The Over/Under: The Who


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.

“Pinball Wizard”:

:: 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.

—Emily Tartanella

26 replies on “The Over/Under: The Who”

You can’t slag off Behind Blue Eyes and My Generation and be taken seriously – sorry but you can overplay the Devil’s advocate wind up the fans line and make yourself just look an idiot. So there!


On a similar note, Who By Numbers is great, but how do you talk about its greatness and NOT mention Dreaming from the Waist?

Finally, Who’s Next has a dated sound? Baba O’Riley, Bargain, and Won’t Get Fooled Again don’t sound fantastic? Then what does? Having said that, kudos on calling out Behind Blue Eyes

Sadly predictable. Before I clicked on the link, I said to myself, “They’re going to pick ‘My Generation.'”


Thank you for not saying “Baba” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are overrated. I know it was tempting. Remember though, both Tommy and The Who By Numbers were albums, not songs, so they belong on the over/underrated albums list. “My Generation” is a bad choice though. As are “Just You and Me Darling,” “Lets See Action,” and “A Legal Matter.” And why slag “Who Are You” when it’s a fun stadium rocker? And the grandiose “Behind Blue Eyes” ain’t bad either. This list seems like it was created by someone who never saw The Who live, if you’ve only heard the albums you’ve completely missed the boat. Check out “Live at the Isle of Wight” or “At Kilburn” and you may very well rethink your stance on Tommy. Prolly not on “Who Are You” though, which was a mess when they played it at Kilburn. Overall Grade for this list: F+

Whether you like the song or not, it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest that the line “Hope I die before I get old” necessarily means that “the Who’s current existence invalidates everything it might once have stood for” and that it was a “dangerous” song for them to release. Ought the band to have considered deeply and wondered aloud before the track came out: “Gee, mates, this seems kind of dangerous…I mean, what if we don’t actually die before we get old, right? We’ll really look barmy years from now. Maybe we shouldn’t release it.”??? Preposterous. Yeah, guess what, the Who got old. And are still playing the rock music, as old guys. Big deal. Does that diminish, in any way, the power of this song in the context of being young and hating the older generation and hoping you never become like them? Not a whit. You also argue that its “cultural message [is] irrelevant.” Hmm. On the contrary, I would argue that its cultural message is actually timeless. Every generation of young, feckless, misunderstood kids can easily identify with it. When my brother and I discovered it back in the ’80s, after the song was already almost 20 years old, did we care that it was written by guys who were not, in fact, dead yet or already wrecked from years of living a real dissolute rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (okay, so maybe one of them was). But yeah, don’t seem to recall that mattering much. We loved the hell out of it. And it wouldn’t hurt my feelings too much if my two-year-old son pulls my “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy” CD off the shelf in about a dozen years or so and wears it out, either. If he does, I doubt the message communicated by “My Generation” will seem any less relevant to him.

“Cheeseball stuttering included” – as though this is an oft-used device by bands looking for a novelty to throw into the mix. Actually, Daltrey’s stuttering in “My Generation” was intended to mimic the stuttering babble of their friends who were hopped up on reds in their early days.

You lost me at “endless, meaningless existence since Moon’s death.” You’ll someday exhume some under-appreciated gems from those later albums (enough to fill the Under segment of your list). Trust me – it took me a while as well but for some reason “Tricky Day” works.

“But Lifehouse never happened, thanks to a lot of factors, but primarily Townshend’s escalating drug problems.”
So you just pulled that out of your arse?

Lifehouse as a concept was very complex – most people couldn’t wrap their head around it.
The Who’s managers knew that Tommy was their cash cow and wanted to milk it for all it was worth…that’s why Tommy became a movie…and no money was invested in Lifehouse whatsoever.

Pete’s drug problems really started in the late 70s- early 80s- Post Keith Moon dying and the Cincinnati tragedy.

You need to do your research, Emily!

This is actually quite amusing. An article “written” about overrated and underrated Who *SONGS*, but the “author” includes *2* Who *ALBUMS*: “Tommy” and “The Who By Numbers”.

How can anyone be expected to be taken seriously with a **music** article if they don’t even know the difference between an *ALBUM* and a *SONG*?

Oh well, perhaps the writer can go back to doing what she is really good at – *nothing*…


Ah but you are wrong Emily, Lifehouse did happen and still continues to happen in our souls. It’s not about changing the world it’s about finding your inner spirit. You just don’t get it.


I agree with most of the sentiments from fellow responders – even the Behind Blue Eyes agreement.

But the rest…hmmm.

Your comments about both “My Generation” and the ongoing Who shows miss the point entirely. “My Generation” means even more now than it did when they were younger. Pete and Roger – with the help of a couple of mighty good musicians – are continuing on and, if you’d bothered to look at any of the reviews of their festival shows during the ’06/’07 tour, are blowing the younger bands off the stage. They aren’t “old”! They are now fighting for THEIR generation’s right to command the stage and spotlight and they’re not going to leave the stage quietly. They have more energy and power in their mid-sixties than most of these leviathan 20’s and 30’s bands that are at the top of the charts these days. Yeah using their music in commercials and to theme tv shows seems like a sell-out, but they’ve always been about making money – and now an entirely new generation has been introduced to their music. And comes to their shows and sings along with the music. Put THAT on your underrated list.

“Tommy” and “The Who By Numbers” are songs!? Learn something new everyday.

Another hip writer in the post-print age “substituting” sophmoric opinion for content and insight.

At least I’ll get my washing done…

So instead of actually addressing any points, people have to throw the old “doesn’t know the difference between song and album so the whole article is garbage” idiocy. I disagree with a couple of the points (My Gen) but can understand some others (WAY in particular). Even with Tommy, which I’ve heard and seen in countless forms, has its weak points (Welcome in particular), I can agree somewhat. I rarely listen to it in its entirety nowadays, but Quad is run end to end all the time. I think she is over-reaching a bit with “Early Morning…” as I’ve always thought it was a good decision to leave it off the album. This appears to be more of a “I’m gonna choose an obscure track to reinforce my street cred” pick. Anyway, interesting take on all things Who…nice conversation starter.

Someone wrote:
“How can anyone be expected to be taken seriously with a **music** article if they don’t even know the difference between an *ALBUM* and a *SONG*?”

I think you’re over-reaching here…she mentions in the intro she’ll be discussing the most over and under rated “Who works”…a word at the top of the subsequent list is hardly reason to not take the article seriously. You can agree with the list or not, but dismissing the author like that is nonsense.

Jesus whisky, tequila and vodka must be cheap in the US, ’cause that artical has some pretty cheap shots. The author must have been pissed or a wino to write it too!

To try and hit upon something not previously mentioned by my esteemed colleagues…
“Squeeze Box” is OVERRATED? By who? Critics? Or is there a “That’s anzeitgeist Magnet has touched into

OOPS. I hit tab and it posted. oh well. so much for the zeitgeist. by the way, says “Squeeze Box” is “cloying, lightweight filler”. So JUST WHO IS OVER-RATING THIS SONG? Answer? Nobody. This article is a dead-line beater and nothing more.

I agree Squeeze Box is a dumb song, but I wouldn’t call it over-rated. Who over-rated it? Critics? Have they been listing it as an important Who song? Fans? When you ask someone on the street to name the best Who songs, are they going to say Squeeze Box? Dumb? Yes. Over-rated? I guess if it was a hit it can qualify, but nobody seriously thinks it is a great Who song.

I must have no musical taste because I think Behind Blue Eyes has a very nice melody. Maybe you were thinking of Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes (which was also listed as over-rated on the VU version of this article) which drones on and on.

While I am all for stirring the pot, and in a blog medium stirring the pot is a good way to drive comments and search engine optimization, I think this post feels a bit dashed off and not as articulated as it could be.

I don’t think you can hold any band responsible for radio saturation. There is a difference between overrated and overplayed. “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Who Are You” might be overplayed, but overrated, who are the raters? The public? Good lord if we hold a public competition we are back at American Idol or the Eurovision competitions.
Has anyone ever written a doctor’s thesis on “Sqeezebox”? It is a silly song and music is also allowed to be silly. Don’t fault the band for tossing away a couple of light-hearted songs – this is not prog rock or fusion here.

The Who mostly took a track of their own design. Just a chronological review or album momentum is a case for brilliance: The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Live at Leeds, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, and The Who by Numbers are a back-to-back-to-back series few bands could achieve. Each album pushed the rock genre beyond the day’s formula for success. Within each is a tip to humor to not take themselves as serious as others might. Each album hits a lyric, musicianship, and track consistency few bands could put on one album, let alone a majority of 5 studio releases. Each album is a snapshot in musical transition: the band that made Sell Out has little resemblance to the sound of the band that made Quadrophenia; the band that made Tommy has little resemblance to the sound of band that made By Numbers. The same can be said for most of the songs within. Few bands, save the Beatles and a period of Stones work can compare.

This over/under rated list should not be a collection of hits against a collection of b-sides or unreleased songs, because that is a list of over-played/under-played and comes across as a contest of who can name the most obscure, not the most brilliant.

Both the Beatles (though I hesitant to compare The Who to the Beatles) and The Who transitioned from a singles-based, pop band, to an album-based, full-picture band. Your list of Who overrated songs miss the point of context, plus Tommy is an album, not a song.

Good blog premise, however, I think the people who posted comments struck a better position.

I applaud the concept of this blog even if I disagree with your choices. With “My Generation”, you completely ignore one of the major reasons it’s such a great record : the ground-breaking bass solo. The lyrical sentiment is killer, the aggression of the playing, Moon’s drumming, etc. There’s a reason it was the band’s breakout single- it struck a nerve. Any band would be lucky to come up with such a colossal “mistake”.

Who Are You has nothing to do with any TV show, it’s a work that stands on it’s own as a late period Townshend masterstroke. If you can only filter it through contemporary pop culture sensibilities, that’s your hang up.

And while I love the songs you mentioned in your underrated column, it’s definitely cheating to include a whole album. As much as I love Who By Numbers, if we’re naming whole albums, the nod has to go to Quadrophenia. Even sticking to underrated songs, the absence of “I’m One” from your list is negligence of the highest order. And where is “So Sad About Us” or the Rock & Roll Circus version of “A Quick One”?

“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?”

I have. And other times of the day, too. And usually play it again, sometimes even TWICE, when I do. Curio from the past? As a long-time college radio DJ until recently who still checks out indie shows frequently, it’s one of the LEAST dated sounding rock albums of its era to my ears: compare stuff like “Incense and Peppermints” or so much heavily blues-based music of the era.

How can lists like these be anything but subjective, individual opinions?

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but when they start trying to speak for others, that’s when the stench described in that well-known saying about opinions fouls the air.

While I agree that the songs and albums in the “underrated” list above indeed are, MY most underrated (by my very subjective quality/rating ratio):

1) Our Love Was (from The Who Sell Out)
Power pop at its finest, with one of the most underrated guitar breaks I can think of
2) The Dirty Jobs (Quadrophenia)
Amazingly inventive drumming over melodies I just plain love
3) The Relay (single)
The Who gets funky — and how!
4) When I Was a Boy (Entwistle-penned B-side)
Very obscure track featuring very powerful drumming.
5) The Naked Eye (Odds and Sods)
One of Townshend’s best songs, IMO, and not too well known.
Some (very) honorable mentions: “So Sad About Us” (iconic power pop that’s a bit too well known)
“I Can’t Reach You” (another very beautiful, shimmering Sell Out track)
“Success Story” (agreed on that one)

Most overrated? That’s a tough one, because I consider most of the most popular Who songs underrated, compared with songs of similar popularity by other artists and bands.

That said, here are MY choices for the most highly regarded relative to how much I like them (highest rating/quality ratio):

1) Magic Bus (Live at Leeds version)
Goes nowhere for too long, quite unlike the dynamic jamming in Leeds’ “My Generation”
2) Heaven and Hell (expanded Live at Leeds version)
Great song, don’t get me wrong, but I can very well understand why it was left off the original LP, given the very sloppy guitar solo. Other versions I’ve heard are much better.
3) Squeeze Box
Not particularly highly rated, but definitely hear it way more than I’d like to. Dunno how THAT got to be a single, aside from being the only song on By Numbers that’s not a downer, other than “Success Story,” which I think should have been the A-side.
4) The Sea and The Sand
Another one I like, and consider a very good song, but don’t personally consider one of the best on Quadrophenia, as many consider it to be — at least not until the rave-up of “I’m the Face” at the end that sets up “Drowned,” which I like much better.
5) Baba O’ Riley
No argument that it’s a great song, but I find it the most overplayed among those generally regarded as classics.

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