Top Ten Songs by the Who

It was the late 1960’s, and the Beatles had changed the music world forever. Single-handedly, John, Paul, George and Ringo had, seemingly overnight, taken the world from the doo-wop age where Elvis still ruled into the age of the four-member rock and roll bands. The Beatles’ “sound” was completely new and instantly captivating. In the early 1970’s, the Beatles made a trip to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Upon their return to the recording studio, the band was completely transformed. Gone were the suits and ties, the long but stylishly cropped hair, and the simple but artful musical arrangements. The hippie “flower power” days were in full bloom, and the Beatles once again set a new standard of music, behavior and physical appearance. Out came the outrageous colorful clothing, the long unkempt hair, and the use of psychedelic drugs. Timothy Leary was advising the young generation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” The turning point came with the Beatles’ release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that, even today, is thought to be the best, most unique rock recording of all time.

As the Beatles did, so followed the world. English wanna-be groups sprung up like opium poppies and, eventually took their acts on the road creating “The British Invasion” of the American music scene. Of all these performers, only two have gone the distance and have become rock royalty: Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes), and the Who.

The Who’s still-vibrant success comes from the “heart” of the band: Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry. Townsend was the masterful composer that created the classic songs of the band, and Daltrey’s lead vocals gave the group a sound like no other. The Who’s top songs are instantly recognized the world over, and no self-respecting former flower child would be caught dead not knowing the words to “My Generation.” The Who’s beginning may have sprung from the Sergeant Pepper phenomenon, but over the years they’ve never stopped delivering stunning live performances of their top hits.

1. “The Overture from Tommy.” Before there was Jesus Christ Superstar, there was The Who’s Tommy. Pete Townsend created an entirely new musical genre – the rock opera. It’s impossible to over-praise this work; it stands alone among classic rock achievements and still has no equal. Though several songs from Tommy topped the charts (“See Me, Feel Me” and “Pinball Wizard”) the full impact of the work can only be appreciated in its entirety. “The Overture,” like any classic operatic work, combines the best-known melodies from the rock opera and, on its own merits, remains one of The Who’s finest achievements.

2. “Pinball Wizard” is the most recognized song from Tommy, but many people don’t realize that it’s but a small part of the original rock opera. “That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!” describes Tommy, born of an unfaithful mother and a murderous father, who suffers from psychological trauma that renders him sightless, deaf and mute. Physically abused by spiteful Cousin Kevin and sexually abused by wicked Uncle Ernie, Tommy is fascinated by playing pinball though he can’t see or hear the game. The local boy moans “I just handed my pinball crown to him.”

3. “I Can See For Miles” is a perennial favorite chart-buster from The Who’s early years. Musically sophisticated for its time, this is a song of betrayal and revenge. Roger Daltry’s sinister but powerful vocals weave a spell for the listener; there is no escape for liars. “I know you’ve deceived me, now here’s a surprise; I know that you have cause there’s magic in my eyesâÂ?¦I can see for miles!”

4. “Baba O’Reilly” is a curiously-named song; we never find out just who Baba O’Reilly is, but the song tells us that he lives in a “teenage wastelandâÂ?¦..they’re all wasted!” We’re not even sure what that means, but the song is both vocally and musically superb, showcasing Pete Townsend’s adept guitar moves and Roger Daltry’s powerful vocal range. The song moves from Daltry’s proclamation “Out here in the fields, I fight for my mealsâÂ?¦.I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right, I don’t need to be forgiven” to Townsend’s masterful guitar crescendo. Whatever this song is about doesn’t seem to matter; its’ unique allure made it a classic.

5. “Behind Blue Eyes” belongs solely to Roger Daltry. Although the music, as always, is compelling, there is perhaps no one who can evoke feelings of hate and rage as Daltry does in this song. This is an angry song; a song about alienation, pain and hopelessness. “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man behind blue eyes,” Daltry begins. As the song progresses, so does Daltry’s fury: “No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings, and I blame you!” The song, perhaps intentionally, never identifies the target of Daltry’s hate; he leaves this question to be answered and personalized by the listener.

6. “Who Are You?” was, in the 1980’s, a huge hit for The Who. When it was chosen as the theme song for the TV series CSI, it re-surfaced as the master classic that it is. Every week millions of CSI fans sing along to this anthem that asks “Come on and tell meâÂ?¦who are you?” The song certainly wasn’t meant to inquire about the identity of a criminal, but that’s what it means today!

7. “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” obviously answers the question “why change a good thing?” As CSI’s popularity soared, its producers must have been watching too many Law and Order spin-offs, as they decided to use this clearly political song as the anthem for CSI: Miami. The song was recorded in the post-Vietnam era when Americans and Europeans were dis-enchanted with “politics as usual.” Townsend and Daltry just weren’t buying it; nothing had really changed. “Meet the new boss – same as the old boss. But we won’t get fooled again!”

8. “Rain” is another Daltry showcase in this song about the frustration of being separated from a lover. The haunting lyrics liken this separation to being trapped in a desert, longing only for water and escape. This song never achieved the acclaim that many of The Who’s classic songs reached, but it has a devoted following of Daltry’s fans. He’s at his vocal best in this song of despair: “The nights we spend apart, I lie alone and I think. The sky is hot and black as ink. Oh, God, I need a drink of cool, cool rain!” Only love, Daltry assures us, can quench our thirst for belonging.

9. “Magic Bus” is strictly a fun song. It has no poignant lyrics, no show-off Townsend guitar mastery, but this early hit by The Who is a whimsical and toe-tapping love song. “Every day I’m in the queue to get on the bus that takes me to you. Thank you, driver, for getting me here. I don’t want to cause no fuss, but can I buy your Magic Bus?” No need to look for hidden meanings that The Who is famous for; this song is just a really good time – Townsend/Daltry style!

10. “My Generation” was the world’s introduction to The Who, still only in their 20’s and heavily influenced by the Beatles. Young people in America and England were in full rebellion against the “establishment” that disapproved so strongly of their clothes, their music, their drug use and their uninhibited lifestyles. “Do your own thing!” was the rallying cry of the era, and this chart-smashing hit said it all: “People try to put us down just because we get aroundâÂ?¦.talkin’ about my generation.” The Who’s flamboyance and high hippie style was certainly an annoyance to adults of the times, which was exactly the band’s intention. “I hope I die before I get old” sang Daltry in smug criticism of the older generation. Well, he didn’t.

Now in their 50’s, The Who no longer records new material, but their rare live concerts still pack in a sold-out show. They survived drummer Keith Moon’s death by drug overdose, Townsend’s revelation that he was sexually abused as a child, and a truly dreadful movie version of Tommy with Daltry playing the lead opposite Ann-Margret as Tommy’s mother and Elton John as the de-throned pinball player. As bad as the movie was, Elton John’s version of “Pinball Wizard” rivals Tina Turner’s magnificent performance as the Acid Queen. The Who still commands the devotion of classic rock fans, with plenty of radio air time. Far from being retired, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry foretold their own futures: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!” And yes, they are.

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