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The Who’s 50 Greatest Songs

From power-pop anthems to operatic epics to stadium-size rockers and beyond

The Who; 50 Best Songs

Everett Collection

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. 

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“A Quick One, While He’s Away” (‘A Quick One,’ 1966)

By late 1966, Townshend had been churning out thrilling singles for nearly two years. But he was anxious to try something that broke away from the structure of pop altogether. He wound up writing a nine-minute opus that was dubbed a "mini opera," divided into six distinct parts, about a woman who misses her absent lover and winds up cheating on him with a bloke named Ivor the Engine Driver. The song incorporates everything from folk to blues to country to pile-driving rock & roll. The Who wanted to hire cellists to play near the climax, but due to budget shortfalls they wound up merely chanting the word "cello" over and over again to glorious effect. The hilarious, frenetic results were unlike anything else in 1966, though it wasn't until years later that Townshend saw a deeper meaning. "It is the story that many of us postwar kids share of being sent away," he said in 2012. "And of losing a precious loved one and being greatly changed when they returned."

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“My Generation” (‘My Generation’, 1965)

Townshend supposedly wrote "My Generation" on his 20th birthday, May 19th, 1965, while riding a train from London to Southampton for a television appearance. The song wasn't intended as a youth-mutiny anthem at first. It was a Jimmy Reed-style blues, reflecting Townshend's fears about the impending strictures of adult life, famously captured in the line "Hope I die before I get old."

"'My Generation' was very much about trying to find a place in society," he told Rolling Stone in 1987. "I was very, very lost. The band was young then. It was believed that its career would be incredibly brief." Instead, "My Generation" became the Who's ticket to legend. Townshend's two-chord assault, Daltrey's stuttering, howling performance, Moon's avalanche drumming, and Townshend and Entwistle's R&B-inspired backing vocals created a mounting anxiety that climaxed with a studio re-creation of the Who's live gear-trashing finales. It became their first British Top Five hit – and a battle cry for young mod rebels all over England.

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“I Can See for Miles” (‘The Who Sell Out’, 1967)

Townshend recorded "I Can See for Miles" as a demo in 1966, and the Who's managers were so positive it was a guaranteed smash that they decided to shelve it until a time when the Who desperately needed a hit. This gave Townshend time to slowly craft his masterpiece. "It was written about jealousy but ended up being about the immense power of aspiration," he said later. "I spent a lot of time working on the vocal harmonies and structuring it." He began work at CBS Studios in London and finished months later at Gold Star in L.A., the same studio where Brian Wilson created his similarly ambitious "Good Vibrations" the previous year. Wilson's efforts paid off with a song that topped the charts in both the U.K. and U.S. "I Can See for Miles" didn't do well commercially in England ("Didn't sell a single copy," Townshend said. "I was humiliated"), but it did reach Number Nine in America, making it the Who's biggest stateside hit. Despite his disappointment, Townshend knew he'd made something timeless. "One of the best songs I've ever written," he later recalled.

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“Won’t Get Fooled Again” (‘Who’s Next’, 1971)

The climactic finish to The Who's best album is rock's – and Pete Townshend's – greatest declaration of independence: an epic storm of doubt, refusal, hypno-minimalist synthesizer and rolling-thunder power chords capped by a truly superhuman scream. "The song was meant," the guitarist-composer said in 2006, "to let politicians and revolutionaries alike know that what lay in the center of my life was not for sale." But with that long, feral howl by Roger Daltrey, "as though his heart was being torn out," as Townshend put it, the song "became something more to so many people" – a thrilling demonstration of rock's power to elevate and unite in the face of any regime. Written for Townshend's star-crossed opera Lifehouse, and first recorded in March 1971 at a discarded session with Mountain guitarist Leslie West, "Won't Get Fooled Again" made its stage debut that April, quickly becoming a fixture of the Who's live shows. Townshend's recent licensing of the song for TV and films has not diminished its power or lyrical contempt for demagogues on both sides. At its core, "Won't Get Fooled Again" – with its chorus image of Townshend on his knees, guitar in hands – is about music as moral force and salvation. "What is there," he confessed, "is prayer."

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