The Who – ‘Who’s Next’ At Fifty

❉ An appreciation of a classic rock album,  half a century on from its release.

“Townshend later stated that The Who’s greatest achievement was the creation of the stadium anthem, the genesis of which can be heard on bookending tracks Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again, perennial rock station favourites, complete with pioneering use of the synthesiser.”

In spite of their artistic appraisal, The Who were never the philosophically astute band Pete Townshend hoped they would be. An ambitious rock album soaring high in the charts, Tommy (1969) left its chief song-writer hungry for a follow-up with the tentatively titled Lifehouse, but with a science fiction plot so convoluted that Townshend could barely collocate it in his mind, much less  discern it coherently to Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon. Facing defeat, Townshend changed the album into something more accessible, ironically coming up with one the band´s most wholly satisfying record in the process.

Despite their dynamic stage prowess, prior to 1971 The Who simply lacked the polished proficiency that propelled Led Zeppelin into the stratosphere. As earnest as they were, Roger Daltrey´s vocals had, by and large, been too subdued, never quite reaching the range of notes Robert Plant hit on Led Zeppelin II and III. Next proved the exception, his bellowing shrieks and whispered notes the stuff of rock legends here; Behind Blue Eyes an exceptional example at how good he could be, still remaining his best vocal.

Keith Moon, no stranger to grandiose playing, found himself at the mercy of producer Glyn Johns’ disciplines, meaning that his chiming was replaced by a steadier and refined beat, giving his presence more space and cleaner time, those bygone days of I Can See For Miles a distant, indulgent memory. John Entwistle (the best musician in the band) played his signature bass lines with finesse, his brass parts with gusto, before placing his entire range of dark anecdotes in his scathing My Wife (the woman in question took it well he quipped; she did not contact him, her lawyer did!).

But it is Townshend, the band´s leader, who comes worthiest of praise, both as a musician and a songwriter. The album may have cost him his artistic opera, but left him a catalogue of songs forever remembered as some of the greatest in rock. Townshend later stated that The Who´s greatest achievement was the creation of the stadium anthem, the genesis of which can be heard on bookending tracks Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again, perennial rock station favourites, complete with pioneering use of the synthesiser. Where the eighties would date the music, Townshend’s use of analog electronica pointed to the future of rock that art rockers Arcade Fire, David Bowie and Talking Heads would make more use of.

Brave for 1971, the screamadelics would be contrasted by the cerebral and mystic This Song Is Over, the greatest Who song the radio never played. A strong singer, Townshend’s whispered voice is supplanted by Daltrey’s larger than life coda. Entwistle’s flittering bass the added ingredient that makes it all tick. R&B aficionado Daltrey spits the lyrics to Bargain with vigour, a manner that John Lydon would make a career out of. Townshend and Daltrey made for a fine partnership, their continued pairing a testament to this fact.

But it is the aforementioned Won’t Get Fooled Again that would remain the band’s masterpiece. Anarchic, but beautifully produced; their most politically charged song, and their most commercially viable hit. Townshend’s staccatos are the forefront, his frenetic rhythm playing charged with energy, loud, but notes away from pop genius, the song left a lasting impression with audiences, their most revered song to date, although Daltrey has often omitted the infamous “meet the new boss/same as the old boss line” for post 9/11 audiences. A monster track, it showed their veracity and their hard work, proving their place as one of the seventies greats.

The album could be best summed up by its cover; the four men desecrating a 2001-esque monolith with their wazz. A statement of defiance, intent and rebellion, it encapsulated in a photo what the band truly were; not the art abiders they sorely wished they could be, but the nasty rockers most bands wished they could be!

❉ The Who: “Who’s Next” (Track Records/Decca‎) was originally released on 14 August 1971. ‘Who’s Next’ can be bought here

❉  A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Eoghan Lyng’s ‘U2: Every Album, Every Song’ is published by Sonicbond Publishing and available to buy from Burning ShedFollow him on TwitterVisit his homepage. 

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