“But always, always, there is a very, very strong grab — a deep, instant grab — which lasts… forever. It’s not like a fad. People who get into The Who when they’re 13, 14, 15, 16, never stop being fans,” The Who’s Pete Townshend once rhapsodized to the critic Greil Marcus in 1980. “The Who don’t necessarily captivate the whole teenage generation — as each batch comes up every year — but we certainly hit a percentage of them, and we hold them.”
Even now, 41 years later, these words ring true. I fell in love with The Who when I was 13, and I still love them now. They have held me. Maybe they have also held you. But why? Together, we are going to try to figure this out.
This month is the 50th anniversary of Who’s Next, the band’s most successful studio LP, responsible for spawning radio classics like “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” In recognition of this landmark, I am ranking my 50 favorite Who songs. Along the way, I’ll try to answer the question about why this band has such strong hold on the people who love them.
Don’t cry. Don’t raise your eye. It’s only a list of songs by one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time!
50. “The Ox” (1965)
Let’s start with the contradiction at the heart of this band. On one hand, The Who is very much a vehicle for an auteur, Pete Townshend, to flex his ambitions, express his deepest neuroses, and embody everything he loves and despises about rock ‘n’ roll. This auteur aspect is what separates The Who from all of their arena-filling ’60s and ’70s rock peers — Jimmy Page was the auteur in Led Zeppelin, but he built that band to be a wall between himself and the outside world. But even at its most bombastic, The Who’s music always feels personal and even confessional. You are never not aware of Townshend’s point of view, except when John Entwistle is singing about spiders or furious spouses or futuristic clones.
On the other hand, The Who is very much a four-headed monster, in which each member acts as a crucial component of the group identity while always remaining a steadfast individual. You can hear this in the very racket that they make as musicians — Townshend’s revved-up guitar, Roger Daltrey’s macho vocals, John Entwistle’s titanically busy bass, and Keith Moon’s “a thousand drunks in a bar fight to the death”-style drums. Listen to any Who song and initially it doesn’t seem like they’re playing with each other as much as against each other, four alphas waged in a brutal Battle Royale for sonic supremacy. But over many listens the unique alchemy on display is revealed. Townshend’s guitar swerves with Moon’s drums, and Entwistle fills the space between them. If Daltrey comes off as hectoring, it’s because he has to scream in order to be heard over this unholy din. The members of The Who were cursed to be musical soul mates without actually being friends. They might not have liked each other but they needed each other.
Listen to “The Ox,” an instrumental from their debut album The Who Sings My Generation, and you can hear that this energy was there from the beginning. It’s the same dynamic that existed between Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. A pack of killers who are stuck with each together until they reach the promised land. After that, all bets are off.
49. “Shakin’ All Over” (1970)
I became a Who fan in the midst of my middle-school shoplifting phase. I first heard them on the local classic rock station — the same half-dozen or so songs over and over but they were good songs. So, I schemed to steal cassette copies of Who’s Next and Live At Leeds from a local record store. I am not proud of this, but I also don’t regret it. (Actually, I do regret that it was an independent establishment that probably could have used the $6 or $7 I cheated them out of. But it was too difficult to shoplift at a Best Buy or Sam Goody.) A full 30 years later, these are two of my favorite albums of all time. In fact, I once wrote that Live At Leeds is “not only the best live rock ‘n’ roll album ever, but the best rock album period.” (I don’t remember this, exactly, but the quote is immortalized on Wikipedia so it must be true.)
I remain ride or die for the 1995 reissue version of Leeds, which expands to 14 tracks. Though the original six-song edition makes a more succinct but no less convincing case for greatness. This song is one of the original six, and it was popularized originally by The Guess Who, the Canadian band best known for the AOR standard “American Woman,” which kind of sounds like The Who circa Live At Leeds. If you’re already confused, remember this: I never stole any cassettes by The Guess Who. But I was willing to risk criminal prosecution for The (no need to Guess) Who. Live At Leeds is simply one of those albums that demands to be procured at any cost.
48. Wire & Glass: A Mini Opera (from Endless Wire, 2006)
Here’s another contradiction about The Who: They’re regarded as one of the definitive rock bands, but they haven’t really been a true band for most of their existence. The death of Keith Moon in 1978 forever changed that love-hate alchemy at the heart of The Who. The death of John Entwistle in 2002 irrevocably altered their bedrock sound. For nearly 20 years now, they’ve been a duo, Townshend & Daltrey, the Simon & Garfunkel of rock opera-obsessed frenemies. A 2019 Rolling Stone profile paints a funny-sad portrait of two grumpy old men locked into a marriage of convenience. At one point, Daltrey checks out of a hotel during a tour stop in Dallas into another hotel 100 yards away, just to get away from Townshend. Meanwhile, Townshend continues his decades-long habit of lamenting how he’s stuck playing in a band he doesn’t really like. “We’re not a band anymore. There’s a lot of people who don’t like it when I say it, but we’re just not a fucking band,” he grouses to the magazine. “Even when we were, I used to sit there thinking, ‘This is a fucking waste of time. Take 26 because Keith Moon has had one glass of brandy too many.’”
For a Who fan, this might be dispiriting … if you actually took it seriously. Like any old married couple, Townshend and Daltrey remain devoted partners in spite of all the bitching. So Townshend will still produce a suite of songs as ambitious as the Wire & Glass mini-opera, about an over-the-hill rock star in crisis mode, and Daltrey will still commit himself to embodying those songs with passionate physicality. It’s certainly not the band as it was. And maybe it shouldn’t be called The Who. But that undiminished hater energy can’t be denied. These guys are bonded forever.
47. “I Don’t Even Know Myself” (Isle of Wight version, 1970)
When I was growing up, Pete Townshend was extremely important to me, for reasons that will be enumerated as we progress on this list. But for now, let’s discuss the identity crisis that he never got over. For Pete, The Who wasn’t just a groovy band name — it signifies the central question of all his songs: Who am I? Who loves me? Who can make me feel like less of a freak? Who is the spiritual entity in charge of all this? Whereas I didn’t connect with Daltrey at all, because the ruggedly handsome singer with the amazing muscular chest never appeared troubled by these questions. But over time I’ve come around on Roger, because he was the one who had to interpret those songs. He’s the actor in the band, and he clearly did a good job, because while I don’t believe Roger Daltrey ever has doubted that he knows himself, he makes you think he has when you hear this song.
46. “Odorono” (1967)
Lest I make The Who sound like a humorless bastion of passive-aggressive dudes who feel alienated all the time, the record should also show that The Who was among the funniest of the classic rock bands. And The Who Sell Out is their funniest album, a rare example of a straight-forward rock band attempting actual musical jokes (in the form of the fake radio ads placed throughout the record) and landing them most of the time. The most successful gag is this tune goofing on deodorant commercials, which beat “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the punch by 24 years.
45. “I’m A Boy” (1966)
When the New York Times pointedly asked Townshend in 2019 about the legacy of womanizing classic rockers, he retreated to a familiar party line: “I was performing for the gang. I was performing for the men. You have to talk to the guys who got the girls and ask them how they perceive their past behavior.” Setting aside the fact that most of The Who were in fact huge womanizers, the supposedly male dominant make-up of their fanbase — Townshend has estimated that 80 percent of their audience is men, which is impossible to confirm but seems mostly correct — is especially fascinating in light of early hits like “I’m A Boy.” One of Townshend’s many “misunderstood loner” anthems, “I’m A Boy” tells a Hemingway-esque tale about a young man who is made to dress up like a girl by his mother. Tonally, it’s a little hard to read — is it a gag, a psychological study, an accidentally prescient observation about evolving gender roles, or all of the above? Whatever it is, “I’m A Boy” seems to cater to sniggering dudes and send them up simultaneously, a distinctively Who-like maneuver.
44. “I’m Free” (1969)
The most famous of Townshend’s “misunderstood loner” pieces is of course the entirely of Tommy, the old warhorse that has been adapted into a film, a musical, an opera, a symphony orchestra, and most successfully into a live concert vehicle many times over for The Who. One of my favorite incarnations is the shockingly good live album Tommy Live At The Royal Albert Hall, released in 2017. While previous live versions by The Who have played up the bombast, melodrama, and theatricality, Tommy Live At The Royal Albert Hall makes you feel the trauma at the heart of an album about a sexually abused child written by a man who was himself sexually abused as a child. I don’t know that I noticed how painful songs like “The Acid Queen” are until I heard them here. (In that 2019 Rolling Stone article, Townshend said he “blew the whole show” after spotting a friend and abuse survivor in the audience while performing the song.) It actually adds to the power of a relatively fun and rousing track like “I’m Free,” which truly sounds like liberation after so much darkness.
43. “How Many Friends” (1975)
As a young man obsessed with the rock culture of the past, hearing The Who By Numbers was a revelation. With the possible exception of The Wall, I don’t think there is a more despairing portrait of ’70s arena rock as described by a person at the very top of the food chain. Townshend wrote unsparingly about alcoholism, paranoia, loveless hookups, intraband backbiting, and already feeling like an old man at the age of 30 … and then he handed those lyrics over to Daltrey to sing. “How Many Friends” is the album’s bitterest number, a self-pity party about only having enough friends to count on one hand — that’s still a decent number of friend, Pete! — that’s redeemed by how candid it is. “When I first signed a contract / It was more than a handshake then / I know it still is / But there’s a plain fact / We talk so much shit behind each other’s backs / I get the willies.”
42. “Eminence Front” (1982)
The final album of the post-Keith Moon Kenney Jones era, It’s Hard, ranks among the least loved Who albums. But I legitimately love it. They brought back Who’s Next co-conspirator Glyn Johns to make a “we still got it!” big-time rock record, and while most people — including Townshend, who I’ve heard trash It’s Hard on various bootlegs — will say they in fact did not have it I’m here to say in fact they did. What hurt It’s Hard in the moment is that Pete Townshend put out a solo album in 1980 called Empty Glass that’s better than anything The Who did in this period. It created a (largely accurate!) perception that he was keeping his best songs — particularly the incandescent hit “Let My Love Open The Door” — for himself. But I would argue that the most memorable tracks on It’s Hard have the same nervy New Wave crunch that Empty Glass has, particularly this tune.
41. “Love Reign O’er Me” (1973)
One of my favorite observations about Pete Townshend was made by the rock journalist Charles M. Young in an infamous 1989 Musician magazine profile in which Townshend famously challenged Young to join him in machine-gunning down all of the capitalists who have inserted Who songs into hundreds of commercials. “My take on Pete Townshend is that he’s extremely sensitive and chronically overwhelmed by his own emotions,” Young writes, “so overwhelmed that anyone who is not overwhelmed by the same emotion at the same time does not make sense to him.” Fortunately for Townshend, millions of Who fans are also extremely sensitive people overwhelmed by the same emotions as him, which explains how a song like “Love Reign O’er Me” — Pete’s designated personal “theme” from Quadrophenia — doesn’t register as comically overwrought, as I’m sure it does to anyone who doesn’t like The Who. (An unsympathetic friend used to relish imitating Roger Daltrey’s adenoidal shouts of “loooooooooove” at the song’s climax.) For true believers, this power ballad about fighting off inner demons in the rain by the side of a roiling ocean is the height of emotional realism.
40. “Magic Bus” (Live At Leeds version, 1970)
Pete Townshend loved playing this song, and John Entwistle hated playing it. And they loved/hated the same aspect of “Magic Bus,” which is that Bo Diddley, chugga-chugga-chugga rhythm. Entwistle claimed they are live versions in which he might have actually fallen asleep while playing that chugga-chugga, though I’m guessing he was awake during the definitive take from Live At Leeds.
39. “Pictures Of Lily” (1967)
In the hierarchy of British classic rock bands, The Who is forever positioned behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. This can be attributed to the relative commercial success and critical esteem of each act. But I prefer to believe that it really comes down to each band’s relationship with romance. The Beatles wrote the best songs about love. The Rolling Stones were specialists in sex. What did that leave for The Who? Self-love, as typified by this single. Herein lies another puzzle piece that explains the devotion of Who fans — masturbation clearly is less preferable to love or sex. But those who do not have access to love or sex are even more apt to put those unrequited feelings and desires on a rock band.
38. “I’ve Known No War” (1982)
One thing I love about It’s Hard is the video game-themed artwork, which references an extremely 1982 music business story about the collapse of record sales being blamed on the rise of gaming consoles like Atari. On the album cover, a kid plays in an arcade while the members of The Who glower disapprovingly at the camera. It’s an unintentionally hilarious image of pampered boomer rock stars fretting over the spending habits of teenagers. It would be like if U2 put out a record in 2021 in which Bono lectures a tween about going on TikTok too much.
Another thing I like about It’s Hard is that The Who kept on making music like it was 1971 instead of 1982, including this stab at producing another “Baba O’Riley.” And, sure, they failed at this, as this song is neither as good nor as popular as “Baba O’Riley.” But it’s still an excellent attempt at writing an all-time classic anthem that deserved more shine from Pac-Man-obsessed kids than it received.
37. “The Punk And The Godfather” (1973)
The first song on this list from Quadrophenia, an album that I will spill many more melodramatic words praising as we proceed. For now, I want to talk about the bridge of this song, in which Townshend indulges in one of his earliest “aging rock guy” confessionals, a style of writing that would come dominate his songs forever after. It’s the most haunting moment of the whole record for me, in part for how it points to the disasters that would cripple The Who in the back half of the ’70s:
I have to be careful not to preach
I can’t pretend that I can teach
And yet I’ve lived your future out
By pounding stages like a clown
And on the dance floor broken glass
And bloody faces slowly pass
The numbered seats in empty rows
It all belongs to me, you know
36. “Happy Jack” (1966)
In his senior years, Pete Townshend has chronically trashed The Who’s most famous drummer as a malcontent who couldn’t keep proper time. Just because this happens to be true doesn’t make it any less cruel or misguided. The fact is that Keith Moon elevated many otherwise charming but slight Pete Townshend compositions, with “Happy Jack” being near the top of that list. On this song, Moon is both motor and muse — his artful pummeling supplies the chaos the lyrics only hint at, and his demeanor approximates that of the central character, an outcast who laughs off the world’s derision. Moon idolized Dennis Wilson, who played a similar role in The Beach Boys — both drummers personified the protagonists that populated the songs generated by the more sensitive and aloof auteurs in their respective groups. Townshend supplied the art, but Moon made it authentic.
35. “Sea And Sand” (1973)
Before we get to the part where I write about how Quadrophenia was a crucial companion to me during the worst of my teen years — the same spiel you’ve heard from other notable middle-aged men such as Eddie Vedder and Judd Apatow — I must point out the album’s central weakness. I refer to side two, which nearly drags down the entire operation. “I’m One” aside, this is by far the most bloated part of the record. (Apologies to any “Helpless Dancer” heads out there.) When The Who toured behind Quadrophenia in the ’70s, they eventually cut this part of the record, skipping from “I’m One” to “5:15” and then to “Sea And Sand,” the understated anchor of side three. And that’s how I listen to Quadrophenia forever after.
34. “Who Are You” (1978)
For a generation of CBS viewers, Pete Townshend is the most prolific composer of CSI theme songs. This song is the theme for CSI, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the theme for CSI: Miami. There are similar sorts of associations for many of the songs on this list. Townshend for decades has had seemingly no qualms about commercializing his music. As he has stated time and again, this is his right as the creator and owner of his work, though it has inevitably cheapened and degraded The Who’s music to a degree. (That famous Daltrey scream from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is certainly a lot more hilarious when juxtaposed against David Caruso putting on his sunglasses.) But even with the baggage, “Who Are You” is still a great song, whether you think it’s about Pete Townshend drunkenly tangling with the Sex Pistols or Gil Grissom solving crimes.
33. “Behind Blue Eyes” (1971)
In that 1989 Musician article, Townshend justifies selling his songs for commercials (and accepting tour sponsorship from beer companies) by arguing that AOR stations hurt his career by focusing on the same handful of Who songs “because the other 400 songs I’ve written don’t ever get heard.” If they get to cheapen his music, why can’t he? This is kind of a cop-out, but only kind of. The Who has suffered — even more than The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd — because the same tracks have been played to death: The bulk of Who’s Next, “Who Are You,” “5:15,” and “Pinball Wizard.” It has flattened a catalogue that is full of weird experiments and fascinating stylistic shifts into monochromatic radio gruel. Even the crown jewels get scuffed up in the process. The one Who song I probably never want to hear again is “Behind Blue Eyes,” though I know I really loved it the first 10,000 times I heard it.
32. “Getting In Tune” (1971)
Weirdly, this is one of the only songs on Who’s Next that hasn’t been played to death on classic rock radio. For that reason, it’s possible I’m overrating this, because it just seems fresher. But I also like the melody and Daltrey’s brawny vocal, and I really like Townshend’s “baby with you’s” on the backing vocal. (Pete’s backing vox is the most unsung wonderful thing about The Who.)
31. “Blue Red And Grey” (1975)
Another bleak highlight of The Who By Numbers, mostly because the lyrics make a show of not sounding bleak. Pete sings about loving every minute of the day, but his desperate ukulele strums tell a different story. The Who 1.0 basically fell apart after the tour in support of this album; when they reconvened for shows specially set up for their appropriately chaotic band documentary The Kids Are Alright, Moon’s ability to play had dramatically declined. This song is like an overture for that.
30. “Overture” (1969)
Tommy has the dual distinction of being both the most pivotal album in The Who’s career (in terms of it being the record that made them international stars) and the worst sounding. As overseen by their colorful manager Kit Lambert, the production on Tommy downplays all the things that make The Who exciting — Townshend’s guitar does not rage or slash, Entwistle’s bass has none of its metallic bite, Moon’s drums are buried in a mix of horns and strings, and Daltrey isn’t allowed to scream or swagger. The magic of Tommy didn’t achieve full blossom until The Who played it live. Almost every song sounds better on the stage, with the exception of “Overture,” which has a sense of dynamism — from those elegiac French horn licks to Townshend’s tasty acoustic picking — that much of the rest of the album lacks.
29. “Bargain” (1971)
Part of the greatness of Tommy’s followup Who’s Next is that it’s the first Who studio album to actually capture the power they had live. (Weirdly, they were never able to do this again on any of their other studio records.) Much of the credit for this goes to Glyn Johns, the venerable producer and engineer who worked with the cream of British rockers at the time (including The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, and The Faces) but was singularly impressed by The Who, writing in his memoir Sound Man that hearing them record “Won’t Get Fooled Again” sent “a massive amount of adrenaline coursing through my veins.” (This seems like an appropriate reaction to hearing The Who record Who’s Next.) “Bargain” is another of the album’s most powerful tracks, and also the purest love song in the band’s catalogue: “In life one and one don’t make two / One and one make one.”
28. “Summertime Blues” (1970)
When The Who transformed this Eddie Cochran oldie into a snarling proto-punk rocker — shout-out to Blue Cheer for acting as a mid-wife — the song was only 11 years old. This is the equivalent of White Reaper pulling a similar trick in 2021 with an “oldie” from The Suburbs. Just wanted to put that idea into the world.
27. “Tattoo” (1967)
Another affecting story song that subtly critiques the macho posturing of The Who’s deeply masculine audience. In the song, two brothers decide to prove their manliness by getting a tattoo, with disastrous results. As always, Townshend writes about these characters with a tender mix of sardonic humor and true empathy. (“My dad beat me because mine said ‘Mother’ / But my mother naturally liked it and beat my brother.”) What’s perhaps lost 55 years later, at a time when every coffee shop barista on the planet has multiple tattoos, is how this song conveys the confusion and vulnerability of young boys attempting to figure out how to live up to whatever it is an adult man is supposed to be.
26. “The Song Is Over” (1971)
An ongoing debate among Who fans is whether Pete should have just sung all of his songs himself, and gotten rid of Daltrey. (As they briefly did in the mid-’60s.) I have a few staunch anti-Daltrey Who fan friends and they swear by this argument. But as much as I like Townshend’s voice, “The Song Is Over” illustrates what each man brings to the table as a vocalist, and makes a case for their contrasting styles broadening the band’s musical and emotional palate. Townshend takes the verses, and it’s all regret and self-flagellation. That’s what Townshend’s voice is great at communicating. Daltrey takes the chorus, and it’s all chin-up resolve and regenerative strength. That’s what Daltrey’s voice is great at communicating. They’re opposing forces who somehow coalesce into a yin-yang balance.
25. “Drowned” (Live At The Royal Albert Hall version, 2000)
In 1980, Pete Townshend was pressed by Greil Marcus about whether The Who was still “pushing their music forward” in an artistic sense. It’s a classic rock-critic question: What are you doing [strokes chin thoughtfully] to reckon with the profound changes to music and the greater world [dramatic pause] and the space that rock ‘n’ roll takes up in that world.
This was his answer:
We’ve very much dropped our idealistic stance in terms of our weight of responsibility to rock’s evolution. We haven’t stopped caring about where it’s going to go; I think we’ve realized that we’re not capable of doing that much, in terms of actually pushing it forward. If we have got a chance of pushing it forward, I think we’ve got a better chance of doing it on the road than we do on record, to be quite honest.
At the time, Townshend would have been 34 or 35 — not very old for a rock star by modern standards, but in 1980 people had never seen 30something-year-old rock stars before. Greil was needling him because Pete was considered ancient in rock years.
I suppose it’s possible to view Townshend’s answer as cynical. Maybe the venerable Greil Marcus interpreted it as Townshend simply shrugging his shoulders and accepting his lot as an oldies act. But I think he’s just being honest with himself. 1980 was not 1971. A new Who album was not going to change the world. More important, making Who albums at this point didn’t seem especially pleasurable for him. But he still felt connected to his audience on stage. Playing Who songs for Who fans still had the potential to be transformational. And for Townshend in that moment, it’s where The Who still had the chance to be their best.
I think that’s why I like The Who’s many “old man” live albums so much. The setlists don’t change much, but they always find new ways into the material. I love the original version of “Drowned” from Quadrophenia — the way it rests uneasily between yearning for peace and fantasizing about a watery death — but Townshend’s solo acoustic version from Live At The Royal Albert Hall cuts deeper. I guess he might be just running down a familiar number for umpteenth time. But it sure sounds like pushing the song forward to me.
24. “Boris The Spider” (1966)
As the member of The Who locked into the thankless George Harrison role, John Entwistle was commonly misunderstood as the alleged calm in the eye of the storm, the bloke who stood by stoically while the rest of his band tore apart concert stages and ravaged hotel rooms. In reality, he drank Remy Martin like it was water and cheated on his second wife on his wedding night. Not that this behavior is admirable — I’m just illustrating that the man was a proverbial iceberg with miles and miles of perversity and decadence lurking beneath the quiet facade. He was just better at hiding it than the rest of The Who. Except in his songs, that is. With Townshend entrenched in the resident philosopher/basket case role, Entwistle was left to play the comic foil with a serrated edge. He was the “fun” one, but his brand of fun was complicated. A John Entwistle song always threatened to turn on you suddenly. He established the brand with this song, a foundational text of Alice Cooper/Marilyn Manson horror rock that is self-aware about its own ridiculousness.
23. “My Wife” (1971)
Another example of John Entwistle pioneering horror rock, only this time the monster is a philandering husband who happens to closely resemble John Entwistle.
22. “Heaven And Hell” (Live At Leeds version, 1970)
I don’t know if this is how Entwistle wrote the song, but let’s pretend for a moment that it is: After hearing Roger Daltrey sing Pete Townshend’s earnest plea to “see me, feel me, touch me” every night on the Tommy tour, he decides to write a song that mocks people like his big-nosed bandmate who are overly concerned with spiritual matters. “Why can’t we have eternal life / and never die?” is a lyric that Townshend could write with the utmost sincerity, whereas for Entwistle it’s a droll joke. Once again, we see two guys in this band who are diametrically opposed on a critical issue, and they somehow end up harmonizing rather than clashing. Of course, when you have Keith Moon playing “Wipe Out” while on 10 types of illegal substances in the background, any sort of disagreement really does seem moot.
21. “Naked Eye” (Isle of Wight version, 1970)
A showcase for some of the greatest guitar playing of Pete Townshend’s life. Also, I left off the 15-minute version of “My Generation” from Live At Leeds, which isn’t sitting great with me, because my favorite parts from that epic jam are essentially “Naked Eye.” What really set Townshend apart at this time as a guitarist was his ability to go from really quiet to extremely loud in two seconds flat. There are parts of this that are soothing and gorgeous, and then he whips around and punches you in the face.
20. “Pinball Wizard” (1969)
One for the “I probably don’t ever need to hear this again because I’ve heard it 10,000 times but damn what a song” pile.
19. “So Sad About Us” (1966)
This song on the other hand has never been played on the radio even though it should have been. One of the all-time great Who deep cuts, you can tell it’s the favorite of aficionados by all the cool people who have covered it, including The Jam, Primal Scream, and The Breeders, whose bouncy power-pop redux is my personal favorite.
18. “You Better You Bet” (1981)
My Who scholarship as a teenager began with Dave Marsh’s 1983 biography Before I Get Old. Not only did this book inform my early opinions about the band, it also influenced me a budding junior rock critic. It was clear that Marsh — a peer of Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs from the earliest days of rock criticism — loved The Who. (In the introduction, he writes about being “obsessed” with them from the time he was 14. Chalk up another person The Who locked in for life at that age.) But Before I Get Old is also extremely critical of the band — sometimes unfairly, (Marsh seems to blame The Who for not successfully changing the world for the better.) It had never occurred to me that you could love something while also finding fault in it; Before I Get Old was my first lesson in critical thinking. Now that I’m an adult critic myself, I am quicker to disagree with Marsh’s opinions. For instance, he calls their post-Keith Moon album, Face Dances, “lackluster,” “diffuse,” and reliant “too much on synthesizers.” But I actually prefer it to the final Keith Moon album, Who Are You, and I count “You Better You Bet” as one their more durable radio standards. And as a critic, I am definitely turned on by the meta nature of this tune, in which the guy in the song listens to Who’s Next for nostalgic pleasure. What Who fan can’t relate to that?
17. “Substitute” (1966)
One of John Entwistle’s finest performances. The bassline is twangy and funky, pointing to the cocaine country of the 1970s that people like Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed took to the bank. And yet those guys didn’t cover this song in that era, the Sex Pistols did. I’m preoccupied with Entwistle when I hear “Substitute,” but Johnny Rotten clearly connected with the part about being a phony.
16. “The Seeker” (1970)
So many of his peers seemed to have the answers, but Pete Townshend was all about asking questions. Imagine Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney name-checking The Who in a song about seeking spiritual fulfillment, as Townshend did for Dylan and The Beatles in “The Seeker.” Sure, they don’t actually give him any answers, but it’s the belief that they might have them that matters. Even after he became a rock star himself, he never stopped being a fan in public.
15. “They Are All In Love” (1975)
Roger Daltrey was also a fan in public … of his arch-nemesis, Pete Townshend. This, I feel, is what most often gets overlooked by those who are inclined to view Daltrey purely as a meathead bully. The guy really, really likes Pete Townshend’s songs, which you can tell when he sings lyrics that he can’t possibly relate with. I think of this every time I hear my favorite track from The Who By Numbers, which features the album’s most quotable lyric: “Goodbye all you punks, stay young and stay high / hand me my checkbook and I’ll crawl off to die.” I don’t believe Daltrey has ever thought about crawling off to die. On the page, Townshend’s lyric is almost too pathetic, and I wonder if Daltrey’s initially rolled his eyes at it. But when he actually sang it, his stiff upper lip gave it some necessary dignity.
The other thing I must rave about is Nicky Hopkins, the legendary session pianist who played with all the great British rock bands of the era. His playing with the Stones is especially exemplary — that’s him on “Sympathy For The Devil,” “She’s A Rainbow,” “Loving Cup,” and “Angie.” But his piano solo on “They Are All In Love” is his finest moment on record. Like Daltrey, he elevates Townshend’s dark night of the soul to real beauty.
14. “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” (1965)
You might have noticed that I have not yet uttered a word about the mods. I’m sure some Who fans will feel this is an oversight. But I can’t front like I know anything about the mods that I haven’t learned from Who songs. I’m an American from Wisconsin. I have no firsthand knowledge about the cult of stylish young men in London who gravitated to snappy clothes and soul music in the ’50s and ’60s. To me, “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” is first and foremost an anthem about getting into your car as a teenager — not your car, but your parents’ car — and driving wherever the hell you want. (At least for the few extra minutes you can realistically go on a detour while ostensibly driving to and from the grocery store to pick up some odds and sods.)
13. “The Real Me” (1973)
The Who were more British than the Beatles and the Stones, but they weren’t as British as The Kinks, so that allowed them translate to Americans just enough to make them feel like a cult act who could also fill stadiums. The whole mods vs. rockers cultural kerfuffle — is it appropriate for me as an American to call it a kerfuffle, or should I classify it as a “row”? — is a major reference point on Quadrophenia, but at heart this is an album about feeling like you will never be accepted by the people you care the most about being accepted by. When I was a teenager, I assumed this was stock teenager stuff. Now I’m almost 44, and I realize it’s stock 44-year-old stuff, too. Some things simply don’t age, whether it’s insecurity or the impossible fluidity of Keith Moon’s drums smacking against John Entwistle’s virtuoso bassline and Pete Townshend’s relentlessly slashing guitar.
12. “I Can See For Miles” (1967)
Released the same year as Sgt. Pepper and “Good Vibrations,” it figures that The Who’s entry in the great “Druggy Psychedelic Anthem” sweepstakes is the opposite of a groovy trip. It’s actually their darkest depiction of male desire and envy, a song so full of rage and bitterness it verges on psychosis as Keith Moon has a slow-motion nervous breakdown on his snare drum.
11. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971)
The Who just weren’t very good at groovy sentiments. There always had to be an acknowledgement that human beings and the systems they build tend to fail more often than not. Drugs won’t save you, political movements won’t save you, not even God will save you — but you can still make the most of the time that you do have. That’s what you get from The Who, time and again. I actually feel that this is a hopeful message, which is also why I feel like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is pragmatic and even triumphant rather than cynical or defeatist. After all, a band like The Who is at least as fractious as any electorate. The gulf between Townshend and Daltrey, or Entwistle and Townshend, or Moon and Daltrey matches any divide that currently exists between left and right. And yet they make it work. Not despite of the tension, but because of it.
10. “My Generation” (1965)
When Pete Townshend dies, two phrases will appear in the first graf of his obituary: “smashing guitars” and “Hope I die before I get old.” He’s lived so long now that people no longer give him a hard time about the latter. By now it’s understood that what “My Generation” articulates isn’t so much a personal credo as it is an ultimate summation of youthful nihilism. With that line, he laid down the central message of punk, post-punk, hip-hop, grunge, and nu-metal. Even music fans who have never heard of The Who are somehow shaped by the sentiment. While it’s true that Townshend didn’t literally follow through on that lyric, he never stopped empathizing with each new generation who took up “Hope I did before I get old” as a mantle. It’s a middle finger aimed at older generations who inevitably judge the kids too harshly, and that makes “My Generation” immortal.
9. “The Kids Are Alright” (1965)
“My Generation” was the most overt anthem of Pete Townshend’s early songs, but it’s amazing how he seemed to write exclusively generation-defining tunes in the early days. Sometimes it just boiled down to coming up with a good title: “The Kids Are Alright” is such a grabby, statement-y, “youth”-sounding name that The Offspring changed it slightly for their own late-’90s temperature-taker, “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” But it’s telling that when you actually look at the lyrics, it’s revealed that this song is about not being with the kids. The protagonist rationalizes leaving his girl with “the kids” because he just wants to be left alone. So, “alright” in this context doesn’t really mean “this generation can take care of themselves,” it’s actually just “these thoroughly passable people probably won’t murder my girlfriend while I go chill by myself outside for a while.” This might be my favorite contradiction about this band — they played big, communal songs with an isolationist, misanthropic heart.
8. “I Can’t Explain” (1965)
Their first single as The Who, and the traditional first song at Who concerts. A rare example of a band setting down a thesis statement straightaway and following it through. They made better songs after this, but not many. (Only seven in fact.) And they never extended beyond the central theme of fighting to make yourself seen and heard and understood in spite of not knowing who you really are deep down.
7. “Cut My Hair” (1973)
I’ve typed out and deleted this blurb three times because I keep writing embarrassing things about this song. Let’s just say that “Cut My Hair” was one of my go-to teenage wallowing songs. I didn’t have long hair, but I did feel the bridge of this song deeply. I refer to the part where Townshend pleads that he’s working himself to death just to fit in. He was in his mid-20s when he wrote that, which is just about the last time in your life when you can still fully access the emotions you had at 16. At least that was true before Quadrophenia existed. Now anyone can just play this album and be put right back in that extraordinary, terrible place.
6. “I’m One” (1973)
This clip above from Freaks And Geeks is the most accurate depiction of my childhood presented in pop culture. Everything about this is me, right down to my inability to get an even-tanned look on my face. I was a loser, I had no chance to win, and loneliness had long since set in. But I had grilled cheese sandwiches and leftover cake and TV after school. Most of all, I had The Who. It was enough.
5. “Amazing Journey”/”Sparks” (Live At Woodstock, 1969)
The Who had nothing good to say about Woodstock after the fact. They went on more than 12 hours (!) later than scheduled, which was more than enough time to get wasted, sober up, feel a bad hangover, and then get wasted again. When they finally got on stage, they were exhausted and weary, and the hippie-dippy surroundings were definitely not their speed. (Pete Townshend’s on-stage assault on Abbie Hoffman is the stuff or rock legend.) In retrospect, they would refer to it as one of their worst gigs.
I only mention all of this because it is completely incongruous with the video above. If the members of The Who had hate in their heart for Woodstock as they performed, this must be chalked up as yet another example of hate making The Who extremely powerful.
4. “See Me, Feel Me” (Live At Woodstock, 1969)
The finest and most passionate performance of Tommy‘s emotional climax, and an excellent showcase for Roger Daltrey’s chest.
3. “Young Man Blues” (1970)
What can you say about The Who as a live band in 1969-70 that hasn’t already been said of a gunshot to the head? There just isn’t a band who has ever rocked harder than The Who playing this song.
2. “A Quick One While He’s Away” (Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus version, 1968)
The definitive Who live performance. The sections starting at 4:30 — aka “Cello Cello!” and “You Are Forgiven” — are as rousing as rock music gets. (This particular version just slightly edges out the similarly apocalyptic take on Live At Leeds.) But this has all the elements that make The Who great — formal pretension, narrative silliness, outsized ambition, brutal execution, insane drum rolls, even more insane windmills, twangy bass lines, suede tassels, submerged childhood trauma, a feeling that it should fall apart at any moment, a stunned realization that it’s not falling apart at any moment, extreme fury that blossoms unexpectedly into spiritual transcendence, and a trio of voices screaming over each other and yet co-existing in harmony.
1. “Baba O’Riley” (1971)
There are rock anthems, and then there’s “Baba O’Riley.” (You best believe I judge anyone who calls it “Teenage Wasteland” harshly.) I have no idea what God’s voice sounded like when he handed down the Ten Commandments, but in my imagination He delivered His word as a synthesizer riff inspired by the experimental musician Terry Riley played on repeat and majestic piano chords echoed throughout all nearby canyons and mountains. I don’t even know how you write a song like this, a titanic tune so incredibly large that it can only be properly played in a stadium in front of 100,000 people. (Having said that, I have seen indie-rock bands play “Baba O’Riley” for 200 people and it still killed.) And yet, like all Who songs, it also feels incredibly personal. “Baba O’Riley” is my own fight song, the one track I would demand to hear if I ever was sent into battle, the only music that would make me feel like I might come out unscathed. I loved it at 13 and I love it at 43. Because it still makes me feel strong, even in my weakest moments. All of this band’s best songs make me feel that way. That’s why The Who has held me, and why they always will.