It can be difficult figuring out which record to get when beginning listening to a new band — and maybe this is you with The Who — you’ve heard them on CSI and the classic rock radios and you like it — but chances are you know The Who a little better than that, and even though missteps over the past thirty-five years have substantially tarnished their once-unimpeachable image, you’ve found yourself lately wanting to expand and/or upgrade your Who collection. So you try to sort out the competing merits of various deluxe editions, remasterings and box sets and it hurts your brain all bad. I know, right? What a mess.
So let’s try to sort through it in the simplest most effective way we can, okay? Now, your tastes may vary, and if you know what you like best, then please buy that. This is just how we’d handle it.
First, let’s take a step back for a quick, reductive overview of the group’s primary studio output via their UK releases:
- My Generation (Brunswick, 1965): stylistically falling somewhere between The Kinks and The Stones of this period without quite rising to either of those heights, save for the seminal title track and a couple other brilliant moments. Still, a mod classic, though probably not the very first Who record you want to buy.
- A Quick One (Reaction, 1966): a great band’s sophomore slump doesn’t hurt as bad as most, and a great closer keeps this one from being an exception to that rule.
- The Who Sell Out (Track, 1967): among the very best records of 1967, which is to say among the very best rock records ever. Pete Townshend’s songwriting flourishes, the group simultaneously sidesteps and appropriates the trappings of the day for its own wonderful purposes. Everything you might want from a single LP, and an excellent candidate for your very first Who purchase.
- Tommy (Polydor, 1969): many critic’s record of the year for 1969. The group risk everything in taking over a year creating the first full-blown rock opera. You can hear them stretching beyond their reach a bit, and they ran out of time to add those last few guitar overdubs, but that kind of adds to the charm. And the sheer ambition pays off often enough to earn the accolades this double-LP received, making The Who, at long last, stars in the US.
- Who’s Next (Polydor, 1971): the followup rock opera falls apart, and the best songs are collected to form one of the very best and most popular classic rock records ever. The performances here are outstanding, especially from the singer Roger Daltrey and the drummer Keith Moon, who finally figure out the recording studio. You’ve heard almost every one of these songs on the radio ad nauseum for forty years. Which is its only flaw: even if you don’t have this record, you might already be sick of it.
- Quadrophenia (Polydor, 1973): the followup rock opera that doesn’t fall apart. And though it doesn’t always hold together, it still has enough strong material and focused performances to put this set in most people’s top five Who records…
- The Who By Numbers (Polydor, 1975): …partly because the precipitous decline has begun. This is a very good record, though lacking in hits and focus and any energy that you could honestly define as fun.
- Who Are You (Polydor, 1978): about the same — perhaps the songs are more fun and interesting, perhaps the performances are more complacent. A good record, and the last one with the original lineup.
- Face Dances (Polydor, 1981): better in some ways than the previous two, though not better enough to make up for loss of Moon’s drumming, which defined the sound and energy of The Who just about as profoundly as everyone always thought.
- It’s Hard (Polydor, 1982): the group broke up after this one. You would have too. If you get completist and MUST. HAVE. ALL THE WHO! then you’ll find a couple of rewards buried in here.
Okay, so let’s say that, now that you have your bearings, you’re going to focus (for now) on My Generation, The Who Sell Out, Tommy, The Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia. Here’s a rational way of thinking about which versions are best for you.
It’s never ever ever wrong to go the vintage vinyl route, and pick up a near-mint early pressing. Do this if it is within your means. Make sure The Who Sell Out is the Track Records mono pressing. Make sure My Generation is the Brunswick mono (though the later Virgin pressing is also excellent). And with Quadrophenia, consider the Sony Japanese version (not the Polydor Japanese version) which has better sound than even the Polydor UK and German pressings, which are also excellent.
Going the CD route, while not quite as satisfying, does have it’s benefits. Yes, I’m talking about the bonus tracks that fill up all those extra discs in deluxe and box set editions, but since The Who are British, we’re also talking about singles, which often weren’t on the LPs.
There are some major caveats when considering Who CDs. Mastering quality is often suspect, especially in the 80s and 90s (yes, even/especially the MFSL releases). Worse, some of the editions that have come out have been used as an excuse to significantly remix these classic recordings. This has had a polarizing response, and we make no apologies about being generally firmly against it, both in theory and in how it mostly turned out. Particularly, we suggest the Universal (Japan) 2008 Box Set of My Generation, as opposed to the 2002 MCA Deluxe Edition, and we suggest sticking to original vinyl for Quadrophenia.
The 2003 Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next, on the other hand, sounds great. And the 2003 Deluxe Edition of Tommy is the best-sounding version of Tommy out there. The story (which has not been confirmed or denied), is that The Who finished their mix and headed out on tour, only to have their producer put his own mix out instead, and the original mix was found in time for the Deluxe Edition release. So it’s actually an exception, where the first pressing was not the original, or even intended, mix.
The Who Sell Out 2009 Deluxe Edition is outstanding, with great sound quality, mono and stereo versions, and lots of excellent bonus goodies. The 1995 Deluxe Edition is nearly it’s equal. The mixes have been altered on these editions, but not detrimentally so. Yes, we sound like we’re contradicting ourselves, but what we really mean is that you should pick up The Who Sell Out 2009 Deluxe Edition AND The Who Sell Out Track Records mono first pressing, because that’s really the only sane way to go.
Hope we’ve cleared a few things up. Now buy yourself a bunch of The Who.