Home Music Music Lists

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
23

“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
22

“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
21

“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
20

“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
19

“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
18

“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
17

“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
16

“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
15

“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
14

“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
13

“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
12

“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
11

“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
10

“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
9

“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
8

“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
7

“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
6

“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
5

“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.