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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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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.'"

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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."

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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4

“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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3

“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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2

“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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1

“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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