In the summer of 1964 a young British rock band called the High Numbers released their debut single “Zoot Suit,” and watched it disappear without a trace. The supremely-forgettable song was written by their manager Pete Meaden; a few months later, when they headed back into the studio, they decided to rename themselves the Who and let guitarist Pete Townshend try his hand at songwriting. It was a wise decision. The first single released was “Can’t Explain,” which kicked off a stunning two-decade run of music that paved the way for punk, metal, power pop and progressive rock. In honor of the Who’s ongoing 50th anniversary tour, we have ranked their best songs.
"He was a very strange fellow," Townshend said of Entwistle. "I loved John, obviously, for his eccentricities." The first song Entwistle wrote for the Who bowled the band over, highlighting his dark, absurdist sense of humor and distinct playing style. Never released as a single, it still became the group's most requested live song. According to Townshend, it was also Jimi Hendrix's favorite Who song, which shouldn't be all that surprising. "What's interesting in our group is that the roles are reversed," Townshend said. "John's the lead guitar."
Written just prior to Townshend's first LSD experience, this uncharacteristic slice of paisley power pop echoes the Beatles' advice for trippers – "Turn off your mind, relax and flow downstream" – from "Tomorrow Never Knows." "Relax" is reminiscent of the material Syd Barrett was recording with Pink Floyd, featuring a Hammond organ (played by Townshend) rising and falling tranquilly in the background. It concludes with a fury of acid-rock guitar that would launch some of the Who's more explosive onstage jams during their extensive tours in 1967 and '68, though it soon left their live set.
Though the song was never released as a single, the Who shot a video for "Another Tricky Day," a highlight of the otherwise lackluster Face Dances. In the album's liner notes, Townshend thanked Texan keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick, who became an ancillary member of the band at the time, for "help and inspiration on 'Another Tricky Day.'" But the sentiment is pure Who, a defiant yet complex tune about music's enduring power amid life's problems. "Rock & roll will never die," Daltrey sings. The Who folded just one year later. Since their return, this song has been appearing in their shows for years.
This exuberant Townshend-sung track was originally intended for a car-chase sequence in Lifehouse but ended up on Who's Next. It was inspired, Townshend has said, by "me riding around in the mobile caravan I've bought." Capturing the feel of driving in an air-conditioned auto, leaving the "police and the tax man" behind, the track featured another of Townshend's early forays into technology: his acoustic guitar run through what he called "one of the original crude guitar synthesizers. …It sounds just like a duck, doesn't it?"
This five-minute piece, which opens Tommy and foreshadows its thematic and musical themes, was an afterthought. When Townshend was working out the album's narrative, he began it with "It's a Boy," but he told Rolling Stone in 1969, "That would have been too blunt of an opening." Instead, he juxtaposed the urgency of "See Me, Feel Me" with the glee of "Pinball Wizard" in an instrumental intro: "This clues you in to a lot of themes and gives a continuity to the tracks." It singlehandedly elevated the rock album to a "rock opera."
One of the most euphoric moments on Who's Next got an assist from guitarist Joe Walsh. In 1970, the Who took Walsh's hard-rock trio the James Gang on tour as an opening act. Perhaps as a way to say thanks, Walsh gave Townshend a Gretsch acoustic guitar, which he ended up playing on "Bargain" when the band recorded it. Townshend began work on the song while demo'ing material for his Lifehouse project. "On Lifehouse, it was a love song, but a song about a higher love, a love between disciple and master," he said. What emerged was an open-hearted expression of Townshend's devotion to Sufism, and religious faith in general: "How much of a bargain it would be even to love everything in order to be at one with God," he said later. Over the course of several sessions with producer Glyn Johns at London's Olympic Studio, "Bargain" grew into a triumphant anthem, with Moon delivering an explosive yet intricate performance many consider one of his finest and Daltrey sending the song's powerful sentiment skyward. Daltrey said years later that Who's Next songs like "Bargain" were "rooted inside of us."
Entwistle wrote songs about men facing things they feared, whether it was a furious spouse ("My Wife"), alcoholism ("Whiskey Man"), a creepy spider ("Boris the Spider") or death ("Heaven and Hell"). Here, he came up with a tune about a man so unsure about his sexual prowess that he hires a prostitute and begs her for an honest assessment of his skills. His thundering bass and growling vocals make this his most overlooked Who track. In the Who Are You liner notes, Townshend describes Entwistle's playing on "Trick of the Light" as sounding like "a musical Mack truck."
With its original title, "See, Feel, Hear You," anticipating "See Me, Feel Me," this rapturous, yearning pop gem was written by Townshend shortly before he adopted Meher Baba as his spiritual adviser. Describing his frame of mind at the time, Townshend later admitted, "I can say without pretensions that I was looking for someone." The song's lyrics, meanwhile, are intriguingly ambiguous about whether the object of his desire is spiritual or sexual. It was also one of the first songs that Townshend wrote on piano; he happily recalled that its refreshing simplicity was "caused by my inability to play!"
Released between the twin towers of Who's Next and Quadrophenia, this non-LP track, sung tag-team over acoustic guitar and boogie-woogie- flavored piano by Nicky Hopkins, found Townshend in an unusually activist state of mind. He was inspired partly by the teachings of Meher Baba (see its "everything is nothing" mantra), and later described the song as being "about the people who act in a revolution, and the people that sit back. I thought it also said a lot about the way we forget our souls most of the time." A fascinating demo version surfaced in 1972 on Townshend's solo debut, Who Came First.
The Who started playing American jazz-blues singer Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues" in 1964, when they were still the Detours. According to Townshend, the song also inspired his first "My Generation" demo. The Who recorded it during early Tommy sessions, but Townshend decided to include their take on Allison's version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Eyesight to the Blind" instead. By the time the Who recorded what would become Live at Leeds' raging opener (actually the show's fifth song), "Young Man Blues" had evolved into a powerful call-and-response between Daltrey and his bandmates.
The Who opened nearly every gig on their 1970 Tommy tour with Entwistle's hard-driving "Heaven and Hell," a death-obsessed tune that served as a kind of energetic warm-up for the band. "I basically wanted to write a song with a big subject, an important subject rather than spiders or drunks," said Entwistle. "The original version … had a different chorus. It was basically 'I'd much rather stay in the middle with my friends because I don't like the sound of either of them.' I still don't. I don't fancy hell or heaven." The bassist also recorded a version of the song on his 1971 solo album, Smash Your Head Against the Wall.
Released in August 1966, "I'm a Boy" let Who fans know that Townshend was interested in topics well beyond typical pop-song subject matter. The story of a boy whose parents dress him up like a girl was originally meant to be part of a rock opera called Quads that Townshend never completed. But the notion of a child tortured by his parents came back two years later when he began work on Tommy. "I've always addressed and acknowledged child abuse, the neglect of children, the misunderstanding of adolescence," Townshend said in 1993. "The first song in which I addressed it was 'I'm a Boy,' but it's always been there."
Kicking off side two of Tommy, "Christmas" is one of the album's saddest moments, in which we learn Tommy's parents don't think their deaf, dumb and blind son could appreciate the holiday. Townshend recorded the song as a sparse, piano-based demo. (The original lyrics had the line "playing with himself, he sits and smiles," which was later revised to introduce Tommy's love for pinball.) As soon as the bandmates got their hands on the song, they turned it into a bombastic showstopper, with Townshend and Daltrey both taking vocal turns. For a definitive version of "Christmas," see the expanded Live at Leeds.
We were the first band to vomit in the bar," brags Daltrey in this self-aware anthem, a celebration of the band's history that includes allusions to clueless promoters and ticket scalpers. Recorded in 1972, the song was originally intended to be part of Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock, an unfinished autobiographical 1972 album that morphed into Quadrophenia. "Long Live Rock" wouldn't get an official release until the 1974 collection Odds and Sods, with Townshend writing in the liner notes that "there are dozens of these self-conscious hymns to the last 15 years appearing now, and here's another one."
The intensely personal Who by Numbers opens with a message about the perils of fame. The deceptively bouncy "Slip Kid" informs would-be rock stars that "it's a hard, hard world." "It came across as a warning to young kids getting into music that it would hurt them," said Townshend. "It was almost parental in its assumed wisdom." After Pearl Jam's tragic set in 2000 at Denmark's Roskilde, which resulted in the death of nine fans, Eddie Vedder turned to the tune for comfort. "There's a line [in the song], 'There's no easy way to be free,'" he said in 2006. "I was thinking, 'I couldn't agree with you more.'"
Townshend described Tommy's Acid Queen character as a metaphor for peer pressure – a "black-hearted gypsy who had promised to bring Tommy out of his autistic condition but was actually a sexual monster, using drugs to break him." Moon's anarchic drumming and Townshend's torrential guitar and chilling lyrics ("His head, it shakes/His fingers clutch/Watch his body writhe") drive home the dark drama. When Tina Turner took on the role of the Acid Queen for the 1975 film version of Tommy, she played it even more predatorily than Daltrey does on the LP. Townshend called her performance "stunning."
In case there was any doubt that substance abuse was slowly taking its toll on the Who by 1975, the band came out with a song called "However Much I Booze," on which Townshend declares there "ain't no way out" from his near-crippling alcohol addiction. "I forced the band into a corner with that material," he said. It's easy to see why Daltrey refused to handle the song's vocals ("I've never been drunk onstage in seven years," he said at the time), and it's just as easy to understand why they haven't played it live in 40 years. Yet "However Much I Booze" remains a revealing, moving cry for help.
Allegedly written after Townshend's parents caught him masturbating (and asked, "Why can't he go out with girls, like other boys?"), this remains a groundbreaking moment of lyrical intimacy and honesty in rock, and a hilarious one too. The song's title was inspired by a picture Townshend's girlfriend had of 1920s vaudevillian Lily Bayliss, though he later said, "It's just a look back at the period in every boy's life where he has pinups." Daltrey sang the song with what he called "complete innocence," and the band promoted it with a series of risqué postcards, causing a mild controversy that helped assure its Top 10 success.
"A surprise hit single for us," Townshend said. "We even went back on Top of the Pops." Tough and to the point, "You Better You Bet" reflects the way Townshend's enthusiasm for punk rock was tightening his songwriting. Addressed to his new girlfriend, it also hits a note of sly nostalgia when Daltrey sings about getting drunk "to the sound of old T. Rex." Daltrey, who has compared the song's bouncing melody to Elvis Presley, considers it a lone bright spot on 1981's Face Dances, their first album after the death of Moon: "'You Better You Bet' is still one of my favorite songs of all."
One of the last great lionhearted Who anthems, "Who Are You" summed up Townshend's disillusion with where rock had gone during the late Seventies, and his desire to find authenticity amid the malaise. "It's actually a prayer," Townshend said later. "I was trying to sort out who, where, what God was." He wrote it after a contentious business meeting about unpaid royalties devolved into a drunken spree, during which Townshend ran into two members of the Sex Pistols in a club called the Speakeasy. Falling on his knees at the feet of drummer Paul Cook, he told the young punk musician, "Rock has gone down the fuckin' tubes." The incident planted the seed for a high-powered song that Townshend called "an encyclopedia for up-and-coming groups about how not to get caught." Finishing "Who Are You" required some effort. Producer Jon Astley said that Townshend "turned up with this very long demo of the track … with all this stuff happening on it." Astley got to work cutting five minutes out of the song, and the end result became a Top 20 hit in America and the U.K., proof that the Who weren't done just yet.