You bet I’m excited to write this edition of Listen To This, Not That! The Who are one of my favourite bands of all time and have gotten me through everything. I got into them when I was in secondary school and falling down the classic rock rabbit hole. They’re a band that I can’t stop listening to and I’ll never get sick of. They had such a solid run from 1965 to 1973 from My Generation to Quadrophenia. Not as much into their later stuff, but while writing this, I’ll be giving The Who By Numbers and later albums a chance to see if my mind has been changed.
One of the first stories I tell basically everyone I meet is about me and my friend, Zsofia going to the Pete Townshend book signing back in 2012. We were screaming like fangirls and Pete Townshend winked at us and waved at us. I swear it’s true! Definitely one of the best days ever.
The Who have really shaped me into who I am from my style to my name. Any classic rock fan clocks my name as being inspired by Keith Moon, and they’d be right. I wanted a British image to market myself and be something that I live up to, like an anchor, as a friend of mine named Rico put it. More than anything I’m Angie Moon and I love classic rock, and especially The Who.
I’ve been looking forward to writing this forever and I want to share my selections for under appreciated Who songs since they’re one of my favourite bands of all time. I hope with this blog post you’ll get an understanding of why they’re one of my favourites ever. These one band deep dive blog posts are so fun to write and I get a new appreciation for a band every time I write them.
Not That! Overrated Who songs
The Who are going to be different from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in that they don’t have as many chart hits, but they were still successful as a live act and are one of the best known British Invasion acts. You can’t take that away from The Who.
Why are The Who so significant? What makes them special? Imagine being in the late 60s and early 70s and hearing their music. It was loud and made your parents and the neighbours annoyed. Most of their hits were originals written by their main songwriter and brain behind the music, Pete Townshend. That’s right, every single one, except “Summertime Blues”. They were the biggest band from the original Mod era of the 60s and they weren’t just popular in that subculture. One thing that made them different in the world of hard rock bands is they weren’t afraid to release singles and weren’t afraid of mainstream popularity – they saw the appeal of crossover. They’re a hard rock band that have something for every taste, but they still maintain that hard rock cred.
As a band, they took rock to the next level with the way they used power chords and feedback; the stacks of amplifiers; Pete Townshend coining the term “power pop”; their trademark moves: Roger Daltrey’s microphone twirl, Keith Moon’s craziness on the drums, and Pete Townshend’s jumping and windmill; and they were one of the first bands to make a rock opera and it was one of the first successes in that genre.
Whenever I research for one of these posts, I always find something surprising about a band and the charts and here’s your surprise for The Who: Incredibly, they never topped the charts in the UK or the US. That’s right, not a single #1. Not with “My Generation”, not with “Pinball Wizard”, not with “Baba O’Riley”. Meanwhile, their contemporaries like The Searchers, Manfred Mann, The Honeycombs, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, The Seekers, Spencer Davis Group, The Troggs, and the Small Faces all topped the charts. Ask yourself this though, who’s better known: The Who or these groups? This isn’t to throw shade at these groups, I like them too, but it shows you that topping the charts isn’t the be all end all of success. A theory as to why The Who didn’t hit #1 is because usually chart hits are very poppy and try to appeal to a general audience, nothing too edgy. The Who were incredibly loud and edgy for their time. They competed with The Beatles on who could make a louder, edgier song: “I Can See For Miles” vs “Helter Skelter”.
I use the UK and US charts for my purposes since they are the countries where most of the bands I talk about come from and they are huge markets for rock music.
Since The Who are one of my favourite bands of all time, it’s hard for me to say that you shouldn’t listen to the following songs, because they are good songs and they’re a lot of people’s favourites for a reason.
My rules for Listen To This, Not That haven’t changed. No top 20 hits and no greatest hits. For our purposes the greatest hits album I’ll be using their latest greatest hits compilation, The Who Hits 50! I picked this particular compilation because it was their most recent greatest hits and time really is a filter and I think this sums up what people think are their most appreciated songs and it covers a lot of ground, making it a challenge for me.
Without further ado, here’s my list of overplayed Who songs. Disclaimer: I really like these songs, but I think The Who are more than these songs.
- “I Can’t Explain” – #8 UK
- “My Generation” – #2 UK, #74 US
- “Substitute” – #5 UK
- “I’m a Boy” – #2 UK
- “Happy Jack” – #3 UK, #24 US
- “Pictures of Lily” – #4 UK, #51 US
- “I Can See For Miles” – #10 UK, #9 US
- “Magic Bus” – #26 UK, #25 US
- “Pinball Wizard” – #4 UK, #19 US
- “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – #9 UK, #15 US
- “Behind Blue Eyes” – #34 US
- “Baba O’Riley” – Surprisingly, not a chart hit, but a concert and classic rock staple
- “Join Together” – #9 UK, #17 US
- “5:15” – #20 UK
- “Squeeze Box” – #10 UK, #16 US
- “Who Are You” – #18 UK, #14 US
- “You Better You Bet” – #9 UK, #18 US
Not an exhaustive list of “not thats” but these are the songs that I always hear on the radio when they play The Who and these are songs that are always in the set lists.
Listen to This! Underrated Who songs
Finally, we get to my favourite part of the blog post, the songs that deserve more appreciation. For this one, I’ll be organising it album by album since I think that’s the easiest way to organise my thoughts:
Some of these songs were released as bonus tracks and as a huge fan of The Who, I have lots of recommendations and I can’t leave these songs out.
- “I’m The Face” – B-side to “Zoot Suit”, which was The Who’s first single, but released under The High Numbers. This song was written by Peter Meaden and based on the Slim Harpo song “Got Love If You Want It”.
- “Daddy Rolling Stone” – Otis Blackwell cover
- “Shout and Shimmy” – Cover based on “Shout!” by The Isley Brothers, but written by James Brown. I love hearing the R&B side of Roger Daltrey
- “Circles” – Garage rock with a bit of psychedelia, original Pete Townshend composition. Written to showcase John Entwistle’s horn playing. Did you know he could play French horn and trumpet? This was the b-side for “Substitute” in the UK
- “Instant Party Mixture” – R&B/doo-wop influenced original by Pete Townshend
- “Leaving Here” – Motown cover, written by the famous Holland-Dozier-Holland powerhouse songwriting team. The Who do an excellent job with Motown.
- “Motoring” – Not sure who did this song originally, but great song for a car themed playlist
- “Waltz for a Pig” – an obscure instrumental, was the b-side for “Substitute” in the US. Credited to The Who, but actually The Graham Bond Organisation played on it. Thought it would be an interesting inclusion. Totally different sound from The Who. Not sure why they’d put another band’s song as the b-side. Record labels do weird things I guess.
- “Bucket T” – A rare moment with Keith Moon on vocals. Keith Moon was a big fan of surf music and sang this Jan & Dean cover. Trumpet by John Entwistle! Check out this goofy video of them in the studio singing it.
- “Barbara Ann” – The Who’s other attempt at surf rock, covering this song originally recorded by The Regents, but popularised by The Beach Boys
- “Under My Thumb” – The b-side to their cover of The Stones’ “The Last Time” – recorded to get Mick and Keith money to bail them out of jail. Now that’s friendship! But seriously, fuck the racist War on Drugs.
- “Doctor, Doctor” – B-side to the raunchy “Pictures of Lily”, written by John Entwistle
- “Someone’s Coming” – Written by John Entwistle
- “Sodding About” and “In The Hall of the Mountain King” – Instrumental jams recorded in 1967. The latter gives me “Interstellar Overdrive” vibes
- “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde” – Spooky song written by John Entwistle about Keith Moon’s drinking problems. B-side to “Magic Bus”
- “I Don’t Even Know Myself” – Supposed to be the closer for Lifehouse, B-side to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
My Generation (1965)
This is The Who’s debut album, named after one of their first big hits and a signature song for the group. The Who are one of those bands that I could say started off strong. This is an excellent debut album and I’d have to say it’s one of my top debuts that I’ve ever heard. It’s incredible that they were between the ages of 18-21 when they recorded this. Think back to when you were that age, could you do something this amazing? Did you know that Jimmy Page played lead guitar on “Bald Headed Woman”?
Of its sound, I would say that this is their most R&B influenced album (during this time a lot of British acts were still very R&B influenced and didn’t find their own unique sound that blends British and American yet). Most of the songs on this one are originals, but there are a couple James Brown covers (“I Don’t Mind” and “Please Please Please”) and a Bo Diddley cover (“I’m a Man”).
Instead of listening to “My Generation” and “The Kids Are Alright”, try “Out in the Street”, “The Good’s Gone” (very early Rolling Stones), the poppy “La-La-La Lies”, “It’s Not True”, “A Legal Matter” (with Pete on lead vocals”, and the instrumental “The Ox” – seriously though, this one is way underplayed and this is one of Keith Moon’s strongest drumming moments. Stop sleeping on the rest of the album and really give this whole album a listen.
A Quick One (1966)
The Who’s sophomore album marks a change in sound. Saying goodbye to R&B and saying hello to quirky rock and roll. It wasn’t as commercially successful as their debut and didn’t have one hit single (on the UK version that is, the US version had “Happy Jack”), but it’s a well-received album and well-loved by the fans.
It is important in The Who’s history because it has a precursor of sorts to Tommy in the album’s epic title track, “A Quick One While He’s Away” – a mini-rock opera with 6 movements about a woman whose husband has been gone for a year, she cheats on him with Ivor the Engine Driver, her husband returns and forgives her. Pete Townshend later said that this epic was based on his own childhood trauma.
Another interesting thing about this album is you have songwriting contributions from the other band members “Boris The Spider” and “Whiskey Man” by John Entwistle, “I Need You” and “Cobwebs and Strange” by Keith Moon, and “See My Way” by Roger Daltrey, It’s a rare moment that Pete didn’t write the majority of the songs on an album.
The strongest moments on the album are “I Need You” (why wasn’t this released as a single? and I really like that Beatles impersonation), “Whiskey Man” – which will leave you wishing that John wrote more songs for The Who, their cover of Martha & The Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, the zany “Cobwebs and Strange”, “So Sad About Us” – not a chart hit but one of The Who’s most covered songs, and “A Quick One While He’s Away” – you need to watch their performance of it on The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, seriously it’s the most talked about performance in that concert film. They made that their show, it’s a Who concert that the Stones and some other musicians were guest performers on.
Why didn’t I mention “Boris the Spider” above? It is arguably an underrated song, but was included on The Who Hits 50! along with another favourite of mine “Call Me Lightning” – great song and I’m so glad this compilation goes beyond the biggest hits, but these songs deserve more attention.
The Who Sell Out (1967)
The Who’s first concept album of sorts, inspired by the pirate radio stations of the 60s. Little history lesson for you: Pirate radio stations took off in the 60s because the BBC (who basically had a monopoly on radio) wouldn’t play popular or rock music, they were slow to catch up to the times and young people wanted to hear music that resonated with them and was cool. Eventually the BBC caved. So these offshore radio stations were started from boats in international waters where British laws didn’t apply and the radio signal could reach land. Radio London and Radio Caroline were two of the most popular pirate radio stations. Millions of people would tune into these stations and rock out. It didn’t become illegal to have a pirate radio station until 1967 with the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act. All was not lost though and some pirate radio DJs like John Peel, Tony Blackburn, and Emperor Rosko got jobs with the BBC.
The Who Sell Out isn’t just an ordinary album, it’s a concept album, which means that the songs all have a theme and may tell a story. Common features are songs and phrases that are the glue that hold the album together with reprises, epic length multi-movement suites, characters, and songs that flow together as one or song cycles. Some of the best known concept albums are SF Sorrow, Tommy, and The Wall. The late 60s through the 70s were a golden age of LPs. Because of changing technologies and media consumption habits, you’ll never get anything like that ever again.
Concept albums are the bread and butter of the Album-oriented rock radio format and it’s easy to programme a radio show. Plenty of opportunities for DJs to take a smoke or potty break and fans love hearing the album uninterrupted.
Anyway, the theme of The Who Sell Out, as you can tell is pirate radio. When you listen to the album as a whole, you’re not just hearing songs, but rather you’re hearing them in the context of a radio programme with mock announcements, station identifiers, and jingles in between songs, creating a different experience from a garden variety album. So I recommend hearing it in full from start to finish, no shuffling (recommended for concept albums generally). The problem with this album is it’s hard to replicate live because of the complicated effects. It’s very much a studio album.
The album had one hit with “I Can See For Miles”, which one critic called the heaviest rock song they had ever heard. Instead of that, listen to the psychedelic and fuzzy “Armenia City in the Sky” written by Pete’s friend Speedy Keen (later to be in Thunderclap Newman), the risqué “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand”, “Tattoo”, “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, the psychedelic “Relax”, “Silas Stingy”, and “Sunrise”.
I’ll leave you with one more fun fact, in the mini rock opera “Rael”, you can hear a preview of familiar guitar riffs from Tommy at about 3:35. Always great to hear earlier versions and hear how riffs and parts of songs evolve, because a lot of times a rock star has the song idea in their head for a while.
Finally we get to The Who’s first real masterpiece, the rock opera and double LP, Tommy. It so happens to be my favourite album by the group. It tells the story of a boy named Tommy Walker born at the end of WWI. His father, Captain Walker, is in the army and he disappeared. His mother believes him to be dead and starts dating someone else. Captain Walker lived and came home to find his wife in bed with another man, and he kills the other man. Tommy saw it all and his mother convinces him he didn’t see it, hear it, and won’t say anything about it to anyone. His senses shut down, and he is left deaf, dumb, and blind. All he can do is feel and use his imagination. His mum realises that this is a problem and tries to get him cured with religion and LSD, to no avail. Tommy’s extended family, Cousin Kevin abuses him and Uncle Ernie molests him. As he grows up, Tommy finds that through his sense of touch, he can feel the vibrations of the pinball machine and he could play it better than anyone else. He wins a pinball contest. His parents try one more time to get him help from a doctor and he pinpoints what the problem is: it isn’t physical, but rather psychosomatic – it’s in his head. The doctor tells him to go to the mirror and he sees his reflection. His mum smashes the mirror because it didn’t snap Tommy out of it and through the mirror smashing, he can see, hear, and speak again, he’s free from his disorder. Tommy starts a cult and his followers reject him, leaving Tommy alone and he looks inward.
The album was a breakthrough for The Who and the beginning of a golden age for the band. This was The Who at their best and so many iconic moments from here. Woodstock being one of their most iconic, helping market the album. Roger Daltrey basically became Tommy as he performed it and found his image.
Pete Townshend transitioned to these concept albums because the band were no longer young and their fans are growing up and they need to stay relevant, so the next logical step was to write more complex albums that tell stories, but the songs could stand on their own and be radio hits – and did they succeed at that! The album was inspired by spiritual mentor Meher Baba, who remained an inspiration for Pete Townshend for a long time.
Two songs from Tommy have made it onto compilation albums and were the two chart hits: “Pinball Wizard” and “I’m Free” (imo the harder rock version from the movie is much better), both great songs, but there are so many strong moments from the album that really deserve a listen: “Overture” is such a great opener and gives you an idea of what sound this is going for, “1921” is a mood even 100 years later than it took place (really hoping ’21 is better than ’20), “Amazing Journey” and the instrumental “Sparks” are those songs that you have to play back to back, “Eyesight to the Blind” is a modernised spin on Sonny Boy Williamson II, “Christmas” (gimme this instead of all the crappy Christmas songs), “The Acid Queen”, “Go to the Mirror!”, and the epic closer “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.
The whole album is amazing and you have to listen to it all multiple times to really understand it. Still fresh 50 years later. If I could only give you one Who album to listen to, I’d say this one. Pinball machine go brrrrrr!
Who’s Next (1971)
Pete Townshend’s follow up concept album was going to be the sci-fi Lifehouse, but the rest of the band didn’t understand it so it was scrapped, but some songs from it were repurposed for Who’s Next. While not a concept album, it was a success and two of The Who’s biggest hits can be found on this album: “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Other well-loved tracks from the album include “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”.
Who’s Next is a fan favourite and considered one of the best hard rock albums and one of the best albums of 1971. This is definitely an essential listen and you should listen to the songs on it that weren’t as big because they’re good too! If you want to break up the routine of the four songs above, listen instead to “My Wife”, “The Song is Over”, and “Going Mobile”.
If I had to pick a second favourite from The Who, this would be it. It’s the other double LP rock opera by the band and a lot of people will say this is the band at their best. First, I’ll give you a summary of the plot. The story of the album takes place in about 1964 and the main character is a young man named Jimmy. He comes from a working class family and he is a mod who likes wearing suits, military parkas, riding on a scooter, taking pills, and going out to nightclubs to dance to rock and R&B. A popular thing for working class British people who live in London is to go to the seaside for a day or weekend trip. One of the best days of Jimmy’s life was his weekend trip to Brighton, where he saw The Who, a band he is obsessed with. Sounds like a fun life, right? Except that he does this stuff to escape from a humdrum home and work life. He works a dead end job and goes to therapy. He doesn’t feel accepted by anyone: not his family, nor his friends or crush. After quitting his job, he goes to Brighton to reminisce about the good times only to find out that the coolest mod, Ace Face, works a boring day job as a bell boy. He’s disillusioned with the mod subculture and feels let down and hates life. Jimmy steals a boat and sails out to a rock in the pouring rain. What happens to Jimmy is up to you to imagine. Did he die or did he come back and get the help he needs?
The album was recorded after a year of little activity for the band. They set the bar high with Tommy and Who’s Next, so what were they going to release next? Pete Townshend decided to write a relatable concept album and so we have Quadrophenia, another well-loved album that has two popular songs: “5:15” and “Love Reign O’er Me”. The Who at their best everyone. If you really want to dive into Quadrophenia, I recommend listening to the album from start to finish, but if you want some under appreciated tracks, I recommend: “The Real Me”, “Quadrophenia”, “Cut My Hair”, “The Punk and the Godfather”, “I’m One”, “I’ve Had Enough”, “Sea and Sand”, “Drowned”, “Bell Boy”, and “The Rock”.
The Who By Numbers (1975)
This is my opinion and I think Who superfans might hate me for this, but I think The Who went downhill from here. From Moonie on a downward spiral because of his alcoholism to the band running out of good ideas. Pete even admitted as much that he was experiencing writer’s block and felt like he was having a midlife crisis… at 30! So he basically made this album his diary. Well, I guess in the entertainment industry if you’re 30, you might as well be in the retirement home! This is more of a personal album than the others.
The last two studio albums with Moonie don’t have the same magic as the previous three and it’s a tough act to follow. The Who set the bar so high. Where are the concept albums? Why did they give this up? I want Lifehouse or Quads! Give us that, Pete! I guess with the band being busy with solo projects (which are more worth your time than this album) and working on the movie Tommy, maybe the music wasn’t as important. However, there are Who fans who disagree with me and think this is one of the band’s most underrated albums. Even after another listen, I’m wondering where’s the energy and I feel like sleeping listening to this album. When I listen to the Who, I’m in the mood for music that I can blast loudly and get me energised – this album doesn’t deliver on that. If we look at The Who’s setlists, it falls pretty far down the list (about ⅔ down) of most performed albums. Even the most popular song from the album, “Squeeze Box” is their 56th most performed song. The album as a whole is not a live favourite. Their 80s hits “Eminence Front” and “You Better You Bet” have been performed more!
The nicest thing I can say about this album is I like John Entwistle’s drawing style. To be fair, the album isn’t awful, but I think greatest hits compilations cover the essentials: the opening track “Slip Kid” and “Squeeze Box”. Instead of those, give “However Much I Booze”, “Success Story”, “Blue Red and Grey” (I think this one in particular is beautiful), and “How Many Friends” a listen. “Success Story” is another example of why we shouldn’t sleep on John Entwistle’s songwriting.
Who Are You (1978)
This album is the last one recorded with Keith Moon. It’s less liked than The Who By Numbers, but not hated as much as the post-Keith Moon albums: It’s Hard and Face Dances. Critics didn’t give it the best ratings and some fans call this album overproduced and synth heavy. It’s really meh at best and not an essential album. Maybe if it had a more classic hard rock sound, it would sound better. To me, this is not an album that aged well. The synthesisers make it sound dated. Not only that, but you can tell the band were falling apart and Keith Moon wasn’t performing like he used to.
The first track, “New Song”, has a good idea behind it – about how the industry want bands to keep making songs that have the same magic as before, but it’s forgettable and cheesy. “Had Enough” describes my mood listening to this album.
The greatest hits albums have it right, the only songs worth listening to are “Trick of the Light” (the best track imo) and “Who Are You”, both stronger songs than the best songs on The Who By Numbers – and that’s about the nicest thing I have to say about this album. However, I think “Who Are You” is really overplayed and would be The Who’s “Satisfaction” – it’s overstayed its welcome in setlist and I wish radio stations would play other songs. It’s a weak album, that’s all I have to say. Really should put this in the Not That section, but I’m listing all the albums in a logical order.
Face Dances and It’s Hard (1981 and 1982, respectively)
It’s pretty much universally agreed upon in the Who fandom that the two albums after Keith Moon’s death are not good and don’t have a lot of redeeming moments. People are hard on Keith Moon’s replacement Kenney Jones, who was in fellow 60s mod band The Small Faces. He was a good fit for that band and a decent drummer for their sound, but not for The Who. Keith Moon was a one of a kind drummer and as they say about him, “there is no substitute”. I really tried to give these albums a chance because I’m such a Who stan, but there’s really nothing that’s worth giving a listen, unless you’re absolutely obsessed with The Who. The greatest hits albums basically cover the noteworthy songs: “You Better You Bet” and “Eminence Front” (that bassline though). Todd in the Shadows should make a Trainwreckords video about these albums.
I’ll be honest, I was hitting that skip button and trying to fast forward so I could move on and finish with this post already. Why Did I Fall For That is right! Just because it’s by The Who doesn’t mean it’s good.
Honestly, you’re better off listening to Pete’s solo work because “Let My Love Open the Door” and “Rough Boys” are bops.
Overall, The Who are an amazing band and despite their output post Quadrophenia being hit and miss, they easily have legendary status and it is only right that I give The Who their own Listen to This, Not That.
The Who aren’t as talked about as The Beatles and The Stones and that needs to change. Their contribution to rock music is huge and their songs are classic rock radio staples and I think you can get an even better appreciation if you go beyond the radio hits because there are so many gems in their discography. Check out my Listen to This, Not That: The Who playlist below:
Coming up next will be a British Invasion roundup post – where I’ll highlight bands that were well known for a couple songs and I’ll share some songs by them that I think are underappreciated.
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I agree; the late 60s-early 70s was their heyday. Pete’s brilliant writing, Roger’s powerful vocals and John and Keith’s amazing musicianship made them a force in rock and roll.
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I dig The Who as well and was fortunate to see them three times over the past 20 years, though unfortunately never with Keith Moon (obviously). But at least I saw The Ox once – as a retired bassist, that was a special treat!
I also agree the band’s period (until the mid ’70s) was their best. That being said, have you checked out their last album ingeniously titled “Who”? 🙂
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