The story of The Who begins with Roger Daltrey (b. Hammersmith Hospital, Acton, London March 1, 1944) who was expelled from Acton County Grammar School in Spring 1959 for refusing to wear his school uniform. Getting a day job in a sheet metal factory, Roger spent his nights playing or rehearsing with his band The Detours. At this point he was the lead guitarist, not the singer, but in any case, he ruled the band with a ready fist.
Needing a bass player in the summer of 1961, Roger approached a former schoolmate who just happened to be carrying a bass guitar he had built (his girlfriend Alison was lugging the amp). He was John Entwistle (b. Hammersmith Hospital, Acton, October 9, 1944) who had been in a number of after-school bands at Acton and played the trumpet and horn.
Early the next year, Roger needed a new rhythm guitarist, so John suggested a mate of his that had played with him in his after-school bands. This was Pete Townshend (b. Nazareth House, Ilseworth, May 19, 1945). Pete came from a show business background with parents who had been entertainers during and after World War II. He was also a student, spending his non-band time learning the latest ideas in art, then trekking back to his student flat to listen to blues records.
Pete’s mom got them some local bookings through her contacts. Meanwhile departing members and the influence of then hit band Johnny Kidd and The Pirates led Roger to drop the guitar and become lead vocalist, leaving The Detours minus the second guitar that almost all bands then used. To fill the sound, John began picking up some of the guitar part, playing lead guitar on the bass.
While this was happening, the English musical world exploded with the arrival of Beatlemania in mid-1963. Before The Detours could join the moptops in pop stardom, some changes were necessary.
The first thing to change was their name, since another group also called The Detours had turned up on national television. At a meeting at Pete’s student flat in February Pete, the band members and his flatmate Richard Barnes threw around suggestions. Pete requested a very generic name so Barnes came up with "The Who." It fulfilled the generic quality, was short and looked great on posters and, as the newly christened The Who soon found out, could be used by the press to make clever punning headlines.
photo: Dezo Hoffman
The next thing to change was the drummer. Doug Sandom had been The Detours’ drummer for a year and a half but after the band failed an audition for Fontana Records on April 9, Sandom was asked to turn in his sticks. At the end of April the drummer for The Beachcombers auditioned and after battering the kit into submission, was brought into the group. This was Keith Moon (b. Central Middlesex Hospital, Willsden, London, August 23, 1946) and even at seventeen he was like no other drummer they’d ever heard. Given only a smattering of training by Screaming Lord Sutch’s drummer Carlo Little, Keith did not play drums as much as throw himself at them, arms flailing, supplying fills and washes of cymbals but with only a semblance of a steady beat. In any other band he would have been impossible to play with. In a group with as quirky a musical construction as The Who, however, he fit in perfectly, competing with John to be the lead instrument and competing with Pete and Roger for the audience’s attention.
photo: Chris Morphet
Keith’s attention grabbing spurred Pete to greater heights of theatricality. He started using spectacular motions on stage like spreading his arms wide while his guitar howled feedback (a stance that earned him the nickname "birdman") and swinging his arm at his guitar, smashing his hand into the strings (and often drawing blood), a move called the "windmill." His most spectacular bit, however, started soon after Keith joined the group. Whether by accident (a low ceiling) or by design (witnessing auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger at art college), Pete began smashing his guitar at the end of his act. Keith, never to be upstaged, started kicking his drums over. The Who were now the loudest and most visually exciting band in England.
Time then for an image change. Peter Meaden, a former employee of The Rolling Stones’ young manager Andrew Loog Oldham, got himself hired as an adviser by The Who’s then manager, Helmut Gorden. Meaden was a member of the cultish British youth movement the Mods that had recently become nationally notorious after a series of seaside riots with their enemies the Rockers. With more money in their pockets than their parents had ever had, the Mods spent their pounds on four things: the latest fashions, motor scooters, R&B records imported from America and speed pills smuggled from France. It was the latter that filled Meaden’s head along with the idea to remake The Who into the quintessential Mod band. The Who had their hair cut short, bought the trendiest clothes and copied the latest dances. Meaden also changed their name to The High Numbers.
Despite their counterfeit origins, The High Numbers were accepted by the Mods who gave the band a sizeable and loyal audience. Meaden got the band a one-shot recording deal at Fontana where, in June 1964, they recorded their first single, "Zoot Suit"/"I’m The Face." The lyrics were Meaden’s, the melodies were borrowed and the single went nowhere.
It was while they were The High Numbers that the band met the team that brought them to stardom. A pair of low-level workers in the British movie industry, Kit Lambert and his partner Chris Stamp, had been looking for an unknown group to be the subject for a movie of their own. Lambert, the posher of the pair, was from the well-to-do Lambert family and his father was the classical composer Constant Lambert. Stamp’s background was working class but his family ties were just as famous as Kit’s thanks to his brother, then super-hot actor Terence Stamp. Lambert was the first to happen upon The High Numbers, attending a show at the Railway Hotel in mid-July.
After he received word from Lambert, Stamp left Ireland, where he was working on the movie Young Cassidy and saw this band for himself. Equally impressed by the High Numbers’ potential, he and Lambert soon began maneuvers to take over the band’s management. Nullifying Gorden’s contract — he had signed the band members before they were of legal age — these two cocky novices made themselves overnight into the new Brian Epsteins, filming a show at the Railway Hotel, getting the band a support position on a national tour and setting up auditions for a record label.
The auditions consistently failed, mostly because of a lack of original material. Since Pete was the art student and had already written a couple of songs for The Detours as part of a class assignment, Lambert and Stamp loaded up Townshend with a Nagra tape machine and told him to compose some songs. Pete, a whiz with electronics, quickly mastered multi-tracking, allowing him to make demos of himself playing all the instruments. No one in rock was then using this technique. Until that point pop composers had usually auditioned their songs by playing them live on piano or guitar. Pete’s demo technique provided The Who with a blueprint for the finished recording while giving him greater control over how his songs were to be performed.
His first two compositions using home-recorded demos were "Call Me Lightning" and "I Can’t Explain," the latter a copy of the new sound The Kinks had introduced with their hit "You Really Got Me." It was a deliberate steal since Lambert and Stamp meant to use the demos to get the interest of The Kinks’ producer, Shel Talmy. Talmy signed the band to a multi-year recording contract.
In November 1964, their name having reverted back to The Who, the group entered IBC Studios (or Pye according to Talmy) to record their first single under that name, "I Can’t Explain." On November 24th, the band landed a career-launching gig on Tuesday nights at the Marquee Club in London. Pete’s friend Richard Barnes designed posters to promote the shows, jet black with the image in white of a windmilling Pete, The Who with arrows coming out of the letters, and the words "Maximum R&B." It became the band’s most iconic image.