It's easy to find no end of products sporting The Who's iconic "Maximum R&B" poster design, and difficult to find a good collection of them playing R&B. While researching my Gateways To Geekery entry on The Who running today, I realized I couldn't name one compilation that helpfully pulls together all of the band's versions of soul and early-rock-'n'-roll classics and obscurities. These covers were often used as live staples, or got swept up in a blur of radio sessions and B-sides. They weren't a priority in the studio. Luckily, they remain scattered across various compilations and expanded reissues of proper albums, and by extension YouTube. For those of you who like your soul with about 100 times more cymbal crashes, here's a listen to The Who's raw and sometimes messianic take.
"Heat Wave" (available on A Quick One)
The only track on this list that's actually part of a proper studio LP, this cheerful, swinging version of "Heat Wave" perversely followed John Entwistle's sick-humored tale of alcoholic madness, "Whiskey Man," on 1966's A Quick One.
"Roadrunner" (available on double-disc Who's Next reissue)
The Who tried everything to beat Townshend's wildly conceived Lifehouse project into shape (before eventually letting it become the standard-length and brilliant LP Who's Next), including recording a series of shows at London's Young Vic theater in 1971. While meant to test out new songs like "I Don't Know Myself" and "Naked Eye," these performances apparently still had a lot in common with other Who shows of the era, in that the band uses this cover of Bo Diddley's "Roadrunner" to spiral off into instrumental fireworks that have almost as much in common with the melodic sense of Tommy (hear Townshend's glittery chords near the end) as they do with the blues.
"Leaving Here" (available on BBC Sessions, Odds And Sods)
The image of The Who staging a mass airlift of mistreated women is indeed absurd, but it's a prime example of how The Who could strip away the relative classiness of a song's original Motown treatment and keep its essence.
"Good Lovin'" (Available on BBC Sessions)
Like "Heat Wave," this one doesn't so much bring out The Who's aggression as a bouncy, sweet side.
"Daddy Rolling Stone" (available on reissues of The Who Sings My Generation)
A few tracks on Quadrophenia (especially "5:15" and "Drowned") benefit from a boogie-trilling piano, but this was also true circa My Generation. The keys here are by Nicky Hopkins, who did similar session work for The Rolling Stones and a famous laundry-list of others.
"Shakin' All Over/Spoonful/Twist And Shout" (available on Live At Leeds)
The Who adopted "Shakin' All Over" from one of their early-'60s British forebears, Johnny Kidd And The Pirates, and tended to stretch it into something more menacing and blustery than your average garage-rock single. The Live At Leeds version is much more well-recorded, but this one (from the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival) slides into both "Spoonful" and "Shake It Up Baby."
"Young Man Blues" (available on Live At Leeds)
Bluesman-pianist Mose Allison is still a witty writer and tremendous player in his own right, but he owes a great deal of his fame to The Who's fevered onstage mutilation of his song "Young Man Blues." It's one of those Who tracks that's inescapable defined by the live versions. In between Daltrey's a capella verses and his final screech of "sweeeeet fuck all!" is some of the purest violence ever captured on a rock record. It eats "My Generation" alive.
"Fortune Teller" (available on Live At Leeds)
Again, it's brilliant that The Who could hear a place for so much of its own crazed racket in a sharp soul number like this.
"Summertime Blues" (available on Live At Leeds)
Eddie Cochran's snappy, funny number mutates almost as much as "Young Man Blues," complete with John Entwistle delivering the "adult" lines in a creepy gargle. I've included this video instead of the Leeds version because fuckin' look at them. Before unfurling his long golden rock-locks, Daltrey briefly sported hairstyles best left to decaying First Ladies. True, Keith Moon is dressed like a waiter in a cheesy Chinese restaurant, but he can get away with it. That and cracking up his bandmates near song's end.
SADLY ABSENT: "Just You And Me, Darling" "Dancing In The Street" (available on BBC Sessions) and "Baby Don't You Do It" (available on Who's Next reissue). Alas, I could not find these on YouTube, and Lala, giver of all life, is long gone. The BBC Sessions version of "Dancing In The Street" features a feedback-heavy, possibly backward guitar break, and "Just You And Me, Darling" boasts the most convincing soul-type vocal I've heard from Daltrey.