The Who: Who’s Next – [Record 23]
Who’s Next: is the fifth studio album by English rock band The Who, released in August 1971. The album had origins in a rock opera conceived by Pete Townshend called Lifehouse as an attempt to follow Tommy. The ambitious, complex project did not come to fruition at the time and instead, many of the songs written for the project were compiled onto Who’s Next as a collection of unrelated songs. After difficulty with initial recording sessions at the New York Record Plant, events stabilized with the arrival of producer Glyn Johns, who worked on the finished album. The album featured the group’s first use of the synthesizer, particularly on the tracks “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
The album was a critical and commercial success when it was released, and has been certified 3× platinum by the RIAA. It continues to be critically acclaimed and has been reissued on Compact Disc several times, adding additional material intended for the Lifehouse project.
1. Baba O’Riley.
3. Love Ain’t for Keeping.
4. My Wife.
5. The Song Is Over.
6. Getting in Tune.
7. Going Mobile.
8. Behind Blue Eyes.
9. Won’t Get Fooled Again.
The Lifehouse project: The album had its roots in the Lifehouse project, which Pete Townshend has variously described as intended to be a futuristic rock opera, a live-recorded concept album and as the music for a scripted film project. The project proved to be intractable on several levels and caused stress within the band as well as a major falling out between Townshend and The Who’s producer Kit Lambert. Years later, in the liner notes to the remastered Who’s Next CD, Townshend wrote that the failure of the project led him to the verge of a suicidal nervous breakdown.
After giving up on recording some of the Lifehouse tracks in New York, The Who went back into the studio with new producer Glyn Johns and started over. Although the Lifehouse concept was abandoned, scraps of the project remained present in the final album. The introductory line to “Pure and Easy”, which Townshend has described as “the central pivot of Lifehouse,” shows up in the closing bars of “The Song Is Over”. An early concept for Lifehouse featured the feeding of personal data from audience members into the controller of an early analogue synthesiser to create musical tracks. It was widely believed that inputting the vital statistics of Meher Baba into a synthesiser generated the backing track on “Baba O’Riley”, but in actuality it was Townshend playing a Lowrey organ. A primary result of the abandonment of the original project, however, was a newfound freedom; the very absence of an overriding musical theme or storyline (which had been the basis of The Who’s 1969 project, Tommy) allowed the band to concentrate on maximising the impact of individual tracks.
Although he gave up his original intentions for the Lifehouse project, Townshend continued to develop the concepts, revisiting them in later albums. In 2006 he opened a website called The Lifehouse Method to accept personal input from applicants which would be turned into musical portraits.
Arrangement and songs: The album was immediately recognised for its dynamic and unique sound. The album fortuitously fell at a time when great advances had been made in sound engineering over the previous decade, and also shortly after the widespread availability of synthesisers.
Townshend used the early synthesisers and modified keyboard sounds in several modes: as a drone effect on several songs, notably “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and as a playful noisemaker, sounding almost like a tea kettle whistle on “Song Is Over”. Townshend also used an envelope follower to modulate the spectrum of his guitar on “Going Mobile”, giving it a distinctive squawking sound that degenerates into a bubbling noise at the end of the song.
The album opened with “Baba O’Riley,” featuring piano by Townshend and a violin solo by Dave Arbus. The violin solo was drummer Keith Moon’s idea. The song’s title pays homage to Townshend’s guru Meher Baba and influential minimalist composer Terry Riley (and is informally known by the line “Teenage Wasteland”). Other signature tracks include the rock ballad “Behind Blue Eyes”, and the album’s epic closing song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Artwork: Cover artwork shows a photograph, taken at Easington Colliery, of the band apparently having just urinated on a large concrete piling protruding from a slag heap. According to photographer Ethan Russell, most of the members were unable to urinate, so rainwater was tipped from an empty film canister to achieve the desired effect. The partially cloudy sky seen above the site was also composited from a separate image. The photograph is often seen to be a reference to the monolith discovered on the moon in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had been released only about three years earlier. Pete Townshend stated it was an ironical answer to Stanley Kubrick turning down the direction of Tommy. In 2003, the United States cable television channel VH1 named Who’s Next’s cover one of the greatest album covers of all time.
An earlier cover design had featured photographs of obese nude women and has been published elsewhere, but never actually appeared on the album. An alternative cover featured drummer Keith Moon dressed in black lingerie, holding a rope whip, and wearing a brown wig. Some of the photographs taken during these sessions were later used as part of Decca’s United States promotion of the album.
1970/71 – Demo sessions at the home studios of Pete Townshend and John Entwistle that produced two reels of songs.
January–March 1971 – Live recordings at the Young Vic (mobile Studio).
March 1971 – New York sessions at the Record Plant, Lifehouse songs recorded with Kit Lambert and Jack Adams at the desk. These sessions were abandoned, along with the Lifehouse concept.
26 April 1971 – Final Lifehouse concert which was recorded and later released (in part) on disc 2 of the Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next
May 1971 – Recording at Stargroves Studio London, the sessions were abandoned.
May–June 1971 – Olympic Studios in Barnes produced by The Who with associate producer Glyn Johns. The Olympic sessions were used for the original vinyl LP album.
The album has now been re-issued in many countries and remastered several times using tapes from different sessions. The master tapes for the Olympic sessions are believed to be lost or destroyed. Video game publisher Harmonix had previously announced that Who’s Next would be released as downloadable, playable content for the music video game series Rock Band. However, this never came to fruition, since it was discovered that many of the master tapes to the album were missing, as confirmed by Townshend. Instead, a compilation of Who songs dubbed “The Best of The Who,” which includes three of the album’s songs (“Behind Blue Eyes”, “Baba O’Riley”, and “Going Mobile”), was released as downloadable content, in lieu of the earlier-promised Who’s Next album.
There were quite a few songs recorded for the project that became Who’s Next. “Let’s See Action” and “When I Was a Boy” were released as a single in 1971, and “I Don’t Even Know Myself” was released as the b-side to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. “Let’s See Action” appears on various compilations, while “When I Was a Boy” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself” achieved album placement on the compilation Who’s Missing. The songs “Pure and Easy” and “Too Much of Anything” are featured on the album Odds & Sods, while “Time is Passing” was added to the 1998 CD version. A cover of “Baby Don’t You Do It” was recorded and the longest version currently available is on the deluxe edition of the album. It is believed that two other Townshend songs, “Greyhound Girl” and “Mary”, were recorded by The Who sometime during the 1971 sessions, however, only Townshend’s demos of the songs have been released.
Critical Reception: In a contemporary review for The Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau called Who’s Next “the best hard rock album in years” and said that, while their previous recordings were marred by a thin sound, the group now “achieves the same resonant immediacy in the studio that it does live.” Billy Walker of Sounds magazine was especially complimentary of “Baba O’Riley”, “My Wife”, and “The Song Is Over”, and stated, “After the unique brilliance of Tommy something special had to be thought out and the fact that they settled for a straight-forward album rather than an extension of their rock opera, says much for their courage and inventiveness.” Rolling Stone magazine’s John Mendelsohn felt that, despite some amount of seriousness and artificiality, the album’s brand of rock and roll is “intelligently-conceived, superbly-performed, brilliantly-produced, and sometimes even exciting”.
According to Q magazine, Who’s Next is “considered by many” to be the Who’s best album. In a retrospective review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine viewed the album as more genuine than Tommy or the aborted Lifehouse project because “those were art — [Who’s Next], even with its pretensions, is rock & roll.” BBC Music’s Chris Roberts cited it as the group’s best album and “one of those carved-in-stone landmarks that the rock canon doesn’t allow you to bad-mouth.” Mojo magazine said that its sophisticated music and hook-laden songs featured innovative use of rock synthesizers that did not weaken the Who’s characteristic “power-quartet attack”. In The Encyclopaedia of Popular Music (1998), Colin Larkin wrote that the album “set a hard rock standard that even its creators struggled to emulate.” Larkin remarked that the group’s “sense of dynamics” was highlighted by the contrast between their powerful playing and the counterpoint produced at times by acoustic guitars and synthesizer obbligatos.