The Detours formed in Shepherd’s Bush in 1964 as a local youth club band. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle (who originally called himself John Allison) founded the band and, having jettisoned Colin Dawson (vocals) and Doug Sandom (drums), recruited Keith Moon as a replacement for the latter.
The restructured quartet was adopted by manager Peter Meaden, who changed their name to The High Numbers, dressed them in stylish clothes from Carnaby Street, had their hair styled by Robert James, and courted a Mod audience. Their sole single, I’m The Face, proclaimed this allegiance, although Meaden shamelessly nicked its melody from Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It.
Two budding film directors, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, then assumed management responsibilities and – now known as The Who – the group began courting controversial publicity.
Townshend’s onstage guitar pyrotechnics were especially noteworthy. The instrument was used as an object of rage as he smashed it against floors and amplifiers. The origins of the act came when he accidentally broke the neck of his guitar on the low ceiling of a club.
The Who eventually secured a deal through Shel Talmy, an independent producer who placed the group with American Decca. Their recordings were then subcontracted through UK subsidiary, Brunswick.
I Can’t Explain, released in January 1965, rose to the UK Top 10 on the strength of appearances on television’s Ready, Steady, Go! and Top Of The Pops. The song’s formal nature surprised those expecting a more explosive performance.
Any criticism was answered by the innovative Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere and My Generation.
The Who continued to enjoy chart success, switching subject matter from transvestism (I’m A Boy) to masturbation (Pictures Of Lily).
Their 1965 album, My Generation, was recorded in around seven hours, with the band repeatedly butting heads with producer Shel Talmy. The frantic pace and fraught atmosphere were evident on the album and suited the material.
My Generation‘s stammering vocals and dive-bombing guitar provided a “How To” guide for every agitated rock band since, from The Sex Pistols to Arctic Monkeys.
With The Who’s finances in disarray, their management instructed the band members to write two songs each for the next album and boost their publishing royalties. A Quick One (1966) – released in the US under the title Happy Jack – is The Who in limbo: not yet the conceptual rockers of Tommy but eager not to record an album full of My Generation re-writes.
The management’s songwriting edict yielded oddities like Keith Moon’s insane Cobwebs and Strange and John Entwistle’s gothic nursery rhyme Boris The Spider.
The Who’s popularity in the USA flourished after their appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. They returned to the UK Top 10 in the winter of 1967 with the powerful I Can See For Miles, though their next album, Sell Out, didn’t appear until December.
A suite of songs constructed to sound like a pirate radio station, complete with spoof adverts (many devised by Keith Moon and John Entwistle in the pub), it was a wildly ambitious LP, pinwheeling between the bloke-ish pop on which The Who had made their name and the art-rock of their next album, Tommy. Oddly, it excelled at both.
Despite their strength as singles artists, the group failed to achieve a #1 hit on either side of the Atlantic and embraced the album market with Tommy (1969). This extravagant rock opera became a staple part of their live appearances.
Tommy‘s amorphous storyline of a deaf, blind, mute boy on a quest for enlightenment rung the right hippie bells and the set spawned a major hit in Pinball Wizard and was later the subject of a 1975 film directed by the suitably eccentric Ken Russell.
Also, in 1969, The Who gave a memorable performance at the Woodstock festival in America. But the group almost didn’t reach the stage on 17 August.
Backstage facilities were only a slight improvement on those that serviced the nearly half-a-million-strong crowd, and the band had to hang around for 24 sleepless hours, fuelled by a constant stream of LSD-spiked booze.
Perhaps not the best time, then, to tell a bunch of nutters from White City that they might not be getting paid.
Ultimately, the organisers threatened to blackmail the band into going onstage by announcing over the PA that “those breadheads The Who want more money”. Thankfully a cheque for $11,200 arrived just minutes before they were due on stage.
Had he known any of this, hippie icon Abbie Hoffman might have thought twice about gatecrashing The Who’s set to deliver a political speech. Townshend hit Hoffman so hard with his guitar that he ended up in the photographer’s pit – and half a million people cheered.
The six-song live album Live At Leeds (1970) was a sturdy concert souvenir and is regarded by many as one the best live albums ever recorded. A show at Britain’s Leeds University on Valentine’s Day 1970 was the location, and the band surged at full strength for more than two hours, playing Tommy, their classic singles, and a clutch of rock & roll gems along the way.
1971’s Who’s Next featured many ideas from Townshend’s abandoned concept piece, Lifehouse. The album gave them a US Top 5 hit (Won’t Get Fooled Again) and a career filling stadiums across America for the rest of the decade.
In the same year, Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy was released as a taster for their new American audience without the band’s permission. Townshend soon applauded it as “probably the best ever Who album”.
Containing all their early hits, it was a focused snapshot of The Who in their infancy and a reminder of how much they’d grown. It reached the Top 20 in the US, but its UK Top 10 placement proved that Britain was also willing to take a Who history lesson.
Quadrophenia (1973) was a complex concept album and homage to the mod sub-culture which provided Townshend with his first inspiration.
Commitments to solo careers undermined The Who By Numbers (1975). However, the quartet re-emerged with the confident Who Are You? (1978), but its release was overshadowed when, on 7 September 1978, Keith Moon died in his sleep following an overdose of Heminevrin – a prescription medication taken to alleviate alcohol addiction. He was just 31.
Keith died in the same room Mama Cass had passed away in, in July 1974. The flat in which both died was at 12 Curzon Street in Mayfair, London, and was owned by Harry Nilsson.
The band issued a press release which read in part: “We have lost our great comedian, our supreme melodramatist, the man who apart from being the most unpredictable and spontaneous drummer in rock, would have set himself alight if he thought it would make the audience laugh or jump out of their seats. We have lost not only our drummer but also our alter ego”.
A retrospective film, The Kids Are Alright, was released, and the group resumed recording in 1979, having added former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones to the line-up. Tension between Jones and Roger Daltrey hindered the recording of Face Dances (1981), although the single from the album, You Better You Bet, gave them a Top 10 hit.
A farewell tour was undertaken in 1982-83 and although the group did reunite for an appearance at Live Aid, they remained estranged until the end of the decade.
In 1993, over 25 years after its original release as an album, a production of Tommy, re-titled The Who’s Tommy, was staged on Broadway, and won five Tony Awards. The Who’s star continued to rise in 1994 with the sympathetically packaged 30 Years Of Maximum R&B CD box set, and was maintained with the reissued Live At Leeds with many extra tracks added from that memorable gig
In June 1996, the band performed at London’s Hyde Park, performing Quadrophenia in front of 200,000 people. Further performances were given in the USA and the UK later that year. The drummer for this latest re-formation was Zak Starkey, son of the famous Beatle.
Tragically, John Entwistle – The Ox – died in his Las Vegas hotel room in June 2002, literally on the eve of an American tour primarily designed to bring some financial relief to Messrs Entwistle and Daltrey (who did not receive the songwriting royalties enjoyed by Townshend). He was 57.
A year later, Pete Townshend received a caution from British police after it was established he had visited a child pornography website. Townshend freely admitted he had and insisted it was for research purposes as part of his active work for children’s charities and his campaign against the widespread availability of child pornography on the internet.
Forensic investigation found no indecent images in his possession and elected not to prosecute him.
The Who’s first studio album since 1982 had been promised for at least a year before it arrived in 2006.
Based on Townshend’s novella The Boy Who Heard Music, Endless Wire (2006) revisited ideas explored way back in their career, with the opening track, Fragments, all but repeating the intro to Baba O’Riley.
The Who will always remain one of the finest groups of our generation. No pun intended.
John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick