The Who: Hits 50!

One of the bands that were there at rock’s beginning mark 50 years with a career overview.

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While many point to the Stones, The Kinks and The Kingsmen as the earliest roots of heavy rock, it was The Who that really set the blueprint. Moon the maniac drummer, Entwistle the bass ox, Townshend the fuzz-freaking guitarist and Daltrey the howling, leonine singer, all hammering out loud, snarling rebel rock.

As the second major still-operational 60s legends to hit their 50th anniversary, their equivalent of the Stones’ Grrr! traces the emergence of a monster over 42 chronological tracks; a band not afraid to dictate, reflect, adapt to and devour popular culture on their thundering march through five windmilling, mic-flinging decades. Right from the start you can hear the Hulk-like chests straining out of their buttoned-collar shirts.

The opening inclusion of the Shadows’ surf confection Zoot Suit, from their days as the High Numbers, is a misleading sop to the completists; from Townshend’s first stiletto chords and Moon’s driving beats on I Can’t Explain, the sheer muscle and vitality of The Who claws to the fore, a band drenched in dynamism and bristling with mod insurrection. It’s there in the generational self-determination of Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, My Generation and The Kids Are Alright, and in the way they wrapped taboo-laden songs in accessible pop harmonies and shot them to the top end of the charts – the gender-bending I’m A Boy and wistful wanking anthem Pictures Of Lily./o:p

Even during their beat era, Townshend was envisioning lengthy concept albums, but their golden age really kicked in during the permissive and exploratory late-60s period where psychedelia clashed explosively with blues rock, someone on some very good drugs indeed thought The Magical Mystery Tour would make a cracking film, and Townshend’s wildest narratives were suddenly given free reign. Though their development seems halted here by the inclusion of both sides of the lightweight Dogs/Call Me Lightning single, when the clave percussion and Bo Diddley rhythm of 1968’s Magic Bus strike up it’s as if the Woodstock era has sprung fully formed from the grooves, and the grand rock opera conceits that follow form their empirical phase.

Tommy’s Pinball Wizard and I’m Free sound artfully crafted at 45 years remove, Daltrey’s vocals taking on a dramatic crispness and Townshend’s demented guitars forming a web-like safety net. Yet here were the bare bones of Led Zeppelin’s arch and mystical riffery, and in Tommy’s climactic See Me, Feel Me you can pinpoint the roots of Pink Floyd’s stirring 70s epics.

Monolithic masterpiece Won’t Get Fooled Again marks the high-water mark and turning point of their pomp rock peak. Not only was it their meatiest, beatiest, biggest and (kind of) bounciest number, it saw them, in 1971, become early surfers of the electronica wave emerging from Germany’s krautrock scene. Alongside Bargain and the equally statuesque Baba O’Riley it placed The Who on the median line between prog’s synthetic fripperies and the 70s hard rock explosion. It was a unique trail they’d blaze right through 1973’s Quadrophenia – represented by the horn-blitzed rock’n’roll of 5.15 and the stirring Love Reign O’er Me – like a flame-spewing Lambretta.

It’s fascinating to note that The Who, the undisputed voice of British youth right up until punk, were continuing to map the crags and gullies of the teenage wasteland even as they were threatening to get old before they died. ‘Join together with the band,’ Daltrey offered in 1971, and several generations hopped happily aboard their anarchic bus; the Quadrophenia film remains a cult favourite to this day.

But by the mid-70s they were indulging in Rod-like trad rock on Squeeze Box and Slip Kid, then the Pistols, Jam and Clash arrived, speaking for a disillusioned prog-bored youth and making 1978’s Who Are You? sound distinctly hoary. It didn’t dampen The Who’s irrepressible melodic nous, though, and, despite a 22-year gap between 1982’s It’s Hard and 2004’s Real Good Looking Boy the post-70s material here shows little artistic let-up. 1981’s You Better You Bet is among the best of the rock old guard’s flirtations with electro pop, while Don’t Let Go The Coat and Athena are worthy forays into quasi-political 80s Afrobeat.

We could happily live without the poor man’s Talking Heads of Eminence Front, but from a band that have even now released fewer studio albums than The Beatles, Hits 50! packs a consistent, weighty punch, right up to Be Lucky, a sparkly, gospel rock new track included to push their 264th farewell tour. If Hits 50! is The Who’s swansong, they’re going down bellowing./o:p

Mark Beaumont

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle.