The Who excelled in many areas: whimsical psychedelia, jangly mod-pop, satirical concept rock.
But Pete Townshend, pioneer of windmilling and guitar destruction, has always sounded truly at home when the chords are crashing — whether he’s vigorously strumming an acoustic (“Pinball Wizard”) or dragging his electric riffs through feedback.
There’s a reason our list of the Who’s “heaviest songs” reads like a “best-of” breakdown.
Of course, the Who were never “heavy” in the tradition of Black Sabbath. But they were routinely cranked to the max, as Townshend’s instrument jockeyed for space with John Entwistle’s virtuoso bass runs, Keith Moon’s madcap drum fills and the righteous roar of singer Roger Daltrey.
Below we present 10 of the band’s most deafening — and, often, dazzling — songs.
10. “The Quiet One”
“I ain’t never ever had the gift of gab,” Entwistle barks on this full-throttle Face Dances rocker. “But I can talk with my eyes.” The same goes for his fingers: The bassist dominates here, teaming with then-new drummer Kenney Jones for a galloping rhythmic attack. (Townshend’s bluesy bent-note flourishes only ramp up the intensity.) The lyrics draw from Entwistle’s real-life reputation as a stoic, mysterious figure. He didn’t seem too bothered by the label: “Sticks and stones may break my bones / But names can never down you.“
9. “Who Are You”
Daltrey’s multiple F-bombs give “Who Are You” a flair of bird-flipping indignation, but the arrangement distinguishes the track’s power. True, there’s a funky intro, a regal piano section and some mousey backing vocals from Entwistle and Townshend — not exactly what you’d expect from a “heavy” song, even if these moments nicely balance out the singer’s bombast. The real mojo comes from Moon, who pounds his way through the whole tune — including some of rock’s most thrilling triplet tom-tom patterns.
8. “Pinball Wizard”
Townshend penned this tale of a “deaf, dumb and blind” pinball champion as a goof, sarcastically aiming to please rock critic Nik Cohn, who felt the Who needed an upbeat moment on their in-progress concept album Tommy. He wound up with the project’s most famous song: a blast of feverish acoustic strumming, crunching distortion and tumbling drums. “The whole point of ‘Pinball Wizard’ was to let the [title character] have some sort of colorful event and excitement,” Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1969. He gave us that same gift.
7. “Summertime Blues” (live)
Lots of other bands put their heavy stamp on Eddie Cochran’s 1958 rockabilly hit: Blue Cheer, Jimi Hendrix, Rush. But none of them approached the distorted majesty of the Who on Live at Leeds. The performance is so ragged and unhinged that it sounds like it could fall apart at any second — and that’s part of the appeal. Entwistle is the track’s obvious MVP, from his proto-stoner-metal bass riff to the comically deep “Boris the Spider” tone he dusts off to voice the protagonist’s boss (“No dice, son — you gotta work late“).
6. “The Real Me”
It’s one of the wildest bass parts to ever grace a traditional rock song — an absurd feat of four-string virtuosity that carries the entire track. And Entwistle played it in one take, just screwing around in the studio to amuse himself. But “The Real Me,” a centerpiece from the Who’s 1973 rock opera, Quadrophenia, only works because his bandmates know when and how long to hang back. Townshend is mostly in accompanist mode here, his distorted chords slashing over Moon’s Mitch Mitchell-like drum groove. Daltrey belts some signature bluster, but he saves the throat-ripping stuff for the brass-backed choruses.
5. “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
Like almost all of Who’s Next, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was intended for Townshend’s abandoned rock opera Lifehouse. And like almost all of Who’s Next, none of that baggage or backstory lessens the impact of the final songs — including this eternal classic rock staple. It’s the ultimate windmill-friendly epic, stretching out to more than eight minutes on the LP, as Townshend’s spacey synthesizers give way to jackhammer riffs and some of the heaviest hard rock screams ever laid to tape.
“The best I ever haaaaaaaaaaad!” Despite a delicate bridge section featuring strummed acoustic and unobtrusive synthesizer, “Bargain” is the most primal hard rock song on 1971’s Who’s Next, pairing Daltrey’s knuckle-sandwich vocal with some of Townshend’s most assertive riffing. The words are often mistaken for romance (“I’d gladly lose me to find you / I’d gladly give up all I had“), but they reflected the guitarist’s search for spiritual peace.
3. “Boris the Spider”
A demented little children’s tune? A tongue-in-cheek horror song? Both? Entwistle’s first Who original, “Boris the Spider” marries the gruesome and the goofy like no one else could. The bassist alternates between a jagged verse riff and descending, chromatic chorus, singing about the titular “creepy-crawly” creature that winds up meeting a “sticky end.” For maximum heaviness, Entwistle bellows the chorus in a gravelly tone that sounds like a death-metal singer many years before such a thing existed.
2. “Young Man Blues” (live)
“The only Who album I listen to a lot anymore is Live at Leeds, and that’s the heaviest album we’ve ever made,” Entwistle told Rolling Stone in 1981. No doubt about that. And the Who have never sounded more rabid than they did on “Young Man Blues,” a concert blowout built on a call-and-response between Daltrey’s gruff solo vocal and the band’s glorious, Led Zeppelin-like pummeling. The Who played the song, which radically reworks a ditty by jazz pianist Mose Allison, as far back as 1964. But this is the definitive version.
1. “My Generation”
Come on — is there any other option? “My Generation” is already arguably the Who’s ultimate song: the stuttering vocal, the quiet-loud dynamics, the flailing drum fills, the multiple key changes, the rebellious lyrical theme. But it’s also probably the heaviest track of its vintage, combining proto-punk swagger and hard-rock technique. The deal-sealer, though, is Entwistle’s monster bass solo, interjecting between Townshend’s riffs with menacing fuzz.
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