Monday 1 December 2008

The Who "Who's Next" (1971) (News, Views and Music 14)

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“I’m singing this note ‘cause it fits in well with the chords I’m playing, I can’t pretend there’s any meaning hidden in the things I’m saying, but I’m in tune…”

“Who’s Next” (The Who, 1971)

Along with follow-up Quadrophenia, “Who’s Next” is the closest-to-perfection of any of the Who’s 11 albums recorded between 1965 and 1982. Who album number five had an absolutely horrendous back story, including the breakdown of a near-finished concept album ‘Lifehouse’ (a mythical album that predicted the growth of the internet 30 years too early that’s nearly matched ‘Smile’ in the ‘what if this had come out at the time?’ stories) and very nearly the breakdown of the band’s chief composer Pete Townshend. While nobody except Pete is entirely sure how the story would have gone exactly (and the final ‘finished’ version of ‘Lifehouse’ – a radio play produced by Radio Four in 2001 - is a bit of a red herring in terms of how the plot would have gone), the general gist of it was something like this. Pete believed that somewhere, tapped away in people, was some sort of general mass consciousness, a sort of ‘lost chord’ that, when joined together, would represent nirvana for humanity (or Who fans at the very least).

To that end, The Who took over the Young Vic Theatre, playing several shows to a small group of fans in the belief that, somehow, the band would tap into the people’s personalities and work out what made them tic and what connections between them had brought them to this same spot in time. The half-worked-out plot would follow a rock star sending out signals to his fans every night from a secluded radio station, the attempts of one of his listeners to track him down and ask him about life, the universe and everything and the establishment’s attempts to stop them. The radio drama adds in several sub-plots that probably weren’t in the original version – the rock star visiting himself as a child, dreaming of the links he can make with mankind; the failed marriage and mid-life crisis of the listener’s father which drives him to breaking point when he thinks his daughter has left because of him and the general feeling of destiny and pre-ordained concepts that runs through the play. Think of ‘Lifehouse’ as The Moody Blues’ 1968 album ‘In Search Of the Lost Chord’ but bigger, nosier and much more interactive.

Most people, even the biggest Who fans, think of this concept as monkeynuts – and they’re probably right. But before judging this failed concept, bear in mind two things. Firstly that the Who really did ‘feed’ information about a person into a new-fangled invention called a synthesiser and came up with one of their best-loved songs, Baba O’Riley (named after Pete Townshend’s spiritual guru Meher Baba, whose ‘information’ was fed into the synthesiser  - no I’m not quite sure how that works either - and Sean O’Riley, developer of the synthesiser Pete was working on). Secondly, replace the word ‘radio’ with the word ‘internet’ and the concept is spot on; no band ever listened to or took ideas from the audience as much as The Who did (‘Listening To You’ from ‘Tommy’ puts these sentiments across perfectly) and if only the worldwide web had been around 30 years earlier the band could easily have been inspired, challenged and intrigued by comments made by their fans on sites like this very one you’re reading now. During its early stages this ‘Lifehouse’ concept would have been a double-album, a touring stage show which changed every night depending on the audience and a big budget feature film – and these weren’t pie-in-the-sky ideas either. As the follow-up to ‘Tommy’ and ‘Live At Leeds’ The Who were big business and fully prepared to go all the way with Townshend’s latest muse. Only Pete himself wasn’t quite sure what form hi muse should take.

Like Brian Wilson four years before him, Pete’s new work was just too ahead of it’s time, too inventive, complicated and sprawling for anybody to pull off all on their own and the guitarist was simply too close to the subject matter to delegate material to anybody else as he perhaps should have done. Making ‘Lifehouse’ now would be difficult (although Pete did stick out a special 9 CD edition of ‘Lifehouse’ using Who recordings, demos and instrumental snippets; only available via his website interestingly given what we were saying about the internet earlier) – making it in 1971, when these concepts of ‘inter-activeness’ and ‘togetherness’ were new and alien to the world in large, was nigh on impossible. After all, the pressure on The Who’s shoulders was enormous – after ‘Tommy’ anything the band was bound to be scrutinised closely and the fact that Pete was boasting in the press that this album would ‘revitalise the whole of the jaded rock and roll industry’ probably didn’t help either. So Pete gave up, filed away some songs for later and condensed his double album into a killer eight-track collection, with a new and hilarious song by John Entwistle added at the last minute. 

Even in diluted form, however, ‘Who’s Next’ is special, containing everything that was great about the early Who (heavy uncompromising rocking, three very special musicians and one very special singer at the height of their powers, rock star posing but with the songs to match and the sheer oompah of it all) with the best of the 1970s maturer-style Who (lyrics stoked through with vulnerability behind the matcho posing, the sheer range of instrumentation on offer, the use of synthesisers before anybody else in the rock mainstream was using them and big concepts relayed in simple easy-to-follow terms). Everyone will know two if not three of these songs, which have all become teenage anthems in the ‘My Generation’ mould, even though the band were actually pushing 30 when they wrote them. ‘Baba O’Riley’ we’ve discussed; ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ takes the concept one stage further, expressing the narrator’s feelings of helplessness and disillusion not as a personal annoyance but as a rally against the world, all held together with perhaps Pete’s ultimate rock and roll riff, the most complicated John Entwistle bass part yet, crashing Keith Moon drums and a – literally – screaming Roger Daltrey at his peak. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is less known to the public at large but worshipped by fans – half ballad, half rocker, it’s spacey feel and troubled but snarling narrator perfectly captures the Who’s template sound and the harmonies swirling across the opening two minutes are the best on a Who record, matching the Beach Boys and CSNY in their complexity and other-worldliness.

However, the best track on the record from my point of view is ‘Bargain’, an even better assimilation of everything The Who stands for tied up into four majestic minutes. Musically, the verses are The Who of old, running down everything in its path at 100 miles an hour with the band on classic rock interplay form and no fan of their early brash-worthy singles will be disappointed by it. Yet lyrically this track is an uncharacteristic love song, acknowledging that the narrator’s hard-done-by, hateful past is worth it just for the small amount of love he feels he is getting in the present. The song also starts with a mournful pedal steel, putting the rockier verses in context, and the way the narrator drops his guard for the middle eight, telling us how he’s ‘worth nothing without you’, is perhaps the single most moving 30 seconds in the Who’s canon, with Pete’s vulnerable vocal on this passage saying everything that Roger’s powerhouse of a character just can’t. The Who are stretching their sound greatly on this album, making the listener fill in the gaps about what’s really going on in the heads of the various narrators, and none of these special tracks are more fleshed out than this perfect compromise between heavy rocker and subtle ballad.

There are two more unsung classics too. ‘Love Ain’t For Keeping’ isn’t the sort of track that demands you take a listen to it, but in it’s subtle, left field way it might be one of the greatest songs on the album. The Who tried this track in two completely different ways – the earlier Pete-sung take available on the superlative CD edition of outtakes set ‘Odds and Sods’ is a barnstorming rocker sung with all the finesse of a steamroller. This ‘finished’ version’ is more laidback and almost country in its angular feel and pedal steel backing, although it’s the note-perfect interplay between the three musicians that make it the special little track it is. ‘The Song Is Over’ is another track that often gets overlooked, but it shouldn’t be – that long instrumental keyboard opening is the perfect melancholy scene-setter and Pete’s troubled vocal suddenly being overtaken by Roger’s optimistic chorus is delightful. The lyrics, too, are some of the cleverest on the record – comparing a loved one to writing a song should sound hackneyed, but the sentiments here sound genuine – the relationship that’s tried to resolve itself for years mirrors Pete’s clever musical backing, which always sounds one note away from a big finish throughout the song. 

The only track that stops this sublime album being as near-perfect as you can get is ‘Going Mobile’, a strangely disjointed bouncy rocker that feels flat-footed sandwiched two of the heaviest moments in The Who’s canon (as both ‘getting IN Tune’ and ‘Blue Eyes’ turn into snarling angry rockers by the end). Pete’s admitted that this song was one of the ‘lighter’ pieces adapted from ‘Lifehouse’, a song originally meant to describe the rocker narrator’s joy at escaping his radio station prison and travelling by car in the outside world. Acoustic arrangements on Who songs are usually the highpoints of their albums (‘Behind Blue Eyes’ from this one being a case in point), but this acoustic arrangement track just sounds tinny, with Pete’s reedy vocal a pale copy of Roger’s at full throttle. Furthermore, the squealing synthesiser sound effects on the fade-out have none of the subtlety or inventiveness of their appearances on other synthesised-driven Who tracks of the time. Even this track is only poor by comparison to its siblings, however – on most earlier Who albums, this piece would still have been at least a minor gem.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this album is the sheer volume of classic tracks that never made the cut. ‘Pure and Easy’ would have been a highlight on any Who album but as part of ‘Lifehouse’ it’s the touchstone that makes all the other songs make some vague sort of sense. A gorgeous hymnal song about the search for the one pure note that will bring ‘harmony’ (excuse the pun) to the world, this is The Who at their prettiest and its astonishing that this track wasn’t used by the Who on anything except a rarities set (unused apart from one line that is, heard over the fade of ‘The Song Is Over’).’Naked Eye’ and ‘Water’ go the other way, being primal primitive Who rockers that went down a storm live and would have worked fine on the original ‘double album’ version of ‘Lifehouse’ (although the studio versions of both these admittedly can’t hold a candle to live versions of the period). ‘I Don’t Even Know Myself’, an album candidate which turned into the B-side of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, is another classy bit of songwriting, an early prototype for both ‘Bargain’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ (musically, this is the first time The Who string a rocker and a ballad together to form some type of hybrid) and ‘The Real Me’ from next album ‘Quadrophenia’ (lyrically, this track challenges any stereotype you can make against the narrator, because he feels he is several different characters at once). ‘Too Much Of Anything’ is slowly and more subtle than any of these other period tracks, but this song too has its slow-burning charms, with Roger’s delicate vocal getting a rare- chance to show off his emotional range. ‘Time Is Passing’ is perhaps a bit more ordinary, but this simple tale of wasting time had the potential to be great had the band got a decent recording of it. Indeed, any of these of tracks would have made up a fine LP in their own right, but the fact that Pete was prepared to jettison them for greater material shows how fertile his songwriting was in this period. In all, ‘Who’s Next’ is a fine album, as fine as any made in the 1970s and a worthy addition to any self-respecting collector’s collection.

A complete collection of Who reviews:

'The Who Sing My Generation' (1965)

'Sell Out' (1967)

‘Tommy’ (1969)

'Live At Leeds' (1970)

'Lifehouse' (As It Might Have Been) (1971)

'Who's Next' ('Lifehouse' As It Became) (1971)

'Quadrophenia' (1973)

'The Who By Numbers' (1975)

'Who Are You' (1978)

'Face Dances' (1979)

'Empty Glass' (Townshend solo 1980)

'It's Hard' (1982)

Surviving Who TV Clips 1965-2015

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1964-1967

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1968-2014

Pete Townshend “Scoop” 1-3

The Best Unreleased Who Recordings

Live/Solo/Rarities/Competition Albums Part One 1965-1972

Live/Solo/Rarities/Competition Albums Part Two 1972-1975

Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Three 1976-1982

Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Four 1983-1990

Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Five 1991-2000

Essay: Who Are You And Who Am I?:

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