The Who

      The Who Sings My Generation (MCA, 1965)
    A Quick One (MCA, 1966)
      The Who Sell Out (MCA, 1967)
   Magic Bus—The Who on Tour (MCA, 1968)
     Tommy (MCA, 1969)
      Live at Leeds (1970; MCA, 1995)
      Who's Next (MCA, 1971)
      Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (MCA, 1971)
     Quadrophenia (MCA, 1973)
    Odds & Sods (MCA, 1974)
    The Who by Numbers (MCA, 1975)
    Who Are You (MCA, 1978)
     The Kids Are Alright (MCA, 1979)
    Face Dances (MCA, 1981)
    It's Hard (MCA, 1982)
  Who's Last (MCA, 1984)
    Who's Better, Who's Best (MCA, 1988)
  Join Together (MCA, 1990)
    Thirty Years of Maximum Rock & Roll (MCA, 1994)
     My Generation: The Very Best of the Who (MCA, 1996)
     The BBC Sessions (MCA, 2000)
     Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition)
(MCA, 2001)
     The Ultimate Collection (Universal, 2002)
      The Who Sings My Generation (Deluxe Edition)
(MCA, 2002)
    Live at the Royal Albert Hall (Steamhammer, 2003)
      Who's Next (Deluxe Edition)
(MCA, 2003)
     Then and Now: Maximum Who (Geffen, 2004)
   Endless Wire (Polydor, 2006)
      Who Sell Out (Deluxe Edition) (MCA, 2009)

In the mid-Sixties, the Who stormed the Mod scene of West London with a sound and vision that distilled the pure essence of early rock & roll. Their music was fast, furious, and noisy, and three of the four members—singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, and drummer Keith Moon—performed with the obnoxious abandon of juvenile delinquents. Above all, the musicianship was first rate. In their performances, Townshend's muscular feedback and fuzz locked into a groove with the thunderous clatter of Moon's unbridled drumming and the blistering throb of John Entwistle's complex bass runs. At the vortex of this din, Daltrey would stalk the stage with a thuggish swagger, hurl his microphone cord about him like a lasso, and howl like a banshee. The Who created a tension that always seemed ready to explode, and indeed most of the band's shows ended with Townshend and Moon destroying their instruments. But there was an air of sophistication behind the brute force, and by their early-Seventies prime the Who was performing rock operas before packed arenas.

With its ferocious blend of grungy distortion, rumbling bass and percussion, and brutish vocals, The Who Sings My Generation would influence garage rockers, metalheads and punks alike. In contrast to debut albums from the Stones (whose take on Southern American rock & soul was fairly earnest) and Beatles (who spread the word of rock & roll through sweet harmonies and easily digestible melodies), My Generation positively shoved at the boundaries of popular music. Townshend's fiercely original guitar experiments here predate the innovations of his later American rival Jimi Hendrix. Though My Generation includes everything from two James Brown covers ("I Don't Mind" and "Please, Please, Please") to a noisy, beefed-up surf tune ("The Ox") to a jangly, Beatlesque pop song ("The Kids Are Alright"), it all sizzles and crackles as though the band was playing through broken amps. The title tune remains a timeless expression of teenage angst.

The Who expanded its musical vocabulary on A Quick One, a decent but flawed collection of experimental pop and rock. Except for one R&B cover ("Heat Wave"), the band's earlier nods to American rock & roll were diminishing, replaced by original songs by each band member. Though Townshend is clearly the visionary here, Entwistle reveals his clever songwriting eccentricities on the delightfully morbid "Boris the Spider" and "Whiskey Man." Moon's and Daltrey's contributions are less compelling. The highlight of the album comes in the pure pop of Townshend's "So Sad About Us," but the centerpiece is the nine-minute, multipart mini-opera "A Quick One, While He's Away," the guitarist's first stab at high-concept rock. (The original American version of A Quick One, titled Happy Jack, included the hit song of the same name. Unfortunately, MCA's 1995 reissue of A Quick One is diluted by the addition of a full album's worth of throwaway outtakes, B-sides and EP tracks, including two annoying covers of surf hits by the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. "Happy Jack" appears here in an emasculated acoustic form.)

The Who Sell Out is Townshend's first (and best) album-length concept piece, paving the way for the full-blown operatic sprawl of Tommy and Quadrophenia. On Sell Out, a satirical yet celebratory look at the folly of Top 40 radio, Townshend successfully does what he would overdo in the two operas. Every song shines—none are mere transitions to the next part of the story—and the mock ads and jingles are hilarious. Sell Out works because there's no fixed narrative to take away from the music. And the music is sensational, from the backward-tape-loop psychedelia of "Armenia City in the Sky" to the Latin buzz of "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" to the Who's all-time best song, "I Can See for Miles."

Magic Bus, with its misleading subtitle The Who on Tour (it's not a live album) and shameless rip-off of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour vibe, is a baffling step backwards. Composed of random repeats of songs from A Quick One and Sell Out, a few B-sides and EP tracks, it's a hodgepodge of wrong turns and dead ends. Even before most of this stuff was available on other collections, the strongest songs—the Bo Diddley–inspired title track and "Pictures of Lily"—were not worth the price of admission to this haphazard funhouse.

In retrospect, Tommy isn't quite the masterpiece it was hyped to be when it first appeared. There's no doubting its excellence as a narrative-based set of Who songs, but it's not nearly as much fun, or even as enlightening, as Sell Out. Tommy's ultimately spiritual plot—it's a dark, twisted tale of recovery from abuse—is thin. If anything, rock's first opera betrays the inherent contradiction of such a concept: The restrictions and complexities of opera take away from the simple power of rock. Still, in Townshend's hands, this ambitious though flawed effort spawned more than a handful of bone fide classic songs: "Amazing Journey," "Christmas," "Sensation," "I'm Free," "We're Not Gonna Take It," "Tommy, Can You Hear Me?" and "Pinball Wizard." Tommy's biggest crime is that it inspired lesser artists to attempt the same trick, and by the late Seventies, bands like Styx had turned operatic concept albums into rock's lamest joke.

The Who hit its peak in the early Seventies, releasing a brutal, balls-to-the-wall performance set (Live at Leeds), an impeccable new studio album (Who's Next), and a perfectly sequenced collection of its finest moments from the Sixties (Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy). The Who was at a turning point in 1971, straddling the transition from British Invasion pioneers to arena-rock gods. On Who's Next, the band crossed that line with power and grace. The album spawned the concert classics "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again"; the great Daltrey vocal vehicles "Bargain" and "Song Is Over"; Entwistle's scorching, anxiety-ridden "My Wife"; and Townshend's most delicate song on record, "Behind Blue Eyes." On Who's Next, Townshend unleashed the power of the synthesizer as a rock & roll instrument, to be used like guitar or bass rather than as a special-effects novelty.

Quadrophenia was Townshend's next stab at the rock opera, and though it is a more muscular piece of music than Tommy, its narrative—about a teenager afflicted with a four-way multiple personality disorder—is even weaker than that of its predecessor. Still, as an exemplary set of Seventies hard rock, Quadrophenia cornered the market. No other contemporary rock band—not Led Zeppelin, nor Pink Floyd, nor Deep Purple—could crank out Big Arena Rock like "The Real Me," "The Punk and the Godfather," or "Love, Reign O'er Me."

By the mid-Seventies the Who was in a holding pattern, delivering slick, high-quality album-oriented rock and singer/songwriter fare but no longer pushing boundaries. The Who by Numbers and the electronics-informed Who Are You are both decent albums with varying mixes of great, good, and mediocre material. But Townshend's heart no longer seemed to be in the songwriting, and Daltrey's commanding voice had become a parody of itself. When Moon drank himself to death in late 1978, the Who got a big punch in the stomach. While the band's first post-Moon album, Face Dances, turned out to be a passable collection of New Wave–inspired, MTV-era rock, by the time of the aptly named It's Hard, the Who had lost all inspiration.

Who's Last and Join Together are pointless live albums. The former comes off like a contractually obligated release from a tired, directionless band on its half-hearted farewell tour. The latter is more insidious. Recorded seven years after the aforementioned "farewell" tour—and featuring an all-star cast that includes Phil Collins and Patti LaBelle—it's a musically tolerable but cynical financial ploy, a greatest hits of rock opera that comes off more like the Ringling Brothers, Townshend, and Daltrey Circus. This isn't the Who—it's a Vegas revue.

Of the various Who compilations, only Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy and Ultimate Collection truly capture the scope and drama of the band's oeuvre. The others lack essential songs or are poorly sequenced, or—particularly in the case of the box set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B—include entirely too much residue. The Kids Are Alright is a fine collection of great Who songs, mostly caught live, that captures scorching performances of "My Generation" (from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), "Magic Bus" (from the German TV show Beat Club), "A Quick One, While He's Away" (from The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus), as well as the concert faves "Long Live Rock," "Baba O'Riley," and "Won't Get Fooled Again." BBC Sessions is a comprehensive document of the Who's recordings for British radio from 1965 to 1973. It's not a starting point for the uninitiated, unless said uninitiated is a fan of lo-fi punk rock: The sound is tinny and the performances are ragged, but it's absolutely glorious, from start to finish.

Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition) is an expanded version of the remastered 1995 single-disc restoration of the original six-song classic. That edition had added extra songs from the band's famed Leeds performance of February 14, 1970; this edition tacks on an entirely new disc of music from the same show—a live performance of the entire Tommy opera, from beginning to end. The sound has been improved, and diehard Who fans will relish the extra music and onstage patter. That said, the original, stripped-down Live at Leeds cannot be topped. Not only does it remain the most sonically intense document of that evening's performance, but it's also one of rock's all-time best live albums. Their debut got the deluxe treatment in 2002, which featured dramtically improved sound and a slew of b-sides, outtakes and alternate mixes. Similar treatment was given to Who's Next and Who Sell Out, though Quadrophenia remains sadly untouched.

John Entwistle died of a heart attack in 2002. Live at the Royal Albert Hall captures him and the band in 2000, with guest spots from Paul Weller and Eddie Vedder; the disc also includes four tracks from Entwistle's final gig with the Who. Townshend and Daltrey returned to the studio in 2006 to cut their first album in nearly a quarter century. Pete clearly hadn't spent the interim writing songs, and the result, Endless Wire, is an overproduced disc that's occasionally fun ("Man In A Purple Dress"), though it mostly sounds like bad outtakes from Who Are You? Many of the songs are supposedly linked to Pete's Lifehouse project, though even the most devoted Who fans will probably struggle to see the connection.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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