Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will bring their The Who Hits 50! Tour to Minneapolis’ Target Center on Sunday, marking what very well could be the final Twin Cities show of their five-decade, Hall of Fame career.
Of course, this is a band that has performed over 300 concerts since their 1982 “farewell” tour, but they do have to stop sometime. Frontman Daltrey and guitarist/creative leader Townshend are both in their early 70s, and the former ominously referred to this jaunt as “their long goodbye.”
No matter when these legends hang it up, their music will live on far longer. So will their often-great album covers, which have featured everything from wacky drawings to public urination. Because music exists so that everything related to it can be subjectively compared and quantified, we’ve decided to rank these record sleeves.
Please note that this list only includes the band’s 11 studio albums, so classic covers like those gracing Odds & Sods and Live at Leeds are not included. Join us on this amazing journey through the Who catalog!
11. A Quick One (1966)
You may note the similarities between the cartoonish cover of the Who’s sophomore release and that of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. That’s because A Quick One designer Alan Aldridge’s role in the Pop Art movement was an influence on the animators behind the famous Beatles film. If only those beautiful caricatures of the band took up the majority of this sleeve instead of all that black space. The jumbo guitars stand the test of time, but the same can’t be said for that garish lettering.
10. Endless Wire (2006)
The Who’s most recent (and likely final) album was their first in 24 years, the Chinese Democracy-beating follow-up to 1982’s It’s Hard. Appropriately, its artwork would’ve been believable as the cover for a hypothetical new Who record in 1985, since it looks like a secret level the kid playing Atari on the front of It’s Hard might enter.
9. Face Dances (1981)
The portrait of Townshend in the top-left corner and the side-view of Daltrey against a green background would look great on your wall, but the 16 images that make up the Face Dances sleeve are ultimately greater than the sum of their parts. Nothing against Kenney Jones (words Roger Daltrey never said), but even 35 years later it’s tough getting used to seeing a substitute in late drummer Keith Moon’s place on a Who LP.
8. It’s Hard (1982)
Daltrey’s kid cousin is playing the Atari classic Space Duel behind the band on the cover for It’s Hard, calling back to the pinball machines that Tommy mastered in the ‘30s (or ‘60s if you’re going by the movie). Townshend looks like the ultimate badass in this photo, clean-shaven and glaring at the camera like the band was about to break up. It’s a shame that the Endless Wire artwork didn’t continue the video-game theme and feature Daltrey and Townshend playing Guitar Hero against each other.
The Who By Numbers (1975)
It’s always a bonus when your record sleeve can double as an activity to keep a child busy in the pediatrician’s waiting room. This quirky cover was designed (and signed) by late bassist John Entwistle, who was in fact inspired by his son’s coloring book. In a 1996 interview, he claimed that while the Townshend-led Quadrophenia art had cost the Who £16,000, his creation only set the band back £32.
6. Who Are You (1978)
The band members are fixed atop PA equipment in their English studio, with Moon dressed as an equestrian and straddling a chair (both to hide the large stomach he’d grown from years of alcohol abuse) whose back reads, “NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY.” He died of a prescription drug overdose less than three weeks after the release of Who Are You, taken away far too young at the age of 32.
5. Quadrophenia (1973)
Smoke machines, vintage Mod scooters, and multiple photographers all contributed to the huge price tag for the iconic Quadrophenia cover. The darkly tinted artwork features the main character of Townshend’s second rock opera, Jimmy, sitting on his Vespa GS and shrouded in smoke. A close look reveals the faces of each Who member in the rearview mirrors, although it would take an impeccable eye to tell that Moon’s mug was added in the editing room.
4. Tommy (1969)
The eye-grabbing Tommy sleeve only gets more stunning when folded out, revealing a giant blue sphere with birds escaping from its gaps and a fist punching through a wall. It’s meant to symbolize the title character’s “I’m Free” moment (when he suddenly can hear and speak and see) and was the brainchild of Mike McInnerney, who introduced Townshend to the teachings of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, later immortalized on the next LP’s “Baba O’Riley.”
3. The Who Sell Out (1967)
The Who almost went with a psychedelic rendition of a butterfly for the cover of their third album, but that would’ve robbed the world of one of the greatest uses of irony ever. Instead, the group continued the record’s fake product-placement concept into the visual medium, adapting tracks like “Odorono” and “Heinz Baked Beans” into shots of Townshend smirking as he applies deodorant and Daltrey contracting hypothermia while sitting in a bathtub of cold beans, respectively. On the flip side, Moon can be seen applying Medac to his face and Entwistle and a model posing in leopard skin clothing.
2. Who’s Next (1971)
The cover of the Who’s best-selling LP shows the band members milling about on a slag heap in northern England, having just urinated on a large concrete structure. A more romantic look at the sleeve, however, suggests they’re on the surface of the Moon, having already conquered earth with Tommy. One word that constantly comes to my mind when looking at Who’s Next is "spacious," and it’s striking how perfectly married this photograph is with the wide-open sonics of “Baba O’Riley.”
My Generation (1965)
The Who may have ascended to another musical stratosphere in the years following their 1965 debut, but they never made a greater album cover than this simple, above-head shot. The young Mods’ national pride is clear thanks to the red-white-blue color scheme, which is carried out in everything from the blocky font to Daltrey’s denim jacket and those mysterious barrels. Entwistle is already showing off his eclectic wardrobe with that snazzy Union Jack blazer, while Townshend’s scowl suggests he wasn’t a fan of promotional duties from the outset.