Top 10 Underrated Who Songs
Few bands could so easily fill a list like this, which means the Top 10 Underrated Who Songs aren’t just interesting also-rans, but absolutely essential facets of the band’s catalog. But that’s not surprising for a group that released a 1974 rarities compilation (the wonderful ‘Odds & Sods’) that was just as good as the music they had made for the past decade. Some of those lesser-known rare tracks dot this list, along with many of the Who’s under-appreciated album cuts that go forgotten on classic rock radio and greatest hits collections in the face of ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’ These songs might have not been hits, but they’re every bit as great.
The psychedelic era brought out some of the weirdest sounds in the British Invasion bands, and the Who were no exception. Pete Townshend ensconced the melodic, mid-tempo ‘Disguises’ with whooshing waves of metallic distortion. The effect is so prominent, if you heard the song on the radio, you’d be certain that the signal was fading in and out. The warped listening experience only enhances the confusion Roger Daltrey expresses about trying to recognize his girl, who’s wearing the bizarre fashions of the day. Originally slapped on stop-gap releases (the ‘Ready Steady Who!’ EP in the U.K., ‘Magic Bus: The Who on Tour’ in the U.S.), the song was added to ‘A Quick One’ when it was remastered and expanded on CD.
‘Blue, Red and Grey’
In the midst of a self-destructive crisis, Townshend appeared to find a little bit of peace with a ukulele in his hands. The sparse track is just Pete, his uke and John Entwistle‘s majestic brass – which is about as simple as the Who ever got. It works beautifully. Pete sings of friends who are obsessed with sunrises or sunsets, but he’s not so picky. “I get a buzz from being cold and wet / The pleasure seems to balance out the pain,” he sighs. It doesn’t have much competition, but ‘Blue, Red and Grey’ is surely the prettiest Who song.
‘Armenia City in the Sky’
The best concept record of the ’60s begins with the deadened throb of this swirling rocker, which was not written by anyone in the band. No the full writing credit goes to Pete’s former roommate and chauffeur John “Speedy” Keen – who would go on to front the Townshend-assembled Thunderclap Newman and write ‘Something in the Air.’ In a rare move for the Who, Keen sang co-lead with Daltrey. The result was a incendiary sound (just this side of a squeal) that was fiery enough to do battle with kamikaze horn parts, buzzsaw guitars and the one-man cacophony known as Keith Moon.
Events beyond the Who’s control conspired to make this slice of Maximum R&B part of the Top 10 Underrated Who Songs. After Eddie Holland released this Motown single in 1964, the band recorded it in the spring of ’65 with the intention of making it the follow-up to ‘I Can’t Explain.’ But fellow mods the Birds (with Ronnie Wood) beat them to the punch and the Who’s version remained unreleased until two decades later. What a shame, because ‘Leaving Here’ showcases the early Who at their rampaging best – all razor-blade riffs and gravelly, white-boy soul. As such, it’s miles ahead of any cover included on their debut LP.
‘So Sad About Us’
This side two gem from ‘A Quick One’ is the pinnacle of Pete’s power pop (Townshend coined the term long before Badfinger, Big Star or Cheap Trick). The song balances its charming elements (Roger’s wistful vocal, those gorgeous harmonies) against the muscular musicianship (Moon’s incessant pounding, the way the guitar just slices through the song) for the perfect mix of hard and soft. It’s no wonder Paul Weller and the Jam co-opted it a decade later.
‘Trick of the Light’
‘Trick of the Light’ displays everything Townshend was known for as a songwriter: power, wit, melody and emotion. Of course, it wasn’t Pete who penned this ‘Who Are You’ nugget, but John Entwistle (he wrote a third of the 1978 album). Old Thunderfingers lives up to his nickname here, playing his giant bass like the Jolly Green Giant using a baseball bat for a toothpick. The sheer force of the track (which was released as a single, but made little noise) belies the subject matter. Poor old John is kept up late at night wondering if he brought a lady of the night as much pleasure as she gave him. Daltrey didn’t want this on the album because he thought it was bland. This is why Roger wasn’t allowed to make decisions on his own.
Townshend took his masculine insecurities and wrapped them in this silly story song, in which two brothers get tattoos to prove their worth as grown men. Pete said that he expected Roger to reject it (was there any question that the street brawling frontman was all man?), but ‘Tattoo’ proved that Daltrey could excel when delivering a pensive, sensitive lyric. The song manages to be both deeply revealing about the male psyche and rather amusing (“My dad beat me ’cause mine said ‘Mother’ / But by mother naturally liked it and beat my brother / ’Cause his tattoo was of a lady in the nude / And my mother thought that was extremely rude”). Pete also wrote the tune to showcase his arpeggiated guitar playing, which glisten on this rather sparse album track. Despite being one of the Who’s softer songs, ‘Tattoo’ would continue to be performed by the band well into the ’70s.
The Top 10 Underrated Who Songs would be incomplete without this long-standing fan favorite and early-’70s concert staple. Especially in its stage incarnation (which can be heard on deluxe editions of ‘Who’s Next’), ‘Naked Eye’ encapsulates everything that was great about the Who at the peak of their powers as a live band. It’s big and sweeping and thunderous in the verses, then breaks out into this pummeling rampage just after the refrain. The song required these tight little turns but also presented the real estate for Pete, John and Keith to stretch out into. The dynamic difference between Roger (who sings the first and third verses) and Pete (who sings the middle one) is electrifying here – with Roger roaring confidently as a rock titan and Pete ripping into his part like he really had something to get off his chest. In a way he did. ‘Naked Eye’ was Townshend’s exploration of the darkness beneath the hippy-dippy ’60s as well a hard look at what life on the road was doing to his relationship (“You sign your own name and I sign mine / They’re both the same but we still get separate rooms”). All of that adds to the song’s nervy energy, which was never adequately captured in the studio.
‘The Punk and the Godfather’
What does it say about Pete Townshend’s state of mind that as soon as he became a rock star he was almost instantly questioning his role in music and his relationship with the audience. ‘Quadrophenia’ chestnut ‘The Punk and the Godfather’ spells it all out, with the young mod Jimmy going to see the Who and declaring them another phony element of society. A few years before there was ‘Anarchy in the U.K.,’ the Who totally capture the punk sneer, with Roger spitting Pete’s words like a Tommy gun: “Breathe the air we have blown you!” But everything here is edgy and sharp and explosive. Moon’s drums crash to earth, but somehow stick the landing. Entwistle’s nimble basslines subtly mock Pete’s scratched out riffing. The whole thing feels like a battle, with just one moment of slow-motion solitude for Townshend to come clean. Forcing the emotion out of his high, naked cry he muses, “The numbered seats in empty rows / It all belongs to me, you know.” And then Roger screams “OK!” and it’s back to the war-torn auditorium for everybody. Brutal genius.
It’s a hard, hard world where every single Who compilation features a hollow trifle like ‘Squeeze Box’ but can’t find room for a calamitous, full-bore rocker like ‘Slip Kid.’ It’s one of the Who’s finest track one, side ones and yet it’s almost a detriment to ‘By Numbers,’ because nothing that comes after rocks as forcefully or with such strutting purpose. ‘Slip Kid’ is a snowball careening down a mountain, picking up everything in its path – cowbells, maracas, Nicky Hopkins’ piano – only gaining power as it tumbles down. Townshend originally intended the song for his unrealized ‘Lifehouse’ project, but repurposed it a few years later for inclusion on the Who’s 1975 LP. The song’s dark message – that war, work, rock and roll and just about everything else are futile attempts to be free – fit among Townshend’s cries for help. Yet there’s a gritty defiance in both the sound and the lyrics of ‘Slip Kid’ that sets it apart from tracks like ‘However Much I Booze’ and ‘Dreaming from the Waist.’ Yeah, so maybe there’s no easy way to be free. On ‘Slip Kid’ the Who have no problem doing it the hard way.