Q Magazine

The Q List: 20 Greatest Who Songs, From 'Love Reign O'er Me' to 'Won't Get Fooled Again'

wills q template
Source: Polydor

The Who - My Generation / Who's Next

Link to FacebookShare to XShare to Email

On January 15, 1965, The Who released their debut single, "I Can't Explain." No, it wasn't actually their first single as a band, but we'll get to that in a bit. The point is, this was - and remains - a momentous date in the storied history of the band, and as such, it seems like an optimal time to dig into the archives and pull out a list dedicated to the band that gave us Messrs. Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, Moon, and sometimes Jones.

Way back in May 2004, Q Magazine released a special edition devoted to The Who, and in advance of its publication, readers were asked to submit their selections for the greatest songs ever released by the band. As you might've guessed, these were their selections, and while your personal favorite might not be in the bunch, it's hard to argue with the quality of the inclusions that did make the cut.

Article continues below advertisement
Embedded Image

20. “Love Reign O’er Me” (1973)

Written by Pete Townshend, this song was recorded in 1972 and was originally intended for the band’s aborted Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock! album, which Townshend had envisioned as an autobiographical album about the history of The Who. In the end, it evolved into the band’s second rock opera, Quadrophenia, and served both as the closing track of the album as well as its second single.

Article continues below advertisement

19. “See Me, Feel Me” (1969)

Taken from the band’s first rock opera, Tommy, this track – which is generally paired with “Listening to You,” which follows it on the album – might never have turned into a hit if it hadn’t been performed by The Who during their appearance at Woodstock. After the success of the concert film, however, it was released as a single in the U.S. in 1970, ultimately finding its way to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Article continues below advertisement

18. “Pictures of Lily” (1967)

Released as a standalone single in ’67, this Townshend-penned tune was described by its writer not long after its release as “power pop,” a phrase which spawned a genre in the ‘70s that’s still going strong to this day...not unlike The Who themselves. In his book Amazing Journey: The Life of Pete Townshend, writer Mark Wilkerson quotes Townshend as referring to the song as “merely a ditty about masturbation and the importance of it to a young man.” That said, Townshend wrote in his 2012 memoir, Who I Am, that it was inspired by Lillie Langtry, a music hall star and, more infamously, the mistress of King Edward VIII. Whatever its subject, “Pictures of Lily” was a minor hit on the Billboard Hot 100, stalling at #51, but it was a top-five hit in the UK, topping out at #4.

Article continues below advertisement

17. “I’m a Boy” (1966)

Another track with origins in a rock opera that never fully came to fruition, this standalone single was written for a planned album called Quads, about a possible future in which parents have the ability to choose the gender of their children. The song itself revolves around a family who requests four girls but gets three girls and a boy, but while the boy dreams of doing stereotypical male stuff, his mum won’t hear of it. The song was another instance of The Who securing another top five hit at home - #2, to be precise – while failing to find the same success in the US. In fact, in this instance, “I’m a Boy” didn’t crack the Billboard charts at all.

Article continues below advertisement

16. “Tattoo” (1967)

This track from The Who Sell Out is effectively an ode to peer pressure, as it revolves around two teenaged brothers who decide to get tattoos because they’re convinced that tattoos are “what makes a man a man.” In the end, one brother gets beaten by his father, but his mother approves because – why else? – the tattoo says “MOTHER.” The other brother, however, gets a beating from his mother because he got a tattoo of a naked lady. Although never actually released as a single, “Tattoo” has long been a fan favorite, not to mention a well-established favorite of Townshend’s, so it's found its way onto a number of The Who’s live albums and compilations.

Article continues below advertisement

15. “A Quick One While He’s Away” (1966)

Effectively the title track to The Who’s second studio album, this epic tune is generally referred to as a mini-opera, although there’s precious little that’s “mini” about a song that tops out at more than nine minutes in length. Composed of six distinct movements, the song is about a girl whose boyfriend has been gone for the better part of a year, a situation which results in her friends suggesting that she have a dalliance with Ivor the Engine Driver. Given its length, it should surprise no one that “A Quick One While He’s Away” was never released as a single, but it’s a rare Who best-of list that doesn’t feature the song somewhere within its upper reaches.

Article continues below advertisement

14. “Who Are You” (1978)

The title track of the band’s eighth studio album (and their last to feature Keith Moon as their drummer), this song was famously – or perhaps infamously – inspired by Townshend’s night of drinking with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, after which he was indeed found standing in a Soho doorway by a policeman who told Townshend that he wouldn’t arrest him if he could walk away under his own power. Although “Who Are You” was actually released as a double A-side with John Entwistle’s “Had Enough,” it was the former track that secured the most airplay at the time, as is the case now. The song was a top-20 hit on both sides of the pond, hitting #18 in the UK and #14 in the US.

Article continues below advertisement

13. “The Kids Are Alright” (1965)

Although it’s perhaps best known nowadays as the track that provided the title for Jeff Stein’s 1979 rockumentary about The Who, a film which has been called “the definitive rock documentary, essential not only to Who fans but lovers of music in general,” this song didn’t even get released as a single until more than six month after it was first released on the band’s debut album, 1965’s My Generation. In time, however, the song came to be viewed as an anthem for the Mod subculture that was growing in the UK, which led to its release as a single. (It still only hit #41 on the UK charts, however, and never charted in the US at all.)

Article continues below advertisement

12. “The Real Me” (1973)

Taken from the band’s Quadrophenia album, the song revolves around Jimmy, a young mod who has four distinct personalities and has to struggle to find – you guessed it – “The Real Me.” Often praised for John Entwistle’s particularly notable bass performance, the song was a live favorite, but it was never released as a single outside of France and Belgium. Actually, that’s not entirely true: it was released as a single in the UK by W.A.S.P., oddly enough, and it ended up being a hit, climbing to #23 on the UK Singles chart. Go figure.

Article continues below advertisement

11. “Bargain” (1971)

Taken from the Who’s Next album, this Townshend track is a love song, but it’s slightly atypical, in that it’s ostensibly a love song to God. "The song is simply about losing one's ego as a devotee of Meher Baba,” Townshend said in an interview quoted in the 2010 book The Who by Numbers. “I constantly try to lose myself and find him. I'm not very successful, I'm afraid, but this song expresses how much of a bargain it would be to lose everything in order to be at one with God." Townshend has said during at least one live performance that “Bargain” is his favorite track on Who’s Next, which might explain why it’s also popped up on two of his solo albums (Scoop and The Lifehouse Chronicles).

Article continues below advertisement

10. “I Can See for Miles” (1967)

The only single released from the band’s 1967 album The Who Sell Out, this track found The Who entering into the sort of elaborate production favored by The Beach Boys and The Beatles at the time. Indeed, the amount of effort put into the track can be seen in its credits: the vocals and overdubs were done in New York, the backing tracks were done in London, and the single was mixed and mastered in Los Angeles. The vocals, the drumming... It’s all the stuff that iconic rock tracks are made of, and it paid off: the single provided The Who with their biggest American hit, climbing to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it hit #10 in the UK as well.

Article continues below advertisement

9. “Pure & Easy” (1974)

Arguably the most unlikely inclusion within this list, “Pure and Easy” was another one of those Pete Townshend songs that was intended for a rock opera that never came to fruition, or at least not when it was originally conceived, anyway: Lifehouse. It did make its way onto the band’s studio outtakes collection, Odds & Sods, though not before making its way onto Townshend’s 1972 solo debut, Who Came First. That version is comparatively tepid, however, compared to The Who’s version.

As Rolling Stone’s Jim Miller observed at the time, “Townshend’s solo version...flounders in awkward sentiment, but the version on Odds & Sods is by contrast a minor masterpiece. Uncluttered and blunt, the band’s arrangement catalyzes the track, while Roger Daltrey’s labored vocal belies the sanctimony of the lyric. In the song’s penultimate section, Keith Moon brilliantly builds tension until the band explodes beneath the ‘note in us all’ line [and] Townshend follows with a shuddering guitar solo.” Is it any wonder it’s considered a classic?

Article continues below advertisement

8. “5:15” (1973)

This track from Quadrophenia is somewhat of a rarity in that no demo exists. Why? Because it was actually written in the studio on the day it was recorded! But, of course, that’s the music. The lyrics, on the other hand, were – per Townshend in the liner notes for Quadrophenia – “written in Oxford Street and Carnaby Street while I was killing time between appointments. It must try it again sometime, it seems to work!” Released as a single in advance of the album, it made its way to #20 in the UK, but it was passed over as a single in the States in favor of “Love Reign O’er Me” and “The Real Me.”

Article continues below advertisement

7. “Baba O’Riley” (1971)

No, it’s not called “Teenage Wasteland,” but, yes, this is the song that features those words prominently throughout, and as it happens, that was a working title for the track at one point. Another tune that was originally penned for inclusion on Lifehouse, “Baba O’Riley” takes its title from a combination of Pete Townshend’s two big influences at the time: Meher Baba and composer/musician Terry Riley. As for the phrase “teenage wasteland,” Townshend has said that it was inspired both by the trash left behind after the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival and the state of the audience at Woodstock. While never a huge chart hit, it’s become one of The Who’s most famous song, with the band even performing it at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Article continues below advertisement

6. “I Can’t Explain” (1964)

The first single released by the band after changing their name from The High Numbers to The Who, this tune is one that both Townshend and Daltrey freely concede sounds more than a little bit like the Kinks. Townshend wrote in the liner notes for the My Generation album, “It can’t be beat for straightforward Kink copying, while Daltrey told Q in 1994, “[The Kinks] were probably the biggest influence on us – they were certainly a big influence on Pete, and he wrote ‘I Can’t Explain’ not as a direct copy, but certainly it’s very derivative of Kinks music.” It also served as The Who’s breakthrough in the UK, providing them with their first top-10 hit, climbing to #8. Mind you, it only just barely cracked the Billboard Hot 100, stalling at #93, but that's America for you.

Article continues below advertisement

5. “Behind Blue Eyes” (1971)

What’s this? Another song originally written for Lifehouse? Indeed it was, but as history reveals, it ultimately ended up on Who’s Next instead. The song originally came about as a result of Townshend being tempted by a female groupie after a Who show in Denver, but rather than succumb to temptation, he went back to his room and began to write instead. Although the track was never released as a single in the UK – Townshend was quoted in The Who by the Numbers as calling the song “too much out of character” for the British singles market – but it did make its way to #34 in the US.

Article continues below advertisement

4. “Pinball Wizard” (1969)

According to the liner notes for Tommy, Townshend once called this song “the most clumsy piece of writing [I’d] ever done,” but clumsy or not, once you’ve heard the words “that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball,” you’ll never get them out of your head. When released as a single, “Pinball Wizard” hit #19 in the US and #4 in the UK, but it wasn’t the last time the song found its way into the UK top 10: when Tommy was adapted into a feature film by director Ken Russell, Elton John’s version of the song made it to #7 on the UK Singles chart, making it the highest-ever chart placement for a Who cover.

Article continues below advertisement

3. “Substitute” (1966)

Although you’d never know it to hear it, this single was inspired by “The Tracks of My Tears,” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, but if you work your way through the lyrics of that song, then you’ll understand the connection when you hit the line, “Although she may be cute / She’s just a substitute.” As Townshend explained to Rolling Stone, he was so obsessed with the way Robinson used the word in the lyrics "that I decided to celebrate the word with a song all its own.” Released as a standalone single, “Substitute” hit #5 on the UK Singles chart and eventually found its way onto the band’s compilation album, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy.

Article continues below advertisement

2. “My Generation” (1965)

The idea that Roger Daltrey would still be singing, “I hope I die before I get old,” at 79 years of age is almost certainly something that 21-year-old Daltrey never considered when he was singing the song in ’65, but if it’s helped him to maintain his youth over the decades, then more power to him...and to Pete Townshend as well, of course, since he’s the one who penned the youth anthem for the band. It’d be a fool’s errand to try and determine how many best-of lists “My Generation” has appeared on over the years, but the fact that it’s one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll is a pretty impressive accomplishment that’s well worth citing.

Article continues below advertisement

1. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971)

While there may be a staggering number of folks out there who only know this song in its stead as the theme song for CSI: Miami (take off sunglasses, cue Daltrey’s scream, repeat for 10 seasons), we’d be remiss if we didn’t take this final opportunity to note that, yes, this is yet another song that was originally intended for Lifehouse. Indeed, it was intended to be the closing number, which is perhaps why it fits so perfectly as the final song of the album where it originally landed, Who’s Next. It was a hit on both sides of the pond, climbing to #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #9 on the UK Singles chart. Sadly, it was the last song Keith Moon ever performed live with The Who, but it’s literally been played at every Who concert since its live debut on February 14, 1971, which underlines just how popular the song continues to be to this day.


Subscribe to our newsletter

your info will be used in accordance with our privacy policy

Read More