A decade into their career, The Who had evolved from pioneering mod faces to pop-art saboteurs and visionaries who wrested the nascent rock-opera from the psych underground and turned it into a vital part of the rock landscape. They might have released as much in this 10-year period as they would throughout the following 40 years of their career, but, as the 5CD singles box set, Maximum As & Bs, proves, The Who remained restlessly creative well into the 21st Century.
Collected on the final two discs of the box set, these singles captured Th Who at key moments: taking on the emerging punk movement (and winning); bringing the ultimate rock opera (and its defining mod anthems) to the silver screen; staging the incendiary live performances that the group were famed for; and returning to the rock opera format for a latter-day update the likes of which could only have come from experience.
Taken together, these 15 singles trace the ever-changing group as they adapted and survived into the 21st Century.
‘Listening To You’/‘See Me, Feel Me’/‘Overture’ (1975)
‘Squeeze Box’/‘Success Story’ (1975)
The group’s two singles of 1975 were like two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, ‘Listening To You’/‘See Me, Feel Me’ was a celebration of past glories. Released to coincide with the film adaptation of their classic Tommy album, it was a reminder of the grand vision the band brought to their more ambitious projects (and aptly timed, given that the Quadrophenia movie wasn’t far away). ‘Squeeze Box’, meanwhile, was a short, sharp jab: a return to the sort of wry, hook-laden pop songs the group had mastered in the 60s.
‘Who Are You’/‘Had Enough’ (1978)
With Sex Pistols showing their respect by covering The Who’s ‘Substitute’ live, Paul Cook and Steve Jones could often be found propping up the bar with Pete Townshend in the aftermath of punk. Recounting one such night when Townshend, asleep in a doorway, was prodded awake by a member of the London constabulary, the dynamic ‘Who Are You’ boasts stabs of new wave synths in a defiant anthem that both satirises Townshend’s lost night, while laying down a challenge to the punk upstarts.
‘Long Live Rock’/‘I’m The Face’/‘My Wife (Live)’ (1979)
‘5.15’/‘I’m One’ (1979)
Still recovering from Keith Moon’s death, The Who closed the 70s with a reminder that the emerging mod revival movement owed its entire existence to the music Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwisle and Moon had recorded in the preceding years. The group’s first single of the year, ‘Long Live Rock’, was an unreleased cut from a scrapped 1972 album, Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock, which provided the seeds for what would become the group’s defining mod statement, Quadrophenia. ‘I’m The Face’, meanwhile, was originally released in 1964, when the group were trading as mod/R&B outfit The High Numbers.
As if any more confirmation were needed, Quadrophenia the movie came out in September ’79. Coinciding with the release, ‘5.15’ remained a defining anthem for a generation of original mods – and spoke to the newer firebrands that were walking in The Who’s footsteps.
‘You Better You Bet’/‘The Quiet One’ (1981)
‘Don’t Let Go The Coat’/‘You’ (1981)
‘Athena’/‘A Man Is A Man’ (1982)
‘Eminence Front’/‘It’s Your Turn’ (1982)
Just as The Who had opened the 70s with ‘Baba O’Reily’, they entered the 80s with another rock classic that merged anthemic songwriting with electronic programming. With ex-Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones maintaining links to The Who’s mod past, Face Dances was the group’s first album release since Moon’s death. ‘You Better You Bet’ quickly became one of The Who’s most popular live songs and stands alongside ‘Eminence Front’, from their 1982 album It’s Hard, as one of the classic songs from this period that has endured into their most recent concert setlists.
‘Twist And Shout (Live)’/‘I Can’t Explain (Live)’ (1984)
‘Won’t Get Fooled Again (Live At Young Vic)’/‘Bony Maronie (Live)’ (1988)
‘Join Together (Live)’/‘I Can See For Miles (Live)’/‘Behind Blue Eyes (Live)’ (1988)
After a brief hiatus in the mid-80s, The Who reunited as a touring act. A series of compilation and live albums were sharp reminders that, despite the lack of new material during this decade, the group remained one of the finest live acts from rock’s golden age.
Wire & Glass EP (2006)
‘Be Lucky’/‘I Can’t Explain’ (2014)
The Who’s long-awaited return to the studio came in 2006, when they issued the Wire & Glass EP. Billed as “six songs from a mini-opera”, the EP provided the first taster of what would become the group’s Endless Wire project, a musical adaptation of Pete Townshend’s novella The Boy Who Heard Music. Eight years later, the group celebrated their 50th anniversary in fine style with ‘Be Lucky’, the kind of harmony-laden, roof-raising anthem that the band had, by this point in their career, entirely made their own.
Purchase Maximum As & Bs here.