July , 1980
By Mark Dempsey
Call them a phenomenon, call them a legend. It’s even been said that they're the world's greatest rock and roll band. But they opted for something a bit simpler that summer in 1963. They called themselves the Who,
As easy as they've made it seem, and all the classic tunes they've produced. the Who's beginnings weren't as easy as you might believe, Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle actually formed the roots of the band with a high school group called the Detours, a real non-success band at best. They added a rhythm guitar player named Pete Townshend, because, as Daltrey put it, "The one we had only knew three chords!"
There were two other members, a drummer and vocalist disappeared very soon thereafter, and as far as I know, never to be heard from again. For some reason or another, they changed their name to the High Numbers, and it was about this time that a young drummer named Keith Moon joined the band, (their first drummer had been almost twenty years older than the rest of the band). Within the year, 1963, they had changed their name to the Who.
They were wild. Restless, moody, obnoxious little bastards constantly causing hassles with club and hall owners, fans, and managers. The Who came out of the Sheperd's Bush section of London, and they were 'Mods.' Mods were one group of two English youth cults in the early sixties, the other being the 'Rockers.' (For a complete explanation on that era. see the movie. Quadropehnia.) It just so happened that the Sheperd Bush area was one of the major hubs of mod activities, and the Who quickly became the great 'Mod' band.
The Who, first of all, were loud. In fact, they were so loud it made your eyes blur. They worked between giant walls of amplifiers that almost seemed to try to destroy you rather than entertain you. But God, what an image they had.
You think it was all great success from there, right? Wrong!
The band’s first gigs weren't the easiest. They literally had to beg people to come and see them play. Their first shows were at a place called the Marquee Club. The management wouldn't let them play under the Who, they called them Maximum R&B. They also placed signs in front of the club that said, "Please come in, no strings attached."
At first, a few people came, then hundreds, then thousands, and the Who's brand of rock finally caught on. They played there for 16 weeks. In 1964. "I Can't Explain- made the British pop scene, and it was a hit. The Who were on their way.
In concert, they murdered you. Townshend would smash his guitar into pieces against a wall of amps. Feedback went straight for your eardrums followed by an incredible explosion. There was Daltrey, swinging his microphone like a lariat and crashing it into the drums. Keith Moon played with a vengeance till his drums were literally destroyed. And then there was John Entwhistle standing in the corner of the stage, oblivious to the destruction around him, playing his bass, almost bored. Everybody sweated, smoke filled the stage, and the battleground was set. The crowds were stunned and the Who was wild.
As the band grew, so did their music and their reputation. From the beginning. Pete Townshend was the one that seemed to matter the most. His writing talents were noticed above all else, excluding his stage antics of course. Using both R&B and white rock as a base, (Townshend was heavily influenced by Eddie Cochran, Beach Boy Carl Wilson, and Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MG's), he pumped out tunes like "Substitute," "My Generation,” " The Kids Are Alright," and all, needless to say, established the Who's sound.
The band finally made it to America in 1967. They played at an Easter pageant at the Brooklyn Paramount in New York. Also on the bill was another hand making their American debut called Cream. They couldn't match the power of the Who.
The band worked hard. A later tour with Herman's Hermits finally started to build a solid American following for the Who. Their destructive antics continued along with their incredibly powerful stage show, and their cult following got larger and larger.
The Who finally announced their rock and roll power to the world in June of 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival. Their performance is a musical classic. They were the big hits of the show-almost. Only Jimi Hendrix made a bigger impact, and he had to burn his guitar to do it.
Any Beach Boys influence was killed shortly thereafter with the release of the single, "I Can See For Miles and Miles.” The stage was set. The album that followed, The Who Sell Out, their third, was a superb concept album and probably one of the best of its time.
Townshend became more and more the spokesman and leader of the band. Daltrey was the sex symbol. Entwhistle was the father figure and Keith Moon was the cocky, rambunctious favorite son.
Success came quickly from there. Their next album went down as a masterpiece...Tommy. Tommy was written initially as a 1968 TV performance, but was soon labeled too controversial. But the album that followed would, after its American release in July of 1969, put Pete Townshend and the Who in a class by themselves, to this day almost unequalled. Another U.S. tour and a classic performance at Woodstock in '69 assured the Who's record company Decca almost certain gold albums. Live at Leeds-1970, Who's Next-1971, and Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy-1971. Then came the first of the bands single albums. Entwhistle came out with Smash Your Head Against The Wall. Townshend released Who Came First, and Daltrey offered Daltrey. There was a long gap in the bands album output as a group as Townshend developed his next concept, which in two years came out in the form of what some consider the classic Who, Quadrophenia, released in 1973. It became an immediate Top Ten hit in America.
Great notoriety, successful tours and again, nearly two years before another album was released. Late in 1975 came The Who By Numbers, critically acclaimed as a 'back to the basics' album. A somewhat successful 1976 concert tour found Daltrey and Townshend learning to share the stage, and learning to get along a hit better than they had in the years prior. The band had not changed in ten years.
Once again, a lapse in time. Townshend and company began experimenting with many things. More solo projects for all the band members had occurred, a stab at making movies, (and in Daltrey's case starring in them). Finally, in 1978 came the long awaited Who Are You. Jazz. R&B. rock and roll, it was all there. Then ironically, on September 7, 1978, just as the Who's resurgence and power as a superstar band was being reaffirmed, Keith Moon died at the age of 31.
The band was shocked. The media called it the end, and the band it seemed, at times almost agreed. But they finally decided to go on, and as Daltrey put it, "Keith would have wanted it that way."
Almost too old to rock and roll, in their own minds and admissions, the band moved forward. They replaced Moon with Kenny Jones, who had played with the Small Faces, and they added "Rabbet" Bundrick on keyboards. They had settled down. The bands musical perspective and direction seemed to change just a little as well. The Who seemed as if they had something to prove. The tours have continued, the music just as strong, concerts all containing classics ranging from "Substitute" ’66, "Baba O'Riley," ('71) which also had the distinction of being the first arrangement to use synthesizer. "Won't Get Fooled Again." ‘Pinball Wizard," "Who Are You.” They are all there, all rock and roll anthems.
Daltrey's constant and tireless running and spinning. Townshend’s leaps and incredible guitar licks. They're all still there. The band is still one of the top concert bands in the world.
A new album is on the wings for the group. Townshend's solo career is skyrocketing with Empty Glass, and Daltrey's movie career isn't doing so shabbily either. But by their own admissions, the Who is still the top priority.
There was violence and rebellion in the beginning and there has been violence and tragedy. (Moon's death and Cincinnati) after 17 years.
How much longer can they do it?
Townshend said it best, "As long as we can connect with the audience.”
It’s too late to turn back now, it's a responsibility.