More than anything else, the 60s was a period of change, as much on the music scene as anywhere else. Few bands managed to adapt to the changes better than the Who. What started life as a Mod influenced garage band ended the decade as a rock juggernaut, as capable of spewing out angsty anthems as mini-operas. The combined talents of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle made the band unstoppable, resulting in some of the best and most decade-defining songs of the era. In tribute to the original quartet, here are the 10 best Who songs of the 60s.
10. So Sad About Us
The Who’s earliest years were characterized by frantic songs pushed out and delivered at a breakneck speed. ‘So Sad About Us’ is different. A bittersweet breakup song that was originally intended for the Merseys (who in fact had a hit with it when they recorded a version later that same year), it has a maturity and a tenderness that, while not classic Who, is still immensely listenable. Clearly, a lot of other bands agree: according to AllMusic, it’s one of the Who’s most covered songs, with everyone from the Jam to Primal Scream giving it their own twist.
9. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
As The Independent writes, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ is that rarest of rare beasts – a Townshend/ Daltrey co-write. It may have been the first and last time the two collaborated on paper, but they clearly didn’t stop because it didn’t work. The song is a gem, with a distorted and disorientating sound that was well ahead of the game in 1966, and still is today.
8. The Kids Are Alright – My Generation
Included on The Who’s debut album, ‘The Kids Are Alright’ is a nod to the band’s roots in 60s Mod culture. Packed with memorable hooks and with Townshend’s songwriting already on stupendous form, the track was proof that even if the kids weren’t alright, the Who most definitely were.
7. Magic Bus
Some people say ‘Magic Bus’ is a reference to LSD, others say it’s about the hippie bus that traveled from Amsterdam to Afghanistan in the late 60s. Either way, it’s packed with imagery that smacks of the wide-eyed innocence of the Summer of Love. The Bo Diddly beat and the driving rhythms that nudge it along, on the other hand, come from an earlier time when garage, not psychedelia, ruled the airwaves. The combination of the two clearly works, as the song has proved a staple at the band’s live concerts for years.
6. I Can’t Explain
The Who’s first single ranks as one of the very best examples of garage rock from the 60s. It’s unpolished and lacking in finesse, but that doesn’t detract from the quality – if anything, it adds to it. Build around a simple but instantly memorable four-chord riff and boasting some incredible lyrics from Townshend, it has all the energy, the charisma, and talent we’d come to expect of the band, albeit in their rawest stage.
Named by loundersound.com as one of the Who’s best songs, ‘Substitute’ features some insanely catchy hooks, a relentless Keith Moon on drums, and some of Townshend’s funniest (“I look pretty tall but my heels are high” and “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth”) and occasionally controversial ((“I look all white but my dad was black”) lyrics. Over half a century after the single was released, it’s still one of the band’s most popular openers at live shows.
4. A Quick One While He’s Away
Even in their earliest days, the Who were pushing boundaries. Released on the band’s second album, ‘A Quick One,’ in 1966, ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ is a nine-minute epic recorded in 6 distinct movements, with Townshend and Daltrey switching between vocals (mostly with each other, but occasionally with themselves – Daltrey’s low register on the second section is barely recognizable) and the rest of the band doing a fine job of keeping pace. They’d initially wanted cellos for the final movement, but when they were told they couldn’t afford any, they resorted to chanting ‘Cello, cello, cello’ instead. As the band’s first foray into the rock opera genre, this is where the seeds for ‘Tommy’ were planted.
3. I Can See for Miles
‘I Can See for Miles’ was the only song from the 1967 album ‘The Who Sell Out’ to be released as a single. Townshend had actually written it several years before, but had held it back for the right moment, believing it would be the band’s first number one hit. In the end, he was disappointed: it peaked at No. 10 in the UK and No. 9 in the US before quickly falling into obscurity. The band rarely plays it live, but over the years, it’s become a firm favorite among fans, thanks in no small part to Moon’s breathtakingly flamboyant performance.
2. Pinball Wizard
As ultimateclassicrock.com says, ‘Tommy’ should ideally be listened to in sequence from start to finish. It’s not a traditional LP and you won’t get the full effect by treating it as one. But if you haven’t got the time and can only listen to one track, make it ‘Pinball Wizard.’ Theatrical, complicated (but not unapproachably so) and blessed with one of the most immense bass riffs ever committed to record, it was, and remains, one of the best and most recognizable songs from the opera… even if Townshend did once call it “the most clumsy piece of writing [he’d] ever done.”
1. My Generation
When Pete Townshend wrote ‘My Generation,’ he wanted to make as big a statement as Bob Dylan had made on ‘The Times They Are a-Changin.’ He succeeded. Few lines have ever (and probably will ever) captured the rock and roll spirit better than “I hope I die before I get old.” Accompanied by a thunderous bass from Entwistle and an almost animalistic performance by Moon, ‘My Generation’ is as ferocious and feral as the band ever got. It paved the way for punk rock, gave the band their signature tune, and still sounds as fresh today as it did back then, even if Daltrey and Townshend did eventually decide that getting old was better than the alternative.