“The Who – Under Review: 1964-1968″: From Maximum R&B to mega-heavy classic rockers

By on May 17, 2017

The Who – Under Review: 1964-1968 — now streaming in our Under Review collection of music documentaries over on Night Flight Plus — takes a close look at the British rockers during their shift from being a singles-based mod-influenced British combo towards becoming a mega-heavy rock album juggernaut, ultimately becoming — along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — part of the holy trinity of British classic rock.

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You’ll hear some of their earliest songs in the documentary, beginning with a cover of James Brown’s “Shout and Shimmy,” before continuing on with brief snippets from some of their best-loved early originals, including “I’m The Face,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “My Generation,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “Substitute,” “I’m A Boy,” “Bucket T,” “Happy Jack,” “Pictures Of Lily,” “I Can See For Miles,” “Magic Bus” and a few more along the way.

This 2005 film — yet another in the series of “unauthorized” Under Review music documentaries created for Britain’s Chrome Dreams label, which is distributed through MVD, Night Flight’s content partner — features rarely seen live and studio performances during the band’s early heyday, beginning with high-energy R&B covers and continuing through their first originals, mixing in both archival footage and contemporary interviews.

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The doc traces the Who’s history from their earliest days at Acton High School, where guitarist Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle were in a Dixieland-ish trad jazz band together called the Confederates (Townshend played the banjo and Entwistle the French horn; lead vocalist Roger Daltrey also attended the same school, but he was a year ahead of them).

The documentary doesn’t feature any interviews with any of the surviving members of the band, unfortunately, but does feature independent commentary and criticism from a panel of esteemed experts, including music critics and British rock journalists, early collaborators and friends of the band, who analyze the songs and how the Who’s output was both of its time and timeless.

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Featured here are interviews with: Shel Talmy (the Who’s early producer); Paolo Hewitt (journalist and author); Alan Clayson (Keith Moon biographer); Christopher Welch (ex-Melody Maker journalist and an early champion of the Who); Malcolm Dome (Classic Rock Magazine writer); Jordan McLachlan (Rhythm Magazine writer); Ed Mitchell (Total Guitar writer), and other expert contributors.

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The Who — early on they were self-proclaimed to be the “Loudest Rock Band In The World” — were hugely instrumental in the pioneering use of feedback and volume during the period in which rock ‘n’ roll became “rock.”

Townsend and Entwhistle, in fact, were directly responsible for the development of high-watt Marshall amplifiers and Marshall stacks, working with Jim Marshall in London.

A former employee of Marshall’s later split off and established a new sound equipment company, originally called Sound City before they re-branded their amplifiers as HiWatt amps, with Townsend and Entwistle being their most famous clients.

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Townshend, in fact, would push the group into unchartered sonic territory over their career, incorporating pop art elements into the band’s visual appeal, and penning extended musical concept pieces that challenged the very meaning of what “rock” meant.

By September of 1961, Pete Townshend — whose parents were professional entertainers — was enrolled at Ealing Art School, an art college where many of British classic rock’s legendary figures began their own careers.

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Entwistle meanwhile, had taken a job with the Acton tax office, while Daltrey — a sheet metal worker after graduation from high school — had formed a skiffle group called the Detours, recruiting Entwistle to join on bass guitar.

Daltrey — who was building his own guitars at the time — was the group’s guitarist, but he also added Townshend to the group, on guitar, at Entwistle’s suggestion. Their first drummer was a fellow named Doug Sandom, and Colin Dawson was the group’s original lead vocalist.

All three future members of the Who — Townshend, Entwistle and Daltrey — had grown up in the working-class Shepherd’s Bush area of London.

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At this same time, Keith Moon — unknown to the members of the Detours — was playing drums with a group called Mark Twain & the Strangers.

In 1963, Daltrey became the Detours’ lead singer after kicking Colin Dawson out of the group, and over the next year they would become a semi-pro early rock ‘n’ roll quartet, playing a lot of American R&B and rock ‘n’ roll covers — songs made famous by James Brown, Booker T & the MG’s, Eddie Cochran — while becoming a popular draw in the west London circuit of pubs, clubs and ballrooms.

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By February 1964, they were changing their name from the Detours to the Who, at the suggestion of Richard Barnes, an art school pal of Townshend’s. They would also land their first manager, Helmut Gorden, who actually worked in a doorknob factory in Shepherd’s Bush.

Within a few months, the Who were making another personnel change, adding Keith Moon —who for the past year had been drumming for a local Wembley area surf rock combo called Clyde Burns & the Beachcombers — after an impromptu audition at the Oldfield Hotel in Greenford, in west London.

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The group had been using session drummer Dave Golding following the departure of Doug Sandom, but Moon was a better fit for where they were going, musically, with Entwistle and Moon adding improvised playing over the texture of their covers and expanding the band’s overall sound by giving it a tougher outer shell.

In April, the Who were adding a publicist, mod fanatic Peter Meaden, who suggests they change their name to the High Numbers, which would work better as a “mod” band name.

In July of ’64, they would release their first single, “I’m The Face” b/w “Zoot Suit” (both written by Meaden) on the Fontana Records label, but it failed to chart.

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The very next month, August, they were making a change in their management, replacing Gorden with Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp — Lambert had seen the band performing at the Railway Hotel, Harrow, and knew they were something special. Both men were former small-time film directors who recognized the appeal of the band’s visual side.

Incidentally, a few months later, the Railway Hotel would be the site of the first venue where Townshend would smash up his first guitar onstage, out of frustration (he had to finish the show by using a recently acquired 12-string Rickenbacker).

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Townshend had hit the ceiling of the club’s stage — actually, a temporary stage extension built by the band themselves — which drew an unexpected and surprising response from the audience, ensuring that it would then become a part of the band’s regular shows.

A week afterwards, Keith Moon, at the same club, would also destroy the drum kit he was playing, in solidarity with his bandmate. These simple acts of destroying their instruments added to the Who’s mystique, and helped foster the image that they were a high-octane, rambunctious group who were exciting to see in concert.

Over the next few months, the High Numbers — dressing up in sharp suits to appeal to style- and R&B-obsessed mod fans — would play a series of Sunday matinee shows promoted by Arthur Howes, on the bottom of the bill, throughout England.

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On August 16, 1964, they even played one show in Blackpool with two of Britain’s finest, the Kinks and the Beatles, who were the show’s headlining act.

That same month, the High Numbers — now standing apart from the hundreds of similar-sounding mod combos — would make their television debut on BBC-TV’s “The Beat Room,” which was broadcast on August 24th.

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By October of ’64, the Who were auditioning for EMI Records at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios — likely playing a lot of covers, including, possibly, their version of the British rocker’s Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over,” a fan favorite — who request that band write and perform more of their own, original material.

Lambert and Stamp encourage Townshend to become the band’s main songwriter during this time, and they continue to transition from being fashionable London-based mods who play a self-styled brand of “Maximum R&B.”

The High Numbers, meanwhile, then sign a production deal with independent producer Shel Talmy’s recording company, Orbit Music, and in November of ’64 they switch back to an earlier name they’d used, the Who, which would become their permanent moniker therafter.

The group began a sell-out sixteen-week residency at London’s Marquee Club in late November, where it soon became apparent that the continuing destruction of their instruments — and the necessary purchase of replacements — were taking a toll on their finances.

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On January 15, 1965, the Who released “I Can’t Explain,” a single produced by Talmy and released on the Brunswick label in the UK. It eventually climbs to #8 on the UK Singles charts.

Incidentally, the original demo of the song — which had drawn Talmy’s attention to the band in the first place — had featured a session guitarist named Jimmy Page.

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Later that same month, on the 29th, they appeared on the classic British TV music show, “Ready Steady Go!,” for the first time, signifying to everyone watching at home that the Who were going to be a band for the ages, a group to watch.

Music fans all across England began to sit up and take notice while Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon overturned his drums, Entwistle fingered his bass fretboard and Daltrey tossed his microphone into the air, swinging it around on its cord in a large lasso-like circle over his head.

In early April, they would make their first appearance on the BBC radio show, “The Joe Loss Pop Show,” and in another month and a half they were releasing yet another strong single for Brunswick, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” which the band promoted with another appearance on “Ready Steady Go!”

The song became the BBC TV show’s official theme song for a bit, and the Who’s single climbed to #10 on the UK Singles charts. That August, they played at the Richmond Jazz & Blues Festival, which is apparently where the footage of “Anyway, Anyhow Anywhere” appears to be taken from.

Some of the other performances in the documentary, by the way, were filmed at the Marquee Club, the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus and 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival.

During September and October of ’65, the Who toured Holland and Scandinavia for the first time, but there were tensions within the band when it seemed to Townshend, Entwistle and Moon that Roger Daltrey was being just a little too bossy.

Things eventually came to a head, and Daltrey was dismissed from the band, but then the band quickly realized they needed him back when their next single, “My Generation,” was released and soared to #2 on the charts, their highest chart position to date.

Daltrey was brought back to the band, of course, and for a time he tries not to be too much of a dictator always there has always been some residual tension between Townshend and Daltrey.

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In December ’65, the Who’s first album, My Generation, was released, climbing to #5 on the UK LP charts.

January of 1966 saw the band’s first big TV exposure in the United States, when their pre-recorded London club performance of two songs — “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation” — was aired on the last edition of the popular “Shindig! teen music TV show.

Subsequent singles — including the first of three versions of “Substitute” in March — were released during the whole of 1966, but the band then faced with unforeseen issues and found themselves in court, fighting with their producer, Shel Talmy, over who owned the rights to produce the band.

Talmy would end up being ousted from the group, but he was awarded a substantial payment of royalties over the next five years, which resulted in the fact that the band would have to play constantly in order to keep themselves financially stable.

The end result, however, is that they play so often that they become one of the biggest bands on the planet, and a huge concert draw for the next few decades, a mega-heavy rock album juggernaut who would continue to explore the boundaries of rock.

August 28, 1966, saw the release of their next single, “I’m A Boy,” about a teenage boy forced to dress and act like a girl by his dominating mother.

The track was produced by Kit Lambert, rising to #2 on the charts, tying their highest single charting position.

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Their Ready Steady Who EP was released in November ’66, followed quickly by their second album, A Quick One (While He’s Away), which contained songs penned by all four members of the band.

Entwistle’s songs in particular showed an interesting if macabre sense of humor (“Boris the Spider” and “Whisky Man”), but as always the focus was was centered upon Townshend’s songs, especially those comprising his first “mini opera,” all ten minutes of it (notably arriving before the Beatles’ concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band).

The album reached #4 in the UK LP charts, and “Happy Jack,” the band’s next big single, charted at #3 in the UK charts (#67 U.S.).

The band’s biggest year during their early era, 1967, began with a memorable performance — on January 29th — at London’s Saville Theatre, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience as their opening act.

The Who finally made their U.S. debut on March 25th, playing for ten consecutive days at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre in New York, for a package tour organized and hosted by deejay “Murray the K.”

The played short sets five times a day on bills with Cream and Wilson Pickett, among others.

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Meanwhile, “Happy Jack” became their first chart single in America, climbing into the Top Forty (#24).

That April, their wonderfully smart “Pictures of Lily” single was released on Lambert and Stamp’s newly-formed Track Records label, a Polydor-distributed imprint, climbing to #4 on the charts (Track’s first signee in late ’66, incidentally, had been guitarist Jimi Hendrix, a London resident who was born in the U.S.).

The band promoted the single with more tour dates in Scandinavia, where they’d toured once previously. These shows helped to prepare them for their first full assault on U.S. audiences, with their first full tour of the States beginning in June, as an opening act on several different concert bills.

The Who ultimately made an appearance at the Monterey Festival in Northern California, held in June ’67, which helped broaden the band’s profile immensely.

Soon thereafter, Pete Townshend became attracted by the teachings of Meher Baba, an Indian Perfect Spiritual Master, which then profoundly influenced his songwriting and the course of the rest of his life.

This period also serves as a kind of nice demarcation for the band’s career, dividing everything into a pre-Mehrer Baba and post-Mehrer Baba era, at least for Townshend’s followers.

The Who’s first lengthy U.S. tour saw them opening for Herman’s Hermits, and finding more approval from the rock music press, and for a time, at least until Led Zeppelin came along to challenge their ascendance, they were one of the biggest heavy rock bands in the world.

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The next single, “I Can See For Miles” was released on September 18, 1967, going on to become the highest charting single for the band in the U.S. (#9; #10 in the UK).

When the band’s next album — The Who Sell Out — arrived, it climbed into the Top Twenty on the album charts in the UK (#13) but failed to enter to Top Forty (#48) with finicky U.S. record buyers not being sure what to make of it, this despite the album today being one of their very best.

The album contained another mini-opera, “Rael,” which was interspersed with other great tunes, including mock-adverts and genuine jingles paying loving tribute to England’s pirate radio stations, which had been closed in a government crackdown.

In January of 1968, the band’s first big concert tours in both Australia and New Zealand — accompanied by the Small Faces — were mired with problems in the latter country, and Townshend vowed never to return.

More shows followed in the U.S., where they undertook their first serious headlining tour, but the band’s forward momentum was somewhat stymied when their next single, the odd “Dogs,” inspired by Townshend’s interest in dog racing, failed to chart.

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The Who continued to remain a top draw in the U.S. — headlining huge arena and stadium shows, with Townshend leaping into the air with his guitar, spinning his right hand in exaggerated windmills, Daltrey whipping his microphone around in huge circles, Entwistle walking the bass, and Moon falling into his drum kit — but financially and personality-wise, the band found themselves at a creative crossroads and by all accounts weren’t quite sure where to turn next.

Their U.S. label, MCA Records, released the band’s “Magic Bus: The Who on Tour” album, a poorly-conceived album at best, which ended up in the bottom rungs of the Top Forty (#39) in the Billboard album charts.

Once again, Townshend and the band were reminded that their success wasn’t guaranteed, and was likely going to require a lot of hard work if they wanted to remain one of the biggest bands in global rockdom.

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It was during their concerts in the summer of ’68 that Pete Townshend began to first think about a concept album project that would change their trajectory forever.

That project would end up becoming Townshend’s first magnum opus, a ninety-minute conceptual story about a deaf, dumb and blind boy named “Tommy” who becomes a pinball champion-pop idol before going full-on into becoming an autocratic messianic guru for the youthful masses.

As the 1960s come to an end, the Who made their full transition from being one of the best of the British “Maximum R&B” stylists to becoming pioneers of the rock opera, and they also become one of the first mainstream rock bands to successfully integrate synthesizers into their songs.

For many decades, they would remain a powerful and powerfully loud arena act, and simply one of the best bands to ever grace a stage.

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You can get the full picture of what happened during the Who’s first four years by watching The Who – Under Review: 1964-1968 and if you enjoy music documentaries, be sure to check out the Under Review titles, they’re all over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.