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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. 

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“I’m a Boy” (Non-album single, 1966)

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."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Christmas” (‘Tommy’, 1969)

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.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Long Live Rock” (‘Odds and Sods’, 1974)

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 Who; 50 Best Songs

“Slip Kid” (‘The Who by Numbers’, 1975)

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.'"

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“The Acid Queen” (‘Tommy’, 1969)

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."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“However Much I Booze” (‘The Who by Numbers’, 1975)

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.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Pictures of Lily” (Non-album single, 1967)

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.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“You Better You Bet” (‘Face Dances’, 1981)

"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."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Who Are You” (‘Who Are You’, 1978)

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.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“5:15” (‘Quadrophenia’, 1973)

The debut single on Quadrophenia, and the lead track of the album's second disc, is delivered in call-and-response vocals by Daltrey and Townshend. Amid images of polymorphous sexuality, they describe a pill-loving protagonist ("Out of my brain on the train") over Townshend's dukes-up guitar lines, brash horns by Entwistle and rollicking piano by moonlighting Joe Cocker sideman Chris Stainton. Unlike most of Quadrophenia, which required painstaking work, "5:15" came to Townshend quickly ("While I was killing time between appointments," he recalled) and was written in the studio the day it was recorded.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Pure and Easy” (‘Odds and Sods’, 1974)

A crucial song from the abandoned Lifehouse project, "Pure and Easy" was originally designed to set the stage for that concept album's story about an eternal note of music that unites civilization. Once Townshend decided to scrap Lifehouse in favor of Who's Next, the majestic "Pure and Easy" wound up on the cutting-room floor, surfacing later on his 1972 solo LP Who Came First and the Who's 1974 compilation Odds and Sods. "It was the kernel behind Who's Next," Townshend said. "But it never made it onto that record. In a sense, the heart [of Who's Next] was missing."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Sparks” (‘Tommy’, 1969)

This Wagnerian instrumental track evokes the Who's live power more than anything else on Tommy. Townshend had wanted Tommy to have other interstitial material that would include battle noises and pinball sound effects, but abandoned the idea in his rush to complete the album. Originally titled "Dream Sequence," "Sparks" got its title from a 1962 collection of Meher Baba sayings called Sparks of the Truth and recycled a musical theme from "Rael," a mini-opera on The Who Sell Out. Townshend later said the version on Live at Leeds "gets as close as what's possible for that classical-rock thing."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Happy Jack” (Non-album single, 1967)

Townshend wrote this whimsical two-minute "nonsense song" while thinking about the kind of village idiot he used to see as a child on the beaches of the Isle of Man, where his family spent their summers. He emphatically claimed that "never in a million years will it be a hit for the Who." Despite his protests, manager Kit Lambert put it out as a U.K. single in 1966, and when its jittery rhythm, empathetic lyrics and sweet harmonies earned it a Number 24 chart position in the U.S., Townshend called it a "hard ego lesson." Harder still, Paul McCartney would later tell him it was his favorite Who song.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“A Legal Matter” (‘My Generation’, 1965)

Townshend made his vocal debut on "A Legal Matter" – the group's impish ode to divorce. Daltrey, who was married at the time, might've been leery of singing lyrics like "I gain and lose my women fast." Townshend, on the other hand, just looked at the hard-charging B-side to "The Kids Are Alright" as a means of expressing his frustration. "It's terrible feeling like an eligible bachelor but with no women seeming to agree with you," he said. The song was later released as a single in its own right – ironically, the same week in 1966 when Keith Moon married model Kim McLagan.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“How Many Friends” (‘The Who by Numbers’, 1975)

When Townshend first played the brutally honest, emotionally desolate songs that would comprise The Who by Numbers, Moon walked over and gave the guitarist a hug. By the sound of "How Many Friends," he could've used it. "How many friends have I really got?/ You can count 'em on one hand," Daltrey sings on this elegiac tune, which alluded to Townshend's conflicted sexual identity and distance from the Who. "There was something else behind that song," Townshend said later. "That rock itself was supposed to deliver something different. That was a hope that wasn't fulfilled."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Sunrise” (‘The Who Sell Out’, 1967)

Amid the fake commercials, psychedelic freakouts and bizarre comic twists on The Who Sell Out sits "Sunrise," a lovely acoustic track featuring just Townshend's voice and his Harmony 12-string. The song's bright melody, nimble finger-picking and melancholy lyrics were a break from the Who's chaotic intensity, and not everyone in the band was thrilled to see Townshend branching out. "Keith didn't want that on the record," Townshend said in 1980. "In a way, that's a bit of a giveaway to the fact that at the time I was studying a bit of this jazz thing. I wrote it for my mother to show her that I could write real music."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Magic Bus” (Non-album single, 1968)

Written in 1965, this first surfaced as an obscure 1967 single cut by beatnik barbershop U.K. pop rockers the Pudding. The Who's version was a gem of groove-heavy psychedelia, riding a Bo Diddley beat with a signature clave rhythm played by the band's road man- ager/sound man Bob "Ben Pump" Pridden. It was released in various renditions. But the eight-minute take that appears on Live at Leeds, with Daltrey wailing on harmonica, may be the wildest. Fittingly, Martin Scorsese made it a high point of the soundtrack for Ray Liotta's coked-up driving scene in Goodfellas.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“The Seeker” (Non-album single, 1970)

This anthem of spiritual questing wasn't born in an ashram; Townshend wrote it during a night of hard partying during a U.S. tour, in a "mosquito-ridden swamp [in Florida] at three in the morning, drunk out of my brain …. Quite loosely," he once said, "'The Seeker' [is about] what I call Divine Desperation." In lyrics predicting John Lennon's "God" (released later that year), Daltrey name-checks the Beatles, "Bobby Dylan" and Timothy Leary, but none of them have the answers he needs. "We're looking at each other," he concludes, "and we don't know what to do." Unusually, the band self-produced the track, as producer Kit Lambert was laid up with a broken jaw. But the sound mix roared, and it became the first single the Who released after the triumph of Tommy. "The Seeker" was an underperformer on the pop charts, but it remained a potent statement. Townshend played it acoustic at Meher Baba gatherings, and the Who's live performances of the song were overpowering – "an elephant," said Townshend, that "finally stampeded itself to death on stages around England."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“My Wife” (‘Who’s Next’, 1971)

After getting into an argument with his wife, Alison, Entwistle took his dogs for a walk. By the time he returned home, he had this tune mapped out – "one of those instant songs," he said. He played bass, piano and horns on the thunderous track. And the deadpan lyrics – about a spouse who goes on a murderous tear after hearing her husband might have had an affair – are quintessential Entwistle. "She always thought it was very funny," he said of Alison’s reaction to "My Wife." "She always had the ambition to come on and hit me over the head with a rolling pin halfway through it when I was doing it onstage."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“I’m Free” (‘Tommy’, 1969)

With an elastic guitar riff and an uplifting chorus, "I'm Free" is Tommy at its most optimistic. In his 2012 memoir, Townshend described it as the opera's "moment of realization." It's one of many songs he wrote during this period that were influenced by the teachings of Meher Baba. Musically, the inspiration for its shuffling rhythm came from a more earthly source: the Rolling Stones' 1968 classic "Street Fighting Man." "When I finally discovered how [the Stones song] went," Townshend said, "I thought, 'Well, blimey, it can't be that simple' but it was … and I wanted to do it myself."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Tattoo” (‘The Who Sell Out’, 1967)

This clever and poignant initiation story from Townshend's "absurd album of melody and humor" was an early example of a commitment to narrative songs. "Tattoo" was first demo'ed in Las Vegas during a three-day break from the Who's 1967 American tour opening for Herman's Hermits. Townshend later said he "was inspired by recent events on the road: Were we men or were we something else?" The guitarist was worried Daltrey might not want to sing lyrics about doubting your own masculinity. "He sang it really well," Townshend recalled. "And I realized then … he's got the same insecurities I do."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“I’m One” (‘Quadrophenia’, 1973)

Opening with Townshend singing in a heartbreaking high tenor over acoustic guitar, "I'm One" flips on the second verse, with the singer flicking out his electric guitar like a switchblade and the band rushing in alongside him. "When I was a nipper, I always used to feel that the guitar was all I had," Townshend said, introducing the song live in 1973. "I wasn't tough enough to be a member of the gang, not good-looking enough to be in with the birds, not clever enough to make it at school, not good enough with the feet to make a good football player. I was a fucking loser. I think everybody feels that way at some point."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Blue, Red and Grey” (‘The Who by Numbers’, 1975)

When it came time for a follow-up to Quadrophenia, Townshend decided to scale things back and made The Who by Numbers, a stripped-down confessional album about his own insecurities and demons. "Blue, Red and Grey" was a moment of optimism amid the darkness, a simple, oddly beautiful ode to enjoying life that was written on the ukulele and recorded on a home demo. Townshend was stunned when producer Glyn Johns insisted it appear on The Who by Numbers. "I said, 'What? That fucking thing?'" Townshend said. "'Here's me wanting to commit suicide, and you're going to put that thing on the record?'"

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“So Sad About Us” (‘A Quick One’, 1966)

"I think it's a terrific number," Townshend said of "So Sad About Us" in 1966. "We do it onstage – but the final record was nothing like the original demo disc I made of it." The Who recorded this prim breakup tune in 1966, though it was originally written for the Merseys, a band that shared the Who's manager and had a hit with a Townshend-produced version of the song that same year. With an intro that recalls the ringing guitars of the Byrds, it's one of the more vulnerable moments of the band's breakneck early years. It wasn't released as a single, but it's been covered by fans from the Jam to the Breeders.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“The Real Me” (‘Quadrophenia’, 1973)

The opening salvo for Quadrophenia is the sound of four men driving at full throttle. Entwistle delivers what might be his greatest recorded performance – as he proudly put it, the song was essentially "a bass solo with vocals." "The Real Me" captures the contradictory nature of the album's main character, Jimmy, screaming at his mother, his priest and his shrink, challenging them to truly see him. "You have the big, big, big bass of John Entwistle, the big, big drums of Keith Moon, the power chords, the huge voice of Roger Daltrey," said Townshend, "and what they're actually saying is 'I'm a pathetic little wimp.'"

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“The Kids Are Alright” (‘My Generation’, 1965)

"It sounds symphonic," Townshend said of "The Kids Are Alright." Recorded in the same session that produced "My Generation," the song is another celebration of the mod subculture, replacing angry defiance with something more communal and kindhearted. Originally slated as a B-side for "My Generation," it became a single at the insistence of producer Shel Talmy. Moon later claimed the mod image was foisted on the band. Townshend held that allegiance much more dearly. "As a force, they were unbelievable," he told Rolling Stone in 1968. "Everybody just grooving on being a mod."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Pinball Wizard” (‘Tommy’, 1969)

When Townshend was first developing Tommy, he played it for music critic Nik Cohn, who felt the emotionally intense opera was a bit dark. "If it had pinball in it, would you give it a decent review?" the guitarist asked Cohn, who responded, "Of course I would. Anything with pinball in it is fantastic." The resulting "rockaboogie" tune, as Townshend has called it, became one of the Who's most enduring anthems. As he said later, "If I had failed to deliver the Who an operatic masterpiece that would change people's lives, with 'Pinball Wizard' I was giving them something almost as good: a hit."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Behind Blue Eyes” (‘Who’s Next’, 1971)

Townshend once called this gorgeous ballad "the closest to a love song I've ever written and managed to get the Who to perform." He has implied "Behind Blue Eyes" is about being tempted (unsuccessfully) by a groupie on the road in 1970. But he has also said the song is about the villain of his Lifehouse project, who was "feeling he is forced into playing a two-faced role." In that regard, Townshend saw himself in the lyric: "I do tend to lie my way out of things more often than I should," he's said. Either way, the arrangement – which shifts from unplugged softness to plugged-in fury – is as multifaceted as its lyrics.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Substitute” (Non-album single, 1966)

"Substitute" was inspired by the media's frequent assertion that the Who were essentially a poor man's substitute for the Rolling Stones. "It was written as a spoof of '19th Nervous Breakdown,'" Townshend said in 1971. "On the demo, I sang with an affected Jagger-like accent." The song shot to the U.K. Top Five. For its American release, Daltrey was forced to change the line "I look all white, but my dad was black" to "I try going forward, but my feet walk back." "Substitute" still failed to dent the U.S. charts, and even today Daltrey feels he didn't nail his vocal: "I didn't really find my voice until we got to Tommy," he said.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Eminence Front” (‘It’s Hard’, 1982)

After 1982's disappointing It's Hard, the Who didn't record another album until 2006. "I hated it," said Daltrey. "I still hate it." But the LP's lone hit, "Eminence Front," showed they could connect Townshend's New Wave-influenced solo work with the classic sound of Who's Next. "'Eminence Front' was written around a chord progression I discovered on my faithful Yamaha E70 organ," Townshend recalled. "I hesitate to try to explain what it was about. It's clearly about the absurdity of drug-fueled grandiosity, but whether I was pointing the finger at myself or at the cocaine dealers of Miami Beach is hard to recall."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me” (‘Live at Leeds’, 2001)

As documented at Woodstock, the Isle of Wight and on the complete Live at Leeds reissue, Tommy's grand finale became even grander over the course of more than 100 performances of the opera during 1969 and 1970. Townshend originally wrote "We're Not Gonna Take It" as an anti-fascist song prior to conceiving Tommy, while "See Me, Feel Me" was inspired in part by memories of his abusive grandmother and released alone as a single after the Who's triumph at Woodstock. With its heraldic, redemptive "Listening to You" coda, featuring Daltrey at his blond rock-god apex, "We're Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me" remains the high point of Who sets to this day.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Getting in Tune” (‘Who’s Next’, 1971)

"I can't pretend there's any meaning hidden in the things I'm saying," sings a pensive Daltrey at the start of this Who's Next track. But as with anything Townshend writes, "Getting in Tune" was hardly about nothing; it's fraught with deep, complicated messages. Another track from the aborted Lifehouse project, the song's arrangement encapsulates the many rich musical sides of the Who. It starts quietly, with session man Nicky Hopkins' piano and a fluid Entwistle bass, before quickly working itself up into timeless Who thunder, complete with some of Moon's splashiest, most tempo-shifting rhythms. The lyrics are simple but multidimensional: "I'm gonna tune right in on you" could be interpreted as standard love-song material, but as Townshend once explained, the words were actually inspired by the work of Indian Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan – in particular, Townshend noted, "where he says music is one way of individuals getting in tune with one another." It's a theme that reverberates in much of Townshend's work.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“I Can’t Explain” (Non-album single, 1964)

The quartet's debut single after changing their name from the High Numbers to the Who became a Top 10 hit in the U.K. in 1965, introducing them to a mass audience and jump-starting their stellar run of Sixties singles. "I Can't Explain" was a power-pop rocket of adrenaline riffs and raw clatter. "A blurter and burster," Townshend said of the song in 1968. Part of the credit for that blurting sound goes to producer Shel Talmy, an American who had moved to England to work for Decca Records. Talmy had recently helmed the Kinks' epochal single "You Really Got Me," which Townshend adored. "It can't be beat for straightforward Kink copying," Townshend said. "There is little to say about how I wrote this. It came out of the top of my head when I was 18-and-a-half." Unsure the Who were up to the task, Talmy brought in session musicians, including 20-year-old guitarist Jimmy Page, as well as backing vocalists to help with the song's harmonies. But the performance is unmistakably the Who, the opening bow shot in a 50-year story.

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Baba O’Riley” (‘Who’s Next’, 1971)

Spirituality, sonic adventurousness and the power (and failings) of rock & roll culture: All those concepts and themes converged in the epic track that opened Who's Next. The title is a nod to Townshend's guru Meher Baba and avant-garde composer Terry Riley. (The "O" was a sly wink to the jig-like section of the song driven by a fiddle.) Riley's influence was particularly felt in the keyboard that opens the song – an effects-driven organ played in a mesmerizing, repetitive pattern. One of many songs originally conceived for Townshend's aborted Lifehouse project, "Baba O'Riley" is, on one hand, about a character in the project – a "farmer, out in the fields," as Townshend has said. But the lyric also addressed the state of rock at the dawn of the Seventies: "the absolute desolation of teenagers after the second Isle of Wight festival, and after the Woodstock festival, where everybody was smacked out on acid and 20 people had brain damage," Townshend said. "People were already running toward the culture and its promise of salvation. But not everyone survived."

The Who; 50 Best Songs

“Love, Reign O’er Me” (‘Quadrophenia’, 1973)

The Who's mightiest ballad – though it's so crushingly huge, the term "ballad" seems inadequate. Quadrophenia's grand finale was initially conceived for a never-completed, post-Tommy rock opera (working title: Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock) based on the Who's backstory; see Townshend's lean home recording of the song on Scoop. "Love, Reign O'er Me," subtitled "Pete's Theme" to represent the author in the main character's persona, opens with the forlorn sound of rain, drum thunder and ruminative piano. Then a synth melody enters, and Daltrey's vocals build to a climax during which Moon delivers what might be his most breathtaking drum assault ever (trashing a studio full of percussion in the process). The title suggests spiritual as well as romantic love; it "refers to Meher Baba's one-time comment that rain was a blessing from God," wrote Townshend, a nod to his Indian spiritual adviser. The song only dented the singles chart (Number 76) in a shortened version, but the number of love-struck mixtapes the original capped is anyone's guess.