Pete Townshend and John Entwistle grew up in London’s working-class Shepherd’s Bush neighborhood and played in a Dixieland band in their early teens. By 1962, Townshend had traded his banjo for a guitar and Entwistle moved from French horn to bass as both joined the Detours, a skiffle band-turned-pop group led by their former schoolmate Roger Daltrey. For the next year or so, the Detours honed their act on the west London club circuit. Early in 1964, the band changed its name to The Who and took on drummer Keith Moon, another Londoner who’d been playing with a surfing group for the past year.
The Who took a temporary detour in 1964. Townshend was attending art school and the others were moonlighting at odd jobs when they caught the eye of manager/promoter Pete Meaden. Before long, Meaden changed their name to the High Numbers, dressed them in flashy Mod outfits and had the group recording his songs. When the record bombed, the band left Meaden and changed their name back to The Who. They went back to performing in more casual attire and promoted their music as “Maximum R&B.”
It was around this time that Townshend created the trademark that would always be associated with The Who when he smashed his first guitar, in frustration, at a London nightspot.
Just as the band was starting to feel a budget squeeze from broken guitars and drum sets, they signed a record deal with producer Shel Talmy. The Who’s first single, “I Can’t Explain”, was slow out of the gate after its release in January 1965. But sales picked up later that month, when the group played the song on the TV show Ready, Steady, Go. Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon kicked over his drums, and “I Can’t Explain” reached #8 on the UK charts. “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” an effort to capture the feeling of the band’s live shows, also reached #10, followed in November 1965 by “My Generation,” which reached #2 in Great Britain.
By the time their next single, “Substitute” became a top ten hit early in 1966, The Who was in the top tier of British rock bands. And their individual personalities were becoming well-known –Townshend’s windmill-like guitar strumming, Daltrey’s tough-guy strut, Moon manically beating his drums and, through it all, Entwistle simply standing still.
Having conquered Britain, The Who turned its attention to the US. On their next album, A Quick One, each of the band members contributed songs; and the first ten minutes contained a mini-opera. A Quick One became another British hit. In America, the group was ignored until A Quick One was retitled Happy Jack and its title track reached the Top 40 in 1967. The Who made its American debut that spring, playing for 10 straight days before screaming fans at the Brooklyn Fox Theater as part of an all-star lineup produced by radio DJ Murray the K. Two months later they were back in the US, on a tour that included a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in California. And later that summer, the Who finished a two-month American tour on a bill headlined by Herman’s Hermits. “I Can See For Miles,” released toward the end of that tour, became the Who’s first stateside hit, reaching #9.
In 1968, the Who released “Dogs.” The record failed, and the band was becoming increasingly reliant on its American tours to keep afloat financially. Townshend moved from writing commercial singles to long-form compositions.
The project evolved into Tommy, the story of a deaf, dumb and blind pinball player who becomes a the leader of a religious cult. Townshend says Tommy reflects the enlightenment he (Townshend) felt as a student of Indian mystic Meher Baba, “a metaphorical story of different states of consciousness.”
It took nine weeks in late 1968 and early 1969 for the Who to record the 90-minute long album, which became the first successful so-called rock opera. The LP reached #4 on the American charts. Its first single, “Pinball Wizard,” went to #5. The Who performed Tommy in its entirety at London’s Coliseum in 1969, at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in June 1970. As the record gathered critical acclaim, the band played portions of it to wildly enthusiastic fans during a summer 1969 US tour.
Toward the end of that visit, the Who played at the legendary Woodstock festival. In Townshend’s view, it was an “awful” performance. But the group’s growing fan base didn’t think so, and Woodstock helped to seal the Who’s reputation as one of the world’s two best live bands (the other was the Rolling Stones).
Tommy‘s success posed a challenge to the Who — how to follow-up the rock opera. Townshend turned to the same genre, but this time with a science fiction flavor. The opus was called Lifehouse. But the rest of the group was lukewarm about the project, and their reluctance contributed to Townshend’s first nervous breakdown. After he recovered, the Who used excerpts from Lifehouse in its next album, Who’s Next. The hard rock LP, which included “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes,” was the Who’s most popular, reaching the top spot on the British record charts in the fall of 1971.
The success of Who’s Next prompted Townshend to try another opera. This time, he abandoned fantasy in order to sketch a portrait of Sixties mod with Quadrophenia. While he was writing the album in 1972, Townsend released Who Came First, a collection of private recordings and demos he made for Meher Baba. Around that time, Entwistle, frustrated at his lack of songwriting input in the Who, began a solo career. Moon recorded an album, as did Daltrey. Quadrophenia was released as a double album in 1973.
By this time, life on the road began catching up to the Who, particularly Keith Moon, who collapsed during a concert in San Francisco. A few days later, the entire band spent seven hours in jail after trashing a hotel room in Montreal.
And so it continued until September, 1978, when Moon was found dead in his London apartment from an overdose of a prescription sedative. With former Faxes member Kenney Jones on drums, the Who continued as a group for the next three years. But the three surviving band members said that after Moon’s death, it was never the same.
In 1982, The Who made a farewell tour and released its final recordings.
33 years later, the band is making yet another farewell tour.
To celebrate the Who’s 50th anniversary, Daltrey and Townshend will play a two-leg, 38-concert 2015 North American tour. Seventeen initial stops are set for the spring, followed by another 21 shows across the U.S. and Canada.
The Who Hits 50 tour kicks off in Tampa, concluding in May in Forest Hills, N.Y. The fall leg launches on Sept. 14 at San Diego, and ends on Nov. 4 in Philadelphia. Click here for the complete list of dates and venues.
The 2015 set list will expand to include highlights from throughout their five decades of music making. Townshend describes the mix as “hits, picks, mixes and misses,” adding “we are what we are, and extremely good at it, but we’re lucky to be alive and still touring.”
Where Are They Now?
Pete Townshend is still actively writing, touring and recording. He lives with his longtime partner, musician Rachel Fuller in Richmond, England. He’s published his memoir Who I Am and is currently working on a new music project titled Floss.
John Entwistle created a band under his own name in 1996. On June 27, 2002, just one day before the start of a US tour with the Who, Entwistle died in a hotel room at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The medical examiner determined that death was due to a heart attack induced by a small amount of cocaine. The drug caused his coronary arteries, already damaged from a pre-existing heart condition, to contract. Entwistle used cocaine throughout much of his adult life.
Lead singer Roger Daltrey has been an actor and film producer, in addition to continuing his music career. Daltrey guest starred in a November 2006 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as a prominent mob boss who returns to Las Vegas to avenge his attempted murder. The Who’s music, and Daltrey’s singing, provide the theme for CSI every week.
The Who’s Videos
“I Can’t Explain,” at the Royal Albert Hall
“My Generation” at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967.
“Baba O’Riley” live in Scotland, 2006.
The Who Discography
Zoot Suit – 1964 (as The High Numbers)
I Can’t Explain – 1965
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere – 1965
My Generation – 1965
Substitute – 1966
A Legal Matter – 1966
The Kids Are Alright – 1966
La La La Lies – 1966
Happy Jack – 1966
Pictures of Lily – 1967
The Last Time – 1967
I Can See For Miles – 1967
Dogs – 1968
Magic Bus – 1968
Pinball Wizard – 1969
Go To The Mirror – 1969
The Seeker – 1970
Summertime Blues – 1970
See Me, Feel Me – 1970
Won’t Get Fooled Again – 1971
Let’s See Action – 1971
Join Together – 1972
Relay – 1972
5:15 – 1973
Squeeze Box – 1975
Who Are You – 1978
You Better You Bet – 1981
Don’t Let Go The Coat – 1981
Athena – 1982
Twist & Shout (Live) – 1984
Real Good Looking Boy – 2004
My Generation (1965)
A Quick One (1966)
The Who Sell Out (1967)
Who’s Next (1971)
The Who by Numbers (1975)
Who Are You (1978)
Face Dances (1981)
It’s Hard (1982)
Endless Wire (2006)