All four band members grew up around London. Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle in the working-class Shepherd's Bush area. Townshend's parents were professional entertainers. He and Entwistle knew each other at school in the late '50s and played in a Dixieland band when they were in their early teens, with Townshend on banjo and Entwistle on trumpet. They played together in a Rock band, but Entwistle left in 1962 to join The Detours. That band included Daltrey, a sheet-metal worker. When The Detours needed to replace a rhythm guitarist, Entwistle suggested Townshend, and Daltrey switched from lead guitar to vocals when the original singer, Cob Dawson, left in 1963. Drummer Doug Sandom was soon replaced by Keith Moon, who left a surf band called The Beachcombers. By early 1964 the group had changed its name to The Who. Not long afterward, the excitement inspired by Townshend's bashing his guitar out of frustration during a show ensured it would become a part of the act.
Shortly thereafter, the band came under the wing of manager Pete Meaden, who renamed them The High Numbers and gave them a better-dressed Mod image. The High Numbers released an unsuccessful single, "I'm The Face", then changed managers to former small-time film directors Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. By late 1964 the quartet had become The Who again, and with Lambert and Stamp's encouragement they became an even more Mod band, with violent stage shows and a repertoire including blues, James Brown, and Motown covers, solely because their Mod audiences loved that music.
Despite the billing, The Who's original songs were anything but classic R&B. The group's demo of "I Can't Explain", with pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page adding guitar, brought them to producer Shel Talmy (who had also worked with the Kinks) and got them a record deal. When "I Can't Explain" came out in January 1965, it was ignored until the band appeared on the TV show Ready Steady Go!. Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon overturned his drums, and the song eventually reached #8 in Britain. "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" also reached the British Top Ten, followed in November 1965 by "My Generation". It went to #2 in the U.K. but reached only #75 in the U.S. In Britain, The Who had established their sound and their persona. Townshend played guitar with full-circle windmilling motions, Daltrey strutted like a bantam fighter, Entwistle just stood there seemingly unmoved as Moon happily flailed all over his drum kit.
After the Who's fourth hit single, "Substitute" (#5 U.K., 1966), Lambert replaced Talmy as producer. Their second album, "A Quick One" (titled "Happy Jack" in the U.S.; #67, 1967), included a ten-minute mini-opera as the title track, shortly before The Beatles' concept album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". The Who also began to make inroads in the U.S. with "Happy Jack" (#24, 1967) and a tour that included the performance filmed at the Monterey Pop Festival in June.
"The Who Sell Out" (#48, 1967) featured mock-advertisement songs and genuine jingles from offshore British pirate radio stations. It also contained another mini-opera, "Rael", and a Top Ten hit in England and the U.S., "I Can See for Miles". In October 1968, the band released "Magic Bus" (#39, 1968), a compilation of singles and B-sides, while Townshend worked on his 90-minute rock opera, Tommy. The story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy turned pinball champion/Pop idol turned autocratic messianic guru was variously considered both pretentious and profound. Most important however, Tommy was the first successful Rock Opera. The album hit #4 in the U.S., and its first single, "Pinball Wizard" went to #19.
The band would only perform Tommy a handful of times in its entirety, at London's Coliseum in 1969, at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House on June 6 and 7, 1970, and on some dates during their 1989 reunion tour. Excerpts, including "See Me, Feel Me", "Pinball Wizard" and the instrumental "Underture" were thereafter part of the live show. Troupes mounted productions of it around the world (the Who's performances had been concert versions), and Townshend oversaw a new recording of it in 1972, backed by the London Symphony and featuring Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Sandy Denny, Richard Harris, and others. In 1975 Ken Russell directed the controversial film version, which included Eric Clapton ("Eyesight to the Blind"), Tina Turner ("Acid Queen"), and Elton John ("Pinball Wizard"), as well as Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, and Jack Nicholson. Moon (as the lecherous Uncle Ernie) and Daltrey (in the title role) also appeared in the film. Townshend collaborated with director Des McAnuff on a stage version of Tommy that arrived on Broadway in 1993. Bits of Tommy turned up on Live at Leeds (#4, 1970), a juggernaut live set, which was followed by "Who's Next" (#4, 1971), a staple of FM rock radio. It included Townshend's first experiments with synthesizers, "Baba O'Riley", "Bargain", and "Won't Get Fooled Again", three songs that Townshend originally conceived as part of another, unfinished Rock Opera entitled Lifehouse.
The compilation "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" (#11, 1971) was followed two years later by the Who's second double-album Rock Opera, "Quadrophenia" (#2, 1973), a tribute to the tortured inner life of the Mods. It too was a hit and became a movie directed by Franc Roddam in 1979, with Sting of The Police in the role of the bellboy. While The Who were hugely popular, "Quadrophenia" signalled that Townshend was now a generation older than the fans he had initially spoken for. While he agonized over his role as an elder statesman of Rock, as he would do for years to come, The Who released "Odds and Sods" (#15, 1974), a compilation of the previous decade's out takes. "The Who By Numbers" (#8, 1975) was the result of Townshend's self-appraisal ("However Much I Booze"). It lacked The Who's usual vigour, but yielded a hit single in "Squeeze Box" (#16, 1975). The band could dependably pack arenas wherever it went, but it took some time off the road after "By Numbers".
The group members began pursuing individual projects. Moon released a novelty solo disc, "Two Sides of the Moon", which featured such guests as Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Dick Dale, Joe Walsh, and Flo and Eddie. Entwistle recorded solo LPs with bands called Ox (with which he toured in 1975) and Rigor Mortis, and produced four tracks on the debut album by the semi-popular Fabulous Poodles. Meanwhile, Punk was burgeoning in Britain, and The Sex Pistols, among others, were brandishing The Who's old power chords and attitude. Townshend's continuing identity crisis showed up in the title of "Who Are You" (#2, 1978), but the title song became a hit single (#14) that Fall, and the album went double Platinum. It was the last and highest-charting album by the original band.
The next few years brought tragedy and turmoil, and what Townshend later described as the end of The Who in the death of Keith Moon. Moon always revealed in his reputation as the madman of Rock, and his outrageous stunts, on stage and off, were legend. His prodigious drinking and drug abuse had begun to diminish his playing ability. In 1975 he left England for Los Angeles where he continued to drink heavily. He returned to England and was trying to kick his alcoholism, but on September 7th, 1978, Moon died of an overdose of a sedative, Heminevrin, that had been prescribed to prevent seizures induced by alcohol withdrawal. Although the group continued for another three years, each of the three surviving original members has stated repeatedly that The Who was never the same again.
After fifteen years with Decca/MCA, The Who signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and Townshend got a solo deal with Atco. "His Empty Glass" (#5, 1980) included the U.S. Top Ten hit "Let My Love Open the Door" and "Rough Boys", a song long believed to have been an angry reply to a Punk musician who had insulted The Who during an interview. Much later, in a 1989 interview with writer Timothy White, Townshend denied that was the case, saying, "It's about homosexuality" and adding that his tune, "And I Moved", was as well. Townshend's admission of having "had a gay life" and his statement that "I know how it feels to be a woman because I am a woman" came as a surprise to many, including his band mates.
Amid all this, the revamped Who soldiered on. "Face Dances" (#4,1981) included the hit single "You Better You Bet" (#18, 1981) and "Don't Let Go the Coat". But Townshend later called the new line-up's debut album a disappointment. One month after "Face Dances" came out, The Who's former producer/manager, Kit Lambert, died after falling down a flight of stairs. He was 45. Townshend released the wordy "All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes" (#26, 1982), and soon followed it with the group's "It's Hard" (#8, 1982), an album Daltrey has since been quoted as saying should never have been released. It produced the group's last Top Thirty hit to date, "Athena" (#28). The Who then embarked on what they announced would be their last tour, ending with a concert in Toronto on December 17, 1982.
The farewell tour didn't turn out to be the final goodbye from the Who. While Entwistle and Daltrey slowly faded away, Townshend continued recording to relative success. However, The Who still haunted him. The group reunited to play Live Aid in 1985, and three years later they played a British music awards program. In 1989, Townshend agreed to reunite the band with session drummer Simon Phillips for a 25th anniversary tour of America. Whatever goodwill The Who had with many fans and critics was squandered on that tour, which was perceived as simply a way to make a lot of money. The Who reunited again in 1994 for two concerts to celebrate Roger Daltrey's 50th birthday. Following the success of his Broadway adaptation of Tommy, Townshend decided to revive Quadrophenia in 1996, reuniting The Who to perform the piece at the Prince's Trust concert in Hyde Park that Summer. The Who followed it with an American tour in the Fall, which proved to be a failure. The following Summer, The Who launched an oldies tour of America which was virtually ignored by the press.
On June 27th, 2002, while preparing to launch a Summer tour of the United States, bassist John Entwistle was found dead of an apparent heart attack in a Las Vegas hotel room. He was 57 years old. The Who continued the tour. Pete Townshend was again in the news in January of 2003 when he was arrested for viewing child pornography on the internet. He claimed he was doing research for a book he was writing. Following a four-month investigation, Townshend was cleared of child pornography charges. However, London's Metropolitan Police took the precaution of placing the rocker on a national register of sex offenders for paying to access a child pornography site. The process involved taking the guitarist's fingerprints, a DNA sample, and a photograph. In a press statement, Townshend said, "The police have unconditionally accepted that these were my motives in looking at this site and that there was no other nefarious purpose. I accept that I was wrong to access this site and that by doing so, I broke the law."
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were scheduled to head back into the studio in February, 2006, to continue recording the new "Who2", which has been in the works for nearly a decade. "I don't want to stop and I don't think Pete does," said Daltrey. "We're at the pinnacle of our decline." Roger went on to say about Pete, "He's fucking angry about what happened to him. Make no mistake about it, it will come out in his music." "Endless Wire", The Who's first full studio album of new material since 1982's "It's Hard", was released at the end of October, 2006. The long awaited LP debuted at #7 on Billboard and #9 in the UK Albums chart. On the eve of its release, The Who performed several songs from the new album live as the closing act of the BBC Electric Proms at the Roundhouse in London. In support of the LP, The Who set out on an '06 / '07 tour, highlighted by their appearance at the Glastonbury Festival on June 24th. In November, 2007, the documentary Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who was released. The film included the band's performances from throughout their career and was nominated for a 2008 Grammy.
The Who were honored at the July 12th, 2008 VH1 Rock Honors in Los Angeles. Just days later, a 12-song, best-of collection was released for the music video game Rock Band. The Who performed at the Rock Band party at the Orpheum Theater during the 2008 E3 Media and Business Summit. In October of '08, The Who set out on a brief tour of four Japanese cities and nine more in North American. In December, they were recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors. The finale of that show was a surprise chorus of police and first responders who had been touched by The Who's performance at The Concert for New York City after 9/ 11.
In early 2009, the band set out on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. At its conclusion, Townshend announced that he was working on a new musical called Floss, the story of an aging rocker known as Walter. On February 7th, 2010, The Who had the honor of performing at the halftime show of Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. On March 30th, they performed Quadrophenia at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Teenage Cancer Trust series. Plans for a full tour that year were put on hold because of Townshend's continuing battle with tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears. On November 15th, 2010, The Who released the Fortieth Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collectors' Edition of their "Live at Leeds" album, complete with bonus tracks. On January 13th, 2011, the band performed at a cancer benefit show along with Blondie's Debra Harry and their old friend, Jeff Beck.
For 2012, Roger Daltrey's plans included a solo tour of Japan, Italy, France and Australia, while Townshend continued to work on personal projects. In July, the pair announced that they would reunite for a 37-city North American tour based around their 1973 Rock Opera Quadrophenia, which would take them into 2013. August 12th saw the pair re-unite at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics where they thrilled the crowd with "Teenage Wasteland", "See Me, Feel Me" and "My Generation".
In October, 2013, Roger Daltrey told Rolling Stone that The Who were planning one final world tour for 2015. "The touring is incredibly grinding on the body and we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. This will be the last old-fashioned, big tour." That series of shows kicked off during the last week of March, 2015 and were heavily punctuated with the hit singles the band has accumulated during their career. Unfortunately the Fall leg of the tour had to be canceled after Roger Daltrey had contracted viral meningitis. Plans were made to reschedule for the Spring of 2017 with five shows scheduled for March and April.