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 were an influence on the genre.
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 and Keith joined soon after, making the classic line-up complete. For a short period, 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 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.
From the beginning, The Who drew attention because all three instrumentalists, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon played, in effect, lead parts, yielding music at once more cacophonous and sophisticated than standard-issue rock tracks. The Who were natural showmen: Singer Roger Daltrey (a former sheet metal worker), was a dynamic front man, twirling his microphone on the end of its cord while Townshend played chords on his guitar with great windmill-like sweeps of his arms, and the maniacal Moon bashed and crashed like no drummer ever before him. Through it all, Entwistle stood still, seemingly bored by the whole thing, and played intricate, powerful, innovative bass lines. At the end of their live performances in their first years, the band would sometimes smash their instruments and explode smoke bombs, signalling that they had given the audience all they had. (They were also notorious for treating their hotel rooms and dressing rooms the same way.)
The Who's performances were traditionally extremely loud. For a long period of time during 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 the title. Townshend's partial deafness is well documented; popular legend has it that the members of the band suffered permanent hearing loss and tinnitus from their loud concerts, though Townshend maintains that the true cause was listening to the music at high volume through headphones. One story also claims that Townshend's hearing loss was the result of standing too close to an explosive Moon had placed in his drum kit and detonated at the conclusion of a performance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour variety show in 1967.
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'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 refered 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.
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.
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 Entwhistle. The release of the album was overshadowed by the accidental drug overdose death of Keith Moon shortly afterward. Kenny Jones 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.
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 hotel room. 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, and it is expected that in the spring of 2005 they will release their first new album in 22 years.
In September of 2002, Q magazine named The Who as one of the "50 Bands To See Before You Die".