Happy 45th Anniversary to The Who’s Who’s Next, originally released August 14, 1971.
“I sit looking 'round / I look at my face in the mirror / I know I'm worth nothing without you / And like one and one don't make two / One and one make one / And I'm looking for that free ride to me / I'm looking for you.”
It doesn’t get much more real than this. Tell the truth. We’ve all had a significant other or even insignificant other express some variation of this sentiment to us or vice versa. These lyrics, from “Bargain,” capture the very essence of who The Who truly were or at the very least who Pete Townshend was and most likely still is.
This week, we happily celebrate the 45th anniversary of The Who’s Who’s Next, which is regarded in many circles as the best album in their catalog. Sandwiched in between opener “Baba O’Reily” and closing track “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with one exception, are songs of exquisite beauty that touch a place that very few songwriters can reach. Yes, and let’s be honest with ourselves, this includes Lennon and McCartney. I don’t want to delve into crass comparisons between the two bands, but over the years, the Beatles were held in very high esteem while The Who were merely looked upon as the guys who sang “My Generation” and then smashed their instruments.
They were so much more than that. The Who were comprised of a motionless savant-like bass player, an insane drummer who’s id was on constant display, an intelligent, but gruff songwriting/guitar-playing genius, and a frontman with a powerful voice and arguably the best hair of any lead singer of his generation. They were by no means refined or chaste.
The Who evoke that guy you knew growing up who was a blast to hang out with and would beat the shit out of anybody who fucked with you or even thought about it. He drinks too much, hangs out too late, but you always have a great time with him. Later on, you discovered that while at home alone, he drank even more, wrote poetry, and painted sunflowers or green landscapes for the hell of it. Complex, dense and multi-layered. These qualities are on full display on Who’s Next.
After the release of Tommy and their triumphant performance at Woodstock, one had to wonder what The Who would do next for an encore. Townshend came up with an extremely ambitious project called Lifehouse, which was intended to be a multi-media, sci-fi rock opera. Overseeing a project of this magnitude, the pressure of having a successful follow up to Tommy and realizing that his vision would not come to fruition caused Townshend to have a nervous breakdown. The Lifehouse project was cancelled.
After being convinced by their producer Glyn Johns to record a regular album with no concept thrown into the mix, The Who took some of the remains of the Lifehouse project and began to record Who’s Next. With the Mod movement all but invisible, the band began to expand their horizons and touch on themes other than angst, despair and rebellion.
Judging by the opening track “Baba O’Reily” alone, you would never have known this. The song, whose title is an ode to composer Terry Riley and Townshend’s spiritual guru Meher Baba, is often referred to as “Teenage Wasteland.” Townshend’s then newly found infatuation with synthesizers is evident throughout this track and across the album for that matter. While the lyrics are given “the full Daltrey,” the content suggests a tough but non-confrontational stance: “Out here in the fields / I fight for my meals / I get my back into my living / I don't need to fight / To prove I'm right / I don't need to be forgiven / Yea, yea.”
Track two is “Bargain,” a beautiful song that exposes a vulnerability in Townshend’s songwriting that foreshadows the work he would explore in his solo career. After playing Who’s Next, give Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass a listen. Pay particular attention to “Rough Boys.”
Next up is “My Wife,” written by John Entwistle, which was originally slated for his solo album, but was added at the last minute. Based on a real life incident between the stoic bass player and his wife, it adds some much needed levity to this album, with line such as “My life's in jeopardy / Murdered in cold blood is what I'm gonna be / I ain't been home since Friday night / And now my wife is coming after me.”
“The Song Is Over” is the fourth track and a personal favorite of mine. It deftly handles the tricky balancing act of the song’s protagonist lamenting and mourning the end of a phase in his life, while leaving the door open for a potentially bright future. Townshend sings lead on this one and Daltrey crushes the bridge as only he can. Similarly, this technique was done to great effect on the Beatles’ “A Day in The Life” with Lennon on lead and McCartney handling the middle eight.
Originally designated for the aforementioned Lifehouse project, “Getting in Tune,” “Going Mobile,” and “Behind Blue Eyes” are the next trio of songs. Famed music critic Robert Christgau once suggested that “The real theme (for the whole album), I think, is ‘getting in tune to the straight and narrow,” which are lyrics from “Getting in Tune.” It is definitely evidence of a growth and maturity that had not been on display for much of The Who’s career up to this point. “Getting in Tune” and “Going Mobile” are songs about nothing and everything all at the same time.
For the Lifehouse project, “Behind Blue Eyes” was intended to be sung by a character named Jumbo and was best described by Townshend as “really off the wall because that was a song sung by the villain of the piece (Jumbo), the fact that he felt in the original story that he was forced into a position of being a villain whereas he felt he was a good guy.”
The final track is the classic “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which has been covered by everyone from Labelle (you must listen to this version) to Van Halen (only in concert). Townshend has often expressed mixed feelings about this song. He described the song as one “that screams defiance at those who feel any cause is better than no cause,” adding “Don't expect to see what you expect to see. Expect nothing and you might gain everything."
Who’s Next is a brilliant album which allowed The Who to show a softer, less destructive side of themselves. Hell, even Keith Moon’s drumming was subdued. It was a much needed detour from the high wire act they seemed to be constantly engaged in. Even though the album cover does not suggest it, this was their grown-up album. It was a nice break before they embarked on their next big project, Quadrophenia, and still stands as one of their crowning achievements.