Was there ever a band in which each individual member was more irreplaceable than The Who? I frankly don’t think so. As such, their decision to carry on when Keith Moon died in 1978 must stand as one of the most debatable in the history of rock & roll. People often claim they did it for the money, and that was it. But there were a couple of aspects which should not be dismissed out of hand.
First thing first – by that point The Who were far more than 4 friends who gathered together to play on weekends. They employed more than 40 individuals on the whole. They had a recording studio, a fleet of trucks, their endless roadies… They were not exactly a corporation, but they were quite close. If they had disbanded then, that would have been a considerable number of people on the dole again.
A parallel is drawn with John Bonham’s death in 1980. When that happened, Zeppelin disbanded immediately. Pete Townshed said there was no comparison – Zeppelin was in a very active schedule when that happened, whereas The Who were semi-dormant. But it is clear that The Who might have come across as betrayers more markedly because of Zeppelin’s decision.
Still, Pete made a very valid observation: the band did not want onlookers to say something along the lines of “The Who were on a roll and then Moon overdosed and he screwed them all”. They must have felt a need to live up to their name and keep on speaking to the younger generations, like they always had done. So they carried on. But they did not necessarily manage to transmit anything to the young crowd. Rather, the albums they were to release (however flawed they were) spoke to their old fans exclusively. The one top 20 hit they were to have (the dazzling “You Better You Bet”) told about a scorching desire to stay a vital individual as the years go by. Younger generations by then had their own bands. The Who’s niche was taken. That doesn’t diminish what they did before. I like to think they tried to keep the flame alive – “after the fire, the fire still burns”. If they have stayed around up to today, that was not a commercial decision. Commercial aspects must have been weighed up when Keith died, more than they would like to admit, and more than we fans like to reckon. But today, it is a different story. Pete and Roger will never recapture who they were. But they remind us what we feel, and (above all) that life offers endless things to feel and experience, even when years take their toll.
It is often said that a dream is a wish your heart makes. When listening to The Who – as they are now and as they were then – I always end up thinking if a dream is only that. Could it be there are dreams you don’t dream yourself but rather give away to others to realize? The answer to that question is what I find in their music time after time. And it is always a fulfilling one.