Since The Who last troubled the top 40, the musical landscape has been reshaped by hip-hop, dance music and grunge. But now the band is set to return virtually untouched by the vagaries of fashion - by releasing an 11-minute rock opera as its first single for a quarter of a century.
At such a length, the track "Wire & Glass" will be one of the longest singles ever to make the charts - but its colossal duration means it will struggle to get airplay on mainstream radio.
Guitarist Pete Townshend has insisted the track should be issued complete and unedited when it is released next month as a taster for the band's first new album since 1982. "This new release is the first truly creative piece from The Who for nearly 25 years," he said.
It will dwarf other epic releases such as the once ground-breaking Bob Dylan song "Like a Rolling Stone", which, at six minutes, was almost twice as long as most other pop hits of the mid-1960s, and "Bohemian Rhapsody", which was a mere five minutes and 55 seconds long. Townshend is now in talks to adapt the story as a stage musical and animation.
The single, which tells the story of a teenage band that finds global fame through the internet, is a condensed version of a half-hour rock opera - also called Wire & Glass - which will form the centrepiece of the band's new album, to be released on the Polydor label in October.
The band has not had the easiest of rides over the past few years. Bass player John Entwistle died in a Las Vegas hotel in 2002, and the following year Townshend was cautioned after he admitted accessing child pornography while researching a book.
Townshend's mini-opera grew out of a novel he wrote called The Boy Who Heard Music, which he published on his website. Needing inspiration for new material for a Who tour this summer, Townshend hit upon the idea of using the tale as the basis for his new songs.
"I was able to quickly scratch out a lyrical synopsis. This comprised seven or eight short lyric poems," he said. "I took into account none of the depth, background or complexity of the story. In a way, I deliberately skipped over what I had explored and elaborated in my 'novella', and just grabbed at whatever came into my mind as I sat with pen and paper. Quickly I found I had enough coherent lyrics to comprise a short song-cycle or 'mini-opera'. I had about 30 minutes of music that would create a vigorous backbone for the Who album, but allow me to continue to draw on the blood-line of The Boy Who Heard Music."
Townshend has previously written full-length rock operas with Tommy and Quadrophenia, which were both turned into hit films. The musician, who will première new material during the band's summer tour, said that despite returning to the rock opera format, the material sounded modern. "It's an exciting sound to my ears. Not old-fashioned at all."
The band - once listed as the loudest act in the world after an eardrum-splitting 1976 show - has not released an album since It's Hard, and the last single, "Athena", limped into the charts at number 40 the same year, 1982. The Who officially split the following year, but re-formed for Live Aid two years later and have continued to tour on a regular basis ever since.
Radio 2's head of music, Colin Martin, said: "An 11-minute track is unlikely to be playlisted, but it could be fitted into a more specialist programme. In the past record companies have supplied radio edits, for example 'Layla' by Derek and the Dominos, so we may play an edited version."
The longest song ever to make the charts without a truncated version was "All Around the World" by Oasis, which ran to nine minutes and 38 seconds. The Orb's top 10 hit "The Blue Room" was the longest ever single at 39 minutes and 58 seconds, although it was also sold in a shorter form.Reuse content