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The Who was one of the first bands I really got into from the Classic Rock era. I think what attracted me was how instantly recognizable the band's major hits were. Songs like "My Generation", "Who Are You", "Teenage Wasteland", "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" are such epic songs and rock standards that I knew them, and that they were done by the Who, long before I owned any of the band's actual albums.
Those are some amazing songs, but they don't tell the complete story of the band (singles/hits never do). Looking back across their catalog I find many songs are a little overshadowed by the major hits and often go overlooked by the more casual fans. These 5 songs are a few of those that I consider more underrated, but are some of my favorites and great reasons to really delve into this band's catalog if you're so far been limited to Greatest Hits collections.
1: "The Good's Gone" from The Who Sings My Generation
From the early days of the band, this song captures a lot of the mod and British R&B feel, which was where the band was coming from, but with some of the more anthemic style of their later works. It's in the vein of some of the other British Invasion bands of the time, but has a bit of a darker color, especially lyrically, without becoming too heavy. Throughout it all though, this song still sounds like the Who, although in early rough form. This song is one of my favorites from the early days of the Who because it's seems to fit better with the aggression of "My Generation" than some of the more pop-esque tracks of the same era. Plus, had it been written a little later in the band's career you can easily hear this song being great with Townsend banging out the riffs through a more heavily overdriven amp.
2: "Baby Don't You Do It" bonus track release from Who's Next
Although the album from the same time this track was written, Who's Next, can easily be considered the best album from the Who, this song didn't appear on it and instead later surfaced through bonus tracks and releases. Why it wasn't on the album I don't know, especially because I think it is one of the best high energy tracks the band ever recorded, even if it might not be a songwriting gem. From the opening drums this track is a live wire that rocks with pushed guitar leads and vocals that hint at some of the high energy stripped down rock and roll of the punk movement without actually being proto punk. What I like most about this track is the dueling guitar parts with a great riff and rhythm track that is punctuated and emphasized by the rock and roll leads. Great bonus song from a great album.
3: "The Punk and the Godfather" from Quadrophenia
Although this album might have been a little bloated for a rock opera when compared to Tommy, I think it is an amazing complete work with some great songs. This song might be a little odd in it's shifting textures and social comment lyrics about the mod era that the Who was a product of, but it has a killer riff that just screams grandiose arena rock. It's a song that has multiple melodies that shift and echo back and forth between different "sections". I especially like the way the verse lyrics are emphasized by the guitar riff, and really push the larger than life feel. There's also some great drum and bass work amongst the changing melodies that really drive it forward that much harder.
4: "Drowned" from Quadrophenia
Also from Quadrophenia, this song I like for two reasons... actually it's for two different versions. The first is the album version and is high powered British R&B with rock and roll energy. The second is an acoustic version that appeared on the Who's Live at Royal Albert Hall, played solo by Pete Townsend. Both versions are great in my opinion, with the first being rock and roll that also hints a little bit at ska with the horn bursts, while in the solo performance it takes on a far more folksy quality that has a more earthy feel and puts a lot more emphasis on the lyrics. Whichever version, it has great lyrics and riff, and is one of my favorite songs the band ever did.
5: "Eminence Front" from It's Hard
Although I'm sure that there would be many fans who would disagree with me, I think this song is up their with some of their best. Although it has a far funkier, swaggering and dance-like feel than much of what the band did, this song has enough of a British R&B feel deep down that it still sounds like the Who and works to add a new dimension to the rest of their catalog. With pulsing bass and the funky guitar riffs laced with bluesy leads and sing along choruses it is definitely a party song through and though with hints of calypso and maybe even a little disco. I just enjoy the overall feel of this song and think it really is overlooked because it is so different from the major hits the band had in the late 60s and 70s. It was also the band's last single released with John Entwistle I believe... and the bombastic pulse is certainly a good reminder of how his bass playing really drove the band.
Bonus: Tommy Live from the Deluxe Edition of Live at Leads
I had wanted to pick a song from Tommy to include in this list of underrated songs, but that album is such a complete work in my mind that I couldn't really decide on an underrated track to highlight as a standout. They seem to more work well together as a whole, while the main standout, "Pinball Wizard", is not exactly underrated. Instead, I thought I would discuss the nearly complete live version of "Thomas" that was released as part of the Deluxe Edition of one of the best live albums of all time, the Who's Live at Leeds. I always enjoyed the album version of Tommy, but it wasn't until I heard the band perform it live that I really got into it. Stripped down to it's barest essentials, guitar, bass, drums and vocals, this rock opera is a massive, larger than life, proto punk epic that really drives the social comment/tongue and cheek of the story home. I'm especially impressed by Townsend's guitar work in this live version. He shifts between bombastic rhythm, subtle melody and screaming lead with ease, sort of bastardizing all the guitar layers and melodies of the album version, distilling them to their essence. In my mind, this is how rock operas are supposed to sound... great album, but the live version is really what it's all about.
I'm pretty sure that the Who will remain one of the greatest bands of all time even if their major hits are all that is remembered, but the songs that are more underrated are so good that I hope that is never the case. These are just a few of my favorites that I think someone who has not really delved into the band's work should check out. There's plenty more from across their career (I had a hard time choosing as I could have easily picked another 5 or 10) and the two living original members just released a new album in 2006 that's worth checking out as well. If you're already a fan of the Who then you probably already know some of the songs I've pointed out, but maybe you'll be inspired to take another look and find a few more hidden favorites of your own.
I find it hard to believe anyone who's into rock and roll doesn't know at least one song by the Who. Their anthems are timeless rock and roll staples. Still, if this is your first real look at this classic band, then you have to start at the beginning and work your way through their extensive catalog. If you've only heard the "Greatest Hits" collections from the band, then it is time to start digging deeper as well. There is a lot of great music there, so take a listen... just make sure it's loud... the Who can never be too loud.
Check out all the the Who's albums on Amazon. You can pick up their latest release here: Endless Wire