The Who - Who's Next

by Steve Ricciutti Rating:10 Release Date:1971-08-14
The Who - Who's Next
The Who - Who's Next

From the iconic Ethan Russell cover shot to the book-ended epics, The Who’s career masterpiece is clearly 1971’s Who’s Next. Conflict and complication hindered this album’s original conceptualization, which had it being the sequel to the predecessor Tommy. Thankfully, what was forged out of the conflagration is nothing less than a flawless diamond. The Who’s finest hour is a taut, treasure-trove of songs, the type of all-too-rare complete album with nary a weak song. It is the definitive “classic rock” relic, and will be getting airplay until the end of time, deservedly so.

What started as a multimedia project with the working title Lifehouse, the sessions that would produce this album seemed like they would yield another inspired, if indulgent project from Pete Townshend. The band was moving away from their early Mod roots and feeling the empowerment received from popular and critical affirmation of Tommy. Lifehouse was an attempt to up the ante from the previous three-disc rock “opera,” this time incorporating additional outlets of distribution to create what might have been the first rock multimedia event. Townshend, a long time advocate for the power of rock music as a unifying art for the youth movement, perhaps felt that the time was ripe to ride the wave of positivity from Tommy and involve the fans in working collaboratively with the band. This was a gamble he lost. Peers Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison both realized too late that audiences prefer the safety and reliability of hits over experimentalism, and Pete found out the hard way that The Who’s fans weren’t interested in helping the band work on new material. They only wanted to hear “My Generation” or watch the band wreck their instruments. Fortunately for us, enough of the project material remained and was salvaged for what would become their zenith. The trying circumstances that led to Who’s Next are said to have given Townshend a nervous breakdown, and singer Roger Daltry claims the sessions almost caused the band's demise. 

Background specifics aside, the album that emerged from the abandonment of Townshend’s big dream is simply amazing. “Baba O’Reilly” is so colossal as to be considered at “Stairway to Heaven” levels of immortality, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is perhaps THE anthem of rock and roll. In between these two are seven other songs that could well comprise their own Greatest Hits collection. “Bargain,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Getting in Tune,” “Going Mobile,” “My Wife.” Aside from one or two of the epic classics from The Beatles, there might not be a more impressive collection of truly great songs to be found on one single rock album.

“The Song Is Over” would be a perfect closer for any album, but on here, it only brings the first side to an end. Bassist John Entwistle's cheeky “My Wife,” a song that could be termed “filler” by some, is one of my favorites from the band. “Behind Blue Eyes,” a sharp, stinging, passive-aggressive number culled from the depths of Townshend’s damaged soul, has lines that still bite hard when I hear them (“I have hours only lonely. My love is vengeance that’s never free.”). It’s psychological therapy in music form, and really, isn’t that one of the greatest things that art offers us?

Giving an album a perfect score is something that can be far less scrupulous than we may care to admit, however, there is no doubt in my mind that Who’s Next is not only the greatest The Who have ever released, but it’s also one of the ten best in the history of rock and roll music, and will likely remain so long after “the song is over” for me.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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