The Who Albums From Worst To Best
On “My Generation,” Roger Daltrey famously proclaims, “I hope I die before I get old.” It was 1965: Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics just as he was turning 20. Forty-eight years later, neither the singer nor the guitarist-composer has fulfilled that prophecy. Only one member of the Who did: Keith Moon, drummer and merrymaker extraordinaire, who died of a drug overdose in 1978 at the age of 32. (John “the Ox” Entwistle took his thunderfinger bass licks to his grave in 2002 at the still relatively young age of 57.) Still, it’s a line worth considering in 2013. The Who is still around, and just what does that mean?
Although the Who stands as an outfit with only one-half of its original members, Townshend and Daltrey are getting away with it … and then some. Five years ago the two were knighted USA-style at the Kennedy Center and, in 2010, the Who played a raucous and underrated Super Bowl halftime show: the next level these days, it seems, after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And the band’s performance at “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief” was expansive and one of the highlights of the night. Like another stand-out, Billy Joel, the group pillaged through seven songs; the Who’s set included a rendition of “Bell Boy” with Keith Moon lending his vocals via monitor. And the group is currently knee-deep in the second leg of an American tour, “Quadrophenia and More,” that takes them to Europe this summer. It could be its last ever.
So, why keep going? It seems as though they have some unfinished business. Townshend — long a troubled figure with a blazing media spotlight upon him — released a tell-all memoir last year, Who I Am. And, then there’s the issue of history: The Who has always been considered “one of” the greatest rock bands of all time but rarely “the best.” When boarding the Magic Bus, the Who has always been seated at the back while the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin fill out first-class. Townshend and Daltrey, approaching 70, are out to prove something.
?And even looking outside of its recent accolades and achievements, the Who has cause for renewed consideration. This is a group that contributed to the framework of how rock ‘n’ roll musicians behave: They break instruments and have bad attitudes. They brand themselves: Who wouldn’t readily identify that Union Jack target logo with the group? They make money: T-shirts on the current tour are fetching $40 a pop. They come up with signature moves (Townshend’s jumping windmill guitar stroke) and they bare their chests (Daltrey). They fight with each other like brothers, they have sex with the Western Hemisphere, and they write songs about it all. And, then, one-by-one: They die.
The band’s recordings are the heart of the matter, though, and go a long way toward reopening the case on the brilliant band. The Who has recorded 11 studio albums that have, in turn, given rise to a myriad of greatest hits collections, rare outtake compilations, and some of the best live music ever committed to tape (including the granddaddy of them all, 1970’s Live At Leeds.) Here, though, we consider those 11 LPs as a portfolio in its own right. As the Who criss-crosses the country, it’s readily apparent that, to paraphrase Townshend, the song will soon be over. And it’s these primary documents on which the Who’s legacy will be judged.
11. Endless Wire (2006)
In 2006, the Who released its first album of new material in 24 years. It'd be nice to deem it worth the wait, but Endless Wire is a jumbled mess and -- clocking in at 19 tracks that last nearly an hour -- it can take on the tedious nature its title suggests. Townshend's grandiose ideas were, as with Tommy and Quadrophenia, based in human struggle and funneled into operatic structure. This time he wasn't as successful.
The opening track, "Fragments," borrows from the synth progressions of one of the band's best works, "Baba O'Riley," but not in a flattering manner. It harkens back to a better day for the aging band and ushers in the rough scene that unfolds throughout the first half of the album. (Tracks 10 and on represent Wire & Glass, a mini-opera. It's stronger than the first half but, still, a far cry from the group's heyday material.) The playing is expectedly tired without Moon and Entwistle as anchors, yet it doesn't feel like a grown-up transition that, say, Robert Plant has made in recent years. (Roger Daltrey's vocals do, though, carry a weathered, knowing heft in spots, as on "Mike Post Theme"). Townshend's vocals on "In the Ether" are nearly unlistenable and one wishes that he could've better channeled his chagrin following 2003's child pornography scandal.
10. Face Dances (1981)
This was the first Who album released following Keith Moon's 26-pills-too-many demise of 1978. Face Dances, out in 1981, of course suffers the loss of one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. Still, Kenney Jones -- of Small Faces -- is no slouch, providing a decent backbone for the Who's pop directive.
Here, the Who is playing to the newly established MTV market and it works, sparingly. "You Better You Bet" is the cousin (or maybe even half-brother) of Townshend's solo, "Let My Love Open The Door." (In fact, "You Better," was the fourth video played on the network's first day.) It's a fine piece of 1980s nostalgia, but the song -- and the record, itself -- is more comparable to A-Ha than Led Zeppelin in the grand scheme. "The Quiet One," an Ox tune, rocks hard but is a dead-ringer for Thin Lizzy -- it adds to the confusion. Though it would be almost impossible for the band not to be in disarray at this moment in their history.
9. Who Are You (1978)
The Who's fastest-selling album at the time was released three weeks before Keith Moon's death. Interestingly enough, it stands as a major document of the band's other fallen member, John Entwistle, who penned three of the songs, himself. Together, Entwistle and Moon hold the rhythm section firm, but it's an odd effort, all-around. There are some disco flourishes, "905" being nearly unrecognizable as a Who tune. (It still makes for an interesting listen; no doubt about it.)
The title track has long been a constant in the group's greatest-hits rotation. Still, it's not deserving of that honor. The lyrics are mostly empty -- besides the fact that Moon did once wake up to police in a SoHo doorway -- and crass without purpose. But, at least, we all got to use the couple of "fuck" bombs on our parents when they tried to take our Wu-Tang records away.
8. It's Hard (1982)
The cover of It's Hard is classic. Maybe more "classic" in the Urban Dictionary-level vernacular than in the Greek sense -- despite a rolling opening number entitled "Athena." But, the art is a doozy: The Who (now with Kenney Jones on the sticks) are gathered in an arcade, staring around the room while a boy plays an Atari machine in the background. It's a tacit nod to Tommy and, also, an acknowledgement of the band's new time and place.
It was 1982, the same year as Neil Young's Trans: All of the groups born out of the 1960s that were still breathing were trying to figure out just what to do. And despite some unfortunate synth flourishes and lazy lyrics (the opening lines of "It's Your Turn" read, "Up here on a ledge / I'm getting pushed to the edge"), It's Hard succeeds. The Who doesn't break too far from its rock mold and good on 'em: The cruising title track, innuendo-laden moniker and all, moves along the same tracks as Springsteen's "Badlands" and, while it didn't come to define the Cold War era, "I've Known No War" is aggressive and poignant.
7. The Who by Numbers (1975)
By many accounts, this album shouldn't have happened. Townshend wanted to disband the Who after Quadrophenia and Moon was spiraling further out of control. The second -- and shockingly upbeat, at least as far as the chord structures are concerned -- song on the album, "However Much I Booze" finishes that thought with the words, "There ain't no way out."
There, of course, wouldn't be for Moon, but the lyrics, here, are from Townshend and can be troubling. They shine a light on a delicate, troubled genius. Here's a guy who could muscle out the genre-defying "Squeeze Box" and the sexually probing, Entwistle-shining "Dreaming From The Waist" from a band that he purportedly didn't even want to exist anymore.
6. A Quick One (1966)
"Boris The Spider" is one of John Entwistle's trademarks. On the second track from A Quick One, bass rings out and comes to the fore, a follow-up to his showcase from "My Generation." It can't be underestimated how important the Who and Entwistle have been to the bass guitar. Outside of jazz, the bass was often relegated to the background, but the Ox went a long way to put it on the same level as the guitar, drums and keys in rock 'n' roll. At a Denver Who show in 2000, I was absolutely transfixed by the instrument in a way I hadn't been before.
Elsewhere on A Quick One, the Who delves into terrain that might later have been called punk or garage. As per its moniker, the songs are all relatively short. The exception is the epic closer, "A Quick One, While He's Away," which features an a cappella intro, many time changes and the introduction of the parents from Tommy. It's a rock opera in one song, a pioneering sign of what was to come.
5. My Generation (1965)
The Who released a greatest hits box in 1994 with a cheeky title, Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B. The London lads won't be remembered as an R&B act, but its roots are squarely implanted therein. On this, its debut album, the Who covers two James Browns tunes ("I Don't Mind" and "Please, Please, Please"), as well as a Bo Diddley cut, "I'm a Man." Rhythm and blues informed a record and, then, the band exploded outward from the genre -- all on the same disc.
Many of the songs bring to mind black-and-white images of awkward television performances, but the Who's first album has a break-out centerpiece: "My Generation," a fierce forebear to punk, is also a coming-out party for the foursome. Daltry stutters along as Entwistle lays down a groovy, thumping bass solo. Moon smashes his kit with hyperspace-like velocity before a destructive solo of his own. Townshend's guitar can be heard fading out and losing its tune, ready to be lodged in Moon's set. It and the next track on the record, "The Kids Are Alright," also represent the first few paragraphs of the Who's dissertation on its fanbase and aging; to be continued.
4. The Who Sell Out (1967)
The conceit, here, is pure brilliance: A band whose music was already being used in advertisements turning around and poking fun at such an enterprise. The irony is only more potent this many years on, "I Can See For Miles" being used for everything from Jiffy Lube to Sylvania ads. Tongue-and-cheek has aged into prescience.
The Who Sell Out is the quartet at its most psychedelic. Sure, it was 1967 but an opening trip-out like "Armenia City In The Sky" offers a quixotic paradox to the commercial exploits that run throughout. "Tattoo" is one of the Who's strongest songs, ever. On the surface, it seems a jumpy pop one-off. But on it, Townshend takes one of his first, grand leaps into the darker side of growing up. Two brothers get inked up, and domestic violence, longing for older age, and contrition are explored. Just consider the opening lines: "Me and my brother were talking to each other / 'Bout what makes a man a man / Was it brain or brawn or the month you were born? / We just couldn't understand." Sold.
3. Quadrophenia (1973)
Released in 1973, Quadrophenia has tremendous legs. It's long been the favorite of many hardcore fans and has resulted in a 1979 film and revival tours in 1996/1997 as well as in 2012 into this year: its 40th anniversary. (Phish even covered the album, in full, at one of its famed Halloween shows in 1995 and the band continues to regularly incorporate the bubbly "Drowned" into its sets.) The enduring rock opera was composed entirely by Pete Townshend, who made a demo himself before having the band listen to it.
Townshend became obsessed with the quadraphonic sound experiments going on around the time and famously cited Pink Floyd as an influence. Quadrophenia's "Helpless Dancer" could easily be on The Wall, and the album's narrative arc is very similar to Floyd's concepts in the same era. And—wouldn't ya know it? -- Quadrophenia was recorded in the Battersea area of London, where the iconic power station that graces the cover of Floyd's Animals is located.
The band converted an old church on Thessaly Road into what would become Ramport Studios and began tinkering with the sonics. They designed powerful equipment with an output of 140 decibels; some in the studio's ears and noses bled. Townsend praised the space's "bright" sound, which translates to the crispness of Quadrophenia resonant stereo snap.
Ostensibly the story of a lad named Jimmy who is trying to find his way in the world, Townshend's epic story incorporates mods, rockers, scooters, fallen heroes, love and the sea. (The latter's crashing waves appear as one of the various found sounds Townshend recorded on a reel-to-reel in and around London.)
The focus on the number four fit nicely with the members of the band, who each brought disparate, larger-than-life personalities to the story and the recording, itself. (Their brandy-fueled butting of heads hit its apex when Townshend and Daltrey physically fought.) Keith Moon appears as something of a Monty Python-informed court jester on "Bell Boy" even though Townshend -- ever committed -- wanted him to be taken seriously. Moon doubled down on the persona, collapsing from elephant tranquilizers at the first show of the U.S. Quadrophenia tour. A fan, plucked from the audience, finished the show on drums.
The record, in true opera fashion, has themes and hooks that repeat throughout. Many of the Who's finest -- and often overlooked -- songs can be found on it. "The Punk And The Godfather" has one of the most firmly righteous guitar-and-bass openings in rock history, the chorus of "The Dirty Jobs" smacks a smile on despair, and "Doctor Jimmy" contains lyrics that are still shocking today. And then, of course there's "The Real Me," "5:15," and on and on. "Love Reign O'er Me," long fodder for classic rock radio, is Daltrey at his vocal heights -- screaming as if Jimmy's life depended on it.
2. Tommy (1969)
Giving Tommy another close listen is a revelation, subtle moments coming to the fore: John Enwistle's bass popping on the denouement of "Amazing Journey" and into "Sparks," Moon's rolling rhythms on "The Acid Queen," and the way Townshend's guitar fires off on "Pinball Wizard." And, hey: Why hasn't "Christmas" become a wintertime standard?
The first rock opera, Tommy entered the musical fray in what most might be the most important year in the history of rock 'n' roll: 1969. Recorded in six months and mixed in two, it was epic out the gate: A story of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wunderkind nearly paralyzed by his father's murder of his mother's lover. And, after wading through the 75 minute concept album -- full of repeated themes, a Sophoclean narrative, and thrashing rock -- it was readily apparent a revolution was afoot.
Tommy's "problem" might have, at first, appeared to be its translation. How could a rock band make an epic partially inspired by Meher Baba work live? Released in May, the Who only had to wait until August to put the doubts to rest on biggest of stages: Woodstock. Rifling through a late-night/early-morning set, the Who played much of Tommy. The self-hatred on "Go to the Mirror!" and then the funk of "Smash the Mirror" echoed out. Picking up the leitmotif from the former, "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "Listening to You / See Me, Feel Me" were two of the most obstinate and emotional songs performed at the festival. Nothing could've been more epic.
1. Who's Next (1971)
Songs that find their way into constant circulation on classic rock radio have a tough row to hoe: How can a tune you've heard hundreds, or even thousands, of times still be majestic, much less even enjoyable? And, worse yet, is there even an inkling of hope they can seem fresh? But the truly great ones find a way; Who's Next is chock full of them.
Released between Tommy and Quadrophenia, Who's Next is akin to Coppola's The Conversation. Sandwiched between two epics, the work's genius is in its restrain. Of course, Who's Next isn't exactly lo-fi garage rock. But, when compared to its predecessor and follow-up, the record is a relatively straightforward rock 'n' roll effort. It just happens to be one of the best of all time.
The album didn't start off that way: Pete Townshend originally had designs on a rock opera which he named Lifehouse. The futuristic opus was abandoned in favor of a more traditional album, though many of its songs appear on Who's Next and elsewhere in the band's canon. The relative lack of concept turned out to be advantageous, allowing the band to explore disparate themes. "Love Ain't For Keeping" adds twang the inevitable expiration of affection while "Getting In Tune" deconstructs song assembly. And despite Fred Durst's best efforts to forever taint it, "Behind Blue Eyes" is a slow-burner nonpareil. A yearning heart and soul bleeds into badass escapism, the second half a sibling to the album's cover art: men pissing on a monolith, all that is holy and right.
Who's Next creates a sandwich of its own, two massive rock classics bookending the affair. "Baba O'Reilly" is best known for its organ-based synth-esque intro, but it also stands as the pinnacle of the Townshend's empathy for -- some might say "obsession with" -- youth. Partially inspired by the drooling masses at Woodstock, "teenage wasteland" has entered the lexicon in a way that would make T.S. Eliot proud. On the flip side, "We Don't Get Fooled Again" is as striking as ever for its unabashed bravado. After almost all of the nearly nine minutes of drum-bashing, power chord-exploding ferocity have expired, Daltry screams and proclaims, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Driving to work on a Monday morning, could anything still ring more true?