In its earliest days, prior to Keith Moon joining, the band was known as The Detours and played mostly rhythm and blues. They eventually changed their name to The Who when Keith joined, making the classic line-up complete. For a short period during 1964, under the management of Peter Meaden, they changed their name to The High Numbers during which time they released a mostly unsuccessful single under that name, designed to appeal to their mostly mod fans. When “Zoot Suit/I'm The Face”" failed to chart, they fired Meaden and quickly reverted back to The Who. The rest, as they say, is history. They became one of the most popular bands among the British Mods, a social movement of the early 60s who rejected the “greaser” music favored by the Rockers.
The band soon crystallized around Townshend as the primary songwriter (though Entwistle would also make the occasional contribution). Townshend was at the center of the band’s tensions, as he strove to write challenging and thoughtful music, while Daltrey preferred energetic and macho material (Daltrey would occasionally refuse to sing a Townshend composition and Townshend would thus sing it himself), while Moon was a fan of American surf music.
The Who’s first hit was the 1965 Kinks-like single “I Can't Explain,” and they vaulted to fame with their My Generation album that same year. The album included such mod anthems as “The Kids are Alright” and the title track “My Generation,” which contained the famous line, “Hope I die before I get old.” Another early favorite, showing Townshend’s way with words, was the 1966 single “Substitute,” which included the line, “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” The 1967 hit single, “Pictures of Lily” showed the band's growing use of clever and novel stories in their songs.
Although they had great success as a singles band, The Who, or more properly their leader Townshend, had their sights set higher, and over the years their music became more complex and their lyrics more provocative and involving. Townshend also wanted to treat The Who’s albums as unified works, rather than collections of unconnected songs. The first sign of this ambition came in their album A Quick One (1966), which included the story-telling medley, “A Quick One, While He's Away,” which they later referred to as a “mini opera.” A Quick One was followed by The Who Sell Out (1967), a concept album that played like an offshore radio station, complete with jingles and commercials. The Who Sell Out also included a track from a never-completed Rock opera. Those early efforts were followed by Tommy (1969), their first complete Rock opera and the first commercially successful one by any artist. Around this time the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba began to influence Peter Townshend's songwriting, and he is credited as ‘Avatar’ on the Tommy album.
Townshend then attempted an even more ambitious concept album cum Performance Art project called Lifehouse. Although the intended album was not released until reconstructed as a radio play for the BBC in 2000, The Who included many of the project’s best songs in Who's Next (1971), which would become their most successful album. Who's Next was followed by a second Rock opera called Quadrophenia (1973), with a story line based on the clashes between Mods and Rockers in the early 1960s, particularly the riots between the two factions at Brighton.
The band’s later albums contained songs of more personal content for Townshend, and he eventually transferred this personal style to his solo albums, as seen on the album Empty Glass. The Who By Numbers (1975) had several introspective songs in this vein, lightened by the crowd-pleasing “Squeeze Box,” another hit single. Nevertheless, one rock critic considered “By Numbers” to have been Townshend's “suicide note.”
In 1978 the band released Who Are You, a move away from epic rock opera and towards a more radio-friendly sound, though it did contain one song from a never-completed Rock opera by John Entwistle. The release of the album was overshadowed by the accidental drug overdose death of Keith Moon shortly afterwards. Kenny Jones, of The Small Faces and The Faces, joined the band as his replacement. The following year was also traumatic for the band: on December 3, 1979 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a stampede for seats at Riverfront Coliseum at the start of The Who concert killed eleven fans. Band members were not told of the deaths until after the show because civic authorities feared more crowd control problems if the concert were cancelled, and the band members were reportedly devastated when they found out about it.
The band released two more studio albums with Jones as their drummer, Face Dances (1981) and It's Hard (1982). In 1982 they also embarked on the first in a series of farewell tours.
Thereafter, they stopped recording new material and settled into intermittent forays on the “nostalgia tour circuit,” as Townshend focused on solo projects, such as The Iron Man and Psychoderelict, a forerunner to the eventual release of the radio work, Lifehouse. Their best-known reunion tour occurred in 1989 and emphasized Tommy. In 1996 they staged successful multi-media performances of Quadrophenia featuring a narrator and guest singers. By this time Beatles Ringo Starr's son, Zak Starkey was their regular drummer.
Endless Wire, the latest Who album, mixes metaphors of music, war, and religion, while showcasing Roger Daltrey's ageless vocal cords and Pete Townshend at his windmilling best.