Joel Goldenberg: The best songs of The Who, Part 1

The Who at their live best, performing A Quick One in December 1968.

As The Who is my favourite rock group (as opposed to the Beach Boys being my favourite pop group), it would seem to follow that I would include every one of their songs in this survey of their best.

Absolutely not! There are some songs of theirs I actively dislike, especially some on the rather bland Face Dances and It's Hard albums of 1981 and 1982, both recorded after the death of drummer Keith Moon; and even some from their classic era.

So the following are my ultimate favourites— some are very well known, others are not:

•••

Won't Get Fooled Again: Most certainly one of the best classic rock songs of all time — not a second of its eight-plus minute length is wasted. The musical intensity and tension are palpable here, especially in the moment when a lengthy keyboard break ends and Moon lets loose on the drums building up to singer Roger Daltrey's scream. The studio version on Who's Next is tops, the intense version they recorded for the movie The Kids Are Alright is especially intense, and other live versions from the 1970s are great too. And I give props to replacement drummer Kenney Jones for his excellent version of Moon's drum sequence. Current drummer Zak Starkey's version is good too, but tries to come too close to the studio version, which is kind of restrictive live.

In any case, the song as a whole is utterly essential listening.

And now I will choose highlights from their albums:

My Generation: Some of the album is kind of boring, the James Brown covers are not so great, and a couple of other songs sound like Johnny Cash imitations. But the title track was revolutionary in its sonic wallop, The Kids Are Alright is the first great Who pop song and the John Entwistle instrumental The Ox (later appropriately used for the Montreal TV show Superstars of Wrestling) is such a rock onslaught that you could almost visualize the dust settling after the song is finished.

A Quick One: This album is a very mixed bag because, for reasons of providing other band members besides Pete Townshend with songwriting royalties, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon contributed material. So Sad About Us by Townshend is a great poppy song, and Moon's instrumental Cobwebs and Strange was an accurate reflection of his wild and crazy personality (and features his fastest drumming). The album's magnum opus, Townshend's biographical (which you would only know if you read Townshend's excellent autobiography) title track mini-opera is better heard (and seen) in the movie The Kids Are Alright. Their performance of the song at the Rolling Stones' December 1968 Rock and Roll Circus TV special may be their best recorded live performance of all time. Some have written that the TV special was unreleased for some 30 years because the Stones were unhappy with their own performance, especially compared with the Who's. The mid-1990s CD of this album, first mostly mono and then released in stereo, has some interesting bonus tracks. My favourite is their cover of the Everly Brothers' Man With Money, which they Who-ify to great effect with classic Townshend power chords.

The Who Sell Out: A partially successful classic album that pays tribute to pirate radio in England (which flouted strict British radio rules), interspersing regular songs, songs that turn out to be commercials and tracks presented as actual commercials. I Can See For Miles, especially in the segue from the preceding "commercial" Rotosound Strings, is second only to Won't Get Fooled Again for pure power and instrumental tension. Another great track is the uber-psychedelic Armenia City in the Sky, and the band's second mini-opera Rael. The latter song is clunkily edited, but the instrumental elements that would eventually emerge on the Tommy album are super-powerful. Regarding bonus tracks, Daltrey's Early Morning Cold Taxi and Moon's Girl's Eyes are charming pop, although the latter sounds a bit too much like the Seekers' big hit Georgy Girl.

Magic Bus: This was a U.S.-only time-killing album because no other Who LP was released in 1968 — the rock opera Tommy was being conceived at this time for a 1969 release. On first glance, the album is a travesty — three repeats from earlier albums, and horrible sounding recordings made even more horrible via muddy fake stereo.

And yet...

Two great Who singles are on the album, the title track and the teenage fantasy classic Pictures of Lily (never stereo to this day for the latter song). And the horrible sounding songs were remixed into stereo and sound much better on subsequent reissues. Entwistle's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a great snarling portrait of Moon's personality, but the UK single version (which has crazy yelps and is a cleaner recording) is better; John's Doctor, Doctor is a hypochondriac's anthem; and Someone's Coming (best heard as a Sell Out bonus track in clean stereo) has wonderful horn stabs. And Disguises is quite intense with its dense production.

Next time: Tommy and the rest of the Who's recordings.

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