Top 10 Who Songs
Like many of their contemporaries, the Who adapted to the constantly evolving ’60s music scene by expanding their scope and sound. They just did it better than almost everyone else. They started off combining Pete Townshend‘s guitar-powered teen-angst anthems with covers of American soul songs, which they somehow managed to turn into guitar-powered teen-angst anthems. As Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon tightened their instrumental interplay, and Roger Daltrey became one of rock’s most powerhouse singers, it gave Townshend the confidence to undertake even more ambitious projects, like the rock operas ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ and the career-defining ‘Who’s Next.’ Our list of the Top 10 Who Songs covers the best of the original quartet.
Shuffling along to a familiar Bo Diddley beat, ‘Magic Bus’ seemed both in and out of place in 1968. The whole idea of a “magic bus” certainly settles into that brief post-Summer of Love / pre-Woodstock period of wide-open optimism. But the song’s driving rhythm pins it to an earlier time (which makes sense, because it was written a few years earlier). The epic concert version featured on ‘Live at Leeds’ expands the boundaries.
Ideally, you should listen to ‘Tommy’ in order, uninterrupted and not broken in chunks like it’s a typical pop LP. Townshend’s rock opera tells a story — a somewhat convoluted one, yes — that doesn’t make much sense as individual chapters. ‘Pinball Wizard’ is the album’s hit single that sorta stands on its own. If it must.
‘Quadrophenia’ was Townshend’s second rock opera (see No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Who Songs), but unlike ‘Tommy,’ several of its songs actually work outside of the big-picture narrative (which, in a way, is even harder to follow than that of ‘Tommy’). Much of that has to do with the band’s expanded repertoire of instruments (horns, synths) and Daltrey’s rock-god vocal eruptions throughout the record. ‘5.15’ is a perfect example.
‘Who Are You’
The original band’s final album together is spotty, but the super-heavy title track and lead single features one of their all-time greatest group performances. ‘Who Are You’ drives hard, and the band’s falling back into place after the lengthy instrumental break comes off like one last shot of release. It’s the sound of a great band nearing the end of its terrific run.
‘Love, Reign O’er Me’
The last song on ‘Quadrophenia’ — and the cathartic wave of hope the story leads to — features one of Daltrey’s greatest performances, a throat-tearing howl that’s right up there with the celebrated scream that caps ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Who Songs). It’s a great track, and a fitting close to one of the band’s best albums.
‘I Can See for Miles’
Townshend’s first long-form concept piece, ‘The Who Sell Out,’ yields just a handful of songs that work out of context. ‘I Can See for Miles’ is the best of them, the Who’s first Top 10 song and the first sign that they were aiming for something a little more substantial than “R&B-influenced British rock band” in the history books.
‘I Can’t Explain’
The Who’s debut single takes a basic chord progression, feeds it through a ton of distortion and comes out the other end with one of the best garage rock songs of the ’60s. It’s a pretty rudimentary sound, compared with the band’s later work (compare ‘I Can’t Explain’ to the ‘Quadrophenia’ tracks on our list of the Top 10 Who Songs), but the seeds of greatness are planted here.
‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’
From Townshend’s looped synths in the song’s intro, to Moon’s rolling wild man drums that stumble throughout the entire track, to Daltrey’s colossal scream near the end, the epic ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ stands as one of rock’s all-time best album closers. Townshend borrows a lyrical theme from ‘Animal Farm,’ but the performance is all the Who’s.
Of course Townshend was going to live to regret he ever wrote ‘My Generation”s key line, “Hope I die before I get old.” But no matter — this is a revolutionary call to arms for kids raised on rock and roll. Even though it’s an early song in the Who’s catalog, they play it with cocky defiance, from Entwistle’s rumbling bass drops, to Townshend’s hammering guitar. to Daltrey’s stuttering vocals. Perfect.
It’s the best of the Who wrapped in five solid minutes. Like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ — also from ‘Who’s Next’ — ‘Baba O’Riley’ piles on looping synths. And like nearly every other cut on our list of the Top 10 Who Songs, it’s an anthem for various shades of teenage disillusionment. Here it takes the form of a teenage wasteland, a desperate, desolate place where the only salvation comes via rock and roll. The Who deliver.