They’re one of the defining bands of rock music, but even The Who had songs that didn’t hit the big time, even when they were at the height of their influence. Some were meant as novelties. Some are part of larger compositions. And at least one scaled up toward the Top 40 but didn’t quite make it.
There are few truer signs of musical respect than when an original and creative group of musicians is willing to record a cover. In 1967, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were convicted of drug charges expected to land them jail. The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townshend, announced that The Who would only release Jagger/Richards compositions until their friends were freed.
The one cover single they managed to release before public pressure led to the sentences being overturned was "The Last Time" with the Stones hit “Under My Thumb” on the B-side. It was released only in the UK, although eventually it found its way onto the Odds and Sods album of rarities.
The Who’s up-tempo conception of “Under My Thumb” is a testament to the differences between the two bands. While the Stones’ version is all Jagger and swagger, this is a group effort, with voices mixed evenly, and Keith Moon’s drums predominantly thunderous. It’s less preposterously sexy, but it’s an interesting texture:
In an era when the very definition of rock music was being poked and questioned, Townshend made history with his rock opera Tommy, released as an album in 1969. While the album engendered the mega-hit “Pinball Wizard,” not all of its tracks could be made into singles. “Underture,” for example, is a 10-minute instrumental with wordless vocalise, and it’s completely radical for its time.
There are elements of Indian music here, although not as blatantly as found, say, in songs by George Harrison. Several guitars, both acoustic and electric, plus bass are strummed with mesmerizing repeated downstrokes of the pick (as opposed to down and up), while the drum sound is diffused and leaning toward the higher frequencies. The result is that the guitars are the rhythm instruments, and the drum kit is atmospheric.
Speaking of Indian influence, Townshend wrote about his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “The Seeker,” released as a single in 1970. The protagonist in this deadpan number looks to pop heroes for guidance, calling out to “Bobby Dylan…the Beatles…and Timothy Leary.” The phrase structure is plodding, like the steps of a pilgrim on a long quest. You’ll recognize some melodic and harmonic ideas from “Bargain,” a Townshend song released on Who’s Next the following year that met with the kind of success “The Seeker” couldn’t muster.
Who’s Next included a couple of worthy cuts that didn’t get the single treatment. With an achingly beautiful opening section (I don’t usually associate beauty with The Who), “The Song is Over” is basically a sad love song. Townshend sings at first, over a perpetual-motion electric piano riff, with the lyrics full of regret. But Roger Daltrey takes over as the focus shifts to the importance of telling this story to the “sky-high mountains,” and a stronger rock energy starts pumping, along with those upward modulations so indicative of The Who.
From the same album, but in a contrasting style, is bassist John Entwistle’s “My Wife.” It’s dark humor about a man whose wife is trying to murder him over an affair, even though he was only out with the lads. The lyrics about the extremes he’ll go to for self-defense are amusing, but the interesting thing about this track is how un-Who-like its musical style is. The chord progressions are simple. The guitar is distorted with flanger – how mundane! – and serves to double the vocal line or mimic it rather than drive the beat or counterpoint the main rhythmic ideas. Another Entwistle touch is the craggy brass chorus starting at 1:35, which he played and overdubbed himself.
For all the contributions of Entwistle, Moon, and Daltrey, it’s arguably Townshend’s innovation that made The Who essential to music history. His rock opera Quadrophenia demonstrates that. Although it was made into a movie in 1979 and still today is played live by symphony orchestras, the work started as an album in 1973. The Billboard and UK singles chart stats speak volumes about the effect Townshend’s vision was having on music consumers: the whole album hit the number 2 spot in both the US and UK, but only three singles charted, and only one breached the Top 40 (“5:15”). Townshend fans were learning to take his work as a whole.
Having said that, it’s still worth looking at a couple of individual songs. “The Dirty Jobs” describes the experience of the opera’s young protagonist, Jimmy, who’s doing menial labor and listening to the old men who’ve resigned themselves to a life without hope of improvement or self-respect. The last verse finds Jimmy encouraging them to fight for a better existence, like they might have in their youth.
Daltrey’s passionate delivery is highlighted by a repeating spiccato (short, bouncing bow strokes) violin riff that struggles against a synthesizer’s sustained notes. The roiling drum sound adds to the unrest.
“Bell Boy” shows off The Who’s vaudevillian theatrical bent. Daltrey sings as Jimmy while Moon over-Cockneys his way through the spoken part of Ace Face, a former gang leader now reduced to servitude in a hotel job. Brass-like synth samples act as a backdrop, giving scenic depth.
In September of 1978, Keith Moon died of a drug overdose. Although The Who soldiered on, they never found the same level success with new material that they had with the original quartet. It’s eerie that their last album with Moon, Who Are You (1978), included a track dealing with this very possibility. “New Song” bemoans the difficulty of always being original, even if the fans don’t care if a new single has “plagiarized something old.” Back then, a thirtysomething rock star was an old fart in danger of ossifying. One can only imagine how the two surviving band members, Daltrey and Townshend, see this song now that they’re in their seventies.