Monday, 18 June 2012

The Who?

by George Chapman

A quick Google search will unanimously suggest The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to be two upstanding pillars in the so-called pantheon of Rock history. The third member of the Holy Trinity of British Rock is somewhat less clear, and open to much more subjectivity. Pink Floyd? Led Zeppelin? No- I’d argue that The Who have contributed much more to the development of Rock n’ Roll than any of the above, and have continued to influence today’s generation of pop stars immensely.
To eliminate any confusion from the outset, I should limit my definition of pop stars to the select few in today’s music industry who are not managed by Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh. Indeed, the remaining are those with the ability to play their own instruments and who are not reliant upon Auto- Tune (other vocal-tuning technologies are available).
However, I fear that I digress slightly. This is an article expressing my intense dissatisfaction at how under-rated The Who are, not one designed to take cheap shots at certain artists in the charts today. Though there is some relevance in the above paragraph with respect to the following- many of The Who’s contributions to the music industry were in fact technological.
Pete Townshend
The universally iconic Marshall Stack amplifiers used by guitarists worldwide today were first created by Pete Townshend and John Entwistle- Who guitarist and bassist, respectively. At gigs, John ran a Marshall JTM45 head through two 4x12” cabinets, where Pete ran a Fender Bassman head (with a schematic modelled on the JTM45) through one of these cabinets. In September 1965 when The Who’s van was stolen, and all live gear (including these amplifiers) was lost, they personally approached Jim Marshall of Marshall Amplification who agreed to manufacture a new prototype ‘stack’ with more electrical power than the JTM45. The result was a Marshall Super Lead Model 1959- an exceedingly powerful 100w head paired with a massive 8x12” cabinet, which was necessary to lay down the demands for live power from the band. Unsurprisingly, Entwistle and Townshend complained that the refrigerator-sized 8x12” was too bulky, after having understandable trouble transporting the amps between gigs. Marshall listened, and subsequently created the accompanying 4x12” cabinet for the same 100w head- a set-up briefly used by the band, still modified by Marshall and extensively used by artists today, making it one of the most popular amplifiers in history. It was such powerful gear that enabled The Who to become the loudest rock band ever.
In 1966, Entwistle approached Rotosound regarding his dissatisfaction during a pursuit for bass guitar strings ‘which vibrated properly’. After spending an afternoon with James How of Rotosound, trying a variety of strings comprising different gauges and wires made by on-site technicians, John eventually found a combination that he was happy with. In exchange for a lifetime supply of Rotosound strings, John endorsed the retail of these newly created ‘Swing Bass 66’ strings with a black-and-white picture of himself and James taken that day in the factory, which was subsequently enclosed in every packet of Swing Bass 66s sold. Entwistle continued to use these strings without exception for the next 23 years, alongside bass guitarists across all styles and genres (including myself) who today continue to purchase them religiously.
Surprisingly enough, The Who also made a massive musical impression on the industry at the time.  Their second single, 1965’s My Generation, can only be described as revolutionary. Featuring rapid and aggressive pentatonic licks supporting lyrics of a similarly aggressive nature, the song was a fresh and stark juxtaposition to the Beatles’ somewhat prettier Yesterday released the same year. Keith Moon’s innovative and exuberant drumming style with Entwistle’s fluid bass lines, perhaps more appropriately commended as countermelodies in their own right, created a wall of sound entirely dissimilar to that of the McCartney-Starkey and even the Wyman-Watts partnership. Incidentally, My Generation featured one of the very first bass guitar solos in the history of rock music, and was indeed one of the first bass lines recorded using a plectrum. 
Just a year later, The Who’s second studio album A Quick One was just as inspirational. The band’s management and Townshend’s creative vision culminated to take The Who in an all new direction. A Quick One featured incredible musical variation, with songs composed by each of the band members (two each from Entwistle, Moon and Townshend, and one from Daltrey), and brass instruments played by each musician. In addition, this album also paved the way for the pioneering production techniques continually developed by the band throughout their career. According to Chris Stamp, A Quick One featured experimental brass and percussion recordings taken with musicians both in the bathroom to ‘enhance echo’ or marching in the street and back again. Kit Lambert, pre-empting future production techniques, insisted the band moved to and fro past a mono microphone mid-take to create a stereo-image in an age that did not allow digital manipulation of recordings.  Continuing this tradition, The Who’s 1973 album ‘Who’s Next’ currently features on the A-Level Music Technology syllabus for its ground-breaking recording methods.

Finally, perhaps the greatest creative accolade of The Who comes at the expense of any Andrew Lloyd Webber fans reading this article. The common misconception of Jesus Christ Superstar having been the first rock opera is proven to be incorrect by Townshend’s own work. On two accounts. 1966’s A Quick One features a six-movement mini-rock opera totalling 9 minutes and 10 seconds, entitled the eponymous ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ after Kit Lambert coined the phrase earlier in the year and suggested that it would be ‘an idea!’ The mini opera tells the story of infidelity and subsequent forgiveness in true 1960s polygamous fashion, with the six sections individually recorded and roughly spliced together in the studio. Three years later, the soundtrack for Townshend’s first full rock opera Tommy was released, a year before Lloyd Webber and Rice’s score was completed, much of which was subsequently filmed locally in Portsmouth by Ken Russell. His production featured appearances from each of the band members, with Daltrey taking the lead role, in addition to Elton John and even documented the untimely destruction of South Parade Pier by fire.

Keith Moon
However, for many, the powerful legacy left by The Who for today’s generation of rock musicians lies in the attitudes and antics of the band members. Whether one is made aware of Keith and John’s habit of detonating explosives in hotel toilets, or hears stories of Cadillacs driven into swimming pools, it could never be denied that rock music became more than a career for The Who. As with many rock stars that have been and gone since, it became a life style in which they well and truly immersed themselves.


  1. Georgie Boxall2 July 2012 at 11:21

    From Georgie Boxall.

    The only word I need to say is.. Oasis? You probably couldn't get more British and more beautiful in one band. Eight UK number one singles and eight UK number one albums later and an array of different globablly recognised awards including fiftheen NME Awards, nine Q Awards, four MTV Europe Music Awards and six Brit Awards to name just a few, it is quite clear that Oasis have to take the crown in the land of Rock n Roll. One of their Brit Awards was in 2007 for 'Outstanding Contribution to Music' and the other was for 'The best album of the last 30 years'. Yes, the last 30 years!

    So George, remind me again.. who exactly are The Who?

  2. Georgie, I think its important to note that Oasis were merely a 90's revival of the Mod genesis engineered by The Who- a culture that permeated and inspired a generation a decade before the Gallaghers' conception. In reality, all Oasis had to do (alongside Blur and other commercially exploited and unduly glorified Brit-Pop bands of the 1990s) was pick up where The Who left off.

    Unfortunately for you, I fear that The Who's twenty-five top-40 singles over a forty year career, and indeed no fewer than twenty-five top-40 albums to boot, somewhat relegate Oasis from this discussion. All from an era when copius awards were not dished-out to washed-up under-achieving bands to boost their already inflated egos.

    As a final word, would it be appropriate to mention that Oasis' most recent drummer before your favourite band's death- Zak Starkey- was in fact drumming with The Who up to 8 years previous?

    What an undeniable inspiration Keith Moon and The Who have been, and indeed continue to be, for the entire Rock and Roll community- Zak and the Gallaghers included..



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