The Who: One of the Most Influential Rock Bands of the 20th Century
Written by: Frank Iacono
The Who are a legendary rock group, formed in London, England in 1964. The Who’s classic line-up consisted of lead singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist and singer Pete Townshend, bass guitarist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon.
The Who are widely considered one of the most influential rock bands of the 20th century, selling over 100 million records worldwide. Appearances at Monterey and Woodstock helped solidify them as one of the greatest live rock acts.
Their major contributions to rock music include the development of the Marshall stack, large PA systems, use of the synthesizer, Entwistle and Moon’s lead playing styles, Townshend’s feedback and power chord guitar technique and the development of the “rock opera”.
In celebration of the 56th anniversary of The Who, we selected five of their legendary songs and ranked them accordingly.
5. “Who Are You”
Released in 1978, “Who Are You” is the title track to The Who’s eighth studio album and unfortunately the last recorded before drummer Moon’s death in September 1978. This super-heavy title track and lead single features one of their all-time greatest group performances. It was released as a double-A sided single with the Entwistle composition “Had Enough”.
“Who Are You” summed up a real-life alcohol-induced episode in Townshend’s life after he went out drinking with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. A policeman did indeed, as the opening lyrics state, find the rock star drunk in a “SoHo doorway”. The song instantly recognizable for its chorus and Who-like breakdown, was one of the band’s biggest hits in North America, peaking at number 7 in Canada and at number 14 in the US, and has become a crowd favorite and serves as one of the band’s signature tunes at their live shows.
4. “My Generation”
“My Generation,” the title track from their debut studio album, was written by Townshend on his 20th birthday, May 19th, 1965, while traveling on a train ride from London to Southampton for a television appearance. The song was reportedly inspired by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who is alleged to have had his 1935 Packard Hearse towed off a street in Belgravia because she was offended by the sight of it during her daily drive through the neighborhood.
“My Generation” became The Who’s first British Top Five hit – and “encapsulated the angst of being a teenager” all over England. This rock anthem truly defined their ticket to legend. Rolling Stone named it the 11th greatest song on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and 13th on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs of Rock&Roll. It is also part of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and is inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant” value. In 2009, it was named the 37th Greatest Hard Rock Song by VH1.
3. “Pinball Wizard”
When Townshend was first developing the timeless “rock opera” Tommy, The Who’s fourth studio album, he played it for Nik Cohn, an influential UK rock critic, who felt the emotionally intense opera was just a bit too dark. The guitarist asked Cohn, “If it had pinball in it, would you give it a decent review?” Cohn responded, “of course I would. Anything with pinball in it is fantastic.”
With that, the resulting “rockaboogie” tune as Townshend referred to it, “Pinball Wizard” was immediately written and recorded. The original recording of the song was released as a single in 1969 and reached No. 4 in the UK charts and No. 19 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. This last-minute addition to the album, which told the story of “deaf, dumb and blind boy” named Tommy Walker, ultimately became one of the Who’s most enduring rock anthems.
2. “Baba O’Riley”
Townshend originally conceived the song “Baba O’Riley,” better known to rock novices as “Teenage Wasteland,” for his Lifehouse project, a rock opera intended as the follow-up to the Who’s 1969 opera, Tommy. The song served as a reflection of the aftermath of the music festivals including The Isle of Wight Festival and Woodstock which dominated the late ‘60s, where everybody was smacked out on acid and 20 people had brain damage. However, when the project was scrapped, eight of the songs were salvaged and recorded for Who’s Next, The Who’s fifth studio album, with “Baba O’Riley” as the lead-off track.
For “Baba O’Riley,” Townshend combined synthesizer experimentation with three simple chords to create one of the most iconic songs in rock and roll history. With both Townshend and Daltrey delivering memorable lines, this song will long endure. To illustrate, this epic anthem appears in Time magazine’s list of the All-Time 100 Songs, Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
1. “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
Like “Baba O’Riley,” the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was originally written for Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse project and was also selected to appear as a standalone track on the album that became Who’s Next, arguably one of the best in rock and roll history. In Townshend: A Career Biography, Pete explained that the song was about antiestablishment, but that “revolution is not going to change anything in the long run, and people are going to get hurt.” This impressive eight-minute track serves as the climactic finish to the record as well as rock’s greatest declaration of independence.
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” considered a stroke of genius musically, was released as a single in June 1971 and reached the top 10 on the UK Singles Chart and top 15 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. This masterpiece features an epic storm of doubt and refusal of acceptance coupled with amazing music and lyrics to drive home an uprising. Equally, Townshend’s synthesizer experimentation along with his rolling-thunder power chords, Entwistle’s remarkable bass, Moon’s brilliant drum solo and Daltrey’s truly colossal superhuman scream near the end, have all made “Won’t Get Fooled Again” one of the greatest rock anthems of all-time and paved the wave for rock immortality.