Who They Are: Arising from the Mod scene in mid-’60s England, The Who have gone on to basically serve as the type specimen for many-to-most of rock n’ roll’s most truly defining tropes. Four strikingly original personalities? Check. Problematic public aspects to all of those personalities? Most certainly. Incredible stage presence? Yes. An epic run of albums, including the obligatory concept albums? They did that, before many others did. Classic rock radio staple singles? Yep, they had those by the bucketfuls. A long, lingering afterlife beyond the demise of their initial line-up? Sure, though in the case of The Who, some of those latter-day recordings and tours were actually quite creatively powerful in their own rights, rather than serving as wan codas to their glory days. The group’s classic line-up (Roger Daltrey, Pete Townsend, John Entwistle, Keith Moon) began fragmenting with Moon’s death from misadventure in 1978, with former Faces drummer Kenney Jones stepping up in Moon the Loon’s place; Jones has somehow become a bad guy in The Who’s story, though I think that’s unjust, and I quite like his work, different though it was from Keith’s approach to his battery. Entwistle was the next to succumb to excess, surrounded by cocaine and prostitutes when he died at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas in 2002, on the eve of a major tour. Pete and Roger have soldiered on since then, issuing an incredibly good album called WHO in 2019. Marcia and I had tickets to see them in Las Vegas on the tour behind that album, but then COVID had other ideas, and they remain one of the most significant ’60s to ’70s rock titans who I’ve still not yet seen on stage. Fingers crossed I have the opportunity to do so at some point in the years remaining in their performing careers.
When I First Heard Them: I’m pretty certain that the first Who song I would have known and loved was “Pinball Wizard,” on pop and rock radio in the early ’70s, and then again in the cover version by Elton John from Ken Russell’s 1975 film adaptation of the group’s game-changing rock opera, Tommy. When I moved to Long Island in 1976, among the kids my age, there was a weird dynamic in play where the rock-loving community was essentially divided along the lines of whether one considered The Who or Led Zeppelin to be the greatest band of the era. Them was fighting words and positions, for sure and serious. I joined Team Who at the time, and while I’ve grown to appreciate the Zep a bit more more over the years, I’d still make that Who-centric pick without thinking very much about it if forced to declare my allegiance to one or the other in 2021. Who Are You (1978) was the first Who album that I acquired and loved in its original release cycle, and I’ve landed every studio product they’ve pumped out since then, always willing to give them a fair crack, even though there’s a lot of dross mixed in with the gems in the post-Moony era.
Why I Love Them: As noted above, I never experienced the original Who line-up in concert (alas), but by the recorded and filmed evidence, I’m strongly in allegiance with the camp that declares them to have been the greatest live rock band ever. All four members were incredibly good at their respective roles, though every one of them tended to define and execute those roles in ways that didn’t quite align with the ways that their numerous peers played their parts. Pete Townsend was and remains a brilliant conceptualist and songwriter, and he had an able wing-man in John Entwistle, whose occasional, often bawdy contributions to the group’s canon and catalog were always notable and attention-getting in their amusing contrast to Pete’s more spiritual and serious fare. Moon played drums chaotically, like nobody before or since him, Entwistle took the bass guitar into powerful and melodic places where it had no business being, Townsend’s equipment destruction and signature windmill strums set templates for countless imitators over the years, and his pioneering work with sequencers and synths make the group’s recorded peak songs sound as fresh and innovative today as they did upon their release. Daltrey, for his part, essentially defined the ways that Rock God Singers are supposed to look, act, move, emote and sing, and it’s a glorious joy to watch him work his stuff, finding some weird sweet spot between pugilistic thug and messianic shaman. Bonus points for Entwistle and Townsend both being strong harmony and lead vocalists themselves, and even Moon’s occasional vocal turns were at least amusing, most of the time. The cerebral and thematic weirdness of the group’s various completed (e.g. Tommy and Quadrophenia) and fragmented/partial (e.g. Who’s Next, Sell Out and A Quick One) concept albums meant that there has always plenty of thought-provoking stuff for smart young seekers to use as soundtracks for their own individual amazing journeys, locking the group’s words, riffs and melodies into influential positions of permanent play, ensuing fads, fashions, and foibles be damned. (Note: Given the brilliance and importance of the group’s on-stage work, I’ve offered live clips of my favorite songs below, when they’re available in good quality).
#10. “Pinball Wizard,” from Tommy (1969)
#9. “Real Good Looking Boy,” from Then And Now (2004)
#8. “Relay,” from “Relay/Waspman” single (1972)
#7. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” from Who’s Next (1971)
#6. “Love, Reign O’er Me,” from Quadrophenia (1973)
#5. “Street Song,” from WHO (2019)
#4. “5:15,” from Quadrophenia (1973)
#3. “Long Live Rock,” from Odds and Sods (1974)
#2. “Baba O’Riley,” from Who’s Next (1971)
#1. “Join Together,” from “Join Together/Baby Don’t You Do It” single (1972)