The Essential: The Who
The Who probably could have been more prolific, and they probably should have enjoyed more chart success. But no matter – as Sean Egan demonstrates in this rundown of rarities and must-have vinyl, The Who’s varied back catalogue is a many-splendoured thing…
On the surface, The Who made no sense. They stayed together through thick and thin, despite the fact that they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. In the 60s, they were the rawest, most visceral live act in rock, but their record releases alternated between quirky pop singles and grand, intellectual suites. And – have we got this far without mentioning it? – they carried on playing into their dotage, despite claiming in their most famous song that they hoped they died before they got old.
Of course, The Who were prepared to tolerate each other because each knew that they would never find better musicians to work with. Meanwhile, their contradictions were overlooked by their devoted fanbase because of the superior, groundbreaking music made possible by the musical melding of their irreplaceable talents.
Who Are They?
Roger Daltrey is a vocalist who can alternate between tremulous delicacy and gravel-throated belligerence. Pete Townshend is a songwriting genius whose craft spans three-minute pop gems and intricate, multi-song narratives. John Entwistle was the Quiet One in personality only; his bass playing always prominent in the soundscape, and always excellent. Underpinning it all was Keith Moon, whose drumming was as massive and hyperactive as his personality.
The nucleus of the group coalesced in 1961, with Moon completing the classic line-up in ’64. They began as R&B-covers merchants, but Townshend blossomed so quickly as a composer that by 1965, he’d written an anthem that genuinely encapsulated the feelings of contemporary Western youth. Evolving in leaps and bounds, in 1969, he changed history with a rock opera that made popular music worthy of the attention of the intelligentsia.
The Who’s catalogue is surprisingly slim for such a long-lived and venerated ensemble. Nonetheless, what does exist is highly desired and studded with intriguing rarities. Our list is chronological, and rarest entries refer to UK releases, unless otherwise stated.
40 CAN’T EXPLAIN/BALD HEADED WOMAN (1965)
Producer Shel Talmy suggested the public-domain cover on the B-side of The Who’s debut single because he knew how to claim the publishing. On the A-side, Townshend proffered an anthem of inarticulacy. The record was first released by US Decca at the end of 1964, then withdrawn, corrected (the “I” was dropped from the A-side’s title) and reissued. It’s possible to pick up that first pressing cheaply, as many dealers are unaware of its uniqueness.
Rarest 1964 Decca (US) £50
39 ANYWAY, ANYHOW, ANYWHERE/DADDY ROLLING STONE (1965)
The second Who single was a libertarian anthem, but was most notable for being drenched in the feedback Townshend had made his stage trademark. Eddie Phillips of The Creation, and even The Roadrunners, have claims to be pioneers in turning this technical fault into an asset, but Townshend did the most to popularise it. Despite its atonal sections, this became the second Who top-tenner.
Rarest 1965 Brunswick (Denmark) £240
38 MY GENERATION/SHOUT AND SHIMMY (1965)
The blitzkrieg record that completed music’s all-time most uncompromising opening trio of releases, with the possible exception of the Sex Pistols’ opening salvo. Daltrey sneering that he hoped he died before he got old was shocking enough, but instructing his elders to f-f-fade away was within two syllables of telling them to f-f-f–off. Townshend intones the title line surreally metronomically, and Entwistle drops the first-ever bass solo.
Rarest 1965 Decca (Germany, club edition) £55
37 MY GENERATION (1965)
The Who’s debut LP came as a disappointment to some: there was a surfeit of incongruous covers, the abrasiveness was toned down via the incorporation of Nicky Hopkins’ frilly piano and the insurrectionary power of the title track was diluted by being surrounded by Townshend-penned, trivial teenage soap operas. That said, many more consider it a bull-nosed classic, lifted high by the breathless The Kids Are Alright. Legal issues bizarrely kept it out of print for many years.
Rarest 1965 Brunswick £70
A quarter-century before Creep, this 45 explored self-loathing in a far more rousing and witty way. Substitute’s multiple B-sides are of great interest. The first, Circles, is the most sought after. The number was re-recorded and renamed Instant Party when the ousted Talmy injuncted the record. Another injunction and the B-side became a Graham Bond Organisation recording called (pointedly) Waltz For A Pig.
Rarest 1966 Reaction (with Circle) £11
35 I’M A BOY/IN THE CITY (1966)
If Substitute was the first indication of Townshend’s more nuanced, subversive gifts, I’m A Boy was where he revealed his penchant for the perverse. The A-side was – it seems fair to say – the first song about enforced transvestitism to crack the Top Five. Townshend had previously held back from proffering Daltrey such fare because he thought he only wanted to throw macho shapes. The Entwistle/Moon B-side would provide a title for the first single from Who acolytes The Jam.
Rarest 1966 Polydor (Norway) £140
34 HAPPY JACK/I’VE BEEN AWAY (1966)
The B-side is a country-inflected piece of fluff from Entwistle. The A-side is higher quality, but weirdly apropos of nothing, detailing the life of an eccentric on the Isle Of Man who refuses to let ridicule spoil his mood. Moon’s drumming is spectacular, but his singing was so bad he was banned from the vocal booth and audibly told off by Townshend (“I saw ya!”) for venturing into it. DJs are still caught out by his cry after the apparent ending.
Rarest 1966 Polydor (Greece) £350
33 READY STEADY WHO (1966)
The title of The Who’s first EP alluded to the mod-friendly TV show Ready Steady Go!, but the five studio recordings it contained had no connection to Cathy McGowan and co, contrary to the sleevenotes. The A-side featured two Townshend originals: Disguises was a shuffling, surreal number about identity-shifting; the already released Circles was the first track to reveal Entwistle’s facility for wind instruments. The B-side featured a trio of jokey covers: Batman Theme, Bucket “T” and Barbara Ann.
Rarest 1966 Reaction £25
32 A QUICK ONE (1966)
The Who’s second album was sabotaged from the get-go: all band members contributed songs, so as to procure them publishing advances. Inevitably, the offerings of Messrs Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon paled in comparison to those of Townshend. He not only more or less invented the rock opera with the closing nine-minute suite A Quick One, While He’s Away, but also purveyed an exquisite three-minute pop number, So Sad About Us, criminally overlooked for single release.
Rarest 1966 Polydor (New Zealand) £90
31 PICTURES OF LILY/DOCTOR, DOCTOR (1967)
How do you top a record about a boy being forced into skirts and make-up? Why, with a song about masturbating, of course. When the narrator complains of insomnia to his father, liberal-minded pater provides him pin-ups of stage actress Lillie [sic] Langtry. The lad is later devastated to be informed that the object of his desire has been dead for 40 years. The first UK Who release on Track, the label of their managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp.
Rarest 1967 Polydor (Japan) £110
30 THE LAST TIME/UNDER MY THUMB (1967)
In June 1967, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were imprisoned on drugs charges after a court case which felt like a trial of the entire counterculture. The Who showed solidarity with this single, the first of a planned monthly sequence of Jagger/Richards covers rendered unnecessary when Jagger’s sentence was reduced to a conditional discharge and Richards’ conviction quashed. Townshend covered on bass for a honeymooning Entwistle.
Rarest 1967 Polydor (France) £60
29 I CAN SEE FOR MILES/SOMEONE’S COMING (1967)
After a run of quirky pop singles, this was the first reminder to the public since My Generation of the power heard in Who live performances. Townshend was devastated when this concoction of slashing chords, gigantic drum rolls and denunciations of a lover in quasi-mystical terms only just crept into the British Top 10. He’d have to get used to such disappointment: bizarrely, The Who never had a recognised No. 1.
Rarest 1967 Polydor (Norway) £35
28 THE WHO SELL OUT (1967)
The burning sense of injustice on the part of the young at the 1967 outlawing of pirate radio stations is now a fading memory, but Townshend responded to it by sequencing The Who’s third LP like a radio show, with jingles linking the often jingle-like songs. 500 copies came with a free poster, but the most sought-after version is a Japanese edition with a lyric insert and essay, difficult to find in mint condition because of its thin sleeve.
Rarest 1967 Polydor (Japan, stereo) £680
27 DOGS/CALL ME LIGHTNING (1968)
With Townshend toiling on his magnum opus Tommy, and with the band bleeding money through their auto-destructive stage routine, The Who had to keep up a release schedule. The result was two singles strange even for them. The first was Dogs, a love song with a greyhound-racing setting rendered by Daltrey in a cockney accent. Call Me Lightning was the A-side in the US, but other territories dropped that track in favour of Circles.
Rarest 1968 Polydor £6
26 MAGIC BUS/DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1968)
The second in the brace of weirdies was a two-year-old relic. Presumably embarrassed by the limitations of a piece of whimsy about a vehicle that takes him to his baby’s house set for no good reason to a Bo Diddley beat, Townshend had kept Magic Bus in his bottom drawer until now. In Norway, a demo of Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand somehow found its way onto the B-side, creating a collector’s item.
Rarest 1968 Polydor £5
25 PINBALL WIZARD/DOGS PART TWO (1969)
Tommy’s reinvention of The Who as an albums band didn’t prohibit the creation of one of The Who’s finest singles and a return in the UK to bona-fide hits. It was ironic, because the tale of a master of the coin-operated machine that captivated kids pre-video games was included only to butter up rock journo Nik Cohn. Its opening, incrementally building to furious strumming, is one of the all-time great intros.
Rarest 1968 International Polydor Production (Australia) £14
24 TOMMY (1969)
Townshend’s double-concept album about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who sets up a cult in between pinball games didn’t just revitalise The Who’s career. By popularising the narrative album, it forever gave rock respectability. Removed from its achievements, it stands or falls on its listenability, and there it tends to suffer in comparison with other Who fare. Although dotted with gems such as 1921 and Christmas, few cite Tommy as their favourite Who album.
Rarest 1970 Polydor (South Africa) £58
23 THE SEEKER/HERE FOR MORE (1970)
Entering the 70s, The Who – unlike most of their peers – continued to release standalone 45s. However, they never recaptured their previous status as a singles band. This was despite the fact that the records could be very good. The Seeker is a case in point; this story of a tortured soul searching for enlightenment low and h-i-igh (thank you, Roger) is catchy, high-class stuff but only just inched into the Top 20 and is largely forgotten.
Rarest 1970 Polydor (Norway) £39
22 LIVE AT LEEDS (1970)
This thunderous in-concert release proved that – even without sight of their mic-twirling, arm-flailing and air-leaping – The Who’s live prowess could translate to vinyl. Plus, it helped codify the rules of heavy metal, a genre still in its infancy, with Zeppelin and Sabbath’s debuts only recently released. The mock-bootleg design and inserts made for a captivating package. The first 300 copies had black, rather than red or blue, cover lettering.
Rarest 1970 Polydor (black lettering, inserts) £250
21 WHO’S NEXT (1971)
Lifehouse – Townshend’s intended follow-up to Tommy – was so hellishly complicated, the double concept album was abandoned in favour of a single disc, with all narrative intentions ignored. Yet Who’s Next is one of the greatest albums ever made. The epic lament for a failed cultural revolution Won’t Get Fooled Again gets all the kudos, but Bargain and the sensual Love Ain’t For Keeping epitomise The Who’s growth into mature artists.
Rarest 1971 Polydor (first pressing, 150g vinyl) £130
20 LET’S SEE ACTION/WHEN I WAS A BOY (1971)
A severely cut-down version of Won’t Get Fooled Again gave The Who a transatlantic Top 10 hit: the group followed it up with a new standalone single. Let’s See Action is similar to other Who singles of the time: it’s well-crafted, specifically addresses rock’s importance to youth and fails to truly excite. Entwistle mordantly explores his hinterland on the other side. Loyal Who fans sent it to No. 16 in the UK.
Rarest 1971 Polydor (Portugal) £35
19 JOIN TOGETHER/BABY DON’T YOU DO IT (LIVE) (1972)
70s Who and solo Townshend releases were peppered with Lifehouse songs that didn’t make it onto Who’s Next. Join Together is one such number, and like Let’s See Action extols the power of music, while failing to convey said power. Jew’s harp runs irritatingly through a mediocre track that perplexingly became a UK top-tenner. An in-concert version of a Marvin Gaye number is also thrown in.
Rarest 1972 Polydor (Italy) £26
18 RELAY/WASPMAN (1972)
The defiant A-side was, intriguingly, set to be the opening track of an album entitled Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock. A history of The Who, the remainder of its projected contents was Get Inside, Love Reign O’er Me, Women’s Liberation, Long Live Rock, Is It In My Head?, Put The Money Down, Can’t You See I’m Easy and Join Together In The Band. At the last minute, the project was abandoned as self-indulgent and too sonically similar to Who’s Next.
Rarest 1972 Polydor (Angola) £400
17 TOMMY (with the LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA) (1972)
Whereas ‘rock opera’ implies something lavish, Kit Lambert’s production was rather skeletal. Those who mused about plusher versions of Tommy have had their curiosity satisfied by the original soundtrack recording of the Ken Russell movie (1975), the stage-musical cast recording (1993) and this, the first – and grandest – alternate. Only Moon wasn’t involved.
Rarest 1972 Ode (USA, quadraphonic version) £15
16 5:15/WATER (1973)
The taster single for the Quadrophenia album featured another Lifehouse track on the B-side. The A-side never really persuades as the anthem it strives to be; it stalled at No. 20. The beautiful, plaintive Love, Reign O’er Me – the second single from the LP – would have been a much better choice. Note: this single should not be confused with a 1979 remix of 5:15 from the soundtrack of the Quadrophenia movie, with I’m One on the B-side.
Rarest 1973 Track (Portugal) £65
15 QUADROPHENIA (1973)
The double album released instead of Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock featured retooled versions of some of the latter’s intended tracks. It was also hardly less self-absorbed, being a narrative about a mod whose quadrophonic personality split is based on the four Who members. It’s possibly even inferior to the abandoned LP: as with all Who albums from this point onwards, Quadrophenia is likeable in its thoughtfulness and admirable in its craft, but only truly impressive in flashes.
Rarest 2007 Classic (USA, 200 £98)
14 ODDS & SODS (1974)
The Who released just 10 studio albums in their first 17 years. That they could have been much more productive is proven by this ‘official bootleg’, which rounds up various unreleased tracks, including yet more Lifehouse songs, and for good measure throws in the A-side of the High Numbers’ single. Its mish-mash nature is signified by the frank title, but the fact that Who discards were superior to most groups’ highlights was reflected in its Top 10 chart success.
Rarest 1974 Track (Greece) £24
13 SQUEEZE BOX/SUCCESS STORY (1975)
The Who By Numbers was a rather sombre album, but its lead-off 45 saw the band sounding like they’d been transported back to the mid 60s, when Townshend was writing twinkle-eyed, slightly bizarre singles. The spirit of My Ding-A-Ling informs a ditty about a newly acquired accordion: there’s talk of going in and out, getting no sleep at night and every other innuendo Pete could shovel in. It didn’t follow Chuck Berry to No. 1, but did make No. 10.
Rarest 1976 PGP RTB (Yugoslavia) £6
12 THE WHO BY NUMBERS (1975)
A typically soporific, uncertain record of the mid-70s era. Townshend, though, was too meditative to succumb to rock aristo-smugness. The album’s songs are suffused with the self-doubt that always made latter-day Who music admirable, even when it wasn’t hummable. Meanwhile, the gently life-affirming Blue, Red And Grey was a new Who classic. Its unique photo-negative version of Entwistle’s cover art makes the Austrian edition highly sought after.
Rarest 1975 Polydor (Austria) £190
11 WHO ARE YOU/HAD ENOUGH (1978)
A song born out of a gruelling 11-hour financial negotiation which yielded Townshend a seven-figure settlement, but filled him with disgust. This was surely not uninformed by the punk movement’s accusations that his generation were artists second, businessmen first. Coincidentally, he then met two Sex Pistols, whose friendliness worsened his mood. Who Are You sees Townshend finally create great art from rich-celeb travails.
Rarest 1978 Polydor (Belgium) £14
10 WHO ARE YOU (1978)
This album sadly failed to live up to the excellence of its namesake single precursor. Punk rock’s denunciations of the old guard inform many of these songs, epitomised by Music Must Change. Yet the changed music here is an overly elaborate, synth-drenched concoction. The Who had other problems, too. They were drifting apart, hence the three-year gap between albums. And the physically waning Moon’s drumming is lacklustre.
Rarest 1980 Direct-Disk Labs (USA, DBX Encoded) £27
09 THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (1979)
At the turn of the 80s, The Who were a mini motion-picture industry, producing biographical documentary The Kids Are Alright, an adaptation of Quadrophenia (both 1979) and the crime biopic McVicar (1980). Kids became an unexpected eulogy for Keith Moon. This double-LP soundtrack offers a good selection of concert, TV and live-in-the-studio material, some of which, like the Smothers Brothers and Woodstock appearances, are iconic.
Rarest 1979 CBS (Japan) £30
08 QUADROPHENIA (1979)
The Quadrophenia movie providentially appeared just as the mod revival was sweeping Britain. Its double-LP soundtrack was an odd beast. It contained most, but not all, of the tracks from The Who album that the film dramatised, but remixed by Entwistle. It added three negligible new Who songs, as well as the High Numbers’ Zoot Suit. There was also a side of 60s songs by other artists, one of which – Green Onions – became a UK Top 10 hit through its inclusion.
Rarest 1987 Polydor (Japan) £36
Keith Moon died of a prescription-drug overdose just weeks after Who Are You. The band seemed to go into denial, recruiting ex-Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones. This single saw the band acquiescing to their first Top Of The Pops performance in a decade. The tale of midlife tomcatting on the A-side found Townshend ultimately failing to recapture his past songwriting form. On the likeable B-side, Entwistle belatedly provides himself an anthem.
Rarest 1981 Polydor (South Africa) £18
06 FACE DANCES (1981)
Daily Records summarises Townshend’s love for The Who’s fans and his determination to never let them down. The objective might have been achieved on this first Jones-era Who album if Pete hadn’t withheld his best songs: both Daltrey and Jones thought his recent solo album’s rampaging Rough Boys should have gone to The Who. There’s one semi-classic in How Can You Do It Alone, a song in the finest pervy Townshend tradition.
Rarest 1981 PolyGram TV (Australasia, special edition) £155
05 PHASES (1981)
In 1980, Virgin somehow managed to negotiate tricky legal waters to reissue the My Generation LP, even if there were complaints about the pressing quality. Even better, the following year came this massive German boxset containing My Generation and every other Moon-era studio album, plus Live At Leeds. There were no complaints about the manufacturing quality of these discs, nor their crisp sound, although there were quibbles about the exclusion of Odds & Sods.
Rarest 1981 Polydor (Germany) £130
04 IT’S HARD (1982)
The Who have acknowledged that this LP was a contractual obligation. Sadly, everything about it suggests the band were justified in their lack of enthusiasm for continuing. The fact of a deep and increasingly troubled man like Townshend using as his mouthpiece an uncomplicated, happy soul like Daltrey was becoming awkward, although admittedly, that wouldn’t matter much, were the songs not so lyrically and musically indigestible. Only the funky Eminence Front has some life to it.
Rarest 1982 MCA (Japan) £44
03 WHO’S LAST (1984)
It’s Hard was promoted with a tour billed as The Who’s farewell; this audio document dribbled out two years later. Some editions had a cover featuring a Union Jack (a totemic Who item) symbolically aflame. That Daltrey never thought Jones’ drumming worked within The Who was a reason for their split. However, the dismaying quality of The Who’s performances on this double LP can’t all be put at Jones’ feet. The selections are also suspect – why end with Twist And Shout?
Rarest 1984 MCA (Japan) £34
02 JOIN TOGETHER (1990)
In 1989, The Who embarked on a 25th Anniversary tour. Not only was it in contravention of their previous ‘it’s over’ pledges, but the jaunt – with Simon Phillips replacing Jones on drums – found Townshend, beset by tinnitus problems, often restricted to playing rhythm guitar inside a Perspex booth. This triple-LP document of the tour was predictably depressing.
Rarest 1990 Virgin £21
01 ENDLESS WIRE (2006)
The Who resumed touring in 1996 and have continued sporadic live work since. Entwistle’s death in 2002 torpedoed mooted Who recordings, but – after new tracks on the 2004 CD-only compilation Then And Now – an album arrived in 2006. It was surprisingly ambitious, with half devoted to a mini-opera. Even without Moon and Entwistle, and with Daltrey’s voice in decline, the contents hold their own with at least latter-day Who albums.
Rarest 2015 Polydor (180g) £14
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