Where To Start With... The Who
With a back-catalogue packed with classic songs and career record sales somewhere north of 100 million albums, the Who are a band that needs no introduction whatsoever, much less one that needs to deliver another album. But they're doing it anyway, and with frontman Roger Daltrey hinting that their new tour might be their final time out on the road, it could even be their last.
Formed in the mid-1960s, initially by Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle, the band started out playing R&B covers in tiny London venues under the name The Detours, but once guitarist Pete Townshend and drummer Keith Moon joined the line-up their fortunes began to change rapidly. Breaking into the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart with their second single 'I Can't Explain', The Who were soon considered one of the bands at the vanguard of the wave of bands enjoying success in America dubbed the 'British Invasion', along with the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
If their early years were spent at least partly in the shadow of their more famous peers, that all began to change after the band delivered Tommy, an ambitious rock opera conceived by Townshend, who by then had become the band's main creative force, which catapulted them to another level of success.
By the 1970s, the Who had developed a reputation as one of the world's most exciting live bands, thanks in large part to Keith Moon's explosive drumming and Pete Towshend's guitar-destroying stage antics, and were packing out stadiums and arenas the world over, delivering legendary live albums such as Live in Leeds in the process. Their songwriting, too, was also reaching its peak, and for much of that decade the Who had become an unstoppable force.
Then, in 1978, tragedy struck: Moon died after an overdose of drugs designed to battle alcohol addiction, and while the remaining members continued to record new material for several years afterwards, the pace of their output slowed considerably and their 1982 album It's Hard seemed for a long time as if it would be their last.
By the time they released a follow-up, Endless Wire, in 2006, John Entwistle, too, had passed away, and while Daltrey and Townshend have continued to lead the band through numerous live tours and shows in the years since, a new album from the Who had, up until recently, seemed a very remote possibility indeed.
That changed in January this year, when it was announced that the band were planning to release their 12th studio album later in 2019. Titled simply WHO, the album finally makes its long-awaited arrival in stores today, some 13 years after their last full-length offering.
Featuring a cover designed by legendary pop artist Peter Blake, WHO contains 11 new tracks (or 14 if you want to splash out on the deluxe version), filled with material that Townshend has described as: “dark ballads, heavy rock stuff, experimental electronica, sampled stuff and Who-ish tunes that began with a guitar that goes yanga-dang".
Co-produced by Townshend and Dave Sardy, with help from Bob Pridden and Dave Eringa, the album arrives today and includes the recently-released single 'I Don't Wanna Get Wise', which you can find below.
Beneath that we've picked out some key tracks from the band's extensive career, and while we'd usually try and sum up a band's career in five essential tracks, with a band like the Who that would feel like a disservice. Instead, we've doubled our usual tally and if you only ever listen to 10 songs by the Who in your life, these are the 10 they should be...
'I Can't Explain'
The band's second single and their first real hit, 'I Can't Explain' hit the charts in 1965 and catapulted The Who into the limelight with its aggressive, staccato riffs and a lyric born of teenage frustration.
Every now and then, a song comes along that perfectly captures the essence of a moment in time, from The Specials' apocalyptic hit 'Ghost Town' to Melle Mel's urgent rhymes on 'The Message'. In 1965, it was 'My Generation' that summed up the widening generational divide in concise and brutal fashion with the line “I hope I die before I get old'.
'I Can See For Miles'
Arguably the high point of 1967's The Who Sell Out, 'I Can See For Miles' reflects the band's growing stature and as the tour venues they were selling out grew larger, so did the music needed to fill them. It's perhaps the first real hint of the band's sprawling ambition, setting the direction for what came next.
The Who's rock opera Tommy represents one of the most ambitious projects its era and elevated them to the heavyweight division as far as the British music scene was concerned. The iconic sound of Pete Townshend's chiming acoustic guitars over the song's introduction still has the capacity to send a shiver down the spine.
'We're Not Gonna Take It'
Tommy's epic swansong is a fitting crescendo to a remarkable album and the full version, which incorporates 'See Me, Feel Me', is a truly epic conclusion.
One of the real highlights of the soundtrack to Quadrophenia, created by The Who for Franc Roddam's much-loved film of the same name, '5:15' really digs into the band's rhythm 'n' blues roots and Roger Daltrey's vocals have never sounded so raw and soulful.
While there's no arguing against Tommy as an audio-visual spectacle, as far as albums go we'd have to argue that it's 1971's Who's Next that really represents the pinnacle of their songwriting. The band's restless need to experiment resulted in some of the first rock songs to utilise synthesizers extensively and the album's iconic opening salvo is a case in point.
'Behind Blue Eyes'
From the hat-trick of absolute classics from Who's Next that we've included on our list, if you put a gun to our heads and forced us to choose just one then it'd have to be 'Behind Blue Eyes'. It might be the best song on the album. It might even be the best song they've ever written
'Won't Get Fooled Again'
If there has ever been a moment of doubt in your mind as to where Keith Moon sits in the pantheon of all-time great rock drummers, one listen to his powerhouse of a performance on 'Won't Get Fooled Again' should be enough to convince anyone that Moon belongs in the 'God Tier'.
Our final pick is a song that emerged at a point when the band's commercial and creative powers were waning, but right up until things disintegrated in the early 1980s – at least from a recording point of view – they were still churning out anthems. This is, hands down, the funkiest thing they ever did.
WHO is available in hmv stores and online now.