With The Beatles and the Stones battling it out for the gold and silver, a no-holds-barred contest for third place on the podium of '60s British rock saw The Who emerge triumphant after overcoming tough competition from The Kinks and The Small Faces. In Pete Townshend they had a songwriter of genius who was brilliantly able to distil the teenage experience.
Enhanced by Roger Daltrey's explosively stuttering vocal, never has inarticulate, adolescent angst been more eloquently expressed than on 1965's "My Generation". It was followed by further extraordinary slices of three-minute pop magic as singles such as "Substitute", "I'm A Boy" and "Happy Jack" also showed Townshend's willingness to tackle unusual subject matter.
But his songwriting ambitions extended even further. A Quick One (1966) found him beginning to exploit the potential of the album format to create entire, self-contained song cycles. But the big one was 1969's Tommy, a full-blown rock opera of staggering scope and brilliant execution.
Meanwhile, The Who had also developed into one of the world's most dynamic live acts with a jagged undertow of violence, the thermo-nuclear rhythm section of Keith Moon and John Entwistle potently underpinning the theatrics of Daltrey's mike-swinging and Townshend's windmill guitar.
But the real question was: could they follow Tommy? They took their time, but after the dazzling Who's Next (1971), they matched their magnum opus with a second, equally successful rock opera in 1973's Quadrophenia. After that, solo albums and film projects dissipated the group's energies and the death of Moon in 1978 was effectively the end, although they soldiered on for a while with ex-Faces drummer Kenny Jones.
In later years they reformed, losing Entwistle to a heart-attack on the eve of a US tour in 2002. But Townshend, who has remained one of the most thoughtful men in rock, is said to be contemplating a new Who album with
Daltrey in 2005.
Townshend's ambitious fable about the 'deaf, dumb and blind kid' wasn't the first rock opera, but it defined the form. An imaginative plot peopled with fascinating characters helped. But it couldn't have worked if the songs weren't also memorable enough to stand on their own.
Live at Leeds
Conceived as a holding operation while Townshend figured out how to follow Tommy, Live At Leeds turned out to be one of the seminal live albums. The original release was good enough. The expanded edition featuring the entire two-hour set is even better.
After Tommy, Townshend toyed with another rock opera called Lifehouse. He gave up halfway through and opted simply for a straightforward album of the best songs in his locker at the time. They included "Baba O'Reilly",
"Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" and the result was a masterpiece.
To record one successful rock opera was achievement enough. To pull it off twice was little short of amazing. Some will tell you Quadrophenia is even better than Tommy and, with songs such as "Real Me", "5:15" and "Love Reign O'er Me", they may be right.
30 Years Of Maximum R&B
Virtually the collected works compressed into four CDs. 95 tracks cover the early singles, the rock opera years and the glory that was The Who live, with the best-known tracks augmented with plenty of B-sides, out-takes, radio broadcasts and other rarities.