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Starting XI - The Who

When it comes to The Who, it is best to separate the artist from the art. If we stuck to talking music, there are few people I'd like to spend time with more than Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry. But if the conversation shifted to almost any other imaginable topic, I can't think of much worse. I doubt there is anyone that truly understood rock n' roll like Pete Townshend. Genius is a word thrown around far too often these days, but it applies to Townshend as much as it does to an Eistein, a Michaelangelo or a Da Vinci. And that's before you get to the legend of Keith Moon...

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Declaring anything "the best" or pure folly, so as usual, here we present 11 tracks that we love by the artist in question - and for The Who, it took a damn site longer to whittle them down.

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"Won't Get Fooled Again" ('Who's Next', 1971)

The climax of The Who's best album is rock n' roll's most powerful declaration of independence: an apocalyptic maelstrom of doubt, angst, synthesisers and earth-shaking power chords topped by an almighty, near-superhuman scream. "The song was meant," Townshend explained, "to let politicians and revolutionaries alike know that what lay in the centre of my life was not for sale." With Roger Daltrey's feral scream, sounding as if his heart was being ripped from his chest, the song became an exhilarating symbol of rock's potential to elevate and unite in opposition to any system. Won't Get Fooled Again quickly became a fixture of the Who's live shows, as well as a staple of every rock radio station from Hammersmith to Honolulu.

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Even the increasing instances of Townshend licencing the song for TV and cinema has not dimmed its strength or lyrical contempt for hucksters on both sides of the political divide. "Won't Get Fooled Again" is fundamentally about music as a moral force and salvation, as exemplified by the chorus image of Townshend on his knees, guitar in hand as if offering the ultimate atheist prayer.

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"I Can See for Miles" ('The Who Sell Out', 1967)

I Can See for Miles was recorded as a demo in 1966, and the Who's managers were so confident that it would be a big hit that they decided to put it on hold until the band were desperate for a smash. Townshend was able to work on his masterwork in peace. He subsequently explained, "It started as a piece about envy but ended up being about the enormous power of aspiration." A lot of time was spent on the harmony and structure of the song. Beginning at CBS Studios in London, he completed his work at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, where Brian Wilson had already worked on his similarly ambitious "Good Vibrations" album the year before. Wilson's reward for his efforts was a song that topped the charts on both sides of The Pond. Despite Townshend's best efforts, "I Can See for Miles" failed to sell in England. Despite this, The Who's biggest US success, "It's a Shame," made it to the top ten in the United States. Though he was heartbroken, Townshend was confident that he had created something that would stand the test of time - subsequently saying it was one of the best songs he'd ever written.

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"Baba O'Riley" ('Who's Next', 1971)

Who's Next began as an epic exploration of spirituality, aural experimentation, and the force (and limitations) of rock & roll culture, which was ultimately summed up in a single song, the epic Baba O'Riley.  It paid homage to Townshend's spiritual mentor Meher Baba and avant-garde composer Terry Riley.  The effects-driven organ that opens the track, as well as its near-hypnotic rhythm, was a direct result of Riley's influence. First written for Townshend's abandoned Lifehouse project, "Baba O'Riley" was about one of the characters in the project, which Townshend has described as a "farmer, out in the fields." Townshend also referred to the "absolute desolation" of young rockers following Woodstock and the second Isle of Wight Festival. Everyone was high on acid, and around 20 concertgoers suffered long-term brain damage.  A stampede was already taking place toward the music's promises of redemption, even if, as Townshend later lamented, not everyone was going to survive.

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"I'm Free" ('Tommy', 1969)

Tommy's most upbeat song, "I'm Free," features an expansive guitar riff and an upbeat chorus but still no less of a sting than you'd expect from the rest of the rock opera. Townshend referred to it as Tommy's moment of realisation in his 2012 memoir. It's one of many Meher Baba-inspired songs he wrote during this time. The shuffling beat was inspired by the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man," which was released in 1968. To quote Townshend, "When I finally discovered how [the Stones song] went," I was like, "Wow, blimey, this can't be that simple."

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"5:15" ('Quadrophenia', 1973)

This call-and-response duet between Daltrey and Townshend opens Quadrophenia's second disc, and it is sen-bloody-sational. "Out of my brain on the train" is sung by a pill-addicted protagonist among imagery of rampant sexuality over Townshend's fist-in-the-air guitar hooks, Entwistle's bass, and a Joe Cocker sidekick, Chris Stainton's riotous piano. In contrast to the rest of Quadrophenia, Townshend wrote "5:15" in the studio on the day it was recorded, rather than working on it for months. That sense of urgency is repaid on what is probably my personal favourite Who track.


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"You Better You Bet" ('Face Dances', 1981)

It was "a surprise hit single for us," Townshend recalled. "We were even invited back to perform on Top of the Pops again." Townshend's interest in punk was starting to show in his songwriting, as evidenced right here on the hard-as-nails, London fist fight of "You Better You Bet." When Daltrey sings about getting drunk "to the sound of old T. Rex," he's not only singing to his then-new girlfriend, but he's acknowledging his own nostalgia. Coming from  the band's first album since the death of Moon, Face Dances, Daltrey doubled down on the nostalgia when he said, "It's still one of my favourite songs of all."

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"Pinball Wizard" ('Tommy', 1969)

Music writer Nik Cohn criticised Townshend's early versions of Tommy because he thought they were overly dark. In response, the guitarist asked if he'd get a decent review if it had pinball in it. Cohn responded in the affirmative, and the result was the iconic track that Townshend dubbed "rockaboogie". "If I had failed to deliver the Who an operatic masterpiece that would change people's lives, with 'Pinball Wizard,' I was giving them something almost as good: a hit," he stated afterwards.

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"I'm a Boy" (Non-album single, 1966)

Upon its release, "I'm a Boy" made it clear to Who fans that Townshend had interests beyond those of a mere pop songwriter.  Townshend had planned to use this storyline about a boy whose parents dressed him up as a girl, but he never got around to completing the project. His thoughts returned to the subject of children being mistreated by their parents two years later when he started working on Tommy. The misinterpretation of adolescence is something Townshend addressed in 1993: "I've always addressed and acknowledged child abuse, neglect of children", he said, "but the first song in which I addressed it was 'I'm a Boy,' but it's always been there."

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"Who Are You" ('Who Are You', 1978)

'Who Are You', Townshend's last great Who anthem, summed up his disillusionment with the direction rock had taken in the late Seventies and his determination to reclaim his band's integrity. Afterwards, Townshend clarified, "It's actually a prayer." It seemed to me that I was trying to figure out who, where or what God was."  After an argument with management over unpaid royalties, a royally-pissed-off  Townshend went out on the lash with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and was fuelled to write Who Are You in his rage. Rock had gone "down the fuckin' tubes," he said to Paul Cook, a young punk musician who was down at his feet. Townshend called the song "an encyclopaedia for up-and-coming groups about how not to get caught". Finishing "Who Are You" was a gruelling process. Producer Jon Astley said Townshend turned up to the studio with a really long demo and too much rage.   The outcome was a Top 20 smash in the US and the UK, proving that they weren't done just yet.

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"The Kids Are Alright" ('My Generation', 1965)

In Townshend's words, "The Kids Are Alright" has a "symphonic" vibe to it. Instead of angry defiance, "My Generation," which was recorded during the same session as The Kids Are Alright, celebrates the mod subculture with something more communal and kind-hearted. Producer Shel Talmy insisted it be released as a single, even though it was originally intended to be the B-side to "My Generation." Keith Moon later claimed that the band had been forced to adopt a mod aesthetic. In Townshend's case, loyalty was more precious. Rolling Stone quoted him as saying, "They were unbelievable as a force". "Everyone is just having a great time as a mod."


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"Substitute" (Non-album single, 1966)

The media's repeated accusation that the Who were simply a poor man's Rolling Stones was the inspiration for "Substitute." Townshend admitted in 1971 that the song was intended as a parody of The Rolling Stones' '19th Nervous Breakdown.' Townshend sang it himself on the first demo and even commented that he thought he sounded like Jagger on it (and not in a good way). The song climbed to the top five in the UK. "I look all white, but my dad was black," Daltrey's famous lyric that started the song's chorus was changed to "I try going forward, but my feet walk back" for its North American release. The song "Substitute" didn't reach the top of the US charts, and Daltrey still feels he didn't get the singing right. It wasn't until he met Tommy that he truly found his voice.

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