What You're Not Listening To

What You're Not Listening To

A Rock and Roll Pop Art Explosion

April 21, 2021

Revisiting the formative years of what many consider one of the greatest Rock and Roll bands in history, The Who, where they went from being part of the Swinging Sixties Mod youth culture to just before the release of their fourth album, Tommy, by which time they honed their skills as a live act that no one could beat. #swinginglondon #1960s #thewho #rockandroll #mods

In an industry where attitude can mean everything, The Who took this phrase to never before seen heights.

Starting off as the Detours and The High Numbers, the band struggled to find their initial sound. Frontman and lead vocalist Roger Daltrey was originally a guitarist, bassist John Entwistle was also a horn player and guitarist and principle songwriter Pete Townsend was the rhythm guitarist. Keith Moon, their drummer, wasn’t the first man behind the kit in the group, but was copped from another band that played surf music.

The cover of My Generation, 1965, the Who’s debut studio album. Clockwise from top: Pete Townsend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and wearing the Union Jack, John Entwistle. Photo by David Wedgebury. Courtesy of UMG.

Their first manager, Pete Meaden, also wrote their first single, “Zoot Suit”, that appealed to the swinging sixties British youth culture movement called The Mods, which drew heavy inspiration from American R&B acts, particularly that of Motown Records. The band also fought amongst themselves constantly, with Daltrey eventually giving up his role as the leader of the group.

They started to have hits as the Who with a sound that fed off of this intense inter-band tension, creating what Townsend called Power Pop. They also declared themselves the living embodiment of Pop Art as a music group, and became infamous for not just destroying their equipment on stage, but notoriety as a group that ran into trouble with law enforcement while on tour and destroying hotel rooms.

The Who at Monterrey Pop, 1967, which was made into a documentary. (l-r) Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and Pete Townsend, who is about to smash his guitar. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, courtesy of Criterion.

Townsend also became the band’s defacto and primary songwriter, and some of the themes in his work dealt with real world issues of young people, right down to amphetamine use, masturbation, relationship challenges, self and gender identity, all subjects their contemporaries, which included The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and of course The Beatles, weren’t singing about.

In an era where bands were recording two, sometimes three albums a year, The Who only released three albums worth of material, and a number of non-LP singles, from 1964 to 1968. Management problems, a lawsuit by their first producer and the inability to chart high placing singles in the U.S. added to their grief, where just before the release of the album that would change the group’s career and fortunes, Tommy in 1969, the band weren’t just completely broke, but horribly in debt.

The Who, 1968. (l-r) John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and Pete Townsend, from the film The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus film. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, courtesy of ABKCO Films.

However, during the 18 months from the release of The Who Sell Out to Tommy, they did release a handful of new singles, and most importantly, became a powerhouse live act and concert draw, one almost driven completely by word of mouth.

Among their firsts were the use of specialized equipment, including Rotosound strings that gave Entwistle’s bass sound the incredible deep end the band would become famous for, the use of feedback and distortion,