Personalities | Introducing The Who

The greatness of The Who is that they were two contradictory things at the same time. On the one hand was the sheer physical noise they made, an eruption of volcanic force that left bystanders stupefied. But on the other was a purely intellectual force.

In their chief songwriter Pete Townshend, The Who had a true rock theorist, probably the first there ever was. And we cared about his theories because he had a magnificent band – a ‘People’s Band’ – who could express it all with brutal finesse.

Thinkers are not unknown in rock music, and nor are barnstorming stadium acts. But The Who at their peak took each of those qualities and jammed them into a single, unstoppable body of work.

The two sides of The Who were evident from their very beginnings on the London scene of the early 1960s. Like so many of his contemporaries, including John Lennon, Keith Richards and Ray Davies, Pete Townshend was an art student. As such he was encouraged to look at popular culture with a more thoughtful eye than the typical teen consumer. Rock’n’roll had just outgrown the unselfconscious passion of its earliest years and the second wave of players had a more analytical take. The British acts, especially, could filter this basically American art through a different sensibility, giving it unexpected twists of irony, social observation and even sexual ambiguity.

Townshend was still a rocker, nonetheless. And so were the young men who joined him: singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. Between them was a love for jazz, blues and soul, but their common ground was the guitar-driven rock of Eddie Cochran and Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. Although a quartet, instrumentally The Who were a power trio, with all the ramped-up energy that demands. No lead guitar or keyboard frills were available to them, unlike rival acts on the circuit of 1963. Townshend’s rhythm guitar had to do all the heavy lifting. In other bands, too, the bass and drums were only a chugging, reliable engine room, but in the agile hands of Entwistle and Moon they were flamboyant elements with their own starring roles.

The belligerent roar of vocalist Roger Daltrey was the final defining feature. The group were perfecting a violent sound they liked to call ‘Maximum R&B’ and it left no room for a singer who couldn’t match the fire power. Daltrey could, with ammunition to spare.

Though The Who were a rock band, their first audience was the mods, that fanatical sect of sharply-dressed soul boys, and the group’s style was consciously tailored in that direction. (For a time they changed their name to The High Numbers, a nod to mod slang.) The tribal elitism of the mod underground was fascinating to Townshend and the group’s early manager Pete Meaden; the band offered those fans a stand-in for the faraway black American stars that British club-goers had little chance of seeing. The Who dressed as...

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