The greatest rock band ever? Quite possibly. There was nothing like them before, nothing like them at the time, and nothing like them since. The only problem is choosing the Top 10 songs by The Who.
Growing up in West London, we had the choice of some of the best bands and musicians that would dominate music for the years to come. We saw them all. The Yardbirds and The Stones, and a bit later, Zeppelin and Genesis. We had Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, and, of course, The Who.
A Terrifying Experience
Going to a Who concert could be a terrifying experience. Even when they were “The High Numbers” at the Railway Hotel in Harrow or the Starlight Rooms in Sudbury, things were starting to get broken.
By the time we got to the Marquee and the Ballrooms, it resembled a war zone. Bits of equipment, drums, guitars, and mics littered the stage and the audience.
The music was aggressive, and so were they…
Moon was a force of nature behind the drums, constantly producing drumming like we had never seen, and haven’t since. I haven’t heard anyone play like that, even to this day, with his constant aggressive fills perfectly in time.
John Entwistle, fast and yet very tight on the bass, had to try and play with “The Loon.” He had to be good to even get close. But he was good, and he did. Daltrey at the front swirling and often smashing mics with the near-perfect rock voice and attitude.
And, of course, there was Pete Townshend…
A much better guitar player than most give him credit for. He was the genius that wrote the majority of the songs and anchored it all together off stage and on it.
So, let’s take a very brief sojourn through nearly 60 years and have a look at my picks for The Who’s Top 10 songs. Now, where should we start?
Top 10 Songs by The Who
10 Anyway Anyhow Anywhere
We thought we understood how a song was structured. Some verses and a chorus, maybe a middle 8 and a solo. And, then along comes this. We had the verse and chorus with an interesting guitar beginning, and then all hell let loose. Nicky Hopkins adding the piano. As I said, nothing like them before.
This was the only time that Daltrey and Townshend wrote a song together. It was released in 1965 and reached #10 in the UK. It is thought that it was the first guitar solo in a song to feature feedback.
Even more original and intriguing…
There was an element of feedback throughout the song. Townshend said they were trying to create the same sound they had on stage. This is the song that announced to the world what was coming.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3UvdiFCgGY[/yt]
9 Baba O’Riley
From what many believe was their best work, Who’s Next, it was the opening track on the album released in 1971. It is often called “Teenage Wasteland,” as the phrase is repeated by Townshend during this song. “Don’t cry – Don’t raise your eye – It’s only teenage wasteland.”
The song is inspired by two people Townshend respected…
Spiritualist Meher Baba and musician Terry Riley. Riley, in particular, is an advocate of what is called “Minimalist Music.” We can see this in the opening of the song with the repetitions on the synthesizer.
The song is powerful, with Daltrey excelling and Moon driving it along. The feature at the end with the violin part and a change of tempo gives it an epic finish. I was lucky enough to see Nigel Kennedy perform the closing section at The Who’s Royal Albert Hall concert.
Townshend said he was inspired to write the song after witnessing what he could only describe as lives of desolation for most young people.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gu9HhYv0C7E[/yt]
8 My Generation
Possibly the greatest song by The Who. It was the first time that a TV audience was treated to the demolition of a TV stage set. The song was taken from their first album, My Generation.
There are a few things notable about this track…
First, the driving riff, which may have been influenced by The Kinks. Second, it was a song with a commentary on the youth culture of the time, which was unusual. And third, there was Daltrey’s stutter. There have been a couple of potential explanations for this.
One that he was mimicking a “Mod” high on amphetamines. The second was an emphasis on the lack of communication skills of young people. The real reason is simple. Roger had a slight stutter in those days. He was told to emphasize it by Kit Lambert because it made it sound “different.”
Different it was when we got to the end…
Exploding drums, bits of guitar, mic flying everywhere, and my father staring at the TV in disbelief. Needless to say, this song closed their concerts for years. It had to, there wasn’t much left after.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjN5uHRIcjM[/yt]
7 Love Reign O’er Me
One from 1979’s Quadrophenia now. An epic song by The Who that gets an equally epic performance from a now stutter-less Roger Daltrey.
I read somewhere that this song was called a ballad…
That hardly seems an appropriate description. The big finish to Townshend’s second “Rock Opera” starts with the piano and Moon’s thundering drums. Over the sound of rain and thunder, they create a dismal picture as the song begins.
It is another huge performance from Daltrey as the song builds towards its climax. And, at that climax, some drum work that will take your breath away. The story had been about the rebellion of the Mods all the way through.
But, then this song makes you think, “Was it really all about that, or was it something deeper?” Townshend drags you in and then leaves you to ponder. That’s why it’s one of the Top 10 songs by The Who.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMxwPOoZm_c[/yt]
6 Eminence Front
This is an interesting song taken from the band’s 1982 album, It’s Hard. It was unquestionably hard for the remaining members after the death of Keith Moon four years before.
They replaced him with Kenney Jones from the Small Faces, another “Mod” band. He was a good drummer, but he wasn’t Moon. It just didn’t work, and you could hear it on this album.
But, from this album came this excellent track…
Almost Disco in its feeling with that perpetuating guitar riff. It was sung by Pete Townshend and ridicules “pretend celebrities.” People who think they are famous and important but aren’t.
He sings about their delusions and hedonism. We have got a few of those today strutting around. It was released as a single in America but only went to #68. However, it became a fixture in live concerts.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HTVMh7fur4[/yt]
5 Behind Blue Eyes
Back to The Who in one of their great periods, this track comes from Who’s Next. We mentioned it when looking at “Love Reign O’er Me” about The Who writing a ballad. This may well be the nearest they ever got. A tender song with outstanding lyrics.
It tells the tale of a man who is shunned and hated by friends and family. He is seeking some empathy, but there is something not right with him. “No one knows what it’s like – To be the bad man – to be the sad man – Behind Blue Eyes.” One of the most popular songs by The Who.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MomyaekDrdA[/yt]
4 Young Man Blues
If there is one thing The Who was all about, it was their live concerts. It was impossible to record them in a studio and get them to sound as they did on stage. So, there has to be a “live” track, and this is it.
Written by Mose Allison, they had been playing it since 1964. By the time of this recording in 1970, it was a ferocious version. This was recorded live at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970.
Everything you expect from The Who is here. The drums, the guitars, the vocals, it all lends itself to one of the greatest rock performances ever.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWRmsoBXAUw[/yt]
3 I Can’t Explain
Released in 1965, this remains one of my favorite songs by The Who. It is pure “Who.” A powerful, heavyweight riff with good vocals. It drives along at a good pace, and even today, they still open their concerts with it.
This was effectively their first single. They had been known as “The High Numbers,” but this was the song that started The Who’s journey. It reached #8 in the UK and #93 in America.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHedUYM8yus[/yt]
2 Won’t Get Fooled Again
Another track from Who’s Next, this song has become somewhat of an anthem for them in their live concerts. It also adds a certain power to the end of the album.
The song is full of power chords, ferocious drumming, and, of course, that Daltrey scream. It was a song aimed at politicians, their self-assigned relevance, and their self-created importance.
Haven’t we got a few of those today?
Townshend was saying you are nothing and demonstrating it with utter contempt in the lyrics. “Meet the new boss – Same as the old boss.”
Daltrey’s scream of anguish was aimed at a system that is broken and has lost sight of what is important. It came to mean something to a generation. It demonstrates how Rock music, or rather, powerful Rock music, can lift people and make them stand up.
Since its appearance as part of a stage set…
It has become an anthem, and no Who concert is complete without it. And, in Ringo’s son Zak, and bassist Pino, they have found musicians not to emulate Moon or Entwhistle, but to help create the “new” Who.
The lasting image of this song, though, is of Townshend flying through the air and landing on his knees, and sliding across the stage playing “that big chord.” This is Rock music, and as I said at the outset, no one else comes close. One of the top 10 songs by The Who? You had better believe it.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDfAdHBtK_Q[/yt]
1 I Can See For Miles
So, on to my pick for the greatest song by The Who of all time. Honestly, there could have been so many. But, for me, this has always been one of their most important tracks. Not necessarily lyrically, but because it has everything that The Who was about at the time.
Townshend wrote it in 1966, but the management suggested they hold it back for a while until they needed it. They were so convinced of its success. It was eventually included on their album The Who Sell Out and released as a single in 1967.
The delay gave Townshend time to seriously think about the song…
As a result, he crafted a “Who Masterpiece.” Big chords, mind-shattering drumming, thunderous bass line, and Daltrey at the front. It may have been the first Hard Rock track.
The song was originally written about jealousy and infidelity, “I know you’ve deceived me – Now here’s a surprise.”
But, like so many of their songs, it became much, much more. The music press called it “the greatest rock song ever” and “the greatest performance by a rock drummer ever.” They weren’t far wrong in either quote.
Was It A Success?
The Who management, including Townshend, were convinced they had a winner, but they were only partly right.
It reached #10 in the UK, lower than most of their other singles. And it peaked at #9 in America, and Townshend was devastated. “That should’ve been number one,” he announced. Despite his disappointment, I am sure he knows he made a “real” Who record that is timeless.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62ZJn0cTASo[/yt]
Need to Find More Bands That Rock?
Well, check out our thoughts on the Best 60s Rock Bands, the Best 70s Rock Bands, the Best 80s Rock Bands, the Best 90s Rock Bands, and the Most Famous British Rock Bands for more incredible song selections.
And you’ll need to rock out to them. So, have a look at our reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, and the Most Comfortable Headphones. Or how about the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones Under $200, or the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones that you can buy in 2023?
Top 10 Songs by The Who – Final Thoughts
I could have created this list with another 10 of the best Who songs, and no one would bat an eye. Nothing from the album Tommy, and singles like “Join Together,” among so many others, were excluded. That’s how prolific and great they were. You could have ten different lists of their Top 10.
In those early days, at the Railway, the Starlight, and the Marquee, we knew they were special. We didn’t know how special until the Isle of Wight in 1970. That was when they announced themselves as the loudest and best rock band in the world.
So, until next time, happy listening.