Readers' Poll: The Who's 10 Greatest Songs - Rolling Stone
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Readers’ Poll: The Who’s 10 Greatest Songs

Your picks include ‘Love Reign O’er Me,’ ‘Eminence Front’ and ‘I Can See for Miles’

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Picking your favorite Who song is no easy task. During their initial two-decade run, they released a staggering amount of great music, beginning with early mod singles like "I Can't Explain" all the way through New Wave-inspired gems like "Eminence Front." For every radio hit like "Baba O'Riley," there are 10 great obscure songs like "Blue, Red and Grey" or "Sunrise."

Last week, Rolling Stone asked our readers to vote for their favorite Who songs. Seventy-two separate songs received a nod, and kudos to the individuals who voted for "Heinz Baked Beans" and "Bald Headed Woman," though those songs didn't make the top 10. Click through to see those that did. 

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10. ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’

Pete Townshend was thinking beyond the confines of short pop songs even in the Who's earliest days. Released on their second album, A Quick One of 1966, "A Quick One While He's Away" is a nine-minute song in six separate parts. The story itself is rather simple: a woman has grown tired of waiting for her man to come home after he's been gone for over a year, so she has an affair with Ivor the Engine Driver. When her lover returns, she confesses the whole thing and is ultimately forgiven. The music is far from simple, and some claim it laid some of the groundwork for progressive rock. One section called for a cello, but when they couldn't afford one, they band simply chanted "cello" over and over again.

The song was a highlight of their concerts through 1970, and their version from The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968 was so amazing that the Stones felt they had been upstaged and opted to shelf the whole film. The Who haven't performed the song since 1970, but Pete Townshend has played it at some of his solo shows. 

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9. ‘I Can See for Miles’

Pete Townshend wrote "I Can See for Miles" in 1966 but held back on it for years, thinking it was a guaranteed hit and wanting to save it for the right moment. Much to his chagrin, the song peaked at Number 10 in England and Number Nine in America before quickly falling off the charts. The group rarely played it live, and after Tommy hit in 1969, it was widely forgotten. Over the years, however, its reputation has grown considerably. The complex song is a clear highlight from The Who Sell Out and the aggressive sound was years ahead of its time. Today, it's seen as one of the Who's greatest achievements, even if they've only played once in the past 15 years. 

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8. ‘Eminence Front’

In the early 1980s, Pete Townshend was under a lot of stress. The Who were touring at a relentless pace, and he agreed to record two solo albums and two Who albums. Throw in a near-crippling drug addiction and it's obvious why he put the band to rest in 1982. By this time, he was saving most of his best songs for his solo work, but thankfully for the Who, "Eminence Front" wound up on their mostly dreadful LP It's Hard. The New Wave-inspired song has a great synth intro and is clearly about the fear and paranoia that takes over your life when you're a cocaine addict. It's been a regular part of the setlist ever since the Who reformed for good in 1999. 

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7. ‘The Real Me’

As he did with many great Who albums, Pete Townshend originally began Quadrophenia with a very different idea for how he wanted it to turn out. The Who had been together for a decade by this point, and he wanted to cut an album called Long Live Rock that would celebrate their history. At one point, he even considered cutting the songs in the various styles of their older work, slowly showing it evolve into their current form during the course of the album. This proved to be unworkable, and he ultimately scrapped the idea in favor of a rock opera about a young Who fan named Jimmy in the early 1960s. Among many other problems, Jimmy felt he was suffering from some sort of multiple personality disorder in which he had four distinct personas. The stage for the story is set in the album's second track, "The Real Me," which features some of the best bass work of John Entwistle's long career. He practically makes it the lead instrument of the song. The song was released as a single but never went higher than Number 76 on the charts. 

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6. ‘Who Are You’

By 1977, Pete Townshend felt that maybe the Who were done. Punk rock was taking over London and he felt like a dinosaur, even though the Sex Pistols performed "Substitute" at almost all of their shows. One drunken night, Townshend bumped into Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Pistols at a London pub, though Pete was so hammered he thought he was talking to Johnny Rotten. He told them he wanted to break the band up and when they urged him to reconsider, he felt even worse about the whole thing. He went home that night and wrote "Who Are You." Some of the lyrics were drawn from real life, like the time he woke up drunk in a Soho doorway and a police officer told him to go home. The song became their first big radio hit in a couple of years, though nowadays, most people think of it as the theme song to CSI

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5. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’

Pete Townshend is pretty much the only person on the planet who sees the Who's 1971 LP, Who's Next, as a failure. To him, it's the sad remains of his crazily ambitious rock opera Lifehouse that he ultimately aborted. He doesn't even like the cover art or the name of the album.

Explaining Lifehouse would take about 15,000 words and a couple of flow charts, so let's just say it's a complex science fiction rock opera that anticipated the coming of the Internet. "Behind Blue Eyes" is the theme song of the villain, Jumbo. When it hit the radio in 1971, almost nobody knew that, but it didn't matter: it shot up the charts all over the world and has been part of their live show for over 40 years. 

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4. ‘Love Reign O’er Me’

Unlike Tommy, Pete Townshend wrote most of the songs on Quadrophenia after he'd fully fleshed out the central story. That makes it much easier to follow Jimmy's tale than Tommy's. "Love Reign O'er Me," the grand finale of Quadrophenia, was one of the few songs written very early on, when he was still plotting out Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock. Despite that, the song fits in quite nicely within the narrative. At this point on the story, Jimmy is alone on a rock in the middle of the sea during a huge storm. He has an epiphany that all four of his personas are merely parts of his true self.

The song is definitely one of Roger Daltrey's high points as a vocalist, and he still manages to hit most of the notes these days. It's a tough song to cover but Pearl Jam, Heart and Bettye LaVette have done amazing renditions over the years. 

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3. ‘My Generation’

Bob Dylan was in regular rotation on Pete Townshend's turntable when he wrote "My Generation." Much like Dylan's own "The Times They Are a-Changin,'" Townshend made a very conscious effort to make a statement. "It was written under pressure," he told Rolling Stone in 1968. "Someone came to me and said, 'Make a statement, make a statement, make a statement, make a statement, make a statement,' and I’m going, 'Oh, okay, okay, okay,' and I get 'My Generation' together very quickly, like in a night – it feels like that. It’s a very blustering kind of blurting thing." The song was originally a slow, talking blues style like a Bob Dylan song, but the Who sped it up and turned it into their signature song. It also paved the way for the raw sounds of punk rock though, in an odd twist of fate, the Who also inspired many prog bands and 1970s bombastic arena rock bands with their later work. 

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2. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’

Written at a time when 1960s idealism was dying a quick death, "Won't Get Fooled Again" is about the fruitlessness of revolutions. On record, it's eight-and-a-half minutes, but a drastically cut-down version hit radio in 1971 and reached Number 15 in America. The Who have performed the song countless times over the years, but the single greatest performance might have been at the Concert for New York in 2001. It was John Entwistle's last time playing with the Who on American soil, and they pretty much stole the show from the other A-list stars of the night – even if Roger forgot to sing the "Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss" line at the end.

The song has been embraced by both the far left and right of the political spectrum. Michael Moore wanted to end his film Fahrenheit 9/11 with the song in 2004 and, two years later, The National Review named it the greatest conservative song of all time. "The party on the left will become the party on the right – revolutions slide from attack into self-preservation," Michael Long wrote in a long essay about the song. "They begin softly, like the insistent synthesizer that drives the track, and then roar into the main, all power chords and bullet holes. But it always ends in a throat-ripping scream… Almost without exception, revolutionaries are greedy little prigs, planning utopia while measuring for the office drapes."

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1. ‘Baba O’Riley’

Contrary to what Napster may have told you in 1999, the name of this song isn't "Teenage Wasteland." It's "Baba O'Riley." You can forgive people for the confusion, though; that name appears nowhere in the song, and most people aren't aware of Meher Baba or Terry Riley. Townshend says the concept of a "teenage wasteland" came to him at Woodstock when he saw hundreds of thousands of young people gleefully wasted out of their minds. The rest of the story fits into Lifehouse in a way that only Pete truly understands. The real selling point of the song may be the incredible synth intro; accounts have varied over the years, but Townshend has claimed that he inputted the life information about the Indian mystic Meher Baba into a synthesizer to create the part. 

In This Article: Pete Townshend, The Who

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