When the inevitable arguments happen among rock fans about the greatest rock and roll band of all time, it usually comes down to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But a significant, and quite vocal, minority will interject that another British Invasion act, The Who, deserves that title. They certainly have longevity on their side. 50 years into their careers, they are still going strong, albeit with only Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend left of the original four. One thing that really sets The Who apart is the diversity of their lyrics. From bawdy double entendres to gentle love songs, rock operas to anthemic songs of rebellion, The Who have provided some of the most entertaining and thought provoking lyrics in rock and roll. These five represent a cross-section of all facets of The Who's long career.
This song, from 1975's The Who by Numbers really pushed the envelope for what was allowed in a commercial radio single in the way of double entendres. On its surface, an innocent tale about a mother and her “squeeze box” (slang for an accordion), the song started as one long dirty joke by Pete Townshend, and left no stone unturned in its quest to wring every bawdy meaning out of musical references.
“Mama's got a squeeze box she wears on her chest.
And when daddy comes home, he don't get no rest.
She's playing all night, and the music's alright.
Mama's got a squeeze box,
Daddy never sleeps at night!”
The aptly named “My Generation” was one of the defining songs of an entire generation of counterculture kids from the '60s. While it has gone on to become one of The Who's signature songs and is regularly voted as one of the greatest rock songs of all time, “My Generation” was not a major hit in the United States, though it rose to #2 in their native UK. While not a song full of deep symbolic meaning, it's the perfect example of how a great rock and roll song can touch a nerve with just a few well-chosen words.
“People try to put us down (talking about my generation),
just because we get around (talking about my generation).
Things they do look awful cold (talking about my generation),
I hope I die before I get old.”
For many who grew up on The Who via classic rock radio, the song title “Baba O'Riley” may not even be a familiar one. But it's a virtual guarantee that the song probably is. From the signature organ notes that begin the song to the familiar refrain (regularly mistaken for the song title) of “teenage wasteland”, this entry from 1971's Who's Next is one of rock's most misunderstood songs. Written by Townshend originally as a commentary on the strung out fans at Woodstock, the song quickly became embraced as a celebration of that very thing. Whatever meaning fans take from it, “Baba O'Riley” is one of The Who's most popular songs and a concert staple.
“The exodus is here.
The happy ones are near.
Let's get together,
before we get much older.”
Written originally as part of Pete Townshend's aborted solo project Lifehouse, “Behind Blue Eyes” was supposed to be a lament sung by the villain of the piece. Instead, as a stand-alone song, it has become one of rock's great treatises on mental illness, embraced by generations of teenagers who could identify with the sadness, anger, and hopelessness conveyed in the vocals.
“But my dreams, they aren't as empty,
As my conscience seems to be.
I have hours, only lonely.
My love is vengeance!
That's never free.”
This 1971 release from Who's Next clocks in at eight and a half minutes in its album form, but was chopped to three and a half minutes as a radio single. The edit was popular but took much of the raw energy away from the song and it wasn't until album oriented radio formats began to play the full version in the late '70s that it became remembered as one of rock's all-time greats. “Won't Get Fooled Again” is a popular staple on classic rock radio at any time because of its high energy guitar and Roger Daltry's fabled scream, but it gains popularity like clockwork in an election year, where the refrain of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” becomes a popular cry for those disenfranchised with the system.
“And the world looks just the same,
and history ain't changed.
'Cause the banners they are flown,
in the next war.”