The Who

The group spent much of the year 1968 seeing their singles "Call Me Lightning," "Magic Bus," and "Dogs" -- the latter growing out of Townshend's interest at the time in dog racing -- fail to sell in anything like their expected numbers, with "Dogs" not charting at all in its British-only release. Even Townshend hit a crisis of confidence in himself. Meanwhile, Track Records, squeezed for cash even with Jimi Hendrix's burgeoning sales, put together the delightfully bizarre Direct Hits, compiling the band's more recent singles (none of the Shel Talmy-produced sides on Brunswick were represented), which gave a good profile of their U.K. output up to that point. In the United States, Decca Records -- with only two actual "hits" by the group to work with, plus "Magic Bus" (which actually did unexpectedly well on that side of the Atlantic) -- declined to put out a similar package and, instead, assembled Magic Bus, an unacknowledged compilation album built around the hit and drawn from U.K. singles, EP tracks, and recent album tracks. It was misleadingly subtitled "The Who on Tour," and that's a lot of what they did in 1968, especially in the United States, but not the same way they had the previous year. Instead of playing to younger teenagers at shows headlined by Herman's Hermits, they were playing places like the Fillmore East, where they recorded one show for a possible live album, a plan that went awry when the show turned out to be not quite good enough to represent the group, and was abandoned entirely with the vast changes in their repertory that ensued in 1969. When they weren't making their first serious long-term headway in the U.S.A., the band -- mostly Townshend, in collaboration with Lambert on the early libretto -- was spending a lot of time devising and recording a large-scale work.

Tommy, as it was finally called, was released in May of 1969, more than a year and a half after their previous album. It was an improbable venture, as well -- even with all of the time spent on it, the recording wasn't nearly finished, at least as Townshend and company saw it, in terms of instruments they'd have wanted to include on certain songs, and Entwistle was particularly upset at the bass sound on the released recording. But there was no more time left, for overdubs or retakes or any more work on it -- the band, and Lambert and Stamp, were out of money and out of options, and Tommy was released as it was, work-in-progress though it was. And for the first time, the stars (and everything else) lined up in the Who's favor, especially in the United States. There was an established and growing serious rock press by then, with a dedicated audience on college campuses and high schools, and its writers seized on the album as a masterpiece. By then, the mainstream press had also started to take rock music seriously, and the Who were new enough and fresh enough, and Tommy ambitious enough so that it became one of the most widely reviewed and written about albums in history, and the Who along with it as artists.

Tommy climbed into the American Top Ten as the group supported the album with an extensive tour, where they played the opera in its entirety, including dates at the London Coliseum and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In some respects, Tommy became too successful -- audiences expected it to be done in its entirety at every show, and suddenly the Who, who had once had difficulty extending their set for their first gig at the Fillmore, were routinely playing for two hours at a clip. The work soon overshadowed the Who themselves; it was performed as a play across the world, redone as an orchestrated all-star extravaganza (starring Daltrey and featuring Townshend's guitar), and would eventually be filmed by Ken Russell in 1975 (the movie starred Daltrey) -- plus, in 1993, Townshend turned it into a Broadway musical with director Des McAnuff.

While the legacy of Tommy kept the band busy touring for almost two years, Townshend was stumped about how to follow it up. As he worked on new material, the group released Live at Leeds in 1970, which gave them some breathing room (and yielded a hit single in the form of "Summertime Blues") as well as the single "The Seeker." Eventually, he settled on a sci-fi rock opera called Lifehouse, which he intended to be strongly influenced by the teachings of his guru, Meher Baba. Townshend also intended to incorporate electronics and synthesizers on the album, pushing the group into new sonic territory. The remainder of the Who wasn't particularly enthralled with Lifehouse, claiming not to understand its plot, and their reluctance contributed to Townshend suffering a nervous breakdown. Once he recovered, the group picked up the pieces of the now-abandoned project and recorded Who's Next with producer Glyn Johns. Boasting a harder, heavier sound, Who's Next became a major hit, and many of its tracks -- including "Baba O'Riley," "Bargain," "Behind Blue Eyes," and "Won't Get Fooled Again" (which were both issued as singles), and Entwistle's "My Wife" -- became cornerstones of album-oriented FM radio in the '70s. The tour behind Who's Next solidified the Who as one of the two top live rock attractions in the world, with record fast sell-outs on some of the top arenas in the country -- along with the Rolling Stones, they ruled the arena rock landscape of the 1970s. And suddenly their history was of interest to millions of fans as never before, and as a follow-up to Who's Next, they issued Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, a 14-song retrospective of their singles -- many of which had never been on album -- that also sold in massive numbers.

The success of Who's Next prompted Townshend to attempt another opera. This time, he abandoned fantasy in order to sketch a portrait of a '60s mod with Quadrophenia. He was also no longer working with Kit Lambert, who had lost influence with the group in the wake of the first rock opera -- during this period, the band would also leave Lambert and Stamp's management. As he wrote the album in 1972, he released Who Came First, a collection of private recordings and demos he made for Meher Baba. Entwistle had already begun his own solo career with the album Smash Your Head Against the Wall, and he followed this up with Whistle Rhymes, released the same day as Townshend's album. Quadrophenia was released as a double album in 1973, and it sold extremely well, but it proved to be a problem as a concert piece -- hardly anyone outside of England was familiar with its mod subject matter, and as the band embarked on an ambitious tour, it soon became clear that audiences hadn't had the time to familiarize themselves with the work, leading to a lukewarm response to much of the new material. And to make matters worse, Quadrophenia was very difficult to play live. Eventually, the group retooled its set, removing a handful of the more difficult parts of the opera, and performed an abbreviated version of Quadrophenia with some success.

The Who began to fragment after the release of Quadrophenia, as Townshend began to publicly fret over his role as a rock spokesman; in private, he began sinking into alcohol abuse. Entwistle concentrated heavily on his solo career, including recordings with his side projects Ox and Rigor Mortis. Meanwhile, Daltrey was approaching the peak of his musical powers -- in the wake of performing Tommy on-stage for two years (as well the orchestral version, and the movie), plus the repertory on the Who's Next tour, he had become a truly great singer, and had found himself unexpectedly comfortable as an actor -- perhaps a by-product of singing all of those Townshend-authored "roles" from 1965 onward. He alternately pursued an acting career and solo recordings. Moon, meanwhile, continued to party, celebrating his substance abuse and eventually releasing the solo album Two Sides of the Moon, which was studded with star cameos. During this hiatus, the group was represented by the rarities collection Odds & Sods (1974), the contents of which overlapped and transcended any number of underground (i.e., "bootleg") collections that were trading freely among serious fans -- it was seized upon by eager fans and charted like a new release. Meanwhile, Townshend continued to work on songs for the Who, resulting in the disarmingly personal The Who by Numbers in 1975. The record and its accompanying tour became a hit, though its number eight placement in the U.S. reflected some modest diminishing of enthusiasm on the part of listeners -- Quadrophenia, despite being a rather expensive double LP (with full, illustrated libretto) and built around a somewhat outré subject, had reached number two on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the tour's completion, the band officially took an extended hiatus.

The late '70s saw the band start to succumb to the ravages of age, as well as the lifestyle inherent in professional rock & roll at their level. It was revealed that Townshend, after years of playing on-stage with the band, had permanently damaged his hearing. And on the 1976 tour, Moon collapsed on-stage just a few minutes into a show at the Boston Garden -- he recovered and seemed to laugh off the incident, while an audience member sat in behind the drum kit to allow the band to finish the performance. He continued to party like there was no tomorrow, and even brought up the notion of a possible successor, should one ever be needed, in the guise of ex-Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones. The Who reconvened in early 1978 to record Who Are You, which was released in August of that year, accompanied by a stunning promotional/performance video of the title song. Instead of responding to the insurgent punk movement, which labeled the Who as has-beens, the album represented the group's heaviest flirtation with prog rock since Quadrophenia. The album became a huge hit, peaking at number two in the American charts and earning a platinum record award. Instead of being a triumphant comeback, however, Who Are You became a symbol of tragedy -- on September 7, 1978, not three weeks after the album's release, Moon died of a drug overdose. Since Moon was such an integral part of the Who's sound and image, the band had to debate whether continuing on was a wise move. Eventually, they decided to continue performing, but all three surviving members would later claim that they felt the Who ended with Moon's death, and most fans would have agreed, at least until the release of Endless Wire in 2006.

They took Moon's own suggestion and hired Kenney Jones as his replacement, as well as keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick to round out the lineup, and began working on new material in 1979. Before they released a new record, they released the live documentary The Kids Are Alright and contributed music to Franc Roddam's cinematic adaptation of Quadrophenia, which starred Phil Daniels. The Who began touring later in 1979, but the tour's momentum was crushed when 11 attendees at the group's December 3, 1979, concert at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum were trampled to death in a rush for choice festival seating. The band wasn't informed of the incident until after the concert was finished, and the tragedy deflated whatever goodwill they had.

Following the Cincinnati concert, the Who slowly fell apart. Townshend became addicted to cocaine, heroin, tranquilizers, and alcohol, suffering a near-fatal overdose in 1981. Meanwhile, Entwistle and Daltrey soldiered on in their solo careers. The band reconvened in 1981 to record and release Face Dances, their first album since Moon's death. The album was a hit but received mixed reviews. The following year, they released It's Hard and embarked on a supporting tour billed as their farewell to fans. The live Who's Last was released in 1984 as a commemoration of the tour.

The farewell tour didn't turn out to be the final goodbye from the Who. While Entwistle and Daltrey slowly faded away, their solo careers losing momentum across the remainder of the decade, 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, minus Kenney Jones, who was replaced by session drummer Simon Phillips for something billed as 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 -- which, in all honesty, Daltrey and, especially, Entwistle needed. They ended up with the worst reviews in their history, and followed it up with a live album, Join Together, that was the nadir of their recording history, shapeless, flat, and, worst of all -- and most astonishingly for this band -- dull. The Who reunited again in 1994 for two concerts to celebrate Daltrey's 50th birthday.

The commercial success of the tour did have one positive effect on Townshend, helping to jump-start the effort to bring Tommy to the Broadway stage. It became a huge hit in this new venue and revived interest in the original recording, which reappeared in several different CD incarnations, the best of which -- the Mobile Fidelity ultradisc and the Universal "deluxe edition" -- finally presented it with the crispness and presence it deserved. Following his success with 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 that was ignored by the press. In October 2001, they played the Concert for N.Y.C. benefit for families of the victims of the September 11 attacks. In late June 2002, the Who had once again regrouped and were about to kick off a North American tour when Entwistle died at the age of 57 in Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel. In 2006, Townshend and Daltrey released the mini-opera Wire & Glass, their first collaboration as the Who in nearly a quarter century. The full-length Endless Wire, which included the EP, was released later that year to the best reviews that any Who album had gotten since Who Are You, 28 year earlier. The accompanying tour was similarly well-received, and for the first time since the 1980s there seemed to be a point to the group's continued existence, as something other than a money-making machine. ~ Bruce Eder & Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide