The Who Band History

The Who Band History

When thinking of the most influential rock bands to come out of Britain in the 1960s, more often than not the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are the first two names mentioned. But the third band of that decade that achieved massive worldwide success, The Who, arguably did the most to push the rock genre forward.

I remember my first time hearing Roger Daltrey’s classic guttural scream from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during the opening of a CSI: Miami episode. The rawness of that sound prompted me to find out who could produce such a passionate sound with their voice. As a kid who was just starting to learn about music through piano lessons, I was instantly captivated as I began to learn about The Who.

The Who burst into the collective musical conscience at that time with their wild live performances, which more often than not ended with the destruction of their instruments and sound equipment. But the mayhem that followed their gigs wasn’t just for show.

The band contributed to major advancements in rock music, like the creation of the Marshall Stack, the successful integration of synthesizers in rock scores, and even the popularization of the power chord.

The Who is a band with a long and storied history that every modern musician should know about if only to appreciate their contributions to popular music as a whole. Read on to learn more about this legendary band and the influential musicians that formed it.

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Who is a rock band from England that formed in 1964.
  • The original lineup of The Who consisted of lead singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon.
  • The unique playing styles of Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon and the band’s raucous stage presence would influence other rock genres, specifically punk rock.
  • Some of their most famous hits include “My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Baba O’Riley.”

The Early Years

The story of The Who begins in Acton, an area in west London. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and John Entwistle all grew up in the area and attended Acton County Grammar School.

Pete came from a musical family and was encouraged by his parents to pursue his musical interests. John also showed an early interest in music by playing the French horn in a local orchestra for students. The pair formed a trad jazz group before switching to a genre that was all the rage: rock and roll.

Roger’s path toward rock followed more of a traditional bad boy route. After being expelled from Acton County Grammar School when he was 15, he found work at a building site and then in a sheet metal factory. He also found gangs and, as a result of being bullied, was always ready for a fight. But music was his true passion:

My imagined future was nothing other than becoming a rock singer. It was already my drive and vision. I was 11 when I saw Elvis, but it was Lonnie Donegan that really hit me. One reason I got slung out of school is that I didn’t want to know about anything other than music.

– Roger Daltrey in an interview with Adrian Lobb for The Big Issue (November 13, 2018)

The Who Band Early Years
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He put that passion to work in 1959 by starting a band called the Detours. This band would eventually become The Who, but not without the addition of Townshend, Entwistle, and eventually, Keith Moon.

One day on a London street, Daltrey happened to spot Entwistle, who was carrying a bass guitar at the time. This prompted Daltrey to ask him to join the Detours. Entwistle would later encourage Townshend to join and become the only guitarist of the band, leading Daltrey to drop his guitar to assume the role of lead vocalist.

It was during this time that the unique playing styles of both Townshend and Entwistle began to take shape. One band in particular, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, only had one guitarist as well – Mick Green.

His combination of lead and rhythm guitar playing was a revelation for Townshend, who incorporated some of those techniques into his own style. That left room for Entwistle’s bass to take a more melodic role in the overall sound of the band.

The Detours became a thing of the past once they learned there was another group with a similar name. After a brainstorming session that focused on self-deprecating announcements and band names, a few names were put on the table: No One, The Group, The Hair, and The Who. Daltrey made the final decision and the Detours officially became The Who.

By this time, The Who were gigging often and eventually secured an audition with a record label. The audition wasn’t their best and the drummer at that time, Doug Sandom, was singled out by Townshend as the cause. After threats of being fired, Sandom left the band. The Who were forced to use a stand-in drummer until fate intervened once again, this time at a random gig. There they met Keith Moon.

Moon was already a fixture in the London music scene from his work with a band called the Beachcombers. He wanted to be a full-time drummer and, sensing a unique opportunity with The Who, left the Beachcombers to drum with Daltrey, Townshend, and Entwistle.

Moon’s raw, violent playing style brought new energy to the band, and not just musically. Following a gig where Townshend destroyed one of his guitars out of anger, Moon upped the ante by kicking over his drum set. Instrument destruction would become a regular part of The Who’s live gigs, enthralling their audiences.

Early Singles, Albums, and Success

The Who Band First Albums
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The Who eventually caught the attention of an American producer named Shel Talmy, who signed them to his label and recorded and sold their first single, “I Can’t Explain.” The single reached the top 10 of the UK charts after frequent play on pirate radio, or radio stations broadcast from international waters to avoid legal issues. “I Can’t Explain” was followed by “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” another single that reached the UK’s top 10.

The Who’s next single would be a defining song for the band and for youth culture at large during that time. “My Generation,” the title track of The Who’s first album, My Generation, featured musical flavors that would influence the punk musicians that followed a few years later. It also had a gritty bass solo from Entwistle – a rarity for an instrument usually relegated to the background and keeping time with the drums.

“My Generation” would go on to reach #2 in the UK top 10 and it remains the band’s top single in the UK. After the success of My Generation, The Who released a string of singles: “Substitute,” “I’m a Boy,” “Happy Jack,” and the UK Top 5 “Pictures of Lily.” During this time they also released the album A Quick One, which was titled Happy Jack in the United States.

The band then performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, which was their major appearance in the United States. This was followed by a US tour in which Moon gained his reputation as a destroyer of hotel rooms, racking up $24,000 in damages at one hotel during the tour.

The next single to come from the group was “I Can See for Miles.” It turned out to be the band’s best-selling single in the US. Their next album was The Who Sell Out, a concept album that was tied together thematically by commercials and jingles in an effort to mirror the pirate radio stations that contributed to the band’s early success. It also pointed to the next innovation The Who would popularize in the rock world: the rock opera.


Tommy The Who Band Album
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In May 1969, The Who released Tommy, their most impressive album up to that point – and possibly in the entire career of the band. Townshend began writing Tommy after learning about the teaching of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master. The album took nearly 6 months to complete, but it was worth it as it became a critical, commercial, and artistic success.

Tommy was one of the first releases by a rock band to be described as a “rock opera,” but Townshend had previously dabbled in the subgenre by writing suites of loosely connected, longer songs. Tommy told the story of Tommy Walker, a deaf, dumb, and blind boy, and included the hit and only single from the album, “Pinball Wizard.”

After its initial release, Tommy took on a life of its own as the band toured with the new material. Planned as an album that could be performed live from the beginning, The Who began to play more prestigious venues with their exciting live act.

They performed at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, the Kinetic Playground in Chicago, Woodstock, the Fillmore East, the Isle of Wight Festival, and in a venue that matched the rock opera ideals of Tommy, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

In a sign of the lasting impact of Tommy, The Who’s most critically acclaimed album was eventually turned into a stage production, a movie, and a Broadway musical, which ran from 1993 to 1995.

Legendary Live Performances

The Who Live Performance
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If there’s one thing music lovers must know about The Who, it’s just how great their live performances could be (and to some degree, still are). As mentioned previously, Pete Townshend began the ritualistic destruction of instruments at many of The Who’s gigs, but the first time was an accident.

We were just kicking around in a club which we played every Tuesday and I was playing the guitar and it hit the ceiling. It broke and it kind of shocked me ’cause I wasn’t ready for it to go…nobody did anything which made me kind of angry in a way…I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar.

– Pete Townshend in an interview with Jann S. Wenner for Rolling Stone (September 14, 1968)

While instrument destruction was an amazing part of some of The Who’s most memorable performances, the music was always undoubtedly the main draw, especially after the release of Tommy and the band’s relentless touring schedule that tightened their live sound.

Some of the band’s most important live shows were at the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, the Isle of Wight Festival, and the performance at the University of Leeds, which became the concert album Live at Leeds.

Clashing Personalities

The history of The Who is littered with fights between the band’s members. In fact, it wasn’t until Entwistle’s death in 2002 that Daltrey and Townshend reconciled their past differences enough to consider themselves close friends, even after they had spent the majority of their careers working together. Part of the reason for the clashing was the distinct personality of each member of The Who.

One of the more infamous moments of inter-band rage came near the beginning of the band’s run and the release of My Generation. Upset that Moon had provided Entwistle and Townshend with drugs, Daltrey flew into a rage and beat-up Moon. This led to Daltrey being kicked out of the band for a week.

Another time, in what I’m sure was a fairly common occurrence, Moon and Entwistle were late to a gig. This enraged Townshend who, during the band’s performance of “My Generation” later that night, attacked Moon with his guitar, leaving the drummer with a black eye.

The tensions in the band, just like the music, were legendary. Perhaps this is what led Pete Townshend to make some insensitive and controversial comments about the deaths of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, though he later tried to make amends with the fanbase.

Keith Moon’s Death, Pressing Forward, and the Breakup of The Who

Keith Moon
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After the release of The Who’s fifth studio album, Who’s Next (another critical and commercial success), the band took a long pause to get some much-needed rest as they had essentially toured and recorded non-stop since forming. At that point in his career, Keith Moon was already known to pass out during sets due to excessive drug and alcohol abuse, but he normally was able to finish concerts after being brought to.

The Who’s first US show following the release of Quadrophenia was a doozy. Moon had taken to self-medicating with horse tranquilizers and brandy to calm his nerves before shows. The show that night at the Cow Palace in California was the same in that regard, but it had a different ending.

Moon passed out during a performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but this time, he wasn’t able to finish the concert. He had to be replaced by an audience member named Scott Halpin, who was adequately able to complete the show with the other members of The Who. Moon’s condition would continue to deteriorate as he battled with alcoholism.

By the time The Who began recording Who Are You, Moon was a shadow of his former talented self, but he managed to play drums on most songs on the album. This would prove to be his last album. Keith Moon died on September 7, 1978, after overdosing on a drug that was used at that time to treat alcoholism.

The Who, despite being deeply saddened at the passing of Moon, pledged to continue making music. Moon was replaced by Kenney Jones. He played on two albums for The Who, 1981’s Face Dances and 1982’s It’s Hard. Townshend was again growing weary of touring, which led to renewed tensions in the band.

Finally, in 1983, with Townshend finding himself unable to create new material for The Who, the group disbanded. The Who would reunite on occasion for performances like Live Aid at Wembley Stadium and to record a cover of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”

Entwistle’s Death, New Music, and The Who Today

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The sporadic reunions continued up until 2002 when The Who was supposed to begin a tour of the United States. Unfortunately, the day before the tour began, John Entwistle was found dead in his hotel room in Las Vegas. The cause of death was ruled to be a cocaine-induced heart attack. The US tour continued with Pino Palladino on bass.

Entwistle’s death brought Daltrey and Townshend closer together as founding members of The Who. This led to Townshend writing new music for the group. The Who’s next album, Endless Wire, was their first since 1982. They would go on to perform on some of the biggest and most popular stages, including the Super Bowl in 2010 and the London Olympics closing ceremony in 2012.

The Who continued to tour with the same tenacity as a much younger band with The Who Hits 50!, Back to The Who Tour 51!, and the Moving On! Tour. In 2019, The Who released yet another album, this time simply titled Who.

Currently, as of the writing of this article, the band is touring on The Who Hits Back tour with dates scheduled throughout the United States.

Legacy of the Members of The Who

The Who brought a lot of innovation to the rock genre with their music. Each member was influential in their way.

Pete Townshend

The Who Band Members
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Townshend’s use of power chords in particular would lead to harder forms of rock music, like punk and heavy metal. His insightful lyrics, sweeping scores, and artistic vision needed to create rock operas gave the genre artistic integrity that directly contradicted the band’s hard-partying. He also helped to popularize the use of synthesizers in rock music.

Roger Daltrey

Roger Daltrey
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Daltrey had become the quintessential rock frontman by the time The Who recorded Tommy. He had grown his hair out and had taken to wearing his shirts open. This rock god appearance would become more common in the frontmen of rock bands in the 70s, like Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin.

But Daltrey wasn’t all looks. His vocal performances, both in the studio and live, are some of the best in rock. From his stuttering in “My Generation” to the epic scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Daltrey always gives his all to the music. Coupled with his microphone swinging and feats of athleticism on stage, Roger Daltrey is arguably the best frontman that rock has ever seen.

John Entwistle

John Entwistle
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John Entwistle charted a new course for bass players everywhere in the space left from Pete Townshend’s shying away from being a true lead guitarist. His bass lines were often melodic, complementing Daltrey’s soaring vocals and Townshend’s powerful rhythm guitar. Entwistle, like Townshend, was also a multi-instrumentalist and contributed horn parts on Quadrophenia.

Keith Moon

Keith Moon
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While he was healthy, Keith Moon’s relentless energy and raw, strong drumming powered the rest of the band. He used his drum set much in the way that Entwistle used his bass – as an instrument with melodic capabilities.

In contrast with many other rock drummers at the time of The Who’s formation, he utilized the tom-toms and cymbals of his set to build the controlled chaos that was his drum compositions. Keith Moon was one of the immensely talented drummers of that era that all future drummers would be measured against.

The Who’s Studio Albums

The Who has released 12 studio albums to date. The following list does not include compilation albums or live albums.

  • My Generation – 1965
  • A Quick One – 1966
  • The Who Sell Out – 1967
  • Tommy – 1969
  • Who’s Next – 1971
  • Quadrophenia – 1973
  • The Who by Numbers – 1975
  • Who Are You – 1978
  • Face Dances – 1981
  • It’s Hard – 1982
  • Endless Wire – 2006
  • Who – 2019


Question: Are all of the members of The Who still alive?

Answer: Unfortunately, no. Keith Moon died of clomethiazole overdose in 1978 and John Entwistle died in 2002 of a cocaine-induced heart attack.

Question: Are The Who in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Answer: Yes, they are. The Who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Question: Are The Who still performing?

Answer: Yes, The Who is still performing to this day, albeit with a different lineup. The band’s current lineup consists of Daltrey, Townshend, Zak Starkey on drums, Simon Townshend (Pete’s brother) on guitar, Loren Gold on the keyboard, and Jon Button on the bass guitar.


The Who is one of the most influential bands of all time. I can attest to this as a musician myself. I never was much of a lead guitarist, and when the guitar was my main instrument, I gravitated toward the confidence with which Pete Townshend embraced his unique playing style. As a bass player, hearing John Entwistle’s solo for the first time on “My Generation” opened up new possibilities for the instrument for me.

If you’re just now discovering the music of The Who, you’re in for a wild ride. I hope this look at the history of The Who has helped you to learn more about the band and its lasting impact on the musical world.

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