards), film appearances were rife with the band members. While the aforementioned Top 30 “Who’s Who” Various Artists TOMMY (1975) {*5} soundtrack was a poor relation to the original album, the likes of ELTON JOHN, ERIC CLAPTON, TINA TURNER and erm… Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret at least got to show their appreciation.
On the back of numerous solo work by all four members (including the very disappointing Keith set `Two Sides Of The Moon’) and a time-filler outtakes and rarities LP, ODDS & SODS (1974) {*6}, THE WHO BY NUMBERS (1975) {*6} was exactly what it said and displayed on the cover, a confused set that found the band treading water while trying to find direction in a music scene that was about to become increasingly dominated by punk rock. As much confessional as it was horizontal AOR (even Townshend’s `However Much I Booze’ was schmaltzy in tune), the record secured at least one high point in Top 10 single `Squeeze Box’; acoustic-led tracks `Slip Kid’, `Dreaming From The Waist’ or Entwistle’s `Success Story’ were okay without rising above the bar – leave that to Townshend, Moon and Co., who were taking every bar by storm.
While the delivery of “comeback” set WHO ARE YOU (1978) {*5} sounded more assured, the album’s release was almost immediately marred by the death of Keith Moon on the 7th September, whose hard drinking (and drug-taking) ways finally proved his undoing. The album itself (complete with hard-rocking Top 20 title track) was torn between the symphonic and the synthetic; `Sister Disco’, `Music Must Change’ and `New Song’ were irrelevant to their cause.
While TOWNSHEND and DALTREY worked on their own solo projects (`Empty Glass’ and the movie `McVicar’ respectively), 1979 was The WHO’s cinematic year, showcasing two soundtracks, the retrospective rock-doc THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT {*6} and the part-Various Artists OST of QUADROPHENIA {*6}.
Speculation of a split was rife but ex-(SMALL) FACES sticksman Kenney Jones was drafted in as the band eventually came up with near chart-topper FACE DANCES (1981) {*5}. Struggling to maintain any real momentum (although `Don’t Let Go The Coat’ – an ode to Meher Baba – did scrape into the UK 50), Townshend’s best cut came through Top 10 opener `You Better You Bet’; his and Entwistle’s weakest links came via `Cache Cache’ and `The Quiet One’ respectively.
Neither this album, nor 1982’s IT’S HARD {*4} – the `Athena’ 45 barely scraped into the 40 – were successful in rekindling The WHO spark of old and, already demoralised after a number of fans were crushed at a gig in Cincinatti, the band finally called it a day in 1983, leaving behind a commemorative concert piece WHO’S LAST (1984) {*5}.
The WHO have since occasionally re-formed for one-off live appearances including Live Aid in ‘85 and as DALTREY has juggled an acting career with solo outing, TOWNSHEND has been the only ex-WHO member to maintain a serious and consistent solo career.
Ill-advised and thought mainly to cash-in on their 25th anniversary, with John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keys, Steve Bolton on lead guitar and Simon Phillips on sticks; not Jones, The WHO reunited for an American tour towards the end of the 80s; the reason for Virgin Records to unleash the accompanying JOIN TOGETHER (1990) {*3} was probably a low-point in the band’s illustrious and once glittering career.
But their were high-points along the way from then on in. Featuring RINGO STARR’s boy Zak Starkey on drums, and on the back of a Broadway production of the iconic Tommy meisterwork, The WHO began filling large venues all around the world. From the Prince’s Trust gig at Hyde Park in 1996 to a residency in Las Vegas beyond-and-post-millennium, The WHO were spreading their wings once again.
LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (2003) {*6}, was not exactly new, but rather a one-off cancer charity concert reunion – filmed and recorded in November 2000 – featuring a line-up of Daltrey, Townshend (with brother Simon on backing vox), Entwistle, Starkey and Bundrick, belting out the cream of the band’s back catalogue with surprising verve and vitality; guest spots from the likes of PAUL WELLER and EDDIE VEDDER added to the celebrity double-CD bash. Sadly, it was to be the last time ENTWISTLE would appear with the band, the bassist dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas on July 22, 2002; DALTREY and TOWNSHEND would be devastated, although the latter had his own tabloid tortures to deal with. Meanwhile, the WHO were still doing the odd venue all around the world, the new line-up (Peter Huntington superseding OASIS-bound Zak) even getting out a few songs on the retrospective set, THEN AND NOW: 1964-2004 (2004) {*7}.
Reunion rumours were confirmed when The WHO (with Townshend and Daltrey sleeve pic) duly delivered their first proper batch of songs by way of “six songs from a mini-opera” `Wire & Glass’ in 2006, a taster for the group’s first studio set for 24 years, ENDLESS WIRE (2006) {*7}. From the opening “Baba O’Riley”-esque lines of `Fragments’, to the explosive `Mike Post Theme’ to acoustic preacher-song `A Man In A Purple Dress’, the record reinstated the band in the eyes of critics and public alike as it reached Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. On a personal level, Townshend delivered lyrical spirituals through `God Speaks Of Marty Robbins’ and `Two Thousand Years’; Daltrey, meanwhile, was on top via the ironic “one-that-got-away” dirge `We Got A Hit’.
Continuing to impress fans in support of the previous set, The WHO subsequently trucked onwards and upwards, headlining Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight and culminating with being the closing act at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Re-vamping Quadrophenia (and more) for 10 concerts in aid of the teenage cancer trust during 2010, the decision to perform a special gig at Wembley Arena on July 8, 2013, was greeted with whetted lips by fans young and old; Daltrey and Townshend were helped out by Scott Devours (Zak’s quick-fire replacement), bassist Pino Palladino and Pete’s son Simon on rhythm guitar. To commemorate the occasion, a double-CD (or deluxe boxed set!), QUADROPHENIA: LIVE IN LONDON {*7} was unleashed almost a year on. Comprising add-on extras to encore the show (from `Who Are You’ to `Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and more), no doubt a new generation of mod kids will be alright to buy the mighty original studio set.
Following a fresh one-off single for Polydor Records, `Be Lucky’ (from the compilation “The Who Hits 50!”), the addition of John Corey and Loren Gold (keyboards) and director Frank Simes, were in place to bolster their summer 2015 outdoor appearance a la subsequent DVD/double-CD set, LIVE IN HYDE PARK {*7}.
As Palladino, Corey and Simes duly made way for bassist Jon Button, yet another WHO concert package emerged forthwith. Recorded in its entirety (for the very first time!) on 1st April 2017, and released that September, TOMMY – LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL {*7}, pushed the boundaries to their limits. Fast-forward two years, and surely it was time for The WHO’s swansong studio set – you better you bet!
Indeed, it was not too long before Townshend and Daltrey (and a stellar cast of session people including Starkey and a returning Palladino) connected with their long-serving fan base for the eponymous WHO (2019) {*8}; note absence of “the” definitive article. Gate-crashing the Top 3 on both sides of the big pond, the 74-year-olds main Messrs certainly had an exceptional hit on their hands; Townshend’s thought-provoking introspective tracks equally embracing the past, present and future; Daltrey transmitting hope through nostalgia, cross-pollinating on opener `All This Music Must Fade’, `I Don’t Wanna Get Wise’, `Ball And Chain’, `Detour’ and the defiant “Quadrophrenetic”, `Hero Ground Zero’. “Who’s Next?” would probably be pushing it.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS BG-MCS // rev-up Dec2011-Dec2019

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