For my money, The Who are the greatest band to ever live. They may have been overshadowed by The Beatles (and Rolling Stones and Kinks and Hendrix) in the 60’s, but they were just as influential (feedback, album construction, power chords, lyrical content, stage craft, and more) and the best live band, probably ever.
In honor of their 50th anniversary tour, which I will be attending this upcoming Saturday, I wanted to publish a few Who related articles over the next few days. Here I will give my opinion of their albums, from “worst” to first.
11) Endless Wire
This album was released a full 24 years after The Who “broke up”. As such, you shouldn’t expect much and you don’t get much. But after listening to this again recently, it is better than you think The Who minus Keith Moon and John Entwistle could give you. But it’s still a far cry from their hey-day.
10) Face Dances
This was the first non-Moon album put out by the band and there is an obvious decline of quality. You can tell that by this point Townshend wasn’t giving The Who 100% and the songs lacked any real type of meaning. However, the first side of the album does have some catchy tunes, especially “The Quiet One” which may be the best song Entwistle ever penned for the group.
9) It’s Hard
Both Face Dances and It’s Hard show the band at their worst with Townshend’s disinterest in doing anything Who related reaching a new high. This was the last album released before their breakup and it’s probably a good thing considering their downward trend at this point in time. However, this album does feature “Eminence Front”, a song showing Pete could still write if he wanted to and a song that became an instant Who classic.
8) Who Are You
Many people think the death of Keith Moon signaled the end of the band, but this album is the first album that really wasn’t that good, even though it featured Moon. Then again, his disease with alcohol was at an all-time high and he could barely play the drums on several tracks off the record. But even a “bad” Who album is better than most other albums and there are great tunes in “New Song” and “Trick of the Light”. Moreover, the title track “Who Are You” is arguably a top three of top five song that Townshend ever wrote.
7) A Quick One
I have a tough time putting this at number 7 because it is so good…but that goes to show just how good of a band they were! A Quick One is famous for the ahead of it’s time mini-opera, “A Quick One While He’s Away”. Pete was tiring of the two minute single and wanted to expand his song writing. Thus the 10 minute opera, which while light and funny on the outside, is a dark song about abuse on the inside. As such, it shows the potential Townshend had as a song writer and why his songs were so ahead of his time and influential for other artists. Of the remaining albums, this is the weakest mainly because it had the most collaborative effort within the group. But awesome songs include “Run, Run, Run”, “Heatwave”, “Boris the Spider”, “So Sad About Us” and “Man with Money”. This album could easily be ranked #4.
6) The Who By Numbers
Following a dynamic run of Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia, many thought this effort paled in comparison, which it did. But those three albums are three of the best albums ever made! Of course it paled in comparison! But on its own, The Who By Numbers is a great album that you can listen to from start to finish. “Squeeze Box” and “Slip Kid” are the famous songs from the album, but other classics are “However Much I Booze” and “How Many Friends”.
5) My Generation
At the time of its release date, My Generation may have been the most progressive album to be released into the pop-rock industry. While The Who were using feedback and writing about their generation, insecurity, and inward personal problems The Beatles were still a relatively poppy band who hadn’t begun their Rubber Soul/Revolver revolution. In fact the title-track may have been the most influential song released at that point of time with its content, bass solo, and crashing feedback at the end. Other great tracks include “The Kids Are Alright”, “A Legal Matter”, and “The Ox”.
4) The Who Sell Out
This album is the transition album between “pop-art rock” Who and The Who that transformed the industry with “Tommy”. Some tracks sound like their old self with some songs giving you a preview of what was to come on their next album. The theme of the album was very unique, with the songs segued together with ads to make it sound like you were listening to a pirate radio station. The album features another mini-opera with “Rael” and the song that Townshend claims is the best song he ever wrote, “I Can See for Miles”. When the song didn’t become number one, Townshend officially gave up on the single and put all his work into the album. While it may not be the best song ever written like he claims, it’s still a top ten Who track that sounds so far ahead of anything from 1967- which is even more amazing when you release he wrote the song a couple years earlier and was holding it in his back pocket. Outside of this song there no song any casual fan would recognize, but to me, almost every song is a classic- from “Our Love Was” to “Relax” (which has a great middle section) to “Glow Girl”.
Tommy is the bands most influential work- bar none. It was the first true concept album and full length “rock opera”. When played lived, The Who instantly became the best band in the world. For proof, one needs to look no further than Live at Leeds or Live at Isle of Wight. “Listening To You” is the most hypnotic song of all-time. You can go into the song thinking The Who are the worst, but by the end of that you subconsciously are nodding along to the music. Other great songs on the album include “Overture”, “Amazing Journey/Sparks”, and “Acid Queen”. My only qualm is that it sounds quiet, especially compared to how loud The Who are on stage. But in retrospect, that aspect has actually grown on me.
At the time Quadrophenia was a bit of a bust, but looking back on it, it is arguably the bands most impressive work. When compared to Tommy, the story is more sensible and concrete, it involved the personalities of each band member, and was their most well produced album. “The Real Me” is Entwistle at his best and a phenomenal way to start an album. “I’m One” is a great song, lyrically, and “The Rock” is the most complex thing Townshend has ever done in studio, with two different tempos playing at once as the four themes of the albums are played on top of each other. Moon’s drumming at the end of “Love Reign O’er Me” is the ultimate.
1) Who’s Next (1971)
It is no surprise this album is #1. It’s their first album to incorporate their stage sound and persona in a studio environment and it was based off Pete’s most challenging project, Lifehouse. While that concept failed, most of the songs he created for it made its way to this album. Unlike Quadrophenia, this album produced a bevy of singles for the radio and concerts. While people love to look at “Baba O’Reily” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” I love to look at “Going Mobile” and “The Song is Over”. Overall though, this is The Who at their best. Fast, loud, and profound with deep lyrics, complex arrangements, and bursts of energy.