Every band has a core period where they produce their best music. For The Who, survivors of more than 50 years, it was from 1969 to 1978. For my money, the golden decade.
From 1965 to 1969, The Who cut their teeth as musicians, toured and developed their sound, and learned to use the studio. They had a manic energy, more evident on stage than on record, and the battled to not sound like every English band of the period.
Their song, “My Generation”, got them noticed. A few more singles got them more fans, and during these years they were endlessly on the road, something every band had to do or vanish as the next band was ready to take their place.
In 1967, The Who released “I Can See for Miles”. While the band had been releasing other singles, “I Can See for Miles” was a long awaited follow-up to what “My Generation” promised but the band hadn’t delivered. The song moved The Who to the next musical rung on the success ladder. The single was top ten in America.
More songs followed but again, they didn’t raise the bar, they walked under it. Main songwriter Pete Townshend was maturing as a writer and he was getting much more experimental as a musician and comfortable building songs in the studio.
Then, in 1969, Tommy, the modern rock opera was released. It was a revelation, an event. This album of related songs that told a complete story, was new for rock and roll. Sgt. Pepper hadn’t even conveyed a story. The Who, Pete Townshend in particular, had created a two LP journey with rock and roll as the bullet train. Musical theater had been doing this for centuries, but Tommy was created for a young generation. My generation.
Tommy had taken two years to create, something pop bands did not do. Record companies demanded constant product, they wrote it into bands’ contracts. Second, musical tastes changed quickly; if you weren’t producing new singles, fans forgot you and moved on.
In 1970, The Who recorded two of their concerts with the intent of releasing a live album. In those days, live recording was the equivalent of talking into a tin can connected to another can by string. Technically, recording live music did not guarantee quality. The album that resulted, Live at Leeds, is a tour de force. The Who recorded enough to fill a double LP, but released only a single disc. Most of Tommy was thrown out (although years later it would be included in a remastered version of the album). The album tracks of the initial release was a risk: some cover of old songs, a few hits and a very long version of “My Generation “. The result was also electrifying. It was a performance for the ages and is listed by some critics as one of the best live recordings of all time. I would agree. The performance of the band on record is not perfect, but it is amazing that they didn’t fix mistakes or sweeten the sound with overdubs (which become common place) , and it was just the four of them on stage, no extra musicians to fill out the sound.
In the next year, Pete Townshend would almost drive himself to a nervous breakdown trying to create another musical tale called “Lifehouse.” This time it collapsed under its own weight. I won’t go into the details, there are great sources for the project details.
Townshend revived some of the “Lifehouse” songs, along with one song written by bassist John Entwistle for what I consider their greatest work, Who’s Next.
The album, released in 1971, contains many of Townshend’s best songs; songs of the times, an anthem for a restless and wondering generation. My generation. From beginning to end, the album is flawless, closing with “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, prophet Townshend’s warning to my generation. I wish we had listened.
In 1973, two years later, The Who return with Quadrophenia, another Townshend album story, of an alienated young man searching for meaning and understanding. That could be millions of young people. Townshend wrote the double LP, and played most of the instruments. In my opinion, a more mature and better musical record than Tommy, but not as endearing as the earlier album. Quadrophenia is a must listen, an expansive musical soundscape, with Roger Daltrey’s singing at the top of his game, close to his Who’s Next triumph.
The next release, Odds and Sods, is a collection of songs not previously appearing on record. It has a couple of gems, “Long Live Rock” and “Pure and Easy”. Hard to tell why these songs didn’t make an album.
In 1975, Tommy, was made into a film starring Roger Daltrey with musical direction by Pete Townshend. The movie, directed by Ken Russell. It was a big Hollywood production. It was not my cup of tea, but other people might have liked it. The soundtrack includes Elton John on the title song, which was a big hit.
Also in 1975, The Who release Who by Numbers. Townshend claimed he was suffering writers block during this period. The songs on this album, mostly written by Townshend, are very organic, very personal statements. It has a very unassuming production, few gimmicks or studio enhancements, a direct contrast to their last two albums of highly produced material. The album has it’s strengths and it’s disappointments. It is earnest in its straight forward and naked elegance.
During the first half of the decade, Roger Daltrey released several solo albums. In 1975 came Ride a Rock Horse, which I consider a minor masterpiece. “Come and Get Your Love” is perhaps his best solo performance. “Hearts Right” and “Proud” are similarly good.
In 1978, The Who would release their final album together. Drummer Keith Moon would die of a drug overdose just after it’s release.
The album contains another Who anthem, “Who Are You”, which wasn’t as original or as endearing as “Won’t Get Fooled Again” but give them credit for trying. The album contains a more polished collection of songs than their previous release and some really well-crafted ones. Entwistle contributes two fine songs, his songwriting for The Who was very strong, yet his solo material never approached what he did with the band.
Townshend’s writing could alternate between the monster guitar chords and a more complex composition that allowed for strings and shifting time signatures.
During recording of this album, it was reported that Moon had difficulty with playing what Townshend wanted, and was close to being fired, in part to his alcohol problems. Studio fighting erupted between band members and with producer Glyn Johns.
By 1978, and with the death of Moon, the dream was over for The Who. They would soldier on but never have the popularity or success as they enjoyed during that decade.
Many years later, Daltrey and Townshend toured around the world marking 50 years, or surviving 50 years as a band. The Who earned their place as one of the greatest rock bands ever. A couple of them died before they got old, and although the song may be over, the music lives on.