The Who’s 50 Greatest Songs

MOJO’s rundown of The Who’s best ever tracks

The Who

by MOJO |
Updated on

Starting life as R&B-playing Mods, The Who quickly transformed into rule-breaking pioneers, perverting, distorting or ignoring the accepted rock tenets. John Entwistle’s bass and Keith Moon’s drums became lead instruments, vying for attention with Pete Townshend’s guitar, which he’d bash and trash to create an unholy wall of noise, citing Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art as inspiration. While Roger Daltrey’s role as straight man kept the ship from capsizing.

The only two members still surviving – and at the time of writing, still performing as The Who –  the partnership between Townshend and Daltrey is central to their mercurial magic and volatile chemistry of the band, typical of the contradictions that make them such a remarkable group. There’s “wimpy little Townshend” writing the songs, explained Pete Townshend, but “the guy singing them could beat your brains out.”

That hint of violence is ever-present in much of The ‘Orrible ‘Oo’s best songs, lurking behind the corners and ready to explode at any moment. From Mod anthems to ballads for paranoid dictators, via the rummest cast-list in rock – transvestites, seaside idiots, invading armies – for almost 60 years Who songs have challenged the norms of every era and, by the by, rocked like thunder.

Here then, MOJO presents The Who’s 50 finest moments. Strap yourselves in though, it’s a white-knuckle ride…


Zoot Suit

(High Numbers single, 1964)

Jerky, strutting and show-offy, Zoot Suit, written by the group’s then advisor Pete Meaden, enunciated the Mod experience with an insider’s attention to detail – “I wear zoot suit jacket with side vents five inches long/I have two-tone brogues,” boasts Roger Daltrey over a swaggering rhythm based around a then-obscure R&B song, Misery, by the Detroit band, The Dynamics. The High Numbers’ only single sold just 500 of its 1,000-copy run; the group reverted to ‘The Who’ four months later; by then Meaden had left, and Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp had assumed their management. But Zoot Suit is pivotal in The Who’s evolution; they’re Meaden’s words but they acted as a creative spur for Townshend, ultimately unlocking his raison d’être – to provide an interior voice for the new youth experience.



(Outtake from The Who Sell Out, 1967)

Townshend’s version of acid rock was sulphuric, not lysergic, and he answered the “psychedelic wetness” of the Summer of Love with warped visions of rampant consumerism. Though Jaguar ultimately missed the cut, it was the first song written in this vein – a woozy cod-paean to the flash ’arry car marque (“grace, space, pace,” hiss the backing vocals, seductively) addressed to a notional jaded hipster in Moon’s high frenzied register (“Everything they’ve seen you have seen!” etc). A sizzling, sardonic companion to Armenia City In The Sky.


Going Mobile

(from Who’s Next, 1971)

There is something deliciously un-Who-like about a song praising the joys of motor caravaning; but the jubilant country-boogie of Going Mobile is no more about Airstream trailers than the Small Faces’ Song Of A Baker is about making bread. One of the first songs written for Lifehouse, it celebrates the thrill of escaping societal bonds, made all the more powerful by Townshend’s breezy vocal, squelchy synth outro – and the fact he’d taken his own motorhome on the road when touring in summer 1970.


Eminence Front

(from It’s Hard, 1982)

Pinging off a pulsating keyboard riff that sounded like Baba O’Riley updated for the 1980s, Eminence Front found Townshend - fresh from a course of Dr Meg Patterson’s Neuro Electric therapy - railing against the rise of Thatcherite yuppies. What could have come across as a rich rock star whine lands due to his visceral disgust  - “come and join the party dressed to kill” - and the hypnotic, not particularly Who-like drive of the music. Townshend may have now been clean, but The Who’s creative engine was still far from serene.


Amazing Journey

(from Tommy, 1969)

The title has become shorthand for The Who’s own topsy-turvy narrative (it’s shared with Murray Lerner and Paul Crowder’s film doc of 2007) but the trek alluded to in the Tommy opera’s spiritual centrepiece is decidedly inner, as our sensually challenged hero encounters a bearded, godlike figure: “He is your leader/And he is your guide”. The first song PT wrote for his baroque edifice epitomises how acoustic guitars denote Tommy’s core of humility, before the Moon-led psych bashment kicks in.


Tea & Theatre

(from Endless Wire, 2006)

Almost a decade ago, the last Who studio album ended with this regretful, delicately picked acoustic track which read like an elegy to the band still reeling from the sudden death of a second member. Two men meet for tea and discuss “a great dream derailed”, one of their kind “gone”, another “mad”, the other “me”. Is the “stage” vacated by the men in the last verse life itself? A powerful and pointed Who live set closer.


The Good’s Gone

(from My Generation, 1965)

One of Daltrey’s most convincing, and interesting, early performances, it’s almost ‘Method’ singing as, pissed off and sneery, he delivers a blank-sounding deconstruction of a love turned bad, ratcheted up by Townshend’s choppily chorded guitar solo. The track provides a strong contrast to the more excitably expressive, ‘up’ tracks that comprise most of their debut album. The vocal tone of ’65 Dylan and sound of the also-emerging Byrds in Townshend’s ringing guitar intro reveals a band on top form, and a songwriter with ears wide open.


I’ve Known No War

(from It’s Hard, 1982)

Like many of their ’60s peers, The Who entered the ’80s in the grip of a mid-life crisis, their principal songwriter wrestling with addiction and struggling to reconcile his past with his present. If their tenth studio album was an uneven set, the opening track on side two nods to Who’s Next in terms of its brawny musical invective, while lyrically Townshend marries his post-War malaise to contemporary No Nukes sentiment. Despite their imminent ‘farewell’ tour, it whispered that all was not lost for The Who.



(single, 1968)

With pirate radio finished, The Who found it difficult to infiltrate the new Radio 1 monopoly. Informed by trips to White City dog-track, and the rough-edged charm of the Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday, Townshend’s bungled attempt at radio-friendly pop resulted in this strange gem. Daltrey dubbed it “wanking off”, but heard anew it plays like the sweetest love song Ronnie Lane never wrote, and in its blend of character, dialogue, and soaring romantic warmth it clearly predates the narrative ambition and exposed emotions of 1973’s Quadrophenia.


Rael Pts 1 & 2

(from The Who Sell Out, 1967)

The Who debuted Rael on a tour of Scotland and the north in October ’67. “Everyone just looked at us with their mouths open,” Townshend reported. “The complication was too much.” Though not greatly suited to a Saturday night at the Beach Ballroom, Aberdeen, there’s plenty to admire in Townshend’s second mini-opera, not least a loony libretto about Red China invading the world (“The Red Chins in their millions will overflow their borders…” trills Pete, perkily) and the acoustic guitar brangggs and thunderous tymps that presage the musical themes of Tommy.


Heaven & Hell

(from Live At Leeds, 1995 CD reissue)

John Entwistle’s Who compositions were quirky, bass-driven monsters whose eccentricities were at once in tune and at odds with Townshend’s personal meditations. Heaven & Hell, however, was something else: proof the bassist could write the perfect Townshend-style rock song, complete with stirring major chord progression. First played in 1968, it was deemed thrilling enough to open the now-legendary Leeds University show (although not to grace the original vinyl release), with an instrumental section whose wild bass, guitar and drum improvs seem (gloriously) tangential.


You Better You Bet

(single, 1981)

Few would pick 1981’s Faces Dances as their favourite Who LP, but You Better You Bet is an absolute belter, its lyrics inspired by yet another Townshend life crisis, this time his affair with Jackie Vickers. The lyrics are brilliantly on the nose (“I’ve drunk myself blind to the sound of old T.Rex… and Who’s Next”) and Daltrey delivers one of his strongest vocal performances, stretching, growling and chewing the word “better” with glee.


Run Run Run

(from A Quick One, 1966)

Underlining The Who’s patriarchal sway over nascent US snot-rock (Count Five would essay My Generation and Out In The Street on their debut album) A Quick One’s opener shelved the increasingly customary innovations in favour of a belligerent, bounding growler of a groove – injected with extra whoosh by the lift-off key change at 1.44. Typically of The Who when they’re trying to play nice, there’s a subtext of creepy and gauche: “Whenever you run, I’ll be following you…” Cue screams.


Endless Wire (Extended)

(from Endless Wire, 2006)

The Who’s first album in 24 years was rich in beguiling fragments, short on fully-rounded songs – something Townshend acknowledged, surely, when he tacked an extra minute to the album’s keynote tune and added it as a bonus track. A nagging ditty becomes something more satisfying, with the stoic trudge of rhythm, lilting bluegrass shimmers and dash of added Roger combining in an autumnal version of The Who’s old defiance. The story? Answers on a postcard, please, to the usual address.


Naked Eye

(from Odds & Sods. 1974)

A truly heroic song that fell between the cracks – it was destined for an aborted 1971 stop-gap EP, but was never satisfactorily recorded for Who’s Next – Naked Eye is The Who’s lost classic, describing a troubled marriage, seemingly healthy “to the naked eye”, that ends in attempted murder. The fundamental power of the song, a close cousin of The Seeker and Behind Blue Eyes, suggests Townshend’s own home life may have been suffering from The Who’s enormo post-Tommy commitments.


Dreaming From The Waist

(from The Who By Numbers, 1976)

Unfairly dismissed by Pete Townshend as “a fresh turd”, this highlight from 1976’s Who By Numbers is a mid-life crisis Pictures Of Lily, its newsly-turned-30 author thrumming with sexual frustration. This being The Who, however, Townshend’s neurosis are voiced with the red blooded gusto Roger Daltrey, of a man who has never knowingly had trouble ‘in that department’.



(from Ready Steady Who EP, 1966)

Playful, conceptual and funny, Disguises was perhaps one of the best realisations of former Ealing School Of Art student Townshend’s desire to make “pop art music”. Sheet metal guitar clashes against an angular grind from Moon and Entwistle as if Jean Tinguely where trying to sculpt an R&B group out of iron as Daltrey hurls the brilliantly surreal lyrics over like splashes of paint.


Our Love Was

(from The Who Sell Out, 1967)

Summer ’67: Pete Townshend was glued to Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. Previously in love songs suspicious, thwarted and defeatist, his togetherness with Karen Astley inspired euphoric celebration à la Beach Boys. Recorded in August/September at regular BBs’ haunt Columbia Studios on Sunset Boulevard and referencing You’re So Good To Me, Our Love Was pscreams into 1967’s psoundworld with a psuper psix-pstring psolo.


Happy Jack

(single, 1966)

Pete was altered by the teachings of Meher Baba in 1968, but his cabbalistic self had already manifested. A Number 3 hit, this punked-up toytown sing-along of the Isle Of Man – where the songwriter holidayed as a kid – tells of a vagrant who sleeps on the beach and smiles, beatifically, even when plagued by local urchins. There’s vengefulness here (“they lied”) and notions of martyrdom (could the donkey, burdens and tortures obliquely refer to Christ’s passion?), but the lapping waters bring deliverance.


A Quick One (While He’s Away)

(from A Quick One, 1966)

Townshend compiled A Quick One (While He’s Away) by gluing some sketched melodies to hastily written lyrics that, he now admits, bubbled up from his subconscious in a was that was revealing even to him. The apparently simple narrative – a girl whose man has been gone “for nigh on a year” is persuaded to hook up with a lusty engine driver named Ivor, before thinking better of it and reuniting with her partner – actually stemmed from Townshend’s own childhood feelings of desertion during an extended period staying with his eccentric grandmother, Denny, while his parents’ marriage was under duress.


Heat Wave

(from A Quick One, 1966)

Blues, R&B, surf and soul were staples of The Who’s early live sets, but Martha & The Vandellas’ 1963 hit was one of the few of their covers to make it onto record. And Motown’s summer stormer is perfect for the three instrumentalists’ rumbly thunder. I came closest to this when briefly and unexpectedly depping for the tardy Moon at the Newbury Corn Exchange on May 20, 1966, Heat Wave being one of songs I helped on, if memory serves. What struck most: the angry drive of Townshend’s rhythm; the wonderfully LOUD response from Moon’s brilliantly tuned Premier kit.


Magic Bus

(single, 1968)

Written circa My Generation in late 1965 but not recorded until one boozy afternoon in May 1968, a Bo Diddley beat, clacking claves and Pete’s equally percussive guitar drive Roger’s polite, upstanding passenger “to my baby each day”, but he soon gets designs on the driver’s seat. Live, the song stretched out to an epic duet-cum-skit in which Rog tries to buy said vehicle from driver Pete (“Nooo!”). “Just a lot of fun,” said Townshend, and almost uniquely for The Who, that’s true.



(from The Who Sell Out, 1967)

A Ray Davies-like tale of two young brothers grappling with notions of masculinity and getting themselves inked to prove their manliness. In place of machismo, however, there’s a very English sense of melancholy (“I’ll expect I’ll regret you”), a dash of music hall knockabout and a surreal oddness that so often lurks beneath The Who’s surface.


A Legal Matter

(from My Generation, 1965)

A blackly comic rock’n’roller with a tingling riff and more than a hint of The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time, A Legal Matter parts with the beat wave’s adolescent romance agenda to offer a jaundiced take on its conventional aftermath: marriage. In his first recorded lead vocal, Townshend bemoans this tedious state (“marryin’s no fun”) in a funny American accent and legs it up the road, chased by Nicky Hopkins’ rinky-dinky, Keystone Cops piano. Was Roger’s already-wobbling first marriage to Jackie Rickman in Pete’s mind?


So Sad About Us

(from A Quick One, 1966)

First heard as the follow-up to The Merseys’ Top 5 hit Sorrow – a now forgotten version with a rather stiff Kit Lambert production – The Who’s superior rendition was therefore overlooked as a single, yet still sounds like a smash hit waiting to happen. Subsequently, it became one of Townshend’s most covered songs, perhaps because it’s one of his least self-conscious, sounding effortless and exuberant – all la-la-la’s and chiming guitars – with just enough melancholy to give it bite.



(from Who’s Next, 1971)

Rockers praising God was in the air in ’71. Meher Baba disciple Pete yearned to lose the ego and baggage standing between him and the divine spirit, yet good works counted too – funded by hits. Bargain is a tremendous trade-off: heartfelt lyric/street-level title; Pete’s gentle cameo/Roger bullishly everywhere else; the ARP synth and acoustic bits/Pete’s heavy-rockabilly aggression on his Gretsch Chet Atkins; the reflective melodic undertow/the Moon-Entwistle engine slamming through the gears. Deal!



(Substitute B-side, 1966)

Round and round and round. Intended as an A-side, briefly a B-side, then another B-side under the title Instant Party, then issued on 1966’s Ready Steady Who EP, Circles fell foul of The Who’s quarrel with producer Shel Talmy but deserves its place in the sun. Bridging My Generation’s maximum R&B and The Who Sell Out’s warped pop art, its reverby vocals and wigged-out instrumental break catch the group about to turn on and tune in, but just stopping short. As ever they would.


I’m Free

(from Tommy, 1969)

Scourge of Moonie, who couldn’t quite grasp those sections welded by an odd, teetering time signature, adapted, Townshend said, from the Stones’ Street Fighting Man. So Townshend and Entwistle played snare, hi-hat and tambourine; Moon took over for the fills. Celebrating his escape from physical and emotional entrapment, a spiritually awakened Daltrey/Tommy rejoices – “freedom tastes of reality” – and beckons on his fans/followers. In the film and 1970s setlists, I’m Free is sequenced right after Smash The Mirror, earlier than on the LP. Its fade revisits the Pinball Wizard intro.


Boris The Spider

(from A Quick One, 1966)

John Entwistle dashed off this operatic, Lord Sutch-style gig favourite after a boozy night inventing comedy animal names with Bill Wyman. But just as Freud argued, “fear of spiders expresses dread of mother-incest and horror of the female genitals,” the song crosses the line from spooky novelty to psychopathy, with the transfixed narrator identifying with the scuttling, hairy house spider, who hangs by a thread and is “as scared as me”. Boris ends up the hapless victim, but what does this say about Entwistle’s mind? And where’s PETA when you need them?


I’m One

(from Quadrophenia, 1973)

Townshend has claimed that what many love about The Who are its polar opposites. There’s “wimpy little Townshend” writing the songs, he explained, but “the guy singing them could beat your brains out.” Quadrophenia’s I’m One is all the more affecting because it’s the wimp doing the writing and the singing, Townshend both as the LP’s hero Jimmy and his younger self, trying to fit in with the cooler kids and prove himself.


The Seeker

(single, 1970)

In 1971, Townshend appraised The Seeker harshly: “I like this the least of all.” More recently, Daltrey declared it the first Who song he thought “pretentious” – which suggests he wasn’t fully paying attention during Tommy. The song’s atypical modesty is key to its appeal, as Moon and Entwistle take the downhome chug as an affront to their dramatic capabilities. Meanwhile, the Meher Baba-dazzled author calls out rival gurus (“I asked Bobby Dylan… I asked The Beatles”), and naturally Roger sings like only he knows what it all means.


Who Are You

(single, 1978)

The Who’s greatest ‘Christ! I’m hungover… what happened last night?’ song, Who Are You was written after Townshend literally woke up drunk in a Soho doorway after a particularly brutal drinking session. It’s also one of the best examples of The Who’s fidgety power and nervous dynamism, stumbling staggering through its differing sections as if it might combust at any moment.


Armenia (City In The Sky)

(from The Who Sell Out, 1967)

The Who Sell Out’s intense opener is famously anomalous: the only Who ‘original’ written by someone outside of the group – specifically, Pete Townshend’s chauffeur and “aide-de-camp”, John ‘Speedy’ Keen (later of Thunderclap Newman and Something In The Air fame). Not that you’d know it: Armenia sounds authentically Townshend with its backwards-tracked guitars and atmospheric, woozy organ passages. Vocally, there are echoes of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows – both melodically and lyrically – matching rare whimsy to The Who’s muscular power.


Love, Reign O’er Me

(from Quadrophenia, 1973)

It’s illustrative. Bobby McFerrin wrote Don’t Worry, Be Happy with reference to the teachings of Meher Baba. Inspired by the same guru, Pete Townshend penned this storm-soaked, post-breakdown moment of personal realisation set on a rock in the English Channel (_Quadrophenia’_s Jimmy sets sail in a stolen boat at the end of Townshend’s original libretto). Although it’s “Pete’s Theme”, it’s the oomph provided by Daltrey’s vocal acrobatics – well outside his comfort range – that swells this swirling epic to a peak.


Pictures Of Lily

(single, 1967)

Townshend’s tale of a lad who gets a vaudeville pin-up from his dad to help resolve adolescent frustration, starts as a rather charming male rite-of-passage. This being Pete, though, things get Oedipal when the lad falls in love with his ‘Lily’, only to be told “…don’t be silly/She’s been dead since 1929.” The resolution comes in his dreams, where they can be together, and a lovely minor chord chorus that chimes with the song’s relative innocence in an era of readily available internet porn. Eh, Pete?


The Kids Are Alright

(from My Generation, 1965)

It seems so promising – ace faces dancing with each other’s girls in some Soho basement, knowing the ’60s have begun. But the title needs a question mark: the early Who roughness is plaintive, better to express a restless young narrator weighing up escaping his marriage, the titular “kids” referring to his offspring at home whom he hopes will be fine without him (“I know if I don’t I’ll go out of my mind”). To neck or not to neck the French Blues? Even Moonie’s crashing drums sound ruminative.


See Me, Feel Me

(single, 1970)

Initially contained within _Tommy’_s closing track, We’re Not Going To Take It, before its iconic, sunrise moment at Woodstock upgraded it to single status, See Me, Feel Me ends the opera on a surprisingly upbeat note, despite the eponymous hero’s loss of his army of acolytes. A vaguely mystical positivism and plain old happy-ending vibes combine, with thunderous drums, stretched vocal cords and chiming guitars building to a moment of a sky-bursting magnificence.


I’m A Boy

(single, 1966)

Mentor Pete Meaden envisaged The Who as a blokes’ band. Hip to the Mods’ love of display and – by 1966, the year of Twiggy – encroaching unisex styles, Townshend turned that on its head with one of the era’s more peculiar hits. Cherubic, conciliatory harmonies are undone by a lyric embroiled in gender angst, Townshend taunting, “head case” Daltrey exploding: a fascinating fragment of Pete’s first (thwarted) rock opera, Quads.


Pinball Wizard

(single, 1969)

Townshend called it his “most clumsy piece of writing”, a Gustav Holst-influenced quick fix inspired by journalist Nik Cohn’s assertion that the rock opera conceit needed humanising. Never mind pinball king Tommy, it was Pete’s supple wrists that were all-important – his indelible acoustic intro sequence, electric power chords and the space that allowed Daltrey to reinvent himself as a haloed frontman.


Young Man Blues

(from Live At Leeds, 1970)

While Tommy was being created for a new era where albums were overtaking singles and live sets were growing to keep pace with hair-length, Townshend was on a mission to educate America in rock’s R&B roots. “Rock’n’roll is their fucking music, and they know less about it than we do!” he said. “In the ’60s I went to America and I lectured them. I’d say, ‘Do you listen to fucking rhythm and blues? Do you know who John Lee Hooker is? Do you really think that rock’n’roll is Jefferson fucking Airplane…?’ The incendiary version of Young Man Blues by Mose Allison’s Young Man Blues which kicked off the original 37-minute Live At Leeds was surely all the education anyone needed.


Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere

(single, 1965)

After the so-called “commercial number” I Can’t Explain, Townshend said in May 1965 that “we wanna show what we’re really trying to do.” And how. Sandwiched between teenbeat verses was a revolution in sound so shocking that the group’s US label assumed the master was faulty. Channelling Link Wray, Charlie Parker, Gustav Metzger and belligerent Modness, this was cultural warfare fronted by feedback. “Pop art,” claimed Kit Lambert. “Spiritual,” reckoned Pete T. When John Cale returned to New York with a copy, The Velvet Underground knew exactly what to do.



(single, 1973)

Conceived in Oxford Street and Carnaby Street between appointments and written and recorded in the studio on the same day, 5.15 tracks Quadrophenia’s pill-popping protagonist Jimmy’s journey to Brighton. Over a barrage of rock bluster – blaring horns by Entwistle, romping piano played by Joe Cocker sessioneer Chris Stainton, clattering percussion, crash-bang-wallop guitar – Daltrey roars the hall of mirrors horror of Jimmy’s wrung-out mind. When issued as the album’s only single in the UK, it just scraped into the Top 20. What can possibly have scared the pop kids away?


I Can See For Miles

(single, 1967)

The lyrics are simple enough: a young man knows his girlfriend’s been unfaithful because he’s seen her. The song-title/chorus might merely be grand hyperbole, born of rage. But from that seismic punch and rumble intro, into those pure electric waves of guitar, bass ‘n’ drums that continually crash over Daltrey’s heavenly vocals (tweaked with echo at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios), the song is transformed into a pulsing beatific high of psychedelic exultation (“The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal are mine to see on clear days!”) that, as it fades off into infinity, becomes the most euphoric “fuck you” in pop history.


The Real Me

(from Quadrophenia, 1973)

Townshend’s original demo is a slinky affair, but in the hands of The Who it’s transformed into the essence of heroism, underpinned by Entwistle’s propulsive bassline (improvised on his newly acquired Gibson Thunderbird), Keith Moon’s atomic drum parts and Townshend’s own hooligan power chords, while Daltrey’s raucous vocal adds genuine mania to Jimmy’s suspicions of hereditary madness. It wasn’t the first time Townshend asked the song’s central question, and it wouldn’t be the last.


I Can’t Explain

(single, 1965)

Arriving at Pye Studios to record his own song as his newly rechristened band’s first single, Pete Townshend is disgruntled to find producer Shel Talmy has hired Jimmy Page and vocal trio The Ivy League to guarantee viable product. But intrigue over its personnel evaporates within seconds, as Townshend’s six Rickenbacker slashes propel I Can’t Explain beyond R&B and into the realm of art. While The Beatles sang about love, The Who dealt in confusion – a quality that would define them permanently.


Behind Blue Eyes

A portrait song for Jumbo, the autocratic head of Lifehouse’s fictional media conglomerate and director of enforced shared culture. Behind Blue Eyes is a beautifully sung ballad that breaks with Moonie crashing in as Pete snarls: “If my fist clenches, crack it open…” a line he wrote after being tempted – in vain – by a groupie in Denver, 1970. Pete’s battle to stay strong is the inverse of Jumbo’s; isolated and possibly misunderstood, he struggles to maintain the steely core necessary for a career in tyranny.



(single, 1966)

As with Seaton’s rebellious declaration, The Who’s March 1966 single confounds with contrariness. Driven by a bass riff copped from Robb Storme & The Whispers’ Where Is My Girl, Substitute is an impersonation about impersonation, a 19th Nervous Breakdown parody (“I see right through your plastic mac”) that skewers the Stones’ persona (“I look all white/But my dad was black”), strips it of Jagger misogyny, and, with every Moon drum fill, mushrooms into a sneering metaphor for the shallow artifice of every stage-managed ’60s pop band. Including The Who.


Won’t Get Fooled Again

(from Who’s Next, 1971)

Hailed by the National Review as the apogee of conservative rock, but also cited in Time as an “anti-war anthem”, Won’t Get Fooled Again proves the ultimate gauge of a protest song’s efficacy – appropriation by both sides. Its conflicted emotions, conveyed by music perpetually on the brink of explosion, manifest the thrill of The Who’s ingrained intellectual/activist joust: Townshend’s ambivalence, never more pointedly expressed than “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”, undercut by Daltrey’s screaming, street-fighting man.


My Generation

(single, 1964)

A cyclone of anger, frustration and arrogance in which post-war Britain found its voice. Pete Townshend joked that when he wrote “old” in My Generation he meant “rich”, but 60 years later the song still hasn’t left The Who’s live set. Punk before punk, it helped empower a generation, and made possible many exciting things to come. However, perhaps its greatest achievement was to convince The Who that being ’orrible would be no impediment to success.


Baba O’ Riley

(from Who’s Next, 1971)

Salvaged from wreckage of Lifehouse, Baba O’Riley was – so Pete Townshend told journalist John Swanson in 1971 – originally 30 minutes long, an epic sweep taking in a turnip farmer called Ray, ecological disaster, a nation imprisoned in sci-fi ‘experience’ suits, a proto internet called The Grid and much, much more. Truncated to a mere five minutes for Who’s Next, one doesn’t need to know or understand the guitarist’s lofty conceptual ambitions to feel the force of Baba O’Riley  (and lord knows his bandmates didn’t). From the twiddly intro inspired by composer Terry Riley (who along with Townshend’s spiritual guru Meher Baba gives the song its title) to the coda’s frenetic cosmic spin, it presented rock music as spiritual transcendence. The Who’s masterpiece, regardless of what they’re actually singing about.

Compiled by: Phil Alexander, Geoff Brown, Jenny Bulley, Keith Cameron, Chris Catchpole, Danny Eccleston, Pat Gilbert, Ian Harrison, Jim Irwin, Alan Light, Andrew Male, Mark Paytress, Mat Snow, Paul Stokes, Lois Wilson

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