The members of the Who were the revolutionaries of the ’60s and the hard-rock heavyweights of the ’70s. At their best, they were four separate-yet-equal forces of chaos, harnessed in the pursuit of the ultimate pop song. That might sound like hyperbole, but in guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend, the Who had a brilliant lyricist with a gift for a hook. And in Roger Daltrey, they had a vocalist often unmatched for sheer power. With a rhythm section of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, the Who should have destroyed themselves in their first practice session. And if the band’s endless, meaningless existence since Moon’s death has sullied its legacy, the albums (thankfully) speak for themselves. Here are the five most overrated and five most underrated works of the Who’s career.
:: The Five Most Overrated Who Songs
1. “My Generation” (1965)
Let’s get the elephant out of the room before he breaks everything and say that yes, “My Generation” was a mistake. Or rather, that one line—“Hope I die before I get old”—was a mistake. A huge one. An epic one. On the level of Lady Gaga’s musical career and Fox’s decision to make a Family Guy spin-off. But those are complaints for another time. Cheeseball stuttering included, “My Generation” doesn’t really offer much musically besides a worn-out riff and quasi-rebellious lyrics. But it’s such a dangerous song for a band to release, and the Who’s current existence invalidates everything it might once have stood for. With its musical merit negligible and its cultural message irrelevant, there’s nothing left to keep “My Generation” showing up on any best-of-the-’60s list except boomer nostalgia.
2. “Squeeze Box” (1975)
“Squeeze Box” was one of the Who’s last hits, and while the opening riff has some value, its fifth-grade innuendo make it the “My Ding-A-Ling” of this once-beloved pop group. Honestly, “Come on and squeeze me/Squeeze me”? Did Townshend, one of rock’s great lyricists, really have nothing better to offer than this?
3. “Who Are You” (1978)
Oh, CSI. What have you wrought upon us? Capital among the long-running program’s sins is its transformation of a frank, haunting number about loss of identity, written when Townshend was at the height of his alcoholism, into a brainless question about forensics. And while that’s not enough to make “Who Are You,” the Who’s last great song, a bad one, it’s sure enough to make it overrated.
4. “Behind Blue Eyes” (1971)
“Behind Blue Eyes” is a terrible song. It always was, years before the unfortunate Limp Bizkit cover. I exhort The Who By Numbers below for its honest, naked depiction of a band beginning to fray. So why, you might ask, do I take down a song that, at heart, is just doing the same thing? Well, The Who By Numbers treated self-doubt with simplicity and poise, but “Behind Blue Eyes” is a behemoth. From Daltrey’s too-heavy delivery to those insipid backing vocals to the simpering lyrics, “Behind Blue Eyes” became a track for self-absorbed teenagers and depressed divorcees. Who’s Next has its flaws (its sound hasn’t aged that well), but it still has moments of greatness. “Behind Blue Eyes” is not one of them.
5. Tommy (1969)
Like fellow concept piece The Who Sell Out, Tommy is a handful of decent numbers baked in a casserole dish of filler. There’s just no substance to it. And while Quadrophenia succeeded on pure musical skill, Tommy sees Townshend trying so hard to be clever that he forgets how to write a pop song. Tommy wasn’t the first rock album to come with a “concept,” but it was the first time the Who truly sounded pretentious, setting the ground for Townshend’s often mediocre solo career. Not to mention inspiring prog rock, Genesis and American Idiot.
:: The Five Most Underrated Who Songs
1. The Who By Numbers (1975)
The Who By Numbers doesn’t really sound like a Who album. Nor does it sound like some lost Townshend solo album—or a suicide note, as some have said. It’s its own, unique record and deserves to be treated as such. But too often, The Who by Numbers gets dismissed as whiny, neurotic, self-absorbed and simplistic. And OK, at times, it is all those things. But the naked honesty of “However Much I Booze,” the delicacy of “Blue Red And Grey” and Entwistle’s rock ’n’ roll fable “Success Story”? It’s hard to top numbers like those, and they just prove that the Who was so much more than a rock monster.
“However Much I Booze”:
2. “Early Morning Cold Taxi” (1967)
Let’s get one thing clear: The Who Sell Out is one of the most over-praised albums of all time. It’s a clever concept, fair enough. But has anyone in the past 40 years ever thought to themselves one night that it was time to listen to The Who Sell Out? It’s a curio, a museum piece, when the Who deserved to be alive and compelling. But clearly, outtake “Early Morning Cold Taxi,” one of the “straight” numbers (included on the deluxe reissue), is actually one of the Who’s best tracks. Though it may be buried among filler, “Early Morning Cold Taxi” (co-written by Daltrey and road manager Dave Langston) is surprisingly reflective, menacing and meaningful for such a young band. The walk of shame never sounded so sweet.
3. “Just You And Me, Darling” (1965)
The Who might have become heavyweights not long after this track from The BBC Sessions premiered on radio in 1965, but the band was never better than in those early years before the complications of Tommy and the posturing of Who’s Next. “Just You And Me, Darling” might be a James Brown cover, but throw out your demands for “authenticity” for just one second and think about it: The Who, the Stones—hell, even the Beatles—started out covering works by American R&B singers. And they were pretty damn good at it. Daltrey in particular, with a set of pipes blessed by the gods of blue-eyed soul, was well-equipped for the challenge. Sometimes, the simple joys of a two-minute blast like “Just You And Me, Darling” is utterly refreshing, especially when it comes from a band later known for big-haired bombast.
4. “A Legal Matter” (1966)
Townshend often gets dismissed as a guitarist, as someone who smashed his instrument rather than deified it, and maybe that’s a fair point. He certainly wasn’t a virtuoso in the Clapton/Hendrix category. But if Townshend’s guitar skills have been put down, his singing has passed by with the tumbleweeds. And that’s not really fair, because, as “A Legal Matter” and several solo tracks prove, Townshend had some strangely compelling vocals. Sure, they’re nasal (are you really surprised?). Sure, he lacks Daltrey’s raw power. But “A Legal Matter” provides a great foil for the early snarl of “My Generation” and “I Can See For Miles” and brings up the band’s uncomfortable view of the war between the sexes (wonderfully elaborated on “The Kids Are Alright”). Politically correct? No. Tuneful? Hell yes.
5. “Let’s See Action” (1971)
Once, there was an album called Lifehouse. And it was going to change the world. It would change the way we saw music, politics, culture, the whole lot. It would even invent the Internet. But Lifehouse never happened, thanks to a lot of factors, but primarily Townshend’s escalating drug problems. And if “Let’s See Action” is any indication, Lifehouse might not have changed the world, but it would have been pretty damn great. Townshend has tried to revive Lifehouse several times since its initial failure, but “Let’s See Action” is a great testament, on its own, to a time when the Who seemed capable of anything.