The Who

The Who

Synopsis of Pop Music

"People try to put us down,
Just because we get around..."

Many a rock group has grown to keep up with the times, but few have flowered as impressively as the Who. They began in the early 1960’s as a high-powered rock group who poured their formidable energy and muscle to rocking pop tunes like “My Generation” and “I Can See For Miles”. However, the group soon captured the world’s attention by popularizing the idea of the concept-album with Tommy and writing the rulebook for ‘arena rock’ with their classic Who’s Next. As they filled stadiums and sold albums by the million, they became one of the world’s greatest rock and roll groups.

The Who started as a beat group called the Detours. They soon renamed themselves the High Numbers and began playing r&b and Motown covers to appreciative crowds on the London club scene. In particular, the High Numbers became very popular with the ‘mods,’ a group of style-conscious teens who liked the group’s energetic sound. At this point, guitarist Pete Townshend began writing original songs that were influenced by both their r&b favorites and the mod culture. The group soon scored their first U.K. hit in 1965 with “I Can’t Explain,” a song that blended a stuttering rock beat with Beach Boys-styled harmonies.

In short order, the Who became the major ‘mod’ band and a wildly popular live attraction. From the start, they had a very intense live presence: singer Roger Daltrey swung his microphone with abandon, drummer Keith Moon ('Moon the Loon') bashed away at the drums like a tornado with arms, Townshend blasted out guitar riffs by swinging his arm like a windmill, and bassist John Entwistle held it all together by stand rock-still as he laid down his thunderous basslines. Their shows usually ended with the group destroying their equipment and storming off stage. Word quickly spread about the stunning, powerful live show, turning these concerts into media events.

Meanwhile, the Who continued to sharpen up on record. Townshend flowered as a songwriter, scoring hit after hit in the U.K. with driving rock songs like the feedback-laced “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and the anthemic “My Generation.” During this time, the group also took their powerhouse live show to the U.S., building a fan base with scene-stealing appearances on ‘British Invasion’ package tours. In 1967, they scored their first U.S. hit with “Happy Jack,” an acoustic pop tune that balanced light harmonies with drum-driven outbursts of rock energy.

The Who consolidated their U.S. success at the end of 1967 with their first Top-10 hit, a heavy psychedelic rocker called “I Can See For Miles.” This song was also included on The Who Sell Out, a concept album that paid tribute to London’s pirate radio stations by mixing pop tunes with fake radio jingles and songs disguised as commercials. They scored another notable hit the next year with “Magic Bus,” an acoustic pop ditty with psychedelic harmonies and a throbbing Bo Diddley beat. However, Townshend spent much of his time in 1968 working on the album that would make superstars of the Who.

In 1969, the Who took the pop music world by storm with Tommy. This double-album was an elaborate song cycle that told the story of how a deaf, dumb and blind boy gains worldwide fame by playing pinball and becomes a messiah when he magically cures himself. It blended pop hooks, rock and roll energy and a captivating story into one seamless package. More importantly, the band could reproduce the entire album onstage and thus were able to create a music experience that took audiences on a journey. Taking the concept on the road, the Tommy tour became wildly popular, as did singles like “Pinball Wizard.”

Overnight, Tommy transformed the Who from a pop group into internationally-popular legends. Townshend quickly threw himself into another conceptual opus called ‘Lifehouse.’ It was never finished, but its songs formed the basis for Who’s Next. On this album, the band reaffirmed their status as pioneers by being one of the first big groups to use a synthesizer to fill out their sound. Anthem-styled epics like “Baba O’Riley” (the song half the planet calls "Teenage Wasteland") and the Top-20 hit "Won’t Get Fooled Again" gained added grandeur with these electronic embellishments. The simpler, acoustic-based ballad “Behind Blue Eyes” also became a hit.

The Who toured heavily throughout 1972. Outside of tours, they also participated in an orchestral re-recording of Tommy and released occasional singles like the folksy sing-along hit “Join Together.” In 1973, they returned full-force with another concept double-album, Quadrophenia. This lushly-produced epic told the story of a young mod trying to find himself against the backdrop of early 1960’s London. From bone-crunching rockers like “The Real Me” to symphonic ballads like “Love Reign O’er Me,” this album captured the many sides of The Who at their finest. Quadrophenia led to a massive worldwide concert tour that included a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden.

The Who moved into the film world in 1975 with a screen adaptation of Tommy. It featured Daltrey in the lead and the other group members in cameo roles. Both the film and the soundtrack became hits. The Who By Numbers, a rustic-sounding album that downplayed electronics in favor of a stripped-down sound, was also released that year. It quickly became a Top-10 hit and spawned a successful single with “Squeeze Box,” a bouncy sing-along with a country sound.

After touring for much of 1976, the Who took a well-earned break. They returned in 1978 with their most polished album yet, Who Are You, blending rich layers of synthesizer with the group’s traditional hard-rock crunch on a series of powerful epic tunes. The synth-driven title track, inspired by Townshend’s night out with a couple of the Sex Pistols, became a #15 hit and remains a staple of classic rock radio today. However, the group also suffered a shakeup later that year when Keith Moon died from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

Just the same, the Who soldiered on with new drummer Kenney Jones and undertook a successful tour that kept them busy well into 1979. They also stayed active in the film world with The Kids Are Alright, a documentary on the Who’s history, and a film adaptation of Quadrophenia. Around this time, Pete Townshend scored a major hit as a solo artist with the album Empty Glass. It also contained a Top-10 hit in the new wave-styled and richly-harmonized “Let My Love Open The Door.”

In 1981, the Who returned to the pop charts with a Top-5 album in Face Dances. It had a slicker, more radio-friendly pop sound than previous albums and produced a Top-20 hit in "You Better You Bet." They continued in this style with 1982’s It’s Hard. However, this would be their last studio album. The group embarked on a farewell tour that year with the Clash as the opening act. After the tour, everyone in the group split off to pursue work as solo artists, periodically reuniting to tour (often for charity causes).

Although the group has not put out a new album since 1982, the influence of the Who continues to be very strong today. Tommy was transformed into a Tony Award-winning musical in 1993 and thus gave this classic story yet another lease on life. Meanwhile, songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Love Reign O’er Me” continue to be radio favorites, while albums like Who’s Next frequently pop up lists of the all-time greatest rock and roll records. All in all, their visionary blend of rock music power and artistic ambition will continue to be an influence to thoughtful pop musicians for years to come.

"Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss..."

Artist Release History

1965 - The Who Sings My Generation
1966 - A Quick One (Happy Jack)
1967 - Happy Jack
1967 - The Who Sell Out
1968 - Magic Bus
1969 - Tommy
1970 - Live at Leeds
1971 - Who's Next
1971 - Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (compilation)
1972 - Tommy - As Performed by the London Symphony
1973 - Quadrophenia
1975 - The Who By Numbers
1978 - Who Are You
1979 - Quadrophenia (original soundtrack)
1979 - The Kids Are Alright (live)
1981 - Face Dances
1982 - It's Hard
1984 - Who's Last (live)
1987 - Two's Missing
1990 - Join Together (live)
1996 - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival - 1970

Pop Sub Categories


Essential Music Albums

Tommy (MCA, 5/23/69)
Who’s Next (MCA, 8/14/71)
Quadrophenia (MCA, 11/03/73)
My Generation: The Very Best Of The Who (MCA, 08/27/96)

Band Members

Roger Daltrey lead vocals
Pete Townshend guitar, keyboards, vocals
John Entwistle bass, horns
Keith Moon (1964-78) drums
Kenney Jones (1978- ) drums
John Bundrick (1978- ) keyboards

Other Pop Music Links