The Who remain one of the most beloved and influential bands of the British Invasion for a very good reason: their music was pure, undiluted awesome, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.
My Generation (1965)
- "My Generation" was the band's third single under the name of the Who, and the one where they finally found their signature sound. Roger's stuttering lead vocals as he dismisses the interests of the older generation as "awful c-c-cold" are the stuff of legend, while Pete, John, and Keith are in outstanding form on lead guitar, bass (especially in the instrumental bridge), and drums (especially in the outro).
- "The Kids Are Alright" is another of the Who's early signature tracks, with Roger, Pete, and John's voices meshing into glorious three-part harmonies as the singer insists he doesn't mind leaving his girl behind with "the kids", as "they're alright".
A Quick One (1966)
- The album rocks out from the very first track, "Run Run Run", in which Roger exhorts his girlfriend regarding her chronic bad luck (with Pete and John harmonising in the refrain), anchored by the weight of Pete's lead guitar, which really takes off for a solo during the instrumental bridge.
- "Boris the Spider" is a sterling example of John's fondness for the macabre, with lyrics building up to the title character's "sticky end" beneath a book wielded by the singer. The morbid atmosphere is beautifully enhanced by the mock basso profundo vocals for the Title Drop (matched by similarly hefty bass guitar) and the falsetto repetitions of "creepy crawly" - which add up to John doing a Soprano and Gravel duet with himself.
- "So Sad About Us" is one of the Who's most widely covered songs, and among their most influential. It perfectly encapsulates many aspects of their early sound: the vocal harmonies, the lyrics about lost love, Keith's crashing drum fills, Pete's raw guitar riffs, John's thundering bass... all told, it forms an ideal introduction to the Who's early years, and more generally to music on the border between pop and rock and roll in the 1960s.
- The Who's foray into rock as a storytelling medium really takes flight with "A Quick One While He's Away", a "mini-opera" about a lovelorn woman waiting for her man to return from a yearlong journey away who is aggressively seduced by Ivor the Engine Driver (played by John), but who is forgiven when her man finally comes back in the final "movement", "You Are Forgiven". And while it's hard not to laugh at the band members singing "cello cello cello" when Kit Lambert proved unable to afford an actual cellist for the recording, it's equally hard not to be won over by Roger, Pete, and John's performances on lead and backing vocals throughout, whether for the a cappella introduction of "Her Man's Been Gone", the seedy "Ivor the Engine Driver", the saloon-like "Soon Be Home", or the cathartic "You Are Forgiven".
The Who Sell Out (1967)
- Far and away the most celebrated track on the album is "I Can See for Miles", a real tour de force for all four band members. From Keith's thundering drums, especially in the chorus, to John's pounding bassline, to the many layers of Pete's guitars (particularly the throbbing solo in the instrumental bridge), to Roger's defiant, triumphant performance on lead vocals, to the dense vocal harmonies for the Title-Only Chorus,note it remains one of the true classics of their catalogue.
- Pete tried his hand at rock mini-opera again with the fascinating "Rael", the story of a man asking the captain of a ship to sail him to his family's original homeland of Rael, which is now under threat of invasion. Rather than a medley of shorter songs, "Rael" is one continuous piece of music that changes tempo and key multiple times, the most substantial shift coming for the chorus of "He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again" as special guest organist Al Kooper falls silent and Pete, John, and Keith play a melody that fans of Tommy will recognise as an early version of "Sparks". The vocal harmonies are a delight, and Keith and John are rock solid even in the face of the constant rhythmic shifts.
- The reflective "Amazing Journey" finds the singer wondering what sort of world might exist in Tommy's mind now that he's lost his ability to see, hear, or speak, suspecting that his sickness may "take the mind where minds can't usually go". It leads directly into the otherworldly instrumental "Sparks", which borrows heavily from the previous album's "Rael" to answer the question posed by "Amazing Journey", and provides a stellar showcase for Pete's guitar, John's bass, and Keith's drums before finally coming full circle with the opening riff of "Amazing Journey".
- Pete may have been dismissive of "Pinball Wizard" after writing it, but his urgent performance on both acoustic and electric guitar help to set the stage for one of the Who's most memorable tracks, with Roger sliding into the role of the "local lad" who is stunned to be de-throned by a "deaf, dumb, and blind kid" who "sure plays a mean pinball", all anchored by the ever reliable rhythm section of John and Keith. The sudden key change for the fadeout is a highlight.
- "I'm Free" takes off with a driving rhythm in the guitar and piano, soon joined by Keith on drums and John on bass, as Tommy exults in the freedom he feels at being able to see, hear, and speak again, and the spiritual awakening he has undergone as a result, an awakening he wants to share with the multitudes, who end the song by asking, in awed tones, "How can we follow? How can we follow?" as the opening guitar riff from "Pinball Wizard" re-appears.
- The Who save the best for last with "We're Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me", as Tommy's followers quickly grow disillusioned with his idea of salvation through pinball and desert him en masse, the initial "stage whispers" of "We're not gonna take it!" building to a furious repudiation of everything Tommy offers. But as the dust settles, Roger revives a melody heard in "Christmas" and "Go to the Mirror" that finally blossoms into its own song; quite what is happening to Tommy as he asks his "audience" to see, feel, touch, and heal him - all with gloriously clean vocals from Roger, backed by Pete and John - isn't clear, but it sets the stage for the memorable finale, with the three vocalists joining together to sing the final chorus, backed by drums, bass, guitar, and organ.Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountains
I get excitement at your feet
Right behind you, I see the millions
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions
From you, I get the story...
Live at Leeds (1970)
- Popular opinion holds that the electrifying, instrument-smashing energy of the Who's live performances was nearly impossible to capture in the studio; fortunately, there are plenty of concert recordings available for anyone who never saw them on stage in their heyday, none more celebrated than this "official bootleg" of a February 1970 performance at the University of Leeds. Among the highlights are performances of "A Quick One While He's Away" and Tommy in their entirety (the latter being a staple of their concerts in the late 1960s and early 1970s)note and a fifteen-minute version of "My Generation" that includes reprises of "See Me, Feel Me" and "Sparks" as well as several virtuosic displays by Keith on drums, John on bass, and especially Pete on lead guitar.
Who's Next (1971)
- The album that rose from the ashes of the Lifehouse project hits the ground running with "Baba O'Riley", opening with a hypnotically fascinating solo from Pete on Lowrey organ that continues in some form throughout the entire song.note One by one, other instruments appear on the scene: piano (also from Pete), drums, bass, and finally Roger on vocals (with Pete taking over for the lines "Don't cry, don't raise your eye, it's only teenage wasteland"); the anguished cry of "They're all wasted!" heralds an instrumental coda like few others in the Who's catalogue, with Pete's guitar giving way to Dave Arbus' violin solo, all adding up to five of the most remarkable minutes in their discography.
- "Bargain" is another of Pete's many love songs whose object is not a woman, but God as envisioned by Meher Baba. Roger's voice is suitably raw for the verses as he sings that he'd gladly lose himself to find the object of his love, considering it the best bargain he ever had, while Pete's more mellow voice is ideal for the bridge as he humbly says he knows he's "worth nothing without you". The song makes judicious use of an ARP synthesiser in the introduction and the extended instrumental bridges in the middle and coda, while Keith and John are in fine form on drums and bass.
- John's fondness for the morbid strikes again with "My Wife", which takes Woman Scorned to epic levels as the singer, having gone on a drunken spree and ended up in jail, is fleeing his enraged wife, who is convinced he spent his lost time with another woman, and whom the singer is certain won't listen to his attempts to explain before raining hell on him. As well as playing bass and singing lead, John is also behind the trumpet overdubs that give the song the sense of paranoid urgency it needs.
- The sheer pathos of "Behind Blue Eyes" makes it another of the Who's most enduring tracks, with Roger giving a marvellously angsty performance of Pete's lyrics about a "bad man", a "sad man behind blue eyes" whose "love is vengeance that's never free". The vocal harmonies during the verses, accompanied only by John's bass and Pete's acoustic guitar, somehow make them feel even more lonely and tragic, while the addition of electric guitar and drums help to dial up the anger for the bridge as Roger exhorts us to crack his fist open if it clenches, lest he lose his cool, but also to tell him bad news if he smiles, lest he laugh "and act like a fool".
- Although the high point of "Won't Get Fooled Again" - Roger's gloriously primal "YEEEAAAHHH!!" near the end - makes a generation of TV viewers think of CSI: Miami's Horatio Caine as played by David Caruso, it remains one of the defining moments of the Who's sound. The Lowrey organ once again anchors the instrumental backing of Roger's delivery of lyrics about a revolution that ultimately becomes the Trope Namer for Meet the New Boss (same as the old boss), with two extended solos (one at the beginning, one just before Roger's scream), while Keith's drums, John's bass, and Pete's guitar are absolutely first rate from start to finish. Small wonder this song continues to make lists of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written.
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (Singles compilation, 1971)
- The Who's first single, "I Can't Explain", is a straightforward rocker that nevertheless contains hints of what was to come, with Roger's performance on lead vocal trading off with Pete and John singing "Can't explain!" after each line, while Keith is already showing signs of the unbridled energy that made him a one-of-a-kind drummer.
- "Happy Jack" tells the story of an oddball on the Isle of Man who remains happy despite the efforts of the local children to hurt him. The stars of the show are the close vocal harmonies, John's thumping delivery of the recurring bass riff, and Keith's full-throttle drum solos in the bridges, especially for the lead-in to the first bridge as he charges to the foreground like a speeding train.note
- "Pictures of Lily" is another comic delight as an insomniac teenager gets a "cure" from his dad in the form of the title objects, which are implied to lead to A Date with Rosie Palms most nights - until the singer develops a crush on "Lily" (early 20th century actress Lillie Langtry) only for his dad to tell him "she's been dead since 1929!" John's rambunctious French horn solo just before the second verse adds to the song's irreverent humour.
- "The Seeker" zooms out of the gate with a driving guitar riff from Pete before Roger joins in with lyrics about a man running roughshod over everyone around him in search of answers, but knowing that no-one - not even Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Timothy Leary - can provide him with what he really seeks, and that the only certainty is death. The layered guitars and keyboards, along with Keith on drums and John on bass, help to add to the sense of urgency of the Seeker's search.
- The band's second single chronologically, "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere", has some superficial similarities with "I Can't Explain", as Roger once again trades off with falsetto answers from Pete and John in the verses, but then the bridge kicks in, with Nicky Hopkins on piano (marking the beginning of a long career as the band's favoured session keyboardist), Keith going crazy on drums, and feedback from Pete's guitar, and we can tell the Who will develop into something truly unique.
- "Magic Bus" reels the listener in immediately with its catchy rhythm, prominently featuring the high-pitched clatter of wooden claves, before Roger sings of how much he wants to buy the "magic bus" that takes him to his girlfriend's house every day; Pete, as the driver, initially tells him "You can't have it!", but finally relents, and the song ends with an ecstatic Roger driving the bus himself with his girlfriend aboard.
- "Substitute" boasts outstanding performances from Keith on drums, John on bass, Pete on both acoustic and electric guitar (particularly for the opening chords and their re-appearance in the bridge), and Roger on vocals as he sings Pete's darkly comic lyrics about how many things aren't what they seem - the singer is "a substitute for another guy" who may "look all white, but [his] dad was black"note and who wants to substitute the object of the song "for my mum - at least I'll get my washing done!"
- "I'm a Boy" was the only song written for one of Pete's first "rock opera" projects, about a couple in the future who "order" four girls but get three girls and a boy instead, and simply dress the boy as a girl and force him to participate in stereotypical feminine activities when he'd rather play cricket or ride his bike. The vocal harmonies, Keith's drumming, and John's French horn solo are some of the song's highlights.
- In "The Real Me", Quadrophenia protagonist Jimmy screams his defiance to his psychiatrist, his mother, a priest... all of his bravado masking his fundamental insecurities about who "the real me" truly is. John gives one of the best performances of his career on bass, flanked by Keith's always aggressive drumming, overdubbed brass, and Roger's furiously energetic delivery of Pete's lyrics.
- Pete takes over lead vocals for the introspective "I'm One", as Jimmy, feeling he is otherwise destined to be one of life's perennial losers, latches onto the idea of becoming a mod. The song ratchets up the energy starting with the second verse as the acoustic guitar and occasional electric notes give way to savage drums, electric guitar, and bass as Jimmy's determination grows.
- "5:15" finds Jimmy sat between two city gents on a train to Brighton, getting "out of [his] brain" by downing endless "purple hearts" while reflecting on his teenage life. Roger's lead vocal makes us feel every one of Jimmy's ups and downs, while the usual instrumental backing of Pete's guitar, John's bass, and Keith's drums are given extra heft by Chris Stainton on piano and trumpet overdubs from John.
- The whole opera builds to the explosive finale of "Love Reign O'er Me", in which Jimmy, though still in the same troubled situation in which he began the album, has found spiritual redemption in the pouring rain. Roger is at the absolute peak of his power as a singer throughout, especially as he belts out the Title Drop, while Pete's guitars and keyboards form the backbone of an accompaniment that makes us join Jimmy on his unsteady yet definite journey toward maturity.
Odds & Sods (Outtakes compilation, 1974)
- The album opens with John's mock travelogue "Postcard", originally recorded in Pete's garage in Twickenham in 1970 but released as a single to promote Odds & Sods with extra brass overdubs (also provided by John). Though harmonically simple, it's full of John's trademark humour, its boisterously upbeat atmosphere deliberately at odds with lyrics that eviscerate the idea that going on a world tour with a band is either fun or profitable.
- Who's Next may have grown out of the ashes of Lifehouse, but it was another three years before the Who's audience heard the song at the heart of the original concept, "Pure and Easy". The song starts innocently enough, telling us of the musical note, "pure and easy", from which the world began, but that, as civilisation tries to find new ways to kill itself, is just as capable of destruction as it is of creation. The melody makes clever use of major and minor tonality as the lyrics shift between exploring the brighter and darker sides of the eternal note. The 1995 re-issue of Who's Next includes an earlier, faster version that scales back the instrumentation for the middle of the song and adds vocal harmonies from Pete and John for the fadeout on the words "There once was a note, listen!"
The Who by Numbers (1975)
- Pete's lyrics for "Slip Kid" tell of a young "soldier" who is struggling with the realities of growing up, and are meant as a cautionary tale for anyone planning to enter the music industry. The shuffle/salsa rhythm is infectiously catchy, and Pete's lead guitar and Nicky Hopkins' piano give the song the weight it needs until it scales back for the uncertainty of the bridge. As with "Pinball Wizard", there's a shocking swerve into a new key just before the fadeout as Roger alternates with Pete and John to sing "No easy way to be free..."
- "Squeeze Box" is among the Who's most unapologetically comical songs, sure to raise a knowing smirk with its Double Entendre lyrics about the title object as played by the singer's mother, ensuring that his father "never sleeps at night".note
Who Are You (1978)
- The standout track on the Who's last album before Keith's untimely death is "Who Are You", centred around Roger's full-throated lead vocal performance (complete with a Precision F-Strike in two repetitions of the chorus) of Pete's lyrics inspired by his own experience waking up "in a Soho doorway" and being told by a policeman that he wouldn't face charges if he could walk away unassisted. After the first two verses, the song suddenly dials down the volume for an acoustic guitar solo from Pete, then suddenly increases in volume again as the synthesisers that opened the song charge back into the fraynote for Roger's exclamation of "WHOOOOO ARE YOU!?" and a piano solo by special guest Rod Argent. John's bass and Keith's drums are as first class as ever, though knowing we are hearing the latter for the last time adds an edge of melancholy to the album. For added awesome, listen to the full version, with the often excluded third verse:I know there's a place you walked where love falls from the trees
My heart is like a broken cup, I only feel right on my knees
I spit out like a sewer hole, yet still receive your kiss
How can I measure up to anyone now after such a love as this
Face Dances (1981)
- Even many fans who dismiss the Kenney Jones era admit to liking "You Better You Bet", which Pete may have admitted is straightforward, uptempo pop, but is all the more catchy for it, and Roger's delivery of the vocal melody ranks among his best.
It's Hard (1982)
- As divisive as the final album before the group's (first) breakup may be, even among members of the band, "Eminence Front" is still a standout by any standards, with Pete's lyrics about putting on a facade to hide from life's troubles getting a funk-influenced instrumental backing which puts Tim Gorman's synthesisers front and centre.
Other Live Recordings
- The version of "A Quick One" from The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus featured in The Kids Are Alright stands out. Part of the reason the Stones sat on the footage for several years was because they couldn't take being upstaged by a rival band in their own film.
- Their performance of "Who Are You" at The Concert For New York City with John Cusack giving an awesome spoken-word lead in."The next act is so big and so legendary, it takes all of these heroes [of the September 11th attacks] to introduce one of the greatest bands in the world! A band that loves New York and they are loved by New York!! You ready?? FROM ENGLAND, THE WHO!!!"