The Who are planning on launching their “last big tour” sometime in 2015, but right now, their main project is a super-deluxe edition of their 1969 landmark rock opera Tommy. It contains a remastered version of the album along with Pete Townshend’s original demos and live versions of the songs from 1969. Tommy is arguably their most famous album, but every single record by the original lineup of the Who is cherished by fans. We asked our readers to select their favorite Who albums. Click through to see the results.
The Who were in the worst shape of their 15-year career when they began work on Who Are You in late 1977. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey had taken nasty swipes at each other in the press in recent years, and Keith Moon was a severe drug addict. He was just 32, but he looked a good decade older. The punk revolution was also sweeping England, threatening to make bands like the Who seem like dinosaurs.
Pete Townshend was determined to see his band survive, though the Who Are You opening track "New Song" acknowledges his tough task: "I write the same old song with a few new lines/ And everybody wants to hear it." The title track reflects on a drunken night with members of the Sex Pistols where he did actually pass out in a Soho doorway, while "Music Must Change" also acknowledges the changing musical landscape. "But is this song so different?" Townshend wonders. "Am I doing it all again?" Despite his doubts, the album was a huge success – but less than two weeks after it hit shelves, Keith Moon was dead. Ironically, he's posed on the cover sitting in a chair that reads "Not To Be Taken Away."
A little over a year after he helped the Kinks become superstars by producing "You Really Got Me," producer Shel Talmy brought the Who into his recording studio. They made the heavily Kinks-inspired "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" together and those singles were successful enough to get the young band a deal for an entire album.
The Who Sings My Generation was recorded in a pretty short time period and failed to capture the wild energy of their stage show, but even watered-down Who was still stellar. "My Generation" and "The Kids Are Alright" became instant Mod classics, while covers like "Please Please Please" and "I'm a Man" showcased their maximum R&B sound. It gave them a very nice start, and they quickly evolved faster than anyone could have imagined.
The overwhelming success of Tommy and Who's Next brought the Who a huge new army of fans, and many of them weren't around during their initial hit-making period in the 1960s. Also, many of their early classics ("I Can't Explain," "The Seeker," "Substitute") weren't available on any album. It was common practice in the 1960s for bands to churn out regular singles, leaving many of them off their albums. All of this made it perfectly logical to package up their early work on a single album and drop it in stores right in time for the Christmas buying season. The album was a big success. Many, many compilations followed, but this was the first.
Pete Townshend was completely drained by 1975. The last four Who albums were crazily ambitious concept albums (even if Who's Next was merely the brilliant shell of Lifehouse) and it was getting increasingly hard to top himself. He also turned 30 and felt like an old man in a young man's game.
Instead of trying to create something even greater than Quadrophenia, he wisely scaled down and wrote The Who By Numbers, a series of songs about the sad state of his life. "However Much I Booze" was so intense and personal that Roger Daltrey refused to sing it. "How Many Friends" is the single saddest song in the Who's catalog, while "Dreaming from the Waist" deals with the sexual frustration of aging.
Many people have a warped sense of the album because the only hit was "Squeeze Box," a goofy song that compares an accordion to a woman's sexual organ. John Entwistle contributed "Success Story," the story of a band that gets destroyed by the music business. The Who By Numbers didn't earn the same rave reviews of the band's previous discs, but it's aged remarkably well.
A Quick One, the Who's second album, is built around the rather flawed premise that all four members of the band should contribute to the songwriting process. John Entwistle rose to the challenge with "Whiskey Man" and "Boris the Spider." The latter became his signature song; he wore a spider necklace for decades. Keith Moon wrote the madcap instrumental "Cobwebs and Strangers," featuring all four members of the band on different wind instruments. Roger Daltrey's only tune is "See My Way," a rather forgettable ditty that the group never even played live.
Needless to say, Pete Townshend's songs are the best. "So Sad About Us" is an overlooked masterpiece, while the nine-minute mini-opera "A Quick One, While He's Away" paved the way for all the rock operas that followed. It proved that Townshend had bigger things on his mind than short pop singles. It was also explosive onstage and became the highlight of their gigs for years.
The success of the mini-opera "A Quick One, While He's Away" made Pete Townshend think big while he plotted out the Who's third album. Inspired by the pirate radio stations docked near England, he wrote a series of songs linked together by fake commercials for actual products like Heinz Baked Beans and Odorono deodorant. Songs like "Tattoo" and "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hands" are fantastically weird, while "I Can See for Miles" may be the greatest song that Townshend wrote in the 1960s. He was absolutely crushed when it failed to become a big hit in America.
The Who Sell Out wraps up with "Rael," which contains the musical seeds of a story about a blind, deaf and dumb boy that would transform the Who into one of the biggest bands on Earth.
Tommy was a bigger hit than the Who could have possibly imagined. They were suddenly headlining major festivals and playing to sold-out opera houses in major cities. The played the entire album every night, along with earlier songs and covers like "Young Man Blues" and "Summertime Blues." They were on fire every single night, playing some of the greatest concerts in the history of rock.
In late 1969, they began taping shows for a possible live album, though Townshend was unhappy with the results and ordered the tapes burned. (How many shows, if any, were burned remains a matter of hot dispute.) Tapes were rolling again when they played Hull and Leeds, England in February 1970, but Entwistle's bass parts weren't captured during the opening songs at Hull, so they released the Leeds show. The original record of Live at Leeds just had six songs (three of which were covers) to showcase their pre-Tommy live repertoire but, over the years, they've slowly released the complete show. They even released Hull, simply swapping in John's bass from the Leeds recordings on the opening songs.
In the fall of 1968, Pete Townshend sat down with Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner to share his idea for an ambitious rock opera. "The package I hope is going to be called 'Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy,'" he said. "He's seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That's really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music, you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play." Pete hadn't even started to record yet, but he already knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish.
The tragic story of Tommy – who is abused by his cousin Kevin, his Uncle Ernie and even raped by a woman hired by his parents – mirrors some of the trauma in Townshend's own childhood. The finished product was an absolute triumph, earning the band a global hit with "Pinball Wizard" and proving that rock & roll could stretch beyond short singles. It seemed like the most ambitious rock album possible, but Townshend was just getting started.
Pete Townshend was still in his twenties when he began plotting out the Who's follow-up to Who's Next, but he already felt like a relic of another era. The Who had been around for a decade, which for a rock band felt like an eternity. His mind turned back towards the band's early days playing wild sets to hordes of mods hopped up on pills. He decided to write another rock opera, this time about a young Who fan named Jimmy battling with girls, his parents, his friends and even his own mind.
Touching on real-life incidents – like the Brighton Beach brawl between mods and rockers – the double album Quadrophenia was a worthy follow-up to Tommy, though this time, kids all around the world related to Jimmy and his intense feelings of isolation. It proved too difficult to play onstage in 1973, but they revived it in 1996 and 2012 to much acclaim.
Most people listen to Who's Next and hear a near-perfect rock album. Songs like "Behind Blue Eyes," "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley" are some of the most enduring songs in the Who's entire catalog and have been played millions of times on classic rock radio. The songs have also been at the center of nearly every Who concert over the past 40 years. It was a huge best-seller, bringing the band into the 1970s and guaranteeing they'd never face an empty arena as long as they could continue touring.
But to Pete Townshend, the album is a reminder of his failure. The songs were originally intended for a crazily ambitious rock opera called Lifehouse. The plot is so complicated that only Townshend truly understands it, and he was unable to realize it on record. Who's Next is a bunch of songs intended for Lifehouse mixed in with a few other tracks, like John Entwistle's hysterical "My Wife." Pete Townshend released Lifehouse under his own name in 2000 as The Lifehouse Chronicles. It wasn't nearly as good as Who's Next. Not even close.