The Who’s 10 Best Songs

By Sergio Ariza

Pete Townshend turns 76 this May 19th, and from Guitars Exchange we don't want to miss the opportunity to celebrate the occasion by remembering our 10 favorite songs that came from his pen and were recorded by the Who. Of course, in the case of Townshend and the Who, the list could change every day and there would also appear marvels that we have left out such as Pictures Of Lily, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere, 5:15, Go To The Mirror, Love Reign O'er Me, The Seeker, So Sad About Us, We're Not Gonna Take It, I'm A Boy, I'm Free or a dozen others from their magnificent discography... 

My Generation (1965)

My Generation
is one of the great anthems of rock music and it has not lost any of its virtues more than 50 years after being recorded. The song is a real barbarity, with Townshend demonstrating what rock can do with just two chords. Of course, it is also a true demonstration of the strength of this band, beyond demonstrating the quality of its main composer. Here you can appreciate all the virtues that made them the most exciting live rock band - a guitarist who tries to destroy his guitar with his windmill, a bassist capable of virtuoso solos, a singer with a voice made for rock (to which here he adds those stutters that fit perfectly) and an anarchic drummer who is like a 1000 watt dynamo. The guitar used to record this immortal piece was a Rickenbaker 1998 Rose Morris with 3 pickups. Praise be to her.


Won't Get Fooled Again (1971)

The Who may have recorded their best song shortly after starting, but the real period of splendor came six years later (which at that time was equivalent to more than a decade today), when they recorded their best work, Who's Next, which closed with this great song called Won't Get Fooled Again - perhaps the piece that has best combined rock and synthesizers in the history of popular music. Townshend, in addition to the 1959 Gretsch 6120 that
Joe Walsh had given him, also plays a Lowrey organ through an EMS VCS 3, and in the process achieves a very particular sound. In this song, in which the band leader was trying to close his discarded Lifehouse project, the Who deliver their most powerful piece and Roger Daltrey gives the most chilling scream in the history of rock.


Pinball Wizard (1969)

When Pete Townshend was in the middle of writing Tommy, which was to be his first Rock Opera, he went to the legendary Manny's instrument store in New York and came out with the two guitars on which the album would be built, a Gibson J-200 and a Gibson SG Special, both from 1968. With the former he played around one day and the mythical opening riff of Pinball Wizard appeared, which is one of the best songs of his career and that ended up turning the Who, along with Tommy, into one of the greatest rock bands in the universe.

 Of course, the fact that the guitarist decided to turn his protagonist into a Pinball hero was not as gratuitous as it might seem. In early 1969 the band played some of what they had recorded to critic Nik Cohn, who said it wasn't bad at all. Then Townshend got talking to him about the plot saying he'd like to tone down the strong spiritual tones of the story, influenced by Meher Baba's writings, by having the protagonist be especially good at something. Normally this would have been music but Townshend learned that Cohn was a pinball nut so he told him that Tommy would be a pinball ace. When he wrote his review of the album Cohn called it a "masterpiece" - well played Townshend!  


I Can See For Miles (1967)

The Who were in their early days a singles band, they had come close to the number one spot with My Generation, I'm A Boy, Happy Jack and Pictures Of Lily, but Townshend had kept an ace up his sleeve in his desire to achieve the coveted prize. It was I Can See For Miles, a song that he had composed in 1966 but that he kept back until studio techniques improved sufficiently to be able to record it in all its splendor. After what the Beatles had achieved with Sgt. Pepper's, Townshend decided that the time had come to release it. His power chords, their harmonies, his guitar (possibly a Stratocaster) that sounded like horns, the incredible drumming by an inspired Keith Moon, everything in this song worked perfectly, but when it appeared it stuck at number 10 in the UK charts and number 9 in the US charts (the best result ever obtained by a Who song). Any band would have settled for a Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic but Townshend didn't think it was enough - he had made a masterpiece and wanted his number one - which pushed him to say: "for me it was the definitive Who album, and yet it didn't sell. I spit on the British record buyer".


I Can't Explain (1965)

The band's second single, and the first under the Who name, made it clear that Pete Townshend and the Who looked to Ray Davies and the Kinks for a hit that would ingratiate them with producer Shel Talmy. But beyond the obvious comparisons with All Day And All Of The Night, I Can't Explain is a prodigy in its own right, confirming the almost teenage Townshend (he was 18 when he composed it and 19 when he recorded it) as a composer of stature. And if it is evident that he took inspiration from the Kinks, we can also say that the song left its mark on others, particularly punk, with the Clash copying its three-chord riff for Clash City Rockers and Guns On The Roof.

The original recording featured Jimmy Page playing rhythm, although the mythical riff is played by Townshend on his Rickenbacker 360 12-string. The reasons that led the guitarist towards this brand were several - they were great for playing chords, they were what the Beatles used, they looked fantastic and they were the perfect visual complement for a mod band, fascinated with pop art (something Paul Weller would surely agree with).  


A Quick One, While He's Away (1966/1968) 

Before Tommy, Townshend had already written a mini-opera in the form of this song that closed (and gave title) to the band's second album. It was a suite of six separate pieces in which Townshend told the story of a girl whose boyfriend has to go away for a year, then cheats on him with Ivor and is eventually forgiven, when, finally, he returns. It's not exactly the plot of Anna Karenina but the Who execute it with such passion that it could pass for it. While the studio version, which runs over nine minutes, is already a marvel, the song would find its definitive form in the version with which the Who wiped the Stones off the map at the Stones' Rock & Roll Circus in December 1968, announcing to the world that for the next four years they would be unrivaled on stage.


Behind Blue Eyes (1971)

The sentimental heart of Who's Next, a song in which Townshend opens up and tells how he feels inside. It's one of the few slow songs in the band's repertoire, and the best along with the wonderful Love Reign O'er Me, although it ends with an adrenaline rush more typical of the Who. Townshend uses his beloved '59 Gibson J-200 Sunburst in the first part, while Daltrey, John Entwistle and Moon showed why they were the best possible executors of the guitarist's music.


Substitute (1966)

Pete Townshend was obsessed with black music, James Brown, the blues and Motown, which comprised much of his musical diet. In 1965 he became particularly obsessed with the glorious The Tracks Of My Tears, by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, in particular with the phrase: "Although she may be cute/She's just a substitute". So much so that he decided to make a song about substitutes, with such wonderful phrases as "I look very tall, but I wear high heels", I look pretty young, but I'm just backdated" and the one that raised the most controversy "I look all white but my dad was black", so much so that the latter had to be changed for the American market. Musically it is another marvel and, like My Generation, contains an excellent bass solo by Entwistle and his Gibson SG Medium Scale.


The Kids Are Alright (1965)

In May 1967, while promoting Pictures Of Lily, Townshend referred to the kind of music the Who were making as 'Power Pop' and The Kids Are Alright, released a couple of years earlier, is a perfect definition of that style and term, which would not become popular until the New Wave period. It is a song with an irresistible melody but played with strength and conviction, like that instrumental bridge in which Townshend plays again with distortion. It is the most representative song of the band's mod phase, so much so that it was ‘re-picked’ (in its original version) to be played at the beginning of Helpless Dancer in Quadrophenia.


Baba O'Riley (1971)

The song that opened the fundamental Who's Next with its strange synthesized sounds, with which Townshend wanted to reflect the personality of Meher Baba, then enters the riff, played with a piano, drums, bass and vocals. The 1959 Gretsch 6120 does not enter until almost two minutes in, shortly after the bridge appears, sung by Townshend himself over the synthesizer, and then the full force of the Who is present until reaching those immortal "Teenage Wasteland" for which many know this song. The track then ends with that bizarre and effective instrumental conclusion in which the violin of Dave Arbus, from the band East of Eden, takes the lead.