That doesn't mean no one tried — with almost comically dysfunctional results.
Although the Who is down to only two original members —Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey — the first disc to carry the group's name since 1982 is set for release at the end of October. "Endless Wire" is familiar in its crunchy rock 'n roll and literary aspirations; half is a rock opera based on a mini-novel Townshend wrote and distributed online.
From "My Generation," to "Baba O'Riley" to "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Who Are You," it's a daunting legacy to live up to.
Townshend has always considered live performances as important a part of the Who's legacy as recordings, and the band has performed sporadically both before and after bassist John Entwistle's death in 2002. Townshend said he never wanted to release an album that he wasn't sure was good, and he couldn't say that for the previous two, including 1982's aptly titled "It's Hard."
"I've just been waiting," he told The Associated Press, "waiting, I suppose, for science to take over and give me the right to have another baby as a 60-year-old woman and suddenly it's arrived and there's a baby and it feels good. It think it's a good record. It feels like a record I may have made way back, back in 1968 or 1970."
The wait may have been longest for Daltrey, who's always been impatient for new Townshend songs to sing.
"Roger would say, 'all we have to do is get in the studio and play and the music will happen' and I'd have to say to him, 'No, Roger, it won't," Townshend said. "So we would try it, the music wouldn't come and he'd have another press conference where he'd claim to have written four songs and I said, 'can I hear them?'
"He'd say, 'it's about this and that' and I'd say, 'No, Roger, I want to hear them."' Came the reply: "Well ... they're not quite finished."
Entwistle would claim to have hundreds of songs written.
"I'd say, 'great, maybe we can do the first Who album of songs by John Entwistle. Can you play them for me?'" Townshend recalled. "And he'd say, 'I'm not playing them to Roger.'
"And I said, 'we have a slight problem there. Why not?' And he said, 'because he's always picking my songs apart and saying they're not as good as yours.'"
A number of factors came together to push Townshend toward finally making another Who record, including Entwistle's death.
With the band on hold, Townshend had quite happily started another career as a book editor. But it didn't pay the bills. He tried working in musical theater, but found he could only be successful with things that had already been successes before. It didn't make sense to ignore a powerful band that he enjoyed and found easy to work with.
"I just thought, 'why am I trying to reinvent the wheel here?'" he said.
Entwistle died on the eve of a brief Who tour of the United States that was organized, in large part, to make money so the bassist could maintain the lifestyle to which he was accustomed, Townshend said.
The guitarist agonized during a sleepless night over whether the tour should be canceled in Entwistle's honor, or whether he and Daltrey should press forward.
He thought back to his parents' generation, for whom duty meant putting their lives aside to fight World War II. He concluded his own duty was to everyone else involved in the undertaking — the crew, the promoters, the fans who had bought tickets and were looking forward to a night out.
2"We missed John, of course, but we were able to go on without him," he said. "I thought, hell, people die, things change and it's OK. I suppose I thought then that maybe I could make a Who record under these changing circumstances and maybe I can say to people that it's not the old sound or the old machine ... At that moment, I knew we would make a Who record."
Another incentive? While Townshend said he enjoys the old hits, he couldn't stand the idea of another Who tour with nothing new to say musically. The band has just begun a 15-month concert tour all around the world, its largest ever.
Besides the familiar sight of Daltrey twirling his microphone and Townshend's windmill motion with the guitar, the onstage Who also includes Zak Starkey, the longtime replacement for the late drummer Keith Moon, and Townshend's brother Simon on guitar.
Much like another long-lasting rock partnership between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the relationship between Daltrey and Townshend is famously complex. They have a deep personal bond and will forever be joined in rock history, but there are moments when they drive each other nuts.
"We're very different," Townshend said. "I think I've changed over the last 12 years. I'm much happier and content and much less pressured about everything in my life. Roger sees himself at the center of a great mystical circus. He exalts it. He doesn't understand that you have to write every day and suddenly you'll come up with something good. He tends to describe things as magic. If he only knew.
"I think we've arrived at a good place and it's very good to be working with him at the moment," Townshend said. "He's doing a fantastic job."
Daltrey, who wasn't made available for an interview, said in a statement: "When John died, it changed the balance of the band. Pete and I are at two opposite ends of the globe and John was the equator. Something happened. And it has given us a whole new edge."
Daltrey reportedly was unenthusiastic when Townshend gave him a copy of his story, "The Boy Who Heard Music," but later came around to embracing it when it was used as the framework for half of the new album.
It is about an aging '60s rocker, Ray High, watching from a sanatorium as neighborhood kids form a band and follow the trajectory of success that he once had. It's poignant hearing the Who perform it, singing about how music "makes me strong" and "long for a place where I belong."
"In some ways it's the same old story," Townshend said. "I really haven't changed my tune in many, many years."
By David Bauder