The rock opera Tommy was always going to be a hard act to follow, with its bold, cinematic concepts and a narrative straight out of the warped consciousness of Pete Townshend, someone who almost single-handedly invented the idea of thinking man’s pop. However The Who were never really into the whole trippy dippy idealism of flower power, nor pioneers of the psychedelic movement itself, for them it was often concerned with dysfunctional teenage outcasts. “I Can See For Miles”, from the somewhat satirical The Who Sell Out, was perhaps the closest approximation to anything even remotely mind mending, but with your parents having gone through the Blitz, and the second world war, it’s little wonder many English baby boomers could be excused for being a tad cynical when it came to all that ‘peace and love’ nonsense. Not that The Who were rejecting it entirely, it’s just that they had their own way of looking for inner tranquility, mainly through a truckload of booze, pills and enough dope to knock down a herd of elephants.
Who’s Next was the group’s follow up to the epic Tommy, and was based on a concept conceived by Townsend known as Lifehouse, what was supposed to be another double album, although aborted in favour of a single LP, and for good reason. And while Townsend may have had his own ideas, this is a near perfect document, with few bad cuts, and no toilet breaks.
“Baba O’Riley” is the first song off the rank, and is an absolute corker, and one which was clearly destined to become an essential ingredient in The Who’s musical lexicon. And while Live At Leeds was all balls to the wall in your face rock ‘n’ roll, here we have electronics and synthesizers to contend with. As Townsend explained: “Lifehouse was like the Brabazon aeroplane of the 50’s: magnificent in concept and appearance, but too big to get off the ground.” A nervous breakdown and a falling out with Kit Lambert would also contribute to the future direction of these sessions.
On “Bargain” the band offers to repudiate all their material possessions in order to gain some sort of spiritual illumination. The acoustic-country of “Love Ain’t For Keeping” is contrasted with John Entwistle’s “My Wife”, a song with a wounding brass section and the only non Lifehouse composition included on the record. Intended to be the final number of a proposed movie soundtrack, “The Song Is Over” is a muscular, synth-driven anthem for doomed youth, while “Getting In Tune” and the frantic pomposity of “Going Mobile” (sounds like a Nokia commercial, doesn’t it?) are both potential movie scores in the most bombastic sort of way (at least for rock). The acoustic ballad “Behind Blue Eyes” has a slight CSN quality, as far as the harmonies are concerned, but this is The Who after all, intent on demolition after a relaxing start.
But it’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” which is the brightest jewel in this particular crown, and one of the greatest stadium anthems of all time. And over its eight and a half minutes, Townsend managed to write a tune that would encapsulate the very essence of post hippy culture, telling his fellow generation that they’d all been taken for one enormous ride, at the expense of them and not the establishment itself. The song’s highlight surely has to be Keith Moon’s brief yet intense drum solo in the middle, which builds and builds, followed by Roger Daltrey’s bigger than Ben Hur scream, after which he sings “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”, like a cynical middle-fingered gesture at all and sundry, including many who thought they could change modern society.
And just in case you’re wondering, the iconic album cover was snapped by photographer Ethan A Russell, who was accompanying the group in a car, when he suddenly had the idea of capturing an image of all four members making their mark on some obscure concrete structure located in the middle of nowhere. Apparently none of them actually needed to relieve themselves and so a little bit of water was required to help create the illusion of four men having to piss in unison. Townsend later commented that it was “a civilised eye on an uncivilised art form.”
The Who were obviously a band which knew how to pull out all the stops, as and when required – writing songs that were part social commentary, part entertainment. Forget about punk, it was Townsend who sought to use rock as a vehicle for social and polemical change. And on this LP, he does that with aplomb.