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Who's Next

Classic Rock album by The Who

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Crawling from the Wreckage

  • Mar 31, 2010
  • by
There's an old saying that advises us to aim for the stars at all times. The idea is that by doing so, even a failure might land you on the moon, at least. Here's an example of that idea in action - "Who's Next" is without a doubt one of the most magnificent records in the magnificent career of the Who, and yet it's really just the debris of a Pete Townshend project that collapsed under its own weight.

Fans of this band already know that in the years after "Tommy", Townshend as the group's main songwriter looked around for something to top it. This was a process doomed to failure, of course, but even considering that, the plan he came up with was unwieldy at best; he wanted to put together a multi-media event called "Lifehouse" that would include live performance, taped music and video, and some sort of worldwide audience-participation computer scenario. Maybe his best idea was the notion to use the setup as the structure for a story about a totalitarian, computer-controlled state that has outlawed music because it's a revolutionary force, and a man who finds an electric guitar and touches off a rebellion. Not a bad plotline, especially for a delivery system that seeks to join the audience into a single entity in partnership with the composer. As for the presentation, however, it looks like Pete Townshend anticipated the internet twenty years early, and the audience participation stuff is only just starting to come online now. No wonder it fell apart in 1971. In a piece of interview footage, Roger Daltrey sighs "Pete couldn't explain it to us very well."

This would be frustrating for any creative person trying to work with a set of partners. For Townshend it must have been excruciating - he had written some of his best work in anticipation of this project, and discovered an exciting new approach to his craft in early synthesizer technology. No way he was going to toss it. So he took the Who into the studio with a new producer and shook it all down into a single album.

This band was always very good at big sounds, but "Who's Next" is a whole new level. The sonic bed echoes like the vault of that stormy sky on the cover. Whoever decided to kick off the record with Daltrey bellowing "Out here in the fields / I fight for my meals / I get my back into my living" had the right idea - it's definitely the perfect sentiment for the sound. In fact, the whole album is one of the best matches of sound to theme that rock has produced.

Any band that's played together as long as the Who had by 1971 gets pretty good at the kind of semi-psychic blend that's any musician's dream, but it's particularly in evidence on "Who's Next" - many of the songs have long instrumental breaks at the close that show the guitar, bass and drums swirling around each other in a kind of diamond-hard latticework, and even Daltrey's tambourine contributes its share. While that's going on, the lyrics speak of the tug of war between the need for independence and the need for community. On the one hand you have those opening lines quoted above, and a little while later Daltrey begs "If I shiver, please give me a blanket." If "Lifehouse" intended to explore the struggle between tyranny and a community of individuals, "Who's Next" does so in a much simpler format.

The only exception to that theme is "My Wife," John Entwistle's sole offering. He was one of the world's great bass players, but he was also a skillful songwriter, and people tended to expect something bizarre from him since "Boris the Spider" a few years earlier. Sure enough, "My Wife" describes a man running from his spouse, who thinks he's been unfaithful, and he's convinced she's actually going to murder him. No community here.

Then the album closes with one of the most cynical meditations on community ever produced in "Won't Get Fooled Again". It concludes with the comforting declaration, "Meet the new boss / The same as the old boss", the instrumentalists conclude not with a bang but a whimper, and the album is over. Yet even here there's a sense of belonging - that shimmering sound and musical mindreading make sure of that. And at the climax, as Dave Marsh once said, Daltrey emits a scream that transcends all doubt. As usual with the Who, you get a little bit of everything and you have to figure it out for yourself. Which may partly explain why the band lasted so long - they needed that time to get it all in.

It's ironic that so many of these numbers turned into FM radio staples when the whole piece is all about resisting the ordinary way of doing things, but that's rock music for you. The Who and Pete Townshend always swam against the tide anyway, playing at destructive volumes and destroying instruments and writing rock operas and things like that. Check out that cover photograph again, for Heaven's sake - Townshend once said that it was intended to show the Who defacing that monolith from "2001", since "Lifehouse" could have been the rock equivalent of that visionary movie, but no one seemed to notice. Makes sense in context. "Lifehouse" warned against looking to anything but humanity for help, and "Who's Next" does the same. 1971 was a hard year for the Who, but they looked to each other and came up with a classic.

Benshlomo says, Your friends will drive you crazy - that's one of the things that makes them your friends.

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More Who's Next reviews
review by . August 01, 2006
posted in Music Matters
Why is The Who's 'Who's Next' one of the most perennially played CD selections on FM radio? Surely it has retained the richness of sound that hasn't dated the music for over thirty years. With intricate music, spare, yet memorable lyrics, and powerful vocals and guitars, it has all the elements of a worthy classic rock album. 'Who's Next' may or may not be a concept album, but it doesn't really meander ever really. It seems to make a post-sixties statement about the meaning of power and what's essential …
review by . April 27, 2006
Originally intended to be a sci-fi rock opera titled "Lifehouse", WHO'S NEXT is a classic that ranks amongst the finest rock albums ever recorded. It's also the greatest album from The Who - and that's saying something. This is due in part to the variety of emotions on this album, ranging from scathing anger on the classic "Behind Blue Eyes" to free-spirited love on "The Song is Over". "Baba O'Reilly", as grand a song as The Who ever recorded, opens the album. There's very little time between that …
review by . August 18, 2001
Pros: It could be the perfect rock and roll album     Cons: It leaves you wanting more     The Bottom Line: The one album I ALWAYS keep near me to play.     It came from the ashes that was a movie project called Lighthouse. This story by Pete Townshend was a futuristic look at a place where pollution had taken it's toll.    Everyone had to travel in sealed garments or vehicles. All living quarters and public buildings were self …
review by . February 23, 2000
This is one winner of a recording. These songs just dominated FM radio throughout the 70's and I have fond memories growing up to classics like Baba O'Reilly, Bargain, and Won't Get Fooled Gain. Even the lesser tracks like Love Aint For Keeping and My Wife have alot of hidden beauty. And the Bonus Tracks such as Naked Eye, Water, and I Don't Even Know Myself blow away the best recordings of Def Leopard and Whitesnake with the upmost ease.
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A mix of old favorites and buried treasures makes this edition ofWho's Nexta definite must. One of the defining albums of 70s hard rock from one of the 60s most successful bands, the original album includes some of The Who's best-known work, such as the anthemic "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again", the by turns sorrowful and angry "Behind Blue Eyes", and perennial favorite "My Wife". The new tracks on this album are equally worth hearing, including "Pure and Easy" (an alternate edition of which is available onOdds & Sods) and the original version of "Behind Blue Eyes". A hard rock classic,Who's Nextis required listening for rock fans of all ages.--Genevieve Williams
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Label: Mca
Artist: The Who
Genre: Classic Rock
Release Date: November 7, 1995
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