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The Who: A True Guide for Beginners
With a new Quadrophenia tour, a memoir, and an attention grabbing Olympic performance, the Who have been finding themselves in the spotlight recently, with interest in the band and its music re-surging. In August, the Guardian released The Who: A Beginner’s Guide, a list of the top 10 tracks any newcomer to the music of the greatest rock band of all time (I call 'em like I see 'em) should get to know. You can’t argue with the quality of any of the songs, “My Generation,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” among others on the list are some of the most instantly recognized songs out there for a reason. These songs were not only pure-rock anthems, they were full of a meaning which resonates now just as much as it did when they were written.
The problem with the list comes with the fact that they are some of the most instantly recognized songs out there. Three of the songs on the list come from one album, their biggest hit, Who’s Next. Adding “My Generation” and “Pinball Wizard,” fully half the list is comprised of songs that any aspiring Who fan probably already know, in fact, most likely the songs which prompted this interest in the first place.
Of the remaining five, which do have a place on a list meant to expand readers’ musical horizons, four were released between 1965 and 1966 (“My Generation” was also released in this time, bringing the total for this time period to five). This leaves one, “Blue Red and Grey,” which is both lesser known, and from a more under-appreciated time period/album. In fact, not one song on the list came from Quadrophenia, a telling fact in and of itself.
A true beginner’s guide to The Who’s music should highlight not only great songs, but songs which introduce listeners to all of the things which make the band unique. The intellect, the variety and experimentation, the way that all of the albums fit together to reflect the history of the band itself. At the very least no more than two songs should come from the same album, because that leaves other albums seriously underrepresented.
With all that in mind, here is the list of the top 10 Who songs I would recommend to a beginner with at least some awareness of classic rock.
1) See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You
Apart from being quite probably the single most beautiful song of all time, this is the song which holds the key to the entire rock opera, Tommy. The popularity of the hit, Pinball Wizard, has led to something of a misconception that the album is about pinball, when in fact it is the product of Pete Townshend’s spiritual exploration. See Me Feel Me is a pure musical expression of this spirituality.
2) Love Reign O’er Me
The same place which See Me, Feel Me fills on Tommy, Love Reign O’er Me fills on Quadrophenia, The Who’s second rock opera. The whole album takes place in one moment, in which main character Jimmy Cooper, finds himself on a rock in the middle of a stormy sea, having lost everything. He remembers the events which brought him to this point as the effects of drugs and alcohol wear off, and he's faced with a choice between throwing himself off and turning back and fixing everything. In that moment, he feels a spiritual awakening, depicted by the song Love Reign O'er Me.
3) The Song is Over
Who’s Next contains so many of the band’s instantly recognizable hits, and yet there are still enough lesser-known songs from it that it was almost difficult to choose among them. This one (which was near the top of the list anyway) has the added benefit of referencing another song I wanted to put on this list, though (Pure and Easy), so I was getting two recommendations in one spot. I don’t quite care if that’s cheating. ;)
4) They’re All in Love
I wasn’t sure I wanted to replace “Blue, Red and Grey” with “They’re All in Love” on this list, but it so perfectly epitomizes the feeling of the album Who By Numbers, it really should be the song used to introduce the album to newbies. Who By Numbers was released in 1975 at a low point in the band's history, with the failure of Pete's ambitious Lifehouse project, followed by the difficulties and perceived failures of Quadrophenia, tensions in the band and the falling out with Kit Lambert, their producer and mentor. The music of this album reflects this unhappiness, as well as beginning to touch on themes of growing older.
I kept this one from the Guardian list. The musical style and introspective lyrics provide not only a good sample of The Who’s music of that era, but a level of introspection which foreshadows the spirituality which would continue to characterize the band’s work.
6) Don’t Let Go The Coat
Going from one of their early works to a song recorded after Keith Moon’s death, this track very much characterizes the feeling of the band at this time. There’s a sadness to it, and certainly a difference without Moon’s unique drumming style, but it still retains a Who-ness, both musically and lyrically.
7) A Quick One While He’s Away
The other song I kept from the Guardian’s list, the mini-opera. In Pete Townshend’s words, it was “Tommy’s parents,” a song which depicted a story in a series of different parts. It came from the Who's second album (of the same title), which was highly focused on experimental producing, The Who didn't become an "album" band until Tommy, but A Quick One gained popularity with a show-stealing performance on the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.
8) I Can See for Miles
Yeah, this one is well enough known that it could have even made the Guardian list. And yet it didn’t. Though the Who already had a reputation by 1967 as the loudest band ever, Townshend said of "I Can See for Miles" that it was the "loudest song they ever recorded," referencing its powerful and layered sound. This statement prompted Paul McCartney, without even listening to the song, to write "Helter Skelter" in an attempt to outdo it.
9) Success Story
This one also came off of Who By Numbers, but has the distinction of being the only non-Pete Townshend song on this list. It was written by the band’s bassist, John Entwistle. The Who was unique in that it was comprised of four strong and different personalities with diverging visions. Entwistle's musical perfectionism puts him in the ranks of greatest bassists ever, and his darker sense of humor characterized songs such as “Boris the Spider” and “My Wife.”
10) I’m Free
This list both started and ended with songs off of Tommy, and neither of them are Pinball Wizard. I’m Free rocks, plain and simple.
There are approximately 220 songs I’d like to put on this list, but these 10 provide a good springboard for people wanting to expand their knowledge of The Who’s music. Start with these and let the YouTube recommended videos guide you, or just listen to the albums your favorites from this list are from, and rent The Kids Are Alright while you’re at it.
What's your favorite Who song? Album? Answer in the comments below!