On stage at London’s 02 Arena in December 2014, Pete Townshend wearily told the audience that the trouble with playing a Who concert was that they only had a few hits “and we’ve licensed all of them to CSI.”
It was a typically contrary statement, but also partly true. The Who have licensed four of their most well-known songs, Who Are You, Baba O’Riley, I Can See For Miles and Won’t Get Fooled Again, to the US detective show franchise.
Those four songs, along with the similarly well-known, some might say over-exposed My Generation, Behind Blue Eyes and Love Reign O’Er Me, have also formed the backbone of many a Who greatest hits. But in a career spanning 50 years, The Who’s back catalogue is loaded with gems, and the makers of CSI haven’t got their hands on all of them…
ANYWAY, ANYHOW, ANYWHERE (1965)
The idea for this, The Who’s second single, came to Pete Townshend while lying stoned out of his gourd listening to bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker. While vocalist and Shepherds Bush tearaway Roger Daltrey sings about breaking through locked doors, Townshend concocts 40 seconds of abstract dissonance on his guitar. The Who’s pop-noise experiment still thrills every bit as much as My Generation.
PICTURES OF LILY (1967)
Rock music is full of songs about masturbation. And this is one of the best. What makes it so good is the way the Who disguises its subject matter with a sweet, singsong melody. On the surface this is the Who taking a break from smashing up their instruments – and each other – and showing a gentler side. In reality, they’re laughing at the world and jostling away under the bedclothes as if their lives depended on it.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (1965)
Another of The Who’s genius Trojan Horse songs. The chipper melody disguises an inner world of darkness and romantic turmoil. The gist of the song is that its central character wants to split up with his girlfriend but presumes she’ll have sex with his mates once he’s gone – but that’s OK. Only Keith Moon’s frantic drumming hints at the simmering tension within.
PINBALL WIZARD (1969)
A Who song for people who don’t really like The Who, Pinball Wizard has never grown old like Won’t Get Fooled Again, etc. The reason being it gets the job done in just 3:01 minutes, but like Won’t Get Fooled… has one of the greatest intros in rock. Townshend’s fluttering flamenco guitar sustains the tension for 23 glorious seconds before that first zinging powerchord. Only The Who could write a song about a bloke playing in an amusement arcade and make it sound like the most important thing in the world.
YOU BETTER YOU BET (1981)
The Who weren’t the Who after Keith Moon died. But this comeback single, recorded with former Faces drummer Kenney Jones, is a great song, regardless of who’s behind the kit. Townshend wrote this at the height of his drugging and nightclubbing days; an era that saw him hanging around with young pop stars hoping some of their youthful pizzazz would rub off on him. An early mind-life crisis song, then? Probably, but also a fine, bombastic, silly pop song that revels in being bombastic and silly.
PURE AND EASY (1971)
Many 60s pop stars, including The Beatles, fell under the spell of an Eastern guru. But only Peter Townshend stuck with his, Meher Baba, into the 1970s and beyond. Baba’s philosophy is at the heart of this exploration of spiritual growth and awakening. Full marks to Daltrey then, for imbuing the song with so much feeling, even though he had little idea what Townshend was banging on about half the time. Despite its origins, though, Pure And Easy is never preachy or evangelical. Townshend might have been looking for spiritual salvation but he still wasn’t above getting royally pissed on brandy while doing so.
EMINENCE FRONT (1982)
Another entry from The Who’s murky post-Moon era. The Who’s 1982 album It’s Hard is best forgotten except for Eminence Front. Built around a looping synth pattern, the swaggering beat piles on the tension like so many acknowledged Who classics. A song about cocaine paranoia and yuppie bullshit, Townshend sings it like a man who’s just woken up on the settee after the night before but can’t remember who or where he is.
DREAMING FROM THE WAIST (1975)
The Who’s 1975 album, The Who By Numbers has always lived in the shadow of its predecessor Quadrophenia. But, like Quadrophenia, there is a story behind it: namely Townshend fretting about becoming old and irrelevant. Dreaming From The Waist… can be filed alongside Pictures Of Lily as one of his great ‘wrestling-with-my-libido’ songs. Here he longs for the day he doesn’t fancy women so much, even though its celebrated sexual athlete Roger Daltrey who has to sing it. One of The Who’s finest hard rock numbers – and just listen to John Entwistle’s spider-fingered bass runs.
If ever a line might have come back to haunt The Who, it’s ‘Girls of 15, sexually knowing…’ on 5:15. But in the context of its parent album, Quadrophenia, it makes sense. The Who’s rock opera concept album about a young 60s mod’s spiritual journey is stuffed full of fine pop songs – and sexual anguish. Here, the blaring horns and that naggingly insistent riff nudge this ode to being ‘out of my brain on the train’ into the realms of true greatness.
SEE ME FEEL ME/LISTENING TO YOU (1969)
Once The Who started filling arenas, their music grew to fit their surroundings. Townshend has described Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again as “mini-symphonies”. But the first example was this curtain-closer from the Tommy album. Tommy was the album on which the previously insecure Roger Daltrey discarded his old image and found his true voice. On See Me Feel Me… you can almost hear him transforming from uppity West London mod into transatlantic rock god, like a musical version of Dr David Banner morphing into The Incredible Hulk.
THE REAL ME (1973)
In 2012-13, The Who performed Quadrophenia in its entirety. The show began with the album’s intro, I Am The Sea, and footage of the Blitz, bomb shelters, mods and rockers. It was all a brilliant warm-up for The Real Me, a song so explosive it almost collapses several times before reaching the finishing line, breathless and spent. Anyone looking for a non-hit Who song that bottles their sheer joy and energy should look no further. And the star of the performance is The Who’s often unsung hero, John Entwistle. Listen to what’s going on behind Daltrey’s town-crier roar, Townshend’s slashing guitar and Moon’s bustling drums and The Who have rarely sounded more vital and alive.
Mark Blake’s book Pretend You’re In A War: The Who and the Sixties is out now on paperback through Aurum Press Ltd.