Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: The Who
The Who 101
This week, The Who’s 1973 magnum opus, Quadrophenia, turns 40. For an album that dwells on the existential dilemma of youth, it’s aged incredibly well. Part of that has to do with the 1979 film adaptation, which helped personify the otherwise-meandering and loosely knit storyline—thanks mostly to a strong turn from Phil Daniels as Jimmy Cooper, the parka-wearing, scooter-riding, pill-popping mod whose fractured personality not only representsthe album on which Quadrophenia based, but all of youth culture circa 1965, the year in which the film is set.
The “Quad” in Quadrophenia is also self-referential: It refers to the collective identity of the four original members of The Who themselves. Singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle, drummer Keith Moon, and singer-songwriter-guitarist Pete Townshend came together in 1964; at that point, their close contemporaries, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, were already established and on their way to superstardom. The Who, in comparison, was the Jimmy Cooper of the Big Three of the British Invasion. Awkward and erratic, the fledgling group’s mix of American R&B and English pop developed through an early incarnation, The High Numbers, before crystallizing on The Who’s first single under its own name, “I Can’t Explain.” Choppy and adrenalized, it sounded more like another young group, The Kinks, than what The Who would go on to do. But it’s also the sound of Daltrey, Entwistle, Moon, and Townshend jelling for the first time into an unstoppable whole.
“I Can’t Explain” didn’t appear on The Who’s full-length debut, 1965’s My Generation. It didn’t need to; the album already had an anthem in the form of its title track. “My Generation” not only elucidated the angst and anger of the rationed, restricted post-World War II generation, it also redefined rock music. The roots of heavy metal and punk can be partly traced to its throbbing undertow and slashing rebellion—a yen for chaos that translated into The Who’s destructive live show, which increasingly showcased the band’s instrument-smashing prowess. Amid the din, Townshend’s songwriting grew in leaps, bounds, and scissor-kicks. As acrobatic as Townshend and crew could be on stage, their compositions became more thoughtful. A Quick One, The Who’s 1966 sophomore album, ended with the long, multi-suite track “A Quick One While He’s Away,” a rock opera in miniature that presaged things to come.
The Who’s theatrical flair, as well as its sense of self-awareness, sharpened with The Who Sell Out. Released in 1967, it resisted the psychedelic groundswell exhibited the same year by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Instead it opted for an irreverent, multilayered collage of pop ditties, fake commercial jingles, and tender yet razor-edged songs like “Tattoo.” With its cover art that featured each of the four members posing in mock product-placement, the album also helped bring each of their personas to the fore—a symbiosis of individually distinct faces and voices that toy with the ambiguity inherent in The Who’s very name. In its own way, the album’s biggest single, “I Can See For Miles,” is mind-bendingly psychedelic. But rather than questing for oblivion or escape, it lends a droning aggression and focus to Townshend’s piercing vision.
Townshend felt he had exhausted the rock-album format—or that the format had never been sufficient in the first place—by 1969, when he masterminded Tommy. Concept albums had been in existence, in one form or another, for years, but this was a rock opera—conceived and structured as such, complete with Wagnerian leitmotifs and orchestral extravagance. But it rocked, too, even if the tension between pop and opera worked against Tommy as much as for it. Still, it set a high bar, and it helped inspire a generation of progressive-rock groups, even if Tommy never veered into the arty, abstract convolutions of prog to come. At the heart of all Townshend’s conceptual sprawl are hard, gleaming gems of songs—even a hit song or two.
In one way, it may seem that Townshend and crew retreated from the pomp of Tommy with the harder, leaner Who’s Next. Really, the band simply edited that pomp into a more punchy, accessible form. Released in 1971, the album was partially skimmed from material Townshend had been amassing for his ambitious (and ultimately only semi-realized) Lifehouse project. Lifehouse was intended to be far larger in scope and execution than Tommy, but it’s to The Who’s eternal benefit that Who’s Next was more of a sampler than the whole shebang; as the rest of the rock world was growing more complex and self-absorbed, Who’s Next re-established The Who as a populist hard-rock titan easily able to stand toe-to-toe against upstarts like Led Zeppelin, which patterned much of its sound and approach after The Who (and whose guitarist, Jimmy Page, played on early Who singles as a session musician).
You can take the boy out of the pinball arcade, but you can’t take the pinball arcade out of the boy: The Who revisited the adolescent angst of Tommy, only twice as intensely, with Quadrophenia. Structured around the four personalities of the members of the band—as iconic in their own way as the Fab Four—it’s cohesive and triumphant in a way that makes Tommy seem like a trial run. Quadrophenia still has its flaws, but the album’s immersive storyline and epoch-defining anthems (including “The Real Me” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”) have solidified its staying power over the years. And that’s a remarkable feat, considering that it’s not just a 40-year-old album, but one that harkens back to the mod scene of a decade prior to its creation. Chalk it up to Townshend’s astonishing ability to boil down the turmoil and nostalgia of an ear to more universal, emotionally resonant themes. His knack for combining the ornately symphonic and the immediately catchy deserves some of the credit as well.
Live albums don’t usually factor into the pantheon of most bands’ discographies, but The Who isn’t “most bands.” Live At Leeds came out in 1970, and it remains the most potent document of The Who as a purely visceral force of nature. Recorded in February of 1970, the album covers a broad range of the group’s repertoire as it existed then, but it also leaves room for searing, extended versions of Eddie Cochran’s rockabilly classic “Summertime Blues” and Mose Allison’s jazz-blues standard “Young Man Blues.” The chemical balance between exquisite songwriting, whirlwind improvisation, intuitive musicianship, and chaotic noisemaking makes for a bracing, contained explosion. Subsequent live albums like Live At Hull and Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970 ably capture The Who at its peak, but Live At Leeds sets the standard—not just for The Who, but for live rock albums.
The death of Moon in 1978 ended a chapter of The Who’s existence—and innocence—that would never be reclaimed. But things were already starting to slow down before Moon succumbed to a long struggle with substance abuse. His final two albums with the group, 1975’s The Who By Numbers and 1978’s Who Are You, feel like echoes of the group’s prior glory—not that they’re bad albums. By Numbers is, in fact, an often-overlooked treasure of The Who’s catalog, a jaunty and spirited grab bag of indelible tunes that comes as a refreshing tonic following the sheer density of Quadrophenia. And for all of the criticism leveled at Who Are You—most notably, that the band was trying to reinvent itself as a sleek, synthesized band in the new-wave era, in spite of the synth innovations Townshend spearheaded years earlier on Who’s Next—the album is a vital, wholly listenable piece of the group’s history. That said, its relative lack of energy and ambition signaled downturns to come.
Following Moon’s death, The Who has soldiered on—even though some fans claim they shouldn’t have, at least not as a studio entity. Face Dances came out in 1981, and it was chased by 1982’s It’s Hard; both have high points, but neither feels especially inspired. That goes double for the drumming of Kenney Jones, an otherwise-ace musician and founding member of The Who’s contemporary The Small Faces, whose work just doesn’t fit the band the way Moon’s did. Then again, Townshend’s songwriting was downsizing at the time, so Jones’ less-manic time-keeping found its place in the mix. Time-keeping, though, is often what Face Dances and It’s Hard feel like as a whole. The band wouldn’t record another full-length until 2006’s Endless Wire, a solid set that nonetheless bears the burden of an additional void: Entwistle died of a cocaine-induced heart attack in 2002, which removed one more essential piece of The Who puzzle forever.
It was inevitable that The Who, with four such distinct and headstrong members, would spawn numerous solo albums. Of the four, only Townshend’s are essential—and even then, it’s a crapshoot. Townshend began his solo career under the sway of the guru Meher Baba, and Townshend’s devotional focus dilutes early works like 1972’s Who Came First and 1977’s Rough Mix. Released in 1980, Empty Glass became Townshend’s first true statement of intent as a solo artist, and the best album he’s made in any form since Quadrophenia—an assured, lucid, confessional piece of sharp, smart pop. His three-volume Scoop series may seem at first glance like compilations of filler—in this case, demo tracks of solo and Who songs—but in truth they’re full of hidden insights and diamonds in the rough. In 2000, Townshend attempted to bring Lifehouse full circle with the massive Lifehouse Chronicles box set, which collects all the songs ever associated with the science-fiction storyline he’d first imagined soon after Tommy.
Quadrophenia is by far the most successful film based on The Who’s work, but they all have merit. In particular, 1975’s big-screen musical adaption of Tommy is a romp, with alternately strong and bizarre performances by everyone from Elton John to Tina Turner. It’s uneven, but the momentum of The Who’s hubris at the time, as well as the strength of the source material, shine through. The 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright reveals many angles of The Who, from the songwriting to the superstardom to the inspired buffoonery, and it serves as a rousing yet subtly sobering requiem for Moon.
Although it’s a big chunk of The Who to digest, Quadrophenia is the most comprehensive portrait of what the band is about—its roots, its future, its place in pop culture, and the souls of the men who made it. Importance aside, it’s a batch of absolutely stellar songs by a band that never let concept get in the way of connection. And the performances by Daltrey, Entwistle, Moon, and Townshend are untouchable—four virtuoso soloists bristling with tension yet miraculously locked into a unified front.
2. Who’s Next
From the liberating bounce of “Going Mobile” to the piercing introspection of the ballad “Behind Blue Eyes,” Who’s Next is The Who’s most concentrated burst of hit-making, stadium-filling majesty.
It may sound muddled and meandering in retrospect, but Tommy continues to thrill due to its pure audacity and its pensive yet adrenalized vision of the rock opera, a conceit whose usefulness hasn’t lasted as long as the album that birthed it.
4. The Who Sell Out
Immediately before Tommy pushed The Who into a new stratum of immortality, The Who Sell Out showed just how impish The Who could be—all while redefining rock songwriting via Townshend’s idiosyncratic ear.
5. Live At Leeds
Although the original release of Live At Leeds worksas-is, the expanded Deluxe Edition adds classics like “I Can’t Explain” and “A Quick One While He’s Away,” as well as a blazing run through Tommy. In its prime, and more so than any other top-tier rock act, The Who was equal parts brains, guts, and brawn—and Live At Leeds proves it.