The Who: their UK singles – ranked!

As the band prepare to release their first new studio album in 13 years, we rate all their UK singles – from 1960s mod chaos to majestic rock opera

34. Athena (1982)

Pinball Wizard-ish guitars decorated the first single from 1982’s reviled It’s Hard, but this is haunted by the sense that the Who were running out of steam. There is not much of a song behind them, and – with respect to Kenney Jones, handed perhaps the least enviable gig in rock – an audible Keith Moon-shaped hole in the rhythm track.

33. The Last Time (1967)

More important as a gesture of solidarity than a piece of music, the Who’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 hit is oddly muted and was evidently recorded in haste, to be released as a protest against the jail sentences given to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for drugs charges.

32. Don’t Let Go the Coat (1981)

The vaguely country rock-influenced sound was oddly bloodless by the Who standards, but lyrically Don’t Let Go the Coat unsparingly depicted guitarist Pete Townshend, utterly shattered by Moon’s death despite breezy public pronouncements to the contrary, thrashing around in a desperate haze of drugs and booze, pleading with someone – spiritual leader Meher Baba? His bandmates? – not to forsake him.

31. It’s Not Enough (2006)

Endless Wire, the Who’s first album in 24 years, was a remarkably strong effort, but it was better taken as whole – replete with another Townshend mini-opera, Wire and Glass – rather than sampled via It’s Not Enough, a decent enough song that made for an unspectacular single.

30. Let’s See Action (1971)

The sentiment of Let’s See Action – equal parts post-60s free-your-mind idealism and proto-punk get-off-your-arse agitating – is pretty inarguable, but there is something plodding and hoary about its brand of blues-rock boogie – with session man Nicky Hopkins’s piano to the fore – that works against the lyrics and makes it sound less urgent, more complacent.

29. La-La-La-Lies (1966)

Yet another track awkwardly promoted to single status in an attempt to milk debut album My Generation for all it was worth, La-La-La-Lies made clear the influence of Moon favourites the Beach Boys on the Who. Released in the wake of Substitute and I’m a Boy, however, it sounded pleasantly insignificant and failed to chart.

28. A Legal Matter (1966)

There was a certain irony about the title of A Legal Matter, an old album track unofficially released by producer Shel Talmy to sabotage the release of the band’s chosen single Substitute. Its examination of why “marrying’s no fun” is more subtle than it first appears, but why it was chosen over its brilliant, previously unreleased B-side Instant Party is a mystery.

27. See Me, Feel Me (1970)

Tommy’s episodic seven-minute grand finale We’re Not Gonna Take It was fantastic, but not the ideal candidate for a single. The version released as such renamed it and lopped off the opening section, changing the track from a story of rejection into something more straightforwardly euphoric. It failed to chart.

26. Long Live Rock (1979)

Recorded in 1972, but not released as UK single until eight years later – prompted by its appearance in the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright – Long Live Rock sounds like another of Townshend’s attempts to come up with a latterday Who anthem, although its view of rock-star excess is more jaundiced and nuanced than the title suggests. Note the pampered artiste who finds “the distance to the stage too far”.

25. Dogs (1968)

The power chords of You Really Got Me inspired the Who’s early sound, and the influence of Ray Davies in English character-study mode is audible on this charming, beautifully written if inessential tale of love blossoming at a greyhound track. Its stagey Cockney vocals and blokey, anthemic chorus – “There was nothing in my life bigger than beer” – seem to presage Britpop-era Blur.

24. Eminence Front (1982)

A song that realised Townshend’s promise of a new-sounding post-Keith Moon Who. Taut, spacey and funky, Eminence Front gained an afterlife as a Balearic DJ favourite. A genuinely great song in its own right, its downfall was that it fulfilled Townshend’s brief too thoroughly: to fans’ horror, it didn’t sound like the Who at all.

23. Squeeze Box (1976)

Both ridiculous and oddly charming, Squeeze Box’s array of snickering double-entendres was a world away from the thoughtful complexity of Substitute or I’m a Boy. In truth, Townshend was wracked by self-doubt, plagued by alcoholism and creatively running on empty, but the sheer exuberance with which the Who launch themselves at the song carried it through.

22. Be Lucky (2014)

Out of nowhere, Townshend and Roger Daltrey came back with a classic Who single, appended to a 50th-anniversary hits compilation. Thundering power chords, Daltrey’s voice sounding stronger than a decade earlier, Townshend’s lyrics casting an alternately optimistic and jaundiced eye over a modern pop landscape he had predicted decades before, complete with reference to Daft Punk and attendant burst of vocoder.

21. The Seeker (1970)

No one’s idea of a hippy, Townshend nevertheless went big on spiritual fulfilment, eventually finding it via self-styled avatar Meher Baba. This informed The Seeker, a single that unexpectedly framed his journey as a fraught, “desperate” exercise, set to crunching hard rock and sung by Daltrey as if he was offering the listener out for a fight.

20. Ready Steady Who (1966)

Ostensibly a filler release comprised of offcuts, this five-track EP is worth it for the superb Circles; a cover of Barbara Ann that the band often resorted to in order to mollify Keith Moon’s love of surf music; and their version of the Batman theme, conceived, one suspects, in the spirit of Warholian pop art.

19. Happy Jack (1966)

For all the Who’s confrontational modernity, a strain of nostalgia ran through Townshend’s writing, as on this evocation of a childhood beach holiday, although the mood of charming but lightweight wistfulness had a dark undertow. The titular hero – either a local eccentric or a donkey – is tormented by mean-spirited children, while Moon’s drums sound apocalyptic throughout.

18. Real Good Looking Boy (2004)

Most people assumed John Entwistle’s death marked the end of the Who: in fact, it spurred their recording career back to life. Suffused with nostalgia and beautifully elegiac, Real Good Looking Boy hymned the arrival of Elvis in characteristic Townshend style, with a hint of homoeroticism and a gush of adolescent confusion and self-doubt.

17. Who Are You (1978)

Already convinced he was too old to be a rock star at 30, punk seemed to provoke a full-on existential crisis in Townshend, as evidenced by Who Are You, inspired by a day spent drinking with Sex Pistols pair Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Its sound was closer to proggy stadium rock than punk, but there is a power about its desperate urgency, and bite in Daltrey’s vocals.

16. You Better You Bet (1981)

After Moon’s death in 1978, the Who talked expansively about continuing, exploring new musical territory. From its synth intro to its backing vocals, however, their first post-Moon single suggested business as usual. Still, there is little arguing with the song itself, a bouncy paean to blossoming love, tinged with lines hinting at darkness and grief: the narrator drinks himself blind “to the sound of … Who’s Next”.

15. Summertime Blues (1970)

There is a persuasive argument that the Who’s Live at Leeds is the greatest live album ever. Certainly, there was a rare, thuggish power about its rereading of Eddie Cochran’s 1958 hit. Proof that, at the height of their rock-opera era, the Who’s ability to deliver short, sharp bursts of raw power was undiminished.

14. The Kids Are Alright (1966)

Easily the best of the unofficial spoiler singles hastily released by Brunswick Records after the Who jumped ship, The Kids Are Alright is a fantastic song, a thoughtful, downcast, depiction of a young marriage in terminal crisis, its narrator torn and distraught, its melody beautiful.

13. Magic Bus (1968)

As close as the Who got to taking the wow-man hippy shilling – acoustic guitar, festival singalong vocals, frequent cries of “too much!” – Magic Bus was actually written in 1965. Three years later, it sounded oddly like a response to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, the saga of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters published a couple of months before the single’s release.

12. Relay (1972)

Another cast-off from 1971’s Lifehouse, the aborted rock opera follow-up to Tommy, Relay is among the best of the Who’s 70s singles, its lyrics testament to the way Lifehouse predicted (albeit vaguely) the rise of the internet, its music powered by a desire to look forward. The riff was achieved by feeding Townshend’s guitar through a synthesiser’s voltage controlled filter.

11. Join Together (1972)

Throughout the early 70s, Townshend was clearly possessed by the desire to write a new calling-card for the Who. Strident, in possession of a hefty chorus and underpinned by a curious combination of jew’s harp, harmonica and pulsing synthesised drone, Join Together might be the best of his efforts.

10. I Can’t Explain (1965)

Confusion and inarticulacy has never sounded so anthemic as it did on the Who’s debut single. The self-doubt of the lyrics – about someone unable to express themselves after taking too much dexedrine, although it might as well just be about the turmoil of adolescence – chafes against the music’s confident, take-it-or-leave-it strut: the dichotomy of teenage life neatly summed up.

9. Pictures of Lily (1967)

Trust Pete Townshend to turn the psych era’s interest in Edwardiana into a psychosexual drama about adolescent erotic turmoil. He also coined the term “powerpop” to describe its sound, which fits perfectly. More controlled than earlier singles, it is still ferociously potent, replete with a French horn solo designed to sound like an air-raid siren.

8. Pinball Wizard (1969)

The calling-card of rock-opera Tommy was so musically irresistible that the ungainly weirdness of the lyrics – which even their author called “clumsy” – passed under the radar. It says plenty about both Townshend’s pop smarts and the Who’s performance that a song about envying a messianic deaf blind mute with an aptitude for pinball could become a perennial rock classic.

7. Anyway Anyhow Anywhere (1965)

Clumsily eager to capture the mod scene zeitgeist, the High Numbers’ solitary single I’m the Face/Zoot Suit made them sound like arrivistes. A year later, as the Who, they got it right: Anyway Anyhow Anywhere doesn’t mention mods per se, but its peacocking, amphetamine arrogance nails their ethos. The chaotic, feedback-strafed breakdown, meanwhile, was unlike anything that had been heard in British pop.

6. 5:15 (1974)

Quadrophenia saw the Who re-examining their mod roots, and its lead-off single marked a return to the topics that had fuelled Townshend’s 60s writing – confused sexuality, identity, how drugs both calmed and exacerbated the angst of adolescence – albeit at a slightly more sedate pace. Still, this song’s brass-bedecked arrangement was impressively forceful and punchy.

5. I’m a Boy (1966)

If you want proof of how ahead of the game the early Who were, it is worth noting that they took a song about the topic of gender dysphoria to No 2, a full 53 years ago. The thrillingly propulsive burst of drumming as Daltrey takes over the vocal, 22 seconds in, is a neat reminder of Moon’s extraordinary intuitive creativity.

4. I Can See for Miles (1967)

The Who were not a comfortable fit among the psychedelic set, too aggressive, troubled and cynical for flower power’s beatific platitudes. Accordingly, their psych masterpiece is four cacophonous minutes of pent-up fury and bitterness that mixes the knowing superiority of the acid initiate with sexual jealousy. Among the revelations LSD affords its narrator is the knowledge he’s been cheated on.

3. My Generation (1965)

The Who’s manager Kit Lambert lauded them as “a new form of crime, aimed against the bourgeoisie”, typical hyperbole allowed to pass as fact in the wake of My Generation. Now blunted by familiarity, the lyrics must have seemed impossibly confrontational 54 years ago. The music turned familiar pop tropes – R&B riff, Motown handclaps, Beach Boys harmonies – into something that sounded like a bombardment.

2. Won’t Get Fooled Again (1971)

The embittered cynicism of the dawning 70s suited the Who more than the late 60s’ pie-eyed optimism. Won’t Get Fooled Again was a tense, muscular howl of disenchantment at the prevailing order and counterculture alike. It was also remarkably forward-thinking, its synthesizer integral, rather than mere embellishment. The band played along to sequenced loop. Decades later, all records would be made this way.

1. Substitute (1966)

The Who hit the ground running at such an astonishing pace, it is almost impossible to pick one of their mid-60s run of singles over the rest. Even with their spoilsport first label releasing vast chunks of their debut album on 45 following the band’s defection to Robert Stigwood’s Reaction Records, virtually every seven-inch with their name on it from the era is superb. But Substitute just edges it: a complex, frustrated exploration of modern identity into which Townshend boldly stirred class, race, sexuality and even a bit of Freudian psychology. The band, meanwhile, sound incredible: a breezy acoustic guitar riff sandwiched between Daltrey’s screw-you vocal and a rhythm section that feels as if it is raining blows on the listener.


Actors playing nightmarish versions of themselves in cinema - ranked!
Michael Caine's best films - ranked!
The 10 best Glenn Close movies - ranked!
Tom Cruise - top 20 movies - ranked!
Judi Dench - every film - ranked!
Jane Fonda's 10 best films - ranked!
Ryan Gosling movies - ranked!
10 best Hugh Grant films - ranked!
Every Angelie Jolie film performance - ranked!
Nicole Kidman’s top 10 films - ranked!
The best and the worst Jennifer Lopez films - ranked!
All Helen Mirren's 61 movies - ranked!
Robert Redford's greatest screen roles - ranked!
Winona Ryder's 20 best films - ranked!
Movie Santa Clauses - ranked!
Maggie Smith's 20 best films – ranked!
Jason Statham - every film - ranked!
Emma Thompson's best films - ranked!


Wes Anderson movies - ranked!
The Coen brothers’ films - ranked!
Stanley Kubrick's best films - ranked!

Movie genres

Biopics trashed by families, friends and fans - ranked!
Purr evil: cats in movies with hidden agendas - ranked!
Dog weepie movies - ranked!
Top 20 J-horror films - ranked!
Movies that have grossed more than $1bn - ranked!
Palme d'Or winners - ranked!
The scariest horror films ever - ranked!
The best Shakespeare films - ranked!
The 10 best movie shark performances - ranked!
The best Stephen King movies  - ranked!
From Trolls to Transformers: toy films – ranked!
Worst holidays in cinema - ranked!

Studios & franchises

Aardman's 20 best films – ranked!
James Bond on film – 007's best and worst movies - ranked!
The 20 best Marvel films - ranked!
Top 10 Merchant Ivory films - ranked!
Pixar - every film ever made - ranked!
Planet of the Apes - the best and worst of the movies - ranked!
Star Wars - every film - ranked!

TV & award shows

The 20 best music documentaries - ranked!
The weirdest Brits performances - ranked!
Game of Thrones - every episode - ranked!
Oscar nominees - the weirdest ever - ranked!
Oscar snubs - the 20 greatest ever - ranked!
The biggest Rock & Roll Hall of Fame snubs ever - ranked!
Super Bowl half-time shows - the 10 greatest - ranked!
The best X Factor finalists - ranked!
From Niall Horan's toast to Russell Crowe’s jockstrap: celebrity auction items - ranked!


All Abba's UK singles - ranked!
The Beatles' singles – ranked!
Kate Bush – every UK single - ranked!
Every one of Madonna's 78 singles - ranked!
Missy Elliott's solo singles – ranked!
Prince's 50 greatest singles – ranked!
Queen's 50 UK singles - ranked!
Taylor Swift's singles - ranked!
The Who: their UK singles - ranked!


Black Sabbath - every album - ranked!
David Byrne – (almost) all of his albums - ranked!
Miles Davis's 20 greatest albums – ranked!
Lil Wayne's albums - ranked!
Every Mercury prize-winning album - ranked!
Joni Mitchell's albums – ranked!
The Rolling Stones – every album - ranked!
10 best Paul Simon albums - ranked!
Bruce Springsteen's albums - ranked!
Kanye West – every album - ranked!
Stevie Wonder's albums - ranked!


20 greatest breakup songs ever - ranked!
Aphex Twin's best songs - ranked!
Barry Manilow – all his greatest songs - ranked!
Björk – her 20 greatest songs ranked!
Cher's 30 greatest songs - ranked!
The 30 greatest Disney songs – ranked!
Elton John's 50 greatest songs - ranked!
From Drake to Wet Wet Wet: songs with 10 weeks at No 1 - ranked!
From MC5 to Jeff Mills: the greatest Detroit tracks ever - ranked!
PJ Harvey's 50 greatest songs – ranked!
Giorgio Moroder's 20 greatest songs - ranked!
Nirvana's 20 greatest songs - ranked!
The best songs from teen movies - ranked!
The best UK garage tracks - ranked!
The greatest banned songs of all time - ranked!
The greatest ever female rap tracks - ranked!
The greatest pop music dance crazes - ranked!
All 43 Spice Girls songs - ranked!

Artists & bands

The 30 best boyband members - ranked!
The greatest Scottish indie bands - ranked!
Quincy Jones's greatest ever moments - ranked!

● This article was corrected on 17 January. Due to an editing error, the original wrongly stated that Keith Moon died in 1981.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Kylie's 30 greatest singles – ranked!
Over a career of more than 30 years, she’s been Indie Kylie, Moody Kylie and Mature Kylie – but who comes out on top?

Alexis Petridis

24, Sep, 2020 @2:07 PM

Article image
The Beatles' singles – ranked!
As Abbey Road turns 50, we rate the Fab Four’s 22 UK singles, which dominated the charts in the 1960s – and changed pop for ever

Alexis Petridis

26, Sep, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Prince's 50 greatest singles – ranked!
As a remastered and expanded version of classic album 1999 is announced, we rate the Purple One’s finest funk hits

Alexis Petridis

12, Sep, 2019 @3:11 PM

Article image
Mariah Carey's 30 greatest singles – ranked!
With All I Want for Christmas Is You on the cusp of claiming the UK No 1 for the first time in 26 years, what better time to celebrate one of the great R&B repertoires?

Alexis Petridis

03, Dec, 2020 @12:30 PM

Article image
Rihanna's 30 greatest singles – ranked!
With a rumoured ninth album on the way – the follow-up to 2016’s Anti – we examine Rihanna’s singles and pick the 30 best

Alexis Petridis

01, Apr, 2021 @2:12 PM

Article image
Lady Gaga's 30 greatest songs – ranked!
Following her triumphant One World: Together at Home charity concert – and before her album Chromatica – we rate the best of Stefani Germanotta’s gloriously OTT pop

Michael Cragg

23, Apr, 2020 @11:30 AM

Article image
The 70 greatest No 2 singles – ranked!
From Presley to Prince, with just one song per artist, we celebrate 70 years of the the UK singles chart with a look at the best songs that didn’t quite make it to No 1

Alexis Petridis

17, Nov, 2022 @5:12 PM

Article image
Taylor Swift's singles – ranked!
From the teen romance of her 2006 debut single to Me!, released today, we rate them all, charting her transformation from teenage country sensation to all-conquering pop titan

Alexis Petridis

26, Apr, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Carpenters’ 20 greatest songs – ranked!
As their self-titled, third album and biggest hit turns 50, we pick their best work

Alexis Petridis

13, May, 2021 @2:59 PM

Article image
Carly Simon's 20 greatest tracks – ranked!
As her debut album turns 50, we select the best work by a songwriter with a standout talent for finely drawn character studies

Alexis Petridis

04, Feb, 2021 @1:00 PM