The first and only single I ever bought by The Who was also their only Top 10 hit…”I Can See For Miles”…#9 in 1967.
The band was not especially successful with singles. They only had seven other Top 20 hits, and another 8 singles that reached the bottom half of the Top 40. Where The Who shined was creating two of the most iconic albums of the Rock era…and those I bought.
Almost entirely written by Pete Townshend, Tommy was a two-record set that details the mostly tragic life of a boy who was shocked into being deaf, dumb, and blind. There are a lot of characters in the story, but The Who sang all of the parts. To clarify who was singing what part of the drama, the lyrics and character names were in a booklet included with the album.
Tommy is one of the first concept albums. Townshend’s term of “Rock Opera” may seem a bit fanciful, but it is a groundbreaking work. The album has several well known songs, including “Pinball Wizard”, “I’m Free”, “See Me, Feel Me”, and “The Overture From Tommy”. “Overture” is the instrumental that opened the record, and introduced us to the major melodies we were about to hear throughout the album.
When I put together a playlist of The Who’s Best, I chose enough of Tommy to tell the basic story. The mix even incorporates the lyric-appropriate songs “I Can See For Miles” and “Behind Blue Eyes (alternate version)” into a 39-minute Tommy mix:
Although it was their fourth album, Tommy was their breakthrough achievement, and the album that solidified their position as Rock stars. Surprisingly, The Who’s next studio album would be considered even greater.
The Who’s Next album cover gave us the sci-fi cool of a monolith, with the crass demeanor often associated with Rock stars at that time. The music on the album was progressive in 1971.
Synthesizers were still fairly new, but Pete Townshend kicked off the album with a synthesizer part on “Baba O’Riley” that is timeless. The song’s original title was “Teenage Wasteland”, and it was part of a planned concept album called Lifehouse. The Who had trouble pulling together that project, so instead released Who’s Next, which contained a large portion of those songs.
The other popular tracks from the album are “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. That song was 8:33, but a shorter edit was released as a single to get airplay on AM radio. Album Oriented Rock FM radio stations also played a lot of the album’s other songs.
Over the years, more songs from the Lifehouse project were released. Here’s my playlist, which has the best of those songs, and in the order originally planned in 1971.
Here’s his version of “Pure & Easy”:
And here’s a clever fan-made cover for the album that utilizes an alternate shot from The Who’s Next photo shoot.
It seems like The Who have had an endless number of “Greatest Hits” collections (and “Farewell Tours”), but two albums represent the height of their career, Tommy and Who’s Next.