The Who Posters
In the pantheon of great British rock bands, the Who probably rate third in the so-called Holy Trinity, right below the Beatles and the Stones. Unlike those two groups, however, the Who were part of what has been termed the second wave of the British Invasion. In fact, the band didn't even form until 1964, releasing its first single ("I'm The Face") that same year--and they didn't score a British hit until they recorded "I Can't Explain" and the anthemic "My Generation" the following year.
Soon thereafter, they released a quickly-recorded debut LP, which wasn't released in the U.S. until 1966. (As a matter of fact, Who leader Pete Townshend has frequently credited the first-wave British Invasion band the Kinks with being his initial influence for composing "I Can't Explain," while "The Kids Are Alright" would be unthinkable without the influence of the Beatles and their Merseybeat sound.)
It took the band a long time to break in this country--their earliest singles only received minimal airplay (they spent one early tour opening for Herman's Hermits!), and they made their first big splash in the States via the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where they gave Hendrix a run for his money in the live excitement department. It was Tommy, however, arguably the first rock opera (though the Kinks and Pretty Things might debate that point) that brought them mega-success in the U.S. A subsequent legendary gig at Woodstock (featured in the film and on the soundtrack) was the icing on the cake--and by the mid-'70s, the band was a supergroup, consistently selling out football stadiums for the rest of their career.
The band initially formed as the Detours, led by Townshend and singer (and at the time guitarist) Roger Daltrey, along with bassist John Entwistle and original drummer Doug Sandon. They soon changed their name to the High Numbers, and became one of the premier bands in Britain's mid-'60s Mod movement, a rock subculture fueled by Motown and R&B, zoot suits and motorbikes, not to mention heavy doses of amphetamines.
During one gig, a drunk young man named Keith Moon jumped onstage to proclaim that he was a much better drummer than Sandon, and then proceeded to prove that point. The band--now renamed the Who--began recording for Decca soon thereafter, with Moon eventually proving himself to arguably be the greatest drummer in rock history, a genuine wild man with a comical anarchic spirit that shone through in his percussion work.
Initially, the Who were a singles band, scoring numerous hits in the UK, although Townshend was already revealing an interest in rock concept by the band's second album via the "mini-opera" entitled "A Quick One"--while their third LP, The Who Sell Out, was also a concept of sorts, parodying the top 40 commercial radio of the era. It was the band's live shows, however, that made them legendary.
Townshend had been cursed with a huge nose and a resultant inferiority complex (he once said he learned to play guitar as he figured it was the only way he'd ever meet girls)--and this problem influenced his music, which combined heavy aggression with teenage angst. One night at London's Marquee Club, he smashed his guitar, with the rest of the band following suit and destroying their instruments. This became a part of the "act" until their post-Woodstock days, and has been imitated frequently over the years--the most recent artists to destroy instruments onstage being Nirvana.
Tommy was the album that transformed the group into a household name. Many fans still view the work as the beginning of the end for the Who, and at the very least a bloated, underproduced effort and concept. Others, however, saw Tommy as yet another link, adding weight to the '60s notion of rock as a new "artform"; the band even performed the "opera" live at New York's Metropolitan Opera. A proposed follow-up--Lifehouse, which was to be a Townshend discourse on organized religion--turned into a disaster and was aborted, although some of the best tracks turned into Who's Next, perhaps the group's finest effort.
As time progressed, however, the man who'd written "Hope I die before I get old" seemed to lose his sense of humor and became an old man before his time, trying to eternally explain where he'd been coming from with that youthful line that had now become an albatross. Quadrophenia was yet another rock opera, this one dealing with the Mod years--but the Who's work seemed to grow weaker with time. Who Are You was the final album featuring the original lineup; Moon died from alcohol poisoning (following years of excess) in September 1978.
The Who would've been wise to call it quits at that point, since Moon was such a huge part of the group's appeal and spirit. Unfortunately, they continued on--releasing two more studio LPs and doing several tours--with former Faces drummer Kenney Jones (another early Mod percussionist) filling in for their late drummer. The LPs and tours, however, were abysmal. Since then, the three remaining members have done numerous reunion shows, each worse than the one before it.
Most recently, they did a tour featuring Quadrophenia in its entirety, trading on nostalgia (and also the obvious hope that Townshend will be able to produce Quadrophenia as a Broadway musical in the same way that he transformed Tommy several years ago). Suffering from major hearing damage due to the band's literally record-setting stage volume over the years, Townshend now only strums an acoustic guitar onstage--and the Who look like old men at this point, not at all befitting their incredible legend.
A major influence on both punk and heavy metal, the band was attacked during punk's heyday as one of those bloated old rock war-horses. They brilliantly answered the critics via The Kids Are Alright, a terrific documentary (and soundtrack LP) that proved them to be one of rock's all-time great acts. Unfortunately, the 1990s version of the Who has only proved the punk naysayers right.
MCA has repackaged the group's "hits" in many different configurations, running from two volumes of Who's Missing (unreleased tracks--perhaps unreleased for a reason!) to a Who's Greatest Hits and Who's Better, Who's Best compilation. The Who, however, aren't really best served by "hits" anthologies (with the exception of the two listed below)--although completists will surely be interested in the 1994 boxed set, 30 Years Of Maximum R&B, featuring everything the Who fan probably needs...and then some.