The Who's 15 greatest songs, ranked

10 January 2023, 13:55 | Updated: 16 January 2024, 12:08

Pete Townshend speaks to Gold

By Mayer Nissim

We round up the very best songs by The Who and rank nearly 60 years of maximum R&B.

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From mod and Maximum R&B to Britrock, rock opera and power pop, The Who were one of the most eclectic, brilliant British bands of the 1960s and '70s.

Whether it was their concept albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia or their short, sharp singles, they put out hit after hit after hit during their imperial phase.

Not sure where to start with their imposing back catalogue, or just looking to enjoy the best of the best?

We've got you covered with our top ten list of the 15 finest songs by The Who, ranked all the way to the very greatest.

  1. Pictures of Lily

    The Who - Pictures of Lily (1967)

    As we've already said, despite being well-known for their classic albums (be they conceptual like Tommy, or just packed with hits like My Generation and Who's Next), The Who also put out loads of great standalone singles, too.

    1967's number four hit 'Pictures of Lily' was one of those, supposedly inspired by music hall star Lillie Langtry (also the mistress of Edward VII), who died in 1929, it's about young lads enjoying pin-ups from a bygone era.

    David Bowie recorded a cover for his long-unreleased Toy album, with the song first surfacing on 2001's Substitute: The Songs of The Who.

  2. Happy Jack

    The Who - Happy Jack

    A number three hit in the UK and the band's first US top 40 single, 'Happy Jack' is a bouncing, music hall-esque mod romp that saw bassist John Entwistle and guitarist Pete Townshend helping out Roger Daltrey on lead vocals.

    Supposedly inspired by a bloke who slept on the beach near where Pete holidayed as a boy who was unfazed by the teasing of local kids, the song was the only single from the band's second album, called A Quick One over here and Happy Jack in the US.

  3. Magic Bus

    The Who - Magic Bus - Live At Leeds HQ

    Written in 1965, recorded in 1968, 'Magic Bus' was another standalone Who single. It charted in the mid-20s on both sides of the Atlantic and was a tour staple in the band's early years.

    The most famous performance can be found on the Live at Leeds album, with the song stretched out to a nearly-eight-minute jam, and it's that version that' used in music-driven movies like Goodfellas and Jerry Maguire.

  4. The Kids Are Alright

    The Who - The Kids Are Alright

    "When I wrote this song I was nothing but a kid, trying to work out right and wrong through all the things I did," said Pete Townshend at the Royal Albert Hall.

    "I was kind of practising with my life. I was kind of taking chances in a marriage with my wife. I took some stuff and I drank some booze. There was almost nothing that I didn't try to use. And somehow I'm alright."

    The song was taken from the band's debut My Generation album in 1965, later being released as a single and giving its name to the group's 1979 documentary.

  5. The Seeker

    The Who - The Seeker (1970)

    A non-album single from 1970 featuring piano from session god and occasional band associate Nicky Hopkins, 'The Seeker' namechecks Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary and is a stomping, decade-splitting statement of intent.

    "Quite loosely, 'The Seeker' was just a thing about what I call Divine Desperation, or just Desperation. And what it does to people," Pete told Rolling Stone.

    "It just kind of covers a whole area where the guy's being fantastically tough and ruthlessly nasty and he's being incredibly selfish and he's hurting people, wrecking people's homes, abusing his heroes.

    "He's accusing everyone of doing nothing for him and yet at the same time he's making a fairly valid statement, he's getting nowhere, he's doing nothing and the only thing he really can't be sure of is his death, and that at least dead, he's going to get what he wants. He thinks!"

  6. Who Are You

    The Who - Who Are You (Promo Video)

    Things were getting pretty frazzled by the time of 1978's Who Are You, the band's eighth studio album.

    There was a lengthy three-year gap between the record and its predecessor The Who By Numbers, with that period gobbled up by solo projects, drug abuse, alcoholism, illness and injuries.

    The record ended up being the band's last ever LP with Keith Moon, who died just three weeks after its release. Despite all that, the record stands up, especially on its closing title track.

  7. We’re Not Gonna Take It

    The Who/Tommy - We're not gonna take it (1969)

    It's hard to pick out bits of Tommy or Quadrophenia when they work so well as a whole, but there are still standout moments we go back to in isolation.

    There are plenty on Tommy in particular ('Pinball Wizard', 'The Acid Queen', It's A Boy'...) but our pick is 'We're Not Gonna Take It' and not just for the 'See Me, Feel Me' anthem carved out of the track as a standalone single after the fact.

    "Something written before Tommy had actually been formed as a total idea," Townshend said of the song in the album liner notes.

    "That particular song wasn't about Tommy's devotees at all. It was about the rabble in general, how we, myself as part of them, were not going to take fascism, were not going to take dreary, dying politics; were not going to take things the way they were, the way they always had been and that we were keen to change things."

  8. I Can See For Miles

    The Who 'I Can See For Miles' 1967

    The sole single from the band's quasi-concept album The Who Sell Out, 'I Can See For Miles' is an almost unbearably heavy song that pushes the studio and listener to the very limit.

    It's a stone-cold classic with powerhouse performances from all members of the band, but only just scraped into the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.

    "To me it was the ultimate Who record, yet it didn't sell," Townshend later moaned. I spat on the British record buyer."

  9. Behind Blue Eyes

    The Who - Behind Blue Eyes (Lyric Video)

    The second single from Who's Next in the US and Europe (originally planned as the first, but pushed back because of its un-Who-like style), 'Behind Blue Eyes' showed that the band – and Roger Daltrey in particular – had no problem slowing things down a bit when the song demanded.

    It was another song salvaged from Lifehouse, and has endured as one the band's best loved tracks, even surviving a cover by nu metallers Limp Bizkit.

  10. Love, Reign o’er Me

    The Who - Love, Reign O’er Me (Lyric Video)

    As with Tommy, it's unfair/pretty difficult to pick bits of Quadrophenia. Both reward being listened to in full, whether or not you get along with the story.

    Still, 'Love, Reign O'er Me' feels like the shimmering apex of the piece. It dates from the abandoned Rock Is Dead—Long Live Rock! album

    "Jimmy goes through a suicide crisis," Townshend explained. "He surrenders to the inevitable, and you know, you know, when it's over and he goes back to town he'll be going through the same s**t, being in the same terrible family situation and so on, but he's moved up a level.

    "He's weak still, but there's a strength in that weakness. He's in danger of maturing."

  11. Won’t Get Fooled Again

    The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again (Shepperton Studios / 1978)

    Written for the abandoned Lifehouse concept album that would later morph into Who's Next, 'Won't Get Fooled Again' acted as a trailer for the album in June 1971, with a snappy three-and-a-half minute edit single preceding the eight-and-a-half minute full version that closed The Who's masterpiece.

    A perfect mix of synth stabs and driving hard rock, the song laments the failed promises of the 1960s revolution ("Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss") with a bitter cynicism.

  12. My Generation

    The Who - My Generation - LIVE (1967)

    It's easy to smirk at the OAP Daltrey and Townshend saying "I hope I die before I get old" from the vantage point of the 2020s, but it's impossible to deny the stuttering, spitting power of the original.

    Inspired by Mose Allison's 'Young Man Blues' (frequently covered by The Who, including on Live at Leeds and for The Kids Are Alright), 'My Generation' is less of a pop song, and more of a manifesto.

    The track's three-odd minutes were extended into a quarter-of-an-hour jam for Live at Leeds.

  13. I Can’t Explain

    The Who - I Can't Explain

    If you don't count 'Zoot Suit' released under The High Numbers name (and we don't...), then 'I Can't Explain' was where it all began.

    The debut proper single by 'The Who', it bears more than a passing resemblance to that other great British mod group of the moment.

    "We already knew Pete could write songs, but it never seemed a necessity in those days to have your own stuff because there was this wealth of untapped music that we could get hold of from America," Roger Daltrey told Q in 1994.

    "But then bands like the Kinks started to make it, and they were probably the biggest influence on us – they were certainly a huge influence on Pete, and he wrote 'I Can't Explain', not as a direct copy, but certainly it's very derivative of Kinks music."

    Jimmy Page – then a session man – played on the track, but it's thought his lines didn't make the final cut. 'I Can't Explain' peaked at number 8 in the UK but only scraped into the US Top 100.

  14. Substitute

    The Who - Substitute

    While punk has often been cast as a Year Zero moment, the truth was that it very much had its roots in not just rock 'n' roll, but also power pop bands like The Who.

    You can see that in Sex Pistols cover of 'Substitute', which teases out the snotty punk sentiment in Townshend's lyrics ("I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth"), while the Ramones covered it with Pete on backing vocals in 1993.

    The contentious lyric "I look all white, but my dad was Black" was changed to “I try going forward but my feet walk back” for the original US release, though current versions stick to the original.

    'Substitute' was inspired by a classic line in Smokey Robinson's 'The Tracks of My Tears' ("Although she may be cute/ She's just a substitute"), and had one of the greatest lines in pop history itself ("The simple things you see are all complicated").

    The song went to number five when it was released as a standalone single in 1966.

  15. Baba O’Riley

    The Who - Baba O'Riley (Shepperton Studios / 1978)

    So many songs by The Who could have topped this list, but we've opted for the opening song from Who's Next, the storming, swirling 'Baba O'Riley', another successful bit of salvaging from Lifehouse.

    Originally given the working title 'Teenage Wasteland', that refrain was inspired by "the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock", as well as the physical mess at the Isle of Wight festival.

    The title of 'Baba O'Reilly' comes from Pete Townshend's major influences of the moment – his spiritual master Meher Baba and the minimalist composer Terry Riley.

    Musically, the song opens with an of-the-moment synth riff which morphs into a rock anthem as heavy as anything The Who ever recorded.