The Who

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The Who in 1968. Left to right: Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and John Entwistle. The photo is shown here on the cover of the soundtrack to the 1979 documentary film The Kids Are Alright.

The Who is a British rock band. They were noted for the dynamism of their live performances and for their thoughtful music, including Tommy, one of the first rock operas. While not a heavy metal band themselves, their distorted guitars, epic songwriting, and over-the-top stage show left a certain influence on the genre. Peter Townsend's guitar style based on power chords and constant lyrical theme of youthful rebellion also left their mark on punk rock.


The band's sounds and performances

On stage

The classic era

From around the time the band settled on its classical line-up in the mid-sixties, The Who performed as a Rock power trio modified by the addition of Roger Daltrey as a lead singer who did not play an instrument other than the occasional use of a tambourine or harmonica. From the beginning the band drew attention because all three instrumentalists — guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon — would often play lead parts, sometimes simultaneously, or the guitar or bass might assume the role of percussion while the drums added spice rather than driving the beat. The result was music more cacophonous and often more sophisticated than conventional perfomances in the Rock genre.

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Keith Moon, drummer, in 1975

Moreover, all but Moon were competent vocalists, and shared the vocal workload. Daltrey was the official front man, centered on the stage, and served as lead singer for most songs. Entwistle sang his own compositions, and contributed humorous role-playing vocal phrases in songs such as "Summertime Blues". Townshend sometimes took over as lead singer from Daltrey, or the two took turns during a song, singing alternate verses as in "Naked Eye" or exploiting a distinctive format in many of Townshend's compositions where Daltrey would sing the verses and Townshend would sing during a bridge or interlude that contrasted stylistically with the rest of the song, as in "Bargain".

The surfeit of singers also allowed them to utilize three-part harmonies in rich choruses such as the "Listening to You" motif in Tommy, and to provide a chorus of ethereal background "Ahhh"s in songs such as "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Odorono". They also used background vocals in other creative ways, such as mimicing seagulls in several tunes for Tommy, the clever staccato "Laugh laugh laugh"/"Lap lap lap" syllables echoing the sense of the lead vocal in "Happy Jack", and the humorous "Cello cello cello" chorus purportedly inspired by being unable to afford a string section when going into the studio to record "A Quick One, While He's Away".

Later changes

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Roger Daltrey, lead singer, in 1975.

In 1971 they began supplementing their stage act with pre-recorded synthesizer "continuo" parts in order to cover material such as "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" from that year's Who's Next album. In addition to feeding the synthesizer tracks to their stage monitors, drummer Keith Moon would wear headphones to ensure that he heard the recording clearly enough to sync the band with it. When they first introduced these recordings technical difficulties sometimes severely disrupted concerts, causing the band members' notorious tempers to flare onstage.

By the end of the seventies The Who had completely given up the power trio format and began touring with a keyboardist, backup singers, and a small horn section, none of which were officially members of the band. They have continued this habit in their frequent reunion tours since they stopped recording and performing regularly.

The Who began their career by covering and imitating Rhythm and Blues hits, and never completely abandoned those roots. Even after moving on to other types of material they continued to perform R&B classics such as "Young Man Blues" and "Summertime Blues" throughout their performing career, including their late reunion tours.

Other aspects of their performances

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Pete Townshend, lead guitarist & vocalist, in 1985

The musicians of the Who were also natural showmen: singer Daltrey was a dynamic front man, twirling his microphone on the end of its cord, while Townshend played crashing chords on his guitar with great windmill-like sweeps of his arms and the maniacal Moon battered his drums powerfully. Through all that mayhem, Entwistle stood still, seemingly bored by the whole affair, playing intricate, powerful, innovative bass lines as if he had the stage to himself. The band members also punctuated their performances with jokes, tricks, and over-the-top introductions to the songs; Townshend once commented that only the cessation of touring saved them from degenerating into a vaudeville act. During performances, they would often chat with members of the audience between songs.

In the early days, The Who was most famous for smashing their instruments at the end of their concerts, and would often throw the damaged remains into the audience. This would signal that the band had given all it had, and generated some coveted souvenirs as a side effect. Although they mostly stopped smashing their instruments around the time of Tommy, they would occasionally do it long afterwards.

John Entwistle, bassist, in 1996.
John Entwistle, bassist, in 1996.

They were also notorious for how they treated their hotel rooms and dressing rooms, particularly Moon. The band was arrested for this on at least one occasion, in Montreal, and were for many years banned from the Holiday Inn hotel chain. Led Zeppelin, a hard rock act of the same era, was equally famous for their wild antics and parties in their lodgings, but the Who were generally considered the worst in this category.

The Who's live performances were traditionally extremely loud. For most of the 1970s they were listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the loudest Rock band in the world, measured at 130 decibels, though other bands have since taken over that dubious honor. Townshend's later partial deafness and tinnitus is well known; popular legends hold that the members of the band suffered permanent hearing loss from their loud concerts, or that Townshend's right ear was damaged as a result of being too close to the drum kit when Moon detonated an oversized concussion bomb in it at the conclusion of a performance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. Townshend, however, maintains that the true cause was listening to the music at high volume through headphones.

Various members of the band wore "trademark" dress on stage and in photo shoots at various periods of the band's history. During the 1960s Pete Townshend sported a jacket made of a Union Jack. (Reportedly the Irish Republican Army threatened to blow up the band on stage if he wore it at an appearance in Ireland, but Townshend had planned ahead and provided himself with a jacket more sympathetic to Irish nationalist sentiments.) At the end of the decade he switched to a simple jumpsuit or boiler suit, and appears wearing it in the Woodstock footage. For a period John Entwistle wore a Halloween-style skeleton suit in concert. From the late 1960s through most of the 1970s Roger Daltrey appeared in a fringede buckskin jacket or vest, and can be seen wearing it in most film footage of the era.

In the studio


The Who's studio sound was originally quite similar to the modified power trio sound of their stage act, albeit recorded with overdubs and other standard studio tricks. (One of the two guitar solos on "I Can't Explain" was purportedly dubbed in by Jimmy Page.) As the sixties progressed their studio sound was progressively modified by the use of overdubs to add complete additional parts without the need for additional musicians, rather than simply as an ordinary studio technique for capturing clean takes of vocal and solo parts. The added parts were usually additional guitar and keyboard parts for Pete Townshend, though horn parts by John Entwistle were added to a few songs. When Tommy came out in 1969 the mix included not only electric guitar, bass, drums, and three-part vocals, but additional tracks for acoustic guitar, piano, organ, and horn, as if performed by six or eight instrumentalists rather than the actual three. As a result of this expansion many of their recorded songs have a dense sound with rich textures and fine details that can only be appreciated through careful headphone listenings.

Tommy also featured some of Townshend's early use of synthetic sounds, a recording of the click and fade of a piano note or some sort of percussion instrument dubbed in from a reversed tape to give a reversed sound that grows louder up to a sharp cut-off, used in the song "Amazing Journey". His interest in synthetic sounds blossomed when he acquired an early ARP synthesizer and used it very aggressively on the 1971 Who's Next album. Though other keyboard instruments continued to be used in the band's recordings, and they briefly returned to a leaner sound for the 1975 The Who By Numbers album, Townshend's adoption of the synthesizer and the near-simultaneous maturation of studio recording equipment and techniques led to a big, solid, "modern" sound that became the signature of the post-classic era Who.


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Tommy, the first album explicitly billed as a rock opera, was released on May 23, 1969.

The studio albums of the sixties chronicle the phases of the band's ventures into several sub-genres of Rock music. Their 1965 My Generation UK album (Released in US 1966 in slightly altered form, "The Who Sings My Generation") features covers of popular Rhythm and Blues songs performed with a heavy sound that The Who promoted as "Maximum R&B". On their 1966 A Quick One UK album (Released in US 1967 in slightly altered form, "Happy Jack") they abandoned R&B in favor of an experiment in Pop music as an aural counterpart to the Pop art movement. By the time of their 1967 The Who Sell Out album they had mostly abandoned the Pop experiment, instead offering a mixture of psychedelic music and other songs of no specific sub-genre characteristics. With their release of Tommy in 1969 they permanently gave up their experiments with sub-genres, and settled on a mainstream Rock sound, albeit well toward the "hard" end of the spectrum and featuring many of the characteristics of progressive rock, though not actually participating in that movement.

In the background of those major trends in The Who's music there were several other minor tendencies. Keith Moon always wanted to play Surfer Music, and two or three tunes in that genre eventually appeared on the band's B-sides or collection albums. As time passed Pete Townshend increasingly incorporated Jazz motifs into his composition, singing, and playing, but even when present they tend to be masked by the Hard Rock sound of the band in ensemble. Finally, as with most of the early British Rock musicians, the members of The Who were greatly influnced by Country Music, though the genre rarely appears in their recordings unless transformed almost beyond recognition.


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The Who on the television program Ready Steady Go! in 1965. Front: Keith Moon. Rear, left to right: John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend.

In its earliest days, prior to Keith Moon joining, the band was known as The Detours and played mostly rhythm and blues. They eventually changed their name to The Who when Keith joined, making the classic line-up complete. For a short period during 1964, under the management of Peter Meaden, they changed their name to The High Numbers during which time they released a mostly unsuccessful single under that name, designed to appeal to their mostly mod fans. When "Zoot Suit/I'm The Face" failed to chart, they fired Meaden and quickly reverted back to The Who. The rest, as they say, is history. They became one of the most popular bands among the British Mods, a social movement of the early 60s who rejected the "greaser" music favored by the Rockers.

The band soon crystallized around Townshend as the primary songwriter (though Entwistle would also make the occasional contribution). Townshend was at the center of the band's tensions, as he strove to write challenging and thoughtful music, while Daltrey preferred energetic and macho material (Daltrey would occasionally refuse to sing a Townshend composition and Townshend would thus sing it himself), while Moon was a fan of American surf music.

The Who in 1965 (cover of )
The Who in 1965 (cover of My Generation)

The Who's first hit was the 1965 Kinks-like single "I Can't Explain", and they vaulted to fame with their My Generation album that same year. The album included such mod anthems as "The Kids are Alright" and the title track "My Generation", which contained the famous line, "Hope I die before I get old". Another early favorite, showing Townshend's way with words, was the 1966 single "Substitute", which included the line, "I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth." The 1967 hit single "Pictures Of Lily", a tribute to masturbation, was possibly one of the most accomplished of all European contributions to psychedelic music.

Although they had great success as a singles band, the Who, or more properly their leader Townshend, had their sights set higher, and over the years their music became more complex and their lyrics more provocative and involving. Townshend also wanted to treat the Who's albums as unified works, rather than collections of unconnected songs. The first sign of this ambition came in their album A Quick One (1966), which included the story-telling medley "A Quick One, While He's Away", which they later referred to as a "mini opera". A Quick One was followed by The Who Sell Out (1967), a concept album that played like an offshore radio station, complete with jingles and commercials. The Who Sell Out also included a track from a never-completed Rock opera. Those early efforts were followed by Tommy (1969), their first complete Rock opera and the first commercially successful one by any artist. Around this time the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba began to influence Peter Townshend's songwriting, and he is credited as 'Avatar' on the Tommy album.

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The Who in 1978 (front cover of Who Are You)

Townshend then attempted an even more ambitious concept album cum Performance Art project called Lifehouse. Although the intended album was not released until reconstructed as a radio play for the BBC in 2000, the Who included many of the project's best songs in Who's Next (1971), which would become their most successful album. Who's Next was followed by a second Rock opera called Quadrophenia (1973), with a story line based on the clashes between Mods and Rockers in the early 1960s, particularly the riots between the two factions at Brighton.

The band's later albums contained songs of more personal content for Townshend, and he eventually transferred this personal style to his solo albums, as seen on the album Empty Glass. 1975's The Who By Numbers had several introspective songs in this vein, lightened by the crowd-pleasing "Squeeze Box," another hit single. Nevertheless, one rock critic considered "By Numbers" to have been Townshend's "suicide note."

In 1978 the band released Who Are You, a move away from epic rock opera and towards a more radio-friendly sound, though it did contain one song from a never-completed Rock opera by John Entwistle. The release of the album was overshadowed by the accidental drug overdose death of Keith Moon shortly afterward. Kenny Jones, of The Small Faces and The Faces, joined the band as his replacement. The following year was also traumatic for the band: on December 3, 1979 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a stampede for seats at Riverfront Coliseum at the start of a Who concert killed eleven fans. Band members were not told of the deaths until after the show because civic authorities feared more crowd control problems if the concert were cancelled, and the band members were reportedly devastated when they found out about it.

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The Who in 1982, with Kenny Jones (far left) in the place of Keith Moon.

The band released two more studio albums with Jones as their drummer, Face Dances (1981) and It's Hard (1982). In 1982 they also embarked on the first in a series of farewell tours.

Thereafter they stopped recording new material and settled into intermittent forays on the "nostalgia tour circuit", as Townshend focused on solo projects such as The Iron Man and Psychoderelict, a forerunner to the eventual release of the radio work Lifehouse. Their best-known reunion tour occurred in 1989 and emphasized Tommy. In 1996 they staged successful multi-media performances of Quadrophenia featuring a narrator and guest singers. By this time Zak Starkey was their regular drummer.

Just before the outset of a tour in the summer of 2002, John Entwistle was found dead in his room at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. A coroner's investigation revealed that while not technically an overdose, a modest amount of cocaine in his system was a contributing factor in a fatal heart attack, the result of years of heart trouble caused or aggravated by regular cocaine use. After a brief delay, the tour commenced with bassist Pino Palladino filling in for Entwistle.

In 2004 The Who released two new songs as part of a box set singles anthology, and announced that the spring of 2005 would see the release of their first new studio album in 22 years. In March 2005, Pete Townshend's website ( issued a statement that the release was delayed indefinitely, and explained that expected UK/US tours in the summer of 2005 were also shelved.

In September of 2002, Q magazine named The Who as one of the "50 Bands to See Before You Die".


The Who in popular culture

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The Who on The Simpsons in 2000.
  • Cartoon references archived at (
    • Dilbert (
    • Horton (
    • Shoe (
    • The 5th Wave (
    • Warped (
  • The Who were featured on The Simpsons season 12 episode 2, "A Tale of Two Springfields".
    • Several screenshots are available at (
  • Use of Who songs in film and television soundtracks can be found at the discography page.


  • "My friends call me Keith, but you can call me John."
    – Keith Moon, introducing himself to Tommy Smothers on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
  • "If you steer clear of quality, you're alright."
    – Pete Townshend
  • "We became rich later than I expected. Now I'm too old to enjoy my money."
    – John Entwistle
  • "Rock used to be a right laugh. The trouble is that the rock press have made it all so serious. Fifty percent of rock is having a good time."
    – Roger Daltrey


See also

External links

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