The Who – Who’s Next
Released August 14th, 1971 on Track Records and Decca Records
Produced by Chris Stamp, Kit Lambert, Glyn Johns, Pete Kameron and The Who
Peaked at #1 U.K., #4 U.S.
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” (#9 U.K., #15 U.S.)
“Behind Blue Eyes” (#34 U.S.)
The Who had been touring incessantly since the early 1960s, forging a reputation as a live band without peer. The mod movement brought them to fame; Tommy brought them to fortune. The band (mostly Pete Townshend) had been slowly moving from being a pop singles band to doing something artistic with their albums. A Quick One was their first stab at what would come to be termed a “rock opera”, and The Who Sell Out was proof that they could write a thematically coherent album that stood apart from itself as just a collection of songs. Tommy was the culmination of their artistic urges (or, again, Townshend’s) and pop culture responded fervently. It’s as much a musical as it is an album, and it made the band millionaires. Townshend’s success with the rock opera format on Tommy made him want to do something even more extravagant for the follow-up. He began by articulating a vision of the connection between rock band and audience in Melody Maker. Touring was a slog and Townshend envisioned a sort of meta concert film as an alternative to it. Ideas flowed fast. They wanted to go even more meta – get the audience in on the creation of the narrative. They tried to put this into action, but the audiences weren’t really having it; they wanted the hits, man, as any overly ambitious rock band could tell you. The project, which was called Lifehouse, was dropped after Townshend soured on getting the audience in on the creation process and the whole thing became entirely too complicated. Part of the complication was their manager, Kit Lambert; he was slated to produce Lifehouse but his abuse of hard drugs and his preoccupation with Track Records drove a wedge between him and the band. Another part was inter-band tensions. Townshend wanted to get avant-garde about it, but Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle were, having tasted lots of money, all about getting more money. Keith Moon was soused to the gills and spending it as fast as he was drinking, which is to say faster than any three other people combined.
So Lifehouse was scrapped but most of the songs were recovered to go into various other projects. The first of these was Who’s Next, which was, save for Entwhistle’s sublime “My Wife”, entirely taken from the abandoned project. As far as Plan B records go, it’s probably the greatest ever made. The songs chosen are a wall-to-wall lineup of the best the band has to offer. I know Tommy is the band’s creative peak, but Who’s Next is infinitely more listenable, the perfect summation of the band’s big, buzzy, power-chord driven sound. The inclusion of synthesizers added texture and subtlety to the music, Christgau be damned. “Baba O’Riley”, written in the wake of Townshend’s disgust with the state of the hippies at Woodstock, opens the album with a blast, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written. Somehow the album improves from there: “Bargain” feels like an avalanche in motion, and the hooks in “Love Ain’t For Keeping” and “My Wife” seem as though they’re the size of planets. “The Song Is Over” and “Behind Blue Eyes” show Townshend’s adeptness when it comes to dynamics, starting with some of the best balladry he’s ever written and slamming into full-on Daltrey-busting rock ‘n’ roll supernovas. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” brings it all together: the huge rock ‘n’ roll gestures, Keith Moon’s rolling thunderstorm drumming, Townshend’s provacative lyric writing, and of course the coda that rolls along like a wave that crests with that famous Daltrey scream, the one that CSI made into such a meme. “Meet the new boss; Same as the old boss” – Townshend neatly encapsulated the Sixties and provided foreshadowing for the decade to come.
Who’s Next was also a huge success, but Townshend demanded a time to rest after the tour as they had been on the go since “My Generation.” Journalist Tony Fletcher has argued that this inactive period did a serious number on Keith Moon; unable to cope with not being in the constant party of touring, he let himself deteriorate and his already legendary alcoholism became a much grimmer thing. Still, Moon had a few years to go and Townshend had one great album left to write, 1973’s mod opera Quadrophenia.