Since they blasted their way into prominence with the British Invasion, the Who’s sprawling half-century saga has been strewn with creative reinventions, personality clashes, breakups, reunions and death by misadventure. It’s also yielded one of the most respected bodies of work in the annals of Rock, from the band’s early days as scrappy Mod icons to its work as Rock-opera conceptualists to its ongoing incarnation as a bigger-than-life arena-rock juggernaut.
The Who’s mass of contradictions is reflected in the contrasting yet oddly complementary personae of the four musicians who comprised the band’s classic lineup: guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend, whose unsparingly personal lyrics, flamboyant guitar heroics, and restless conceptual experimentalism have made him one Rock’s most prominent creative forces; leather-lunged, microphone-whirling singer Roger Daltrey, the epitome of the swaggering Rock frontman; soft-spoken bassist John Entwistle, whose complex bass lines, brooding presence and sardonic songwriting contributions added to the band’s depth; and frenetic drummer Keith Moon, whose possessed playing and equally over-the-top lifestyle defined Rock excess.
Known briefly as the Detours and the High Numbers early in their existence, the London foursome found early acceptance in the mid-60s British Mod scene, which embraced such Townshend-penned teen anthems as “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation,” “Substitute,” and “The Kids Are Alright.” The band also won a reputation for its high-intensity, high-volume live performances, which sometimes climaxed with Townshend and/or Moon smashing their instruments on stage.
The Who substantially expanded its American audience after a landmark performance at 1967’s Monterey Pop festival, which was followed by the band’s first Top Ten U.S. single, “I Can See for Miles,” and the audacious concept album The Who Sell Out. Those breakthroughs set the stage for the 1969 release of Tommy, a musically and conceptually elaborate project that established the quartet as a major commercial and creative force. Their success continued with the Live At Leeds album, as well as appearances at the Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals. Another projected Rock opera, the sci-fi-themed Lifehouse, was eventually abandoned by Townshend, but many of its songs provided the foundation for the band’s classic 1971 album Who’s Next, which yielded the signature songs “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Reilly,” and “Behind Blue Eyes.”
Townshend was back in Rock-opera territory with 1973’s partially autobiographical Quadrophenia, while 1975’s The Who by Numbers found him confronting middle age with some of most introspective songs to date. The latter coincided with the release of director Ken Russell’s film version of Tommy, with Daltrey in the title role. The August 1978 release of Who Are You was followed a month later by the death of the hard-living Moon; the band recruited ex-Faces drummer Kenney Jones as his replacement.
The following year saw the release of Franc Roddam’s film adaptation of Quadrophenia and the career documentary The Kids Are Alright. In the early 80s, the band recorded a pair of studio albums with Jones, Faces Dances and It’s Hard, before announcing its breakup. The separation didn’t last, and by the end of the decade The Who was touring again. Entwistle died while on tour in 2002, but Townshend and Daltrey have continued to tour as the Who, and in 2006 released the acclaimed Endless Wire, the first album of new Who songs in a quarter-century.