The Origins of the Blazing British Rock Band The Who

Note for note, the British-born band The Who might be the most impactful rock band in the history of the genre. Truly, the band’s songs—from “Baba O’Riley” and “My Generation” to the soundtrack album, Tommy—seem more powerful than the Hoover Dam. The band is relentless. But with such big musical momentum at its peak, one may wonder: what are the origins of the popular rock group?

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The Detours

Officially, The Who began its career in 1964. But even before that, in the early ’60s, members of what would become the band were beginning to work together, formulating the beginnings of what would become the iconic group. To wit, before the group was The Who, they were The Detours, beginning around 1961. From its early days as what’s known as a skiffle band—or a rudimentary rock group with often homemade instruments—The Who eventually began to take shape when founder Roger Daltrey began to sing and Pete Townshend began to play the six-string. It was then the group went from playful skittle outfit to burgeoning rock and roll powerhouse.

[RELATED: The Who’s Roger Daltrey Says the Band May Never Tour U.S. Again Due to Costs]

Then in 1964, drummer Keith Moon, who seemingly had eight arms when he played the kit, joined the group and things began to take a more clear shape. That same year, a friend of Townshend’s—Richard Barnes—floated the idea for the band to change its name to The Who. But still, it didn’t quite take. A publicist for the group suggested the name The High Numbers, which the members at first agreed upon. But when their debut LP failed to chart under that name, they went back to the drawing board and came back with the name that would last for decades.

The Who was then born, officially, though other names like No One, The Group, and even The Hair were considered.

My Generation

The Who released its debut studio album, My Generation, in 1965. Its titular song remains one of the band’s all-time classic hits—peaking at No. 2 on the U.K. charts upon its release. However, around that time, the band was still going through tumultuous times.

While the name and the music were set, the group endured some internal strife. In 1965, the members got into a fight while playing a show in Denmark. That’s when Daltrey confronted Moon and ended up flushing his drugs down the toilet. Daltrey then confronted Moon, physically. The rest of the band backed Moon and, briefly, kicked Daltrey out of the group—an unthinkable thing today, given the musicians’ collective success.

A Quick One, The Who Sell Out

The Who released its sophomore album, A Quick One, a year later in 1966, attempting to capitalize off its success with “My Generation.” The record included somewhat popular songs like “Boris the Spider.” But the most important track on the album is the lengthy song, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” which was a six-part musical suite that would go on to inspire the band’s signature forthcoming concept records.

Then in 1967, the group released its third studio record, the concept album, The Who Sell Out. This album, while being the group’s lowest to chart, earned critical acclaim. It’s an odd album, too, comprised of fake commercials and ads between the songs. The band even endured a few lawsuits because of the commercials and real-life products named on the record.

Hotel Rooms

The Who became something of a cliche in the mid-’60s thanks to the drummer Keith Moon, who had a penchant for self-destructive behavior and violence. While Townshend would often smash his guitars onstage, Moon would often smash entire hotel rooms while the band was on tour. Including on his 21st birthday when he caused $24,000 worth of damage in a Flint, Michigan hotel room. He also woke up with a tooth missing.


Everything rounded into shape in 1969 with the release of The Who’s fourth studio double album, the epic rock opera and concept record, Tommy. The story of Tommy Walker is the story of a “deaf, dumb, and blind” pinball savant. Each song on the double LP tells about moments in the boy’s life, from the dark and perverted to the glorious and triumphant.

[RELATED: Roger Daltrey on Whether The Who Will Make a New Album—”What’s the Point?”]

The concept behind the album was inspired by the teachings of Meher Baba (the Baba in “Baba O’Riley”), an Indian spiritual leader who said he was an avatar for God on Earth. And if My Generation put The Who on the proverbial map, Tommy made them legends. The double LP hit No. 4 in the U.K. and No. 2 in the U.S.

Moon’s Death

After Tommy, The Who had four more albums, including Who Are You in 1978. Sadly, that would be the end of the band as fans knew them, as Moon would die on September 7, 1978, from a drug overdose.

In between Tommy and Who Are You, though, the band was on top of the world, releasing hits like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You.” There is currently a documentary about the band and Moon coming soon.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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