The Who

Behind Blue Eyes

Composed by Pete Townshend

Song Review by

Like most of the songs on the Who's 1971 classic Who's Next, Pete Townshend originally wrote "Behind Blue Eyes" for his ambitious (and long uncompleted) multimedia concept piece Lifehouse, and in that context, the song was meant to reflect the thoughts of the villain of the piece, who was forced to subsume his more noble impulses in the service of corrupt power structure. On Who's Next, the song had to stand alone as a meditation of one man's dual nature, and the result was one of the most powerful and mature performances on the album. While the Who had on occasion displayed the ability to quiet themselves when the circumstances dictated (particularly on Tommy), for the most part they were still best known of the bash-and-crash amphetamine overdrive of their live show and such singles as "My Generation" and "I Can See for Miles." However, "Behind Blue Eyes" showed that the band had learned how to generate tension and drama through other means. The recording starts out with a minor-key melody being gently picked out on an acoustic guitar, and Roger Daltrey, with the clear voice of a schoolboy, singing "No one knows what it's like/To be the bad man/To be the sad man/Behind blue eyes." Soon John Entwistle's bass comes in, but as subtle punctuation, without his usual dive-bombing fretboard runs, and while some beautifully executed harmonies support Daltrey's vocal, a barely controlled rage seethes beneath the surface of his performance without fully breaking through. The performance conjures the image of a man desperately holding himself back from an explosion of anger and wrath, and a little more than two minutes in, the dam finally breaks. Keith Moon's drums finally burst onto the scene, Townshend's electric guitar wails at full force, and Entwistle's bass roars at full velocity as Daltrey finally addresses his subject at full volume and with a full reserve of venom, though what he demands in his fury is to be put back in check -- "When my fist clenches, crack it open/Before I use it and lose my cool/When I smile, tell me some bad news/Before I laugh and act like a fool." "Behind Blue Eyes" showed that the Who had learned some very valuable lessons about the importance of dynamics and the contrast of it's quiet and loud passages were the perfect counterpart to Townshend's lyrical reflection on tension and release. An early solo acoustic demo of the song appeared on Townshend's collection of home recordings, Scoop, and while Pete does well with the song's quiet buildup, his inability to recreate the passionate explosion into the third verse says a great deal about why an artist of such strong personal vision was willing to remain a member of a group -- it says a great deal about what he could do within the boundaries of the Who as opposed to what he could do all by his lonesome.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Who's Next 1971 Geffen / Polydor
No Image 1974 MCA
The Who by Numbers 1975 Polydor 3:41
No Image 1976
Concerts for the People of Kampuchea 1981
Various Artists
Atlantic 3:36
Hooligans 1982 MCA 3:40
Who's Last 1984 MCA 3:39
This Is My Generation 1988 AVI (REISSUES) 3:41
Join Together 1990 Geffen 3:38
Live: Featuring Rock Opera Tommy 1990 Sony Music Distribution
Thirty Years of Maximum R&B 1994 Polydor / Universal 3:37
Thirty Years of Maximum R&B Live [Video/DVD] 1994 MCA
Pure Rock Ballads 1998
Various Artists
Polygram 3:42
No Image 1998 Killing Floor
Rock Ballads [Imprint] 1999
Various Artists
Universal Distribution
20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of The Who 1999 Geffen 3:43
The Vegas Job: Reunion Concert Live in Vegas 1999 Passport Audio
The Blues to the Bush 2000 3:46
The Ultimate Collection 2002 Geffen 3:42
Live: Tinley Park, Illinois, August 24, 2002 2002 Hi-Spot 4:08
Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2003 SPV
Then and Now: 1964-2004 2004 Polydor 3:41
Live in Boston [Video] 2004 Rhino / WSM 3:44
Tommy and Quadrophenia: Live [DVD] 2005 Rhino/Warner Bros.
Endless Wire 2006 Universal Republic / Republic
No Image 2007
Various Artists
View from a Backstage Pass 2007 4:36
No Image 2008 Image Entertainment
Greatest Hits 2009 Geffen 3:43
Maximum R&B Live 2009 Geffen
Greatest Hits & More 2010 Polydor 3:39
Greatest Hits Live [Geffen] 2010 Geffen 3:39
Live Generations USA 1982: Live in San Diego, California [Video] 2010 Intergroove
Icon 2 2011 Geffen 3:43
The  Studio Albums 2012 Geffen / Universal 3:40
Live: Wantaugh, New York August 31, 2002 2014 All the Music / EP / JBL / 4:06
The Who Hits 50! 2014 Geffen 3:41
Live in Hyde Park 2015 Eagle Rock / Eagle Vision 4:14
Live Greatest Hits Geffen / Universal 3:40
Live at Charlton 1974 Midas Touch
blue highlight denotes editor's pick