This is Part 2 of my "Favorite Artists" series, a series where I write in-depth about my favorite bands and artists of all time.
I consider The Who to be the greatest rock band of all time. I don't say that lightly. I realize that some people might offer other valid choices for this title. I also realize that there's a difference between naming a band "my favorite band" and saying that a band is the objectively the greatest ever. Some days, The Who is my favorite band. But I've had many favorite bands on many different days, including The Monkees (who were my first musical love when I got my first transistor radio), Procol Harum (who were my favorites for most of my teen years), and Jethro Tull (who've probably been my favorite band on most of the days of my adult life). My pick for greatest band of all time is different, though. It doesn't fluctuate daily with my moods and my taste. A favorite band is a choice of the heart (and certainly there are many days where The Who is my favorite band as well). But my choice of greatest band ever is more a choice of the head.
Here's my case. To start with, the individual members of The Who are all at or near their top of their chosen instruments. Many would pick Keith Moon as the greatest rock drummer of all time, and many would pick John Entwistle as the greatest bass player. While Pete Townshend is seldom mentioned as the "greatest" guitarist of all time, he is undeniably a great guitarist, with his own unique style of rhythm guitar playing (which is as visually impressive as it is musically impressive). As for Roger Daltrey, he was doubtlessly the last of the four members of The Who to fully come into his own. However, once he did, as he began to embody the character of Tommy Walker and make him his own, he too became a singular and forceful vocal talent, one of those rare singers who can sing with equal parts power and beauty. (And it's enhanced by the weird high-pitched harmonies and occasional lead vocals Townshend and Entwistle provide). Add to all of this the uncommon chemistry that these four men had together, and their deserved reputation as one of the greatest live bands ever. Then finish it off with the genius of Townshend's writing (and yes, I know that word is overused, but in this case, it's 100% earned) and you have, in my eyes, the one band that stands out among all others.
I don't think there's ever been a one-two-three punch of studio LPs in rock annals like the successive releases of Tommy, Who's Next and Quadrophenia (and just for laughs, they threw Live at Leeds in the middle of all that, an album that many consider one of the legendary live albums of all time). The closest comparison, for me, was Pink Floyd's run from Dark Side through The Wall, but even here, I'd have to give a narrow buT definite advantage to The Who.
Think about Who's Next for a minute. Here we have what is almost universally accepted as one of the top albums in rock history, and the damned thing was a frigging failure by Townshend's standards. Fresh off the amazing breakthrough that was Tommy (which went beyond the notion of the mere concept album to become the world's first rock opera,) he was trying to create something so big it would blow Tommy out of the water, a project that would exist in multiple media formats and would join the band and the audience together in the creative process: The Lifehouse project. The concept was so big that he couldn't ever pull it all together and get it into a form that even his own management and his bandmates could understand. So after pretty much giving himself a nervous breakdown, Townshend admitted failure, abandoned the project, took the best individual songs (like "Baba O'Riley" and "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again") and put them out in a regular album format as Who's Next. What we wound up with was of the most amazing LPs in the history of LPs, and this was one of his failures! Then, just for laughs, after he'd gotten a little rest and came back to his right mind, he lowered his sights and banged out Quadrophenia. I'm in awe whenever I think about it.
Here's another thing, too. When we think of those albums, we think of the legendary rock anthems such as "Pinball Wizard" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" from Tommy, the three songs I mentioned earlier from Who's Next, and "Love, Reign O'er Me" and "5:15" from Quadrophenia. But some of my favorites are the smaller numbers from those three albums: "Sensation" and "Amazing Journey" from Tommy, "Bargain" and "Getting in Tune" from Who's Next, and "Cut My Hair", "The Dirty Jobs" and "Sea and Sand" from Quadrophenia. Then there are the character numbers, like "Bell Boy" from Quadrophenia. And don't even get me started on the "added-value" of John Entwistle's songs -- songs like "Boris the Spider", "Fiddle About" and "My Wife".
I once heard it said that "A million Def Leppards will come and go -- but there will only ever be one Who". I feel bad picking on Def Leppard in particular -- I have nothing against them (although I have nothing especially for them either). But you get the point. Although they only released eleven actual studio albums, The Who not only created music that is timeless, but also ideas and ways of doing things that forever changed rock history. Ironically, even the punk movement, which mostly abhorred what had come to be thought of "stadium rock", by and large revered The Who.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. I'll be the first to admit that someone else could make the case for other bands. For me, though, it's pretty cut and dried. The Who are my choice the greatest band in rock history.
Coming up next in this series, in about 3 months: Pink Floyd.