We lived the life with Keith Moon. It was all Spinal Tap magnified a thousand times
– Roger Daltrey
Few bands embraced everything that rock and roll offered with the same zeal and enthusiasm as The Who did. There is an extensive list of songs by The Who that can be credited with shaping countless bands you know and love, and even music as we know it.
The stories, some half-imagined, some slightly embellished beyond, and some born from the cold hard truth that have followed in their wake since they first stepped onto a stage in London fifty-seven years ago would make the devil blush.
They mastered the arts of debauchery and wanton excess and laid waste to hotels in every country in the world as they stalked the globe in a feedback-drenched howl of indignation and rebellion.
They fed the musical imagination of multiple generations, sneered at the establishment, and left an ocean of critics dazzled by the sheer force and drive of their endless creativity.
The Who changed the face of rock and roll, and by daring to challenge convention, became one of the greatest, and biggest-selling bands in history.
Emerging as part of the nascent Mod (the abbreviated name given to the modern movement by the music press of the time that was seized upon by its rabid fans) scene of the mid-sixties, the Who soon established a fearsome live reputation that owed as much to the ferocious energy that they imbued every performance with as it did their reckless disregard for their own safety and that of their instruments.
The wanton glee and delight that they seemed to take in destroying the things that made it possible for them to do what they did and enabled them to create their music and further the cause of their art endeared them to teenagers everywhere who trapped by a world built on the back of endless rules and regulations, felt the same frustration and hopelessness that the finale of every shows that The Who played embodied.
The kids had found their new heroes, and in doing so finally realized that they and everything else would be alright.
The Who hit the ground running and never looked back. By the time the much more wholesome and respectable Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and introduced America to Beatlemania and opened the door for the “British Invasion” the tide had turned in their home country, and the more switched on music fans who were looking for something harder and a little different to the pop music that the masses craved, had already started to look to the Rolling Stones and The Who to satiate their appetites.
While the Stones were content to rest on their laurels, The Who continued to defy expectation and did their utmost to their world upside down. It was something that, throughout the course of their long and storied career, they became incredibly proficient at doing.
Fame and Fortune
Their second single smashed its way to the top of the British charts when it was released in December nineteen sixty-five and was followed in rapid succession by another three top ten hits, which enabled The Who to cast their eye far further afield, to the shores of America.
Having decided that the only way they were going to beat the world was by playing it at its own game, they packed their bags and began touring the United States.
While America was a much harder beast for the band to tame, their relentless urge to conquer new territories and win new fans finally paid off, and in nineteen sixty-seven they scored their first (and only, to date) US top ten hits.
Two years after breaking the American charts, and five years after they started playing together, The Who flew into Woodstock and assumed their natural position as one of the headlining acts on the bill of the largest rock and roll show that the world had ever seen.
Woodstock cemented their place in the food chain, and it’s a position that they’ve doggedly held on to ever since that fateful night in New York.
How do you follow that kind of thrill ride? The Who had no problem topping their appearance at Woodstock and helped to create and shape the concept of the rock opera by writing, recording and releasing the two records Tommy and Quadrophenia that the genre built its foundations on.
By the time the latter was released, they seemed to be on an unstoppable roll. But behind the scenes, the wheels were starting to come off the magic bus that they were riding.
The years of excess, depravity, and vice, of throwing television sets out of hotel windows, driving Cadillacs into swimming pools, and drinking entire cities dry had finally begun to catch up with them and the band had started to spend less and less time together, and by the time nineteen seventy-six rolled into view, they had all but retired from performing live. It had all become too much for the wildmen of rock and roll.
Death Is Not The End
In nineteen seventy-seven, the band’s original line-up reunited in the studio to record their eighth and final album together, Who Are You.
Three weeks after it was released in April nineteen seventy-eight their drummer Keith Moon, who had been plagued by alcohol and drug dependency for years, died before the band could begin to plan the next stage of their live comeback.
Despite the protestations of singer Roger Daltry and bassist John Entwhistle, Pete Townsened the band’s guitarist insisted the band go back on the road, and with a new drummer in tow (Kenny Jones from The Small Faces), The Who started to play live again.
The three original members would carry on playing together, off and on, until two thousand and two, when tragedy once again came knocking at their door.
The day before The Who’s two thousand and two US tour was due to start, their bass player John Entwistle was found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room. The coroner cited his cause of death as heart failure due to cardiac disease and a cocaine overdose.
Entwistle was fifty-seven years old, and his life of excess finally, just as it had with Keith Moon a quarter of a century earlier, caught up with him. And as they did when Moon died, The Who soldiered on, and to this day they continue to light up stages all over the world.
The song that started it all for The Who, I Can’t Explain was their first UK top ten hit and the record that brought them crashing into the mainstream.
Powered by an infectious chorus that’s given a sense of gravitas by Roger Daltry’s soul-drenched vocal performance, Townsend’s simple, but unforgettable song stamped the band’s name into the public consciousness and ensured that anyone who heard it, would never forget it.
2. The Kids Are Alright
A song that would become one of the official anthems of the mod movement that The Who were, and are the musical progenitors of, The Kids Are Alright was one of the hidden gems on the band’s debut album and wasn’t released as a single until August ninety sixty-six.
And forty years after it was first released, it was voted the thirty-fourth best song of the sixties by Pitchfork. Personally, we think it’s actually the thirtieth best song of the sixties, but who are we to argue with Pitchfork?
A call to arms for disenfranchised and dissatisfied youth everywhere, My Generation has become The Who’s unofficial anthem and the song that most music lovers and fans will forever associate with the band.
It’s a full-throttle rock and roll anthem that’s built around a pure as the driven snow pop melody and at its heart has a timeless message that every teenager can relate to and understand.
4. Magic Bus
A back and forth catchier than the common cold power-pop anthem that details the interaction between a man begging to buy the “magic bus” from the driver, Magic Bus was a staple of The Who’s live set between ninety sixty-eight and nineteen seventy-six, but following the death of Keith Moon has rarely been played, live by the band.
I Can See For Miles was the only single on the band’s first concept record The Who Sell Out and to date is the band’s only top ten US single. It was, as fans have often noted, the song that helped The Who to break America and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
6. I’m Free
Taken from the band’s nineteen sixty-nine concept album Tommy,I’m Free is a song about enlightenment and finding a sense of purpose when you previously had none.
A hugely successful single, the band often had trouble playing it live as drummer Keith Moon had difficulty playing the straightforward driving beat that the song is built around.
The second part of Tommy’s one-two knockout punch, Pinball Wizard is one of the only songs that’s been a constant part of The Who’s live set since it was recorded and released in nineteen sixty-nine.
A high-energy song that revolves around an immediately infectious chorus and guitar riff, Pinball Wizard was written and recorded in a single session, which proves that sometimes the best songs just appear fully formed out of the ether.
8. The Real Me
Listen carefully, dive deep and you’ll hear the power behind the throne and the reason why this song burrows its way into your subconscious after only hearing it once. It isn’t Daltrey’s pleading, emotive vocal, Moon’s relentless jaw-dropping fills, or Townsend’s effortlessly powerful riffing.
It’s all about Entwhistle and the incredibly inventive, pounding bassline that hammers the song home and makes sure that once you’ve heard The Real Me, you’ll never forget it.
Some moments last forever, and 5:15 is Townsend’s tribute to the seemingly never-ending train journeys that too many of us remember being forced to take while we were younger.
Admittedly, in the song, the hero of the hour, and central protagonist on the record that 5:15 appears on Quadrophenia, Jimmy is high as a kite on amphetamines as he rides to meet his destiny in Brighton, but how clear-headed he might or might not be is irrelevant as the song is yet another example of Townsend’s ability to write the sort of tunes that bounce around inside your head for weeks and weeks after you’ve heard them.
10. Baba O’Riley
The opening song to the band’s magnum opus Who’s Next, Baba O’Riley is often mistakenly called Teenage Wasteland thanks to its chorus. Named to honor Townsend’s musical and philosophical heroes, the song was inspired by the aftermath of the band’s Isle Of Wight performance and the vision of the campground that burned itself into the memory of Townsend.