I mention them often on this blog, but haven’t yet fully paid tribute to that nice little group from Shepherd’s Bush—The Who. Although Kiss is my favorite Rock band of all-time, I consider The Who to be the greatest band of all-time. Their music is so much more intense than most bands, to the point where you rarely hear cover versions of Who songs because their originals are so damn good! Pete Townshend’s lyrics often have great personal meaning to me as well, and there is no denying the outstanding musicianship this band displayed.
I’ll spare you the history and minutiae of the band—it’s pretty self-evident anyway—and focus on why I love them so much. You can actually thank Sir Elton John for making me a Who fan. Growing up, I was unimpressed with The Who as my older sister nearly wore out her LP copy of the London Symphony Orchestra version of Tommy (on which The Who participated), and all that “Tommy, can you hear me?” stuff drove me bonkers! BUT, when the Tommy movie came out in 1974, The Who were suddenly relevant to me merely because Sir Elton played the Pinball Wizard in the film. Time has shown what a weird flick Tommy was, but to a 10-year-old like me, it was a real eye-opener. Elton was splendid, of course (and I still prefer his rendition of “Pinball Wizard” over The Who’s to this day), but I was also drawn to Roger Daltrey in the lead role—is there not a better front man in Rock history? I was also initially drawn to that crazy drummer, whom someone once accurately described as “a cross between Buddy Rich and Animal from the ‘Muppet Show’”. Those other two guys didn’t really register with me at the time, but as the Wicked Witch of the West once said, “All in good time…”
“Squeeze Box” endeared me to The Who a little more in ‘75, and when “Who Are You?” came out just as school started in ‘78, I loved it. Then came the news that Keith Moon had died of an accidental overdose, and I was very bummed by his passing. This persuaded me to purchase my first Who LP in October, Who Are You, and that’s when I began to notice that funny-looking guitar player with the big nose who wrote most of their songs. I took notice of him even more about a year later when my sister took me to see the outstanding biographical film The Kids Are Alright, especially the way he flailed his right arm around like a windmill while he played on stage and smashed up guitars and such—pretty boffo stuff. The film also introduced me to this little song called “My Generation” that’s really cool, and another little song called “Baba O’Riley” (better known as “Teenage Wasteland” to some folks), as well as some little ditty about meeting some new boss who's just like the old one…
Kids was also my indoctrination on my all-time favorite member of The Who, one John Alec Entwistle. I was instantly intrigued by this mysterious-looking dude with the spider webs on his bass who pretty much stood still the whole time in concert, yet looked so freakin’ cool playing the damn thing, all the same. “The Ox” was impressive to watch as his fingers seemed to move as if totally separate from the rest of his body. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin—another outstanding bassist, to be sure—used to stand perfectly still in concert too, but he looked like a bland librarian compared with the mighty “Thunderfingers”.
“Big Johnnie Twinkle” intrigued me even more when I first heard his Who classic “My Wife” on the Kids soundtrack album, and I discovered the man’s wry sense of humor. Entwistle excelled at providing a little comic relief to offset Pete Townshend’s more serious lyrics on Who albums—John wrote “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About” for Tommy, “Success Story” (not to mention drawing the brilliant cover) for The Who By Numbers and three of his songs made the cut on Who Are You (“905”, “Had Enough” and “Trick Of The Light”). On the albums the band made after Moon’s death, it was Entwistle’s tunes that were the strongest, like “The Quiet One” and “You” from Face Dances in 1981 and “Dangerous”, “It’s Your Turn” and “One At A Time” from It’s Hard in ’82. And oh yeah, The Ox was also the horniest member of The Who, as he provided virtually all of the brass heard on Who albums.
And then there were JE’s solo albums, the first two of which (Smash Your Head Against The Wall from 1971 and 1972's Whistle Rymes) were quite good, and brought his “black humor” to the fore in tunes like “The Window Shopper” (all about a peeping Tom), “Pick Me Up (Big Chicken)” (all about a night at the pub having a few too many) and “I Wonder” (all about what life would be like if sharks could fly and if the moon went out, etc.). The man was funny, no doubt about it.
And Holy Shit, Batman—what a fucking great musician this man was! I would’ve paid damn good money to just watch him play bass all night. I had the good fortune of catching JE on his 1998 solo tour in Olathe, KS on the night of his 54th birthday (when the clock struck Midnight anyway), and after the show, I stood in line and had him autograph my Who By Numbers CD insert. To this date, John Entwistle is the only member of The Who that I’ve ever met, thus making him the greatest brush with greatness I’ve ever experienced, with the possible exception of swipe-tagging Ace Frehley of Kiss on his left arm following his solo show at The Lone Star in Westport in 1994.
It was a dark day for me on June 27, 2002 as I checked my e-mail and heard from my two closest friends in the world, Tom and Stacy—the latter of whom was kind enough to ask if I was okay upon learning of John‘s passing, knowing how much I idolized the guy. It sucked even more to find out later that John went to his final reward thanks to a cocaine habit that exacerbated his pre-existing heart condition. Very disappointing for a man who I always considered to be extremely intelligent, especially while staring at the concert ticket I’d already purchased for The Who’s show in Indianapolis in August that I was really looking forward to seeing him at…
And let’s not forget that “Nose on a Stick” as R. Daltrey affectionately refers to him. Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend is quite possibly the most brilliant Rock ‘N’ Roll songwriter of all-time. PT is one of the few people who’s been able to accurately tap into my anger and rage at life’s bullshit and unfairness. Quadrophenia alone is a towering manifesto about awkward teenage rage and angst. I could go on and on about that, but I’ll save it for another time.
What I wouldn’t give to have seen The Who in concert in their prime during the ’70s with Keith Moon. I first saw them live at Kemper Arena in 1980 with the good-but-not-great Kenney Jones on the drums, and was quite impressed. The 1989 show at Arrowhead Stadium with the very capable Simon Phillips on drums was good also, in spite of the touring band being way too big. The 1997 Quadrophenia show at Riverport in the burbs of St. Louis was so-so, despite young Zac Starkey "Starr"-ing on the drums, but my favorite was the August, 2000 Who show I caught at Reunion Arena in Dallas. On that night, I saw Pete Townshend play with a passion I hadn’t seen before live in person (even at his advanced age) and I saw John Entwistle nearly bring the house down with his bass solo during “5:15”. For you folks in Dallas, I was the fool in the back row of the upper deck in front of the hockey press box windmilling along with “Baba O’Riley” (and nearly breaking my left hand in the process by banging it on the wall) while the rest of you wine-and-cheese-party denizens sat on your hands all night, but I digress...
That 2002 show I reluctantly attended in Indy was also decent, with Pino Palladino replacing Entwistle on bass, but not even coming close to replicating his sound, and the show felt terribly empty to me minus “The Ox”. Sadly since then, The Who (or as I prefer to call them “Who’s Left”) seems more like a lounge act to me, as Pete and Roger try to carry on as a duo with sidemen, and their 2006 release Endless Wire absolutely did not honk my hooter at all—even the dreadful Face Dances blows it away. Even so, I never ever tire of hearing the music of this band...
My all-time Top 30 Who songs on earth in this hemisphere:
30) “Whiskey Man” (1966) One of John Entwistle’s first recorded compositions which also features his underrated prowess on the French horn.
29) “I Can’t Explain” (1965) Perennial concert opener and first true hit single for the band. Some dude named Jimmy Page plays second guitar on the original…
28) “Success Story” (1975) The “happy song” from Who By Numbers as Entwistle once called it (although “Squeeze Box” is fairly chipper as well). Gotta love the line, “Back in the studio to make our latest #1/Take 276—you know this used to be fun…”
27) “Behind Blue Eyes” (1971) A little drama from Pete, and since I have blue eyes and a fair amount of pent-up anger to boot, this song more than applies to my life.
26) “Substitute” (1966) Another Who concert staple. Nearly every time I do my laundry, I try to recite the line “At least I’ll get my washing done…”
25) “You” (1981) Killer bass figure from The Ox on this one. One of the two best songs from the disappointing Face Dances fiasco.
24) “Overture” (1969) I swear, every time I hear this opener from Tommy and the horns kick in during the intro, the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up!
23) “I Don’t Even Know Myself” (1970) Rather obscure Who tune that was originally intended for what eventually became Who’s Next. When I find myself in a pinch, I try to think of the line “The doors aren't shut as tight as they might seem…” and sometimes it actually works!
22) “Eminence Front” (1982) This one was even a hit on R&B stations back in the day. Great riff from Townshend and great bass from Big Johnnie Twinkle, which kinda goes without saying.
21) “Cry If You Want” (1982) Even better song from It’s Hard than #22—I love songs with rapid-fire lyrics, especially songs that vent frustration like this one does.
20) [tie] “Our Love Was, Is”/"I Can’t Reach You” (1967) Nearly identical twin tracks from the brilliant The Who Sell Out album that reflect Pete Townshend’s softer side and Pop tendencies. Why neither of these weren’t hit singles during the so-called “Summer of Love” mystifies me.
19) “Join Together” (1972) Underrated classic that taps into a bit of a communal Utopian attitude—a rarity for a Who record—that would‘ve fit in great at Woodstock. Love the line “Do you really think I care, what you read or what you wear?”
18) “Had Enough” (1978) Great JE track from Who Are You that I intentionally played during the waning moments of 1999, just in case the closing line “Here comes the end of the world…” came true with all the Y2K hoop-de-doo. Not to be confused with PT's “I’ve Had Enough" from Quadrophenia [Also see #4].
17) “Song Is Over” (1971) Another underrated tune from Who’s Next that features some beautiful piano and one of Roger Daltrey's dandiest vocal performances ever.
16) “New Song” (1978) Stinging lead-off track from Who Are You. Would like to think this was the direction the band would’ve taken if Keith Moon hadn’t died…
15) “Bell Boy” (1973) Speaking of “Moon the Loon”, this was clearly his finest vocal performance ever. I re-titled the song “Bus Boy” during my early working days at Waid’s Restaurant in the early ’80s since I was “Always running at someone’s bleedin’ heel…”
14) “A Legal Matter” (1965) Early Who song that displayed Townshend’s sense of humor quite well. “Just wanna keep on doing all the diddlin’ things I do/Not work in an office all day just to bring my money back to you—sorry, Baby!”
13) “Trick Of The Light” (1978) Entwistle classic all about a poor sap who visits a lady of the evening to see if he’s still got it. After a long personal dry spell of my own, I actually had the unmitigated gall to quote The Ox in bed (with someone very special whom I didn't have to pay for) after doing the dirty deed and stole his line, “So, was I alright?” The answer was in the affirmative, thankfully.
12) “5:15” (1973) Another highlight of the Quadrophenia album, and even bigger high point of The Who’s live act with Entwistle’s three-and-a-half-minute solo that could blow the balls off elks, stoats, goats, manatees, whatever—basically any critters that have balls...
11) “The Quiet One” (1981) Hardest-rocking song off the wimpy Face Dances album, and the line “I ain’t quiet--everybody else is too loud,” could’ve easily been written about me.10) “I Can See For Miles” (1967) The Who’s biggest hit single in America, and a damn good one. Power chord heaven, too…
9) “My Wife” (1971) John Entwistle’s signature song with The Who, and a damn funny one. Yet another perennial concert staple, too.
8) “How Many Friends” (1975) Very introspective tune from Townshend, and one that I relate to profusely. “How many friends have I really got?/You can count ‘em on one hand…”
7) “See Me, Feel Me” (1969) Tommy closer that’s about the closest thing I ever get to actually reciting a prayer.
6) “Baba O’Riley” (1971) Power chord heaven, revisited. The live version from The Kids Are Alright is absolutely killer stuff.
5) “Who Are You” (1978) Better known to some folks as the “CSI” theme, this is the song that forever cemented my devotion to this band. I think it might’ve had something to do with the repeated use of the word “fuck” during the song when I was 14…
4) “I’ve Had Enough” (1973) “You were under the impression/That when you were walking forward/That you’d end up further onward/But things ain’t quite that simple!” That line has always resonated with me, and this is one of my favorite “angry” songs of all-time.
3) “Shakin’ All Over” (1970) Incredible live rendition of the Johnny Kidd & The Pirates classic that just rips the original to shreds. Townshend was just on fire the night they recorded Live At Leeds on Valentine’s Day, 1970.
2) “My Generation” (1965) Does this song not just want to make you raise your middle finger to anyone or anything who crosses you? I know it has that affect on me. It also features the world’s first Rock ‘N’ Roll bass solo.
1) “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971) Listen to the live version off The Kids Are Alright soundtrack when Daltrey screams at the end. It's guaranteed to curl your hair—even if you don’t have any! Yet another middle-finger-raising song…