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The Who - Who's Next CD (album) cover

WHO'S NEXT

The Who

 

Proto-Prog

4.36 | 390 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
5 stars To put it mildly, Tommy was a huge success. Not only did it give the band greater exposure than ever before, but in the eyes of many it lifted Pete up from being a mere rock writer to a full fledged composer. Along those lines, it diversified their audience, as rich and upper-class people from all over wanted to go see "the rock opera." Unfortunately, the success of Tommy soon became more of a burden than a benefit. Supposedly, many a new fan thought that the album was called The Who and that the group's name was Tommy. This was a major reason for the release of Live at Leeds in 1970; the group desperately wanted to remind fans who the real Who was (loud hard-rockers). In short, Tommy had become bigger than The Who themselves, and this bothered Pete much more than it pleased him. He desperately wanted to come up with a concept album greater than Tommy in the eyes of the public.

In trying to come up with this new project, called Lifehouse, Pete pretty much crossed the line from genius to insanity. The general storyline was that in the future, when everybody lives in virtual reality and is controlled by a Big Brother of sorts, somebody discovers that once upon a time there was something called "rock music." Eventually, he gets a band together and they hold a concert as they try to discover the "lost chord" that will free people and bring them to a Nirvana- esque reality. So basically, it's The Matrix crossed with rock music, with conceptual themes largely ripped off by Rush for their "2112" suite. Beyond the plot, though, Pete had the idea of the music culminating in an actual transcendent note, and to create this note using astrological and phsyical data (fed into a computer) of members of the audience where the band would play its shows. Naturally, neither the other band members nor the audience members had patience for this, and Townshend's failure to make anybody else really understand his ideas helped contribute to a nervous breakdown. After he recovered, the band essentially decided to strip out the conceptual element of the sessions, and pared down what was easily a double album's worth of material to a single album. The result was a critical and commercial smash, and one of the most beloved albums in classic rock history.

While I certainly don't have any particular attachment to the concept of Lifehouse, I really feel that the decision to make this into a single album is the album's greatest weakness. The first two tracks sure feel like the beginning of a big epic musical journey, and the last two tracks sure feel like the end of a big epic musical journey, but the middle feels to me like a jigsaw puzzle where you're only given a third of the pieces. I guess the end goal was to make the middle portion as close to a representative sample of the rest of the sessions as possible, with a single allusion to the central concept courtesy of "The Song is Over," but I'm not convinced they made anywhere near the best possible sampling of the available material. Plus, I can't totally get over the idea that they'd include half of the two-track centerpiece (or so it seems) of Lifehouse, which directly QUOTES the other half, and then throw the other half ("Pure and Easy") into the outtakes pile (especially when I really think it's the better of the two, and musically near the top of the band's catalogue, even if lyrically it's weird and flaky). Point is, it's very hard for me to ever think of this album as anything but a single LP teaser of the sessions (which it basically is), and it's no coincidence that when I listen to tracks from this album, it's almost always in the context of a larger sequencing of tracks from most of this album's material and some of my other favorite material from the sessions (and some that wasn't recorded until later, but was supposedly part of the original conception).

All that said, while my theoretical double album version of these sessions would fall into my overall top 5, this single album version still falls squarely in my top 40 or so. The thing that jumps out the most in listening to this is just how BIG the sound is; the band has left the days of 60's power-pop completely behind, and in its place is an approach that's noticably slower but also noticably thicker. This is one of the quintessential 70's classic rock albums, and that comes just as much from the dense (with layers of guitars and various keyboards piled on each other in places) arrangements as from anything else. Of course, it can be argued that, with this album, the band lost much of the charm that had made it so interesting in the first place, and some moments certainly veer a little too solidly into mid-tempo sludgey macho rock territory, but on the whole, I find this new-look "mature" Who just as interesting as the 60's version of the band ever was.

Plus, Pete's songwriting was still functioning at a ridiculously high level. The only track on here that I ever tend to skip is "Gettin' in Tune," and even that starts off as a very nice piano-driven ballad (and there's something quite nice about the lines, "I get a little tired of having to say "Do you come here often?"/But when I look in your eyes and see the harmonies and the heartaches soften"). The problem with it is that, around the 1:40 mark, the pretty piano ballad basically evaporates, and in its stead comes a head-smashingly sluggish guitar-led song with Roger and Pete singing "Getting in tune with the straight and narrow" for what seems like an eternity. Yup, if there's a single reason, circumstances surrounding Lifehouse aside, that this album could never get the mark of the band's best work, this track is the reason.

Other than the slightly throwawyish, but still nice "Love Ain't For Keeping" (it's a two minute acoustic track here, but there's a much better four minute version with Pete on vocals), the other "middle" tracks are all more or less terrific. The chorus to "The Song is Over" is ridiclously overblown, and I do feel a little silly singing along with it, but it has enough legitimate power that I sing with it nonetheless, and when it's focused on its piano-ballad (with effective guitar for color, and a rousing solo in the middle) aspects, it's totally ace. "My Wife" is a fun Entwistle-penned mid- tempo rocker, with lyrics about what he'll need to survive now that his spouse is going to kill him, and "Goin' Mobile" is an up-tempo acoustic-based rocker about, well, living in a mobile home and going wherever you please. It originally annoyed me a bit, but it adds a nice bit of hickish levity, and the combination of the nice subtle synth underpinnings and the bizarre effect Pete uses on his guitar makes it a near classic.

The bulk of the album's reputation, though, stems from the track pairs that open and close the album, and rightly so. "Baba O'Riley" (aka Teenage Wasteland) has to be considered one of the great album openers in all of classic rock; from the amazing opening synth loop (that persists through the song and plays along with the rest of the band), to the three piano chords that say as much as any three chords ever have, to the lyrics that summarize Pete's rejection of his pointlessly rebellious generation, to the fiddle-driven conclusion (Keith's idea), it's no wonder this became one of the band's calling cards. "Bargain" may have later ended up getting used as a cheap advertising jingle (with its "I'd call it a bargain, the best I ever had, the best I ever haaaaaaaaaad" chorus), but here it's essentially just a love song, and one of the most powerful ones I've ever heard. Lyrics aside, declaring that it would be worth it to do all sorts of bad things if it meant winning somebody's love, it's full of great, thick guitar sounds, a great synth line at the end carrying the main chord sequence while guitars are piled around it, and fantastic vocals from both Roger and Pete. "Behind Blue Eyes," the album's penultimate track, starts off as a lovely downbeat acoustic ballad, then turns into a bit of a generic arena rocker, but overall the song still holds up as a classic.

Finally, we have the album's most infamous track, the closing "Won't Get Fooled Again," an anti- anti-establishment anthem (and a fine compliment to the similar sentiments of "Baba O'Riley") that's simply one of the greatest rock songs ever written. From the nagging synth line (which opens the song, lingers in the background the whole time and then moves to the forefront again near the end), to the slashing guitar lines, to the controlled chaos of the drumming, to Roger's "YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!" scream near the end, every bit of the song rouses, entertains and impresses the hell out of me. You know what my favorite little detail is? It comes when the main instrumentation disappears near the end, leaving the synth line by itself (with only a very quiet acoustic strumming buried in the mix); the right channel holds the upfront mix of the synth line, but what I often prefer to listen to is just the left channel, which has the very quiet "echo" of the line. That "echo" sound is INCREDIBLE, and without it the synth line would sound like listening (in general) to a 5.1 audio mix without plugging in the rear speakers. In any case, I know there are some who find it overlong, but I think it deserves every second of its 8+ minutes.

In the end, whatever complaints I might have aside, this is a totally first rate album. In the end, it has Roger putting on his first truly powerful studio performance; it has Keith with a cooler drum sound than ever; and it has Pete near the peak of his arranging and songwriting prowess. And it has the guys walking away from a giant bathroom on the cover! I wonder if the "outhouse" on the cover is symbolic that the album is essentially the leftovers of "Lifehouse," or if I'm just reading too much into it...

PS: If you're wondering, this is what my ideal Lifehouse sounds like (including tracks that originated here but weren't recorded until later):

Baba O'Riley

Bargain

Love Ain't for Keeping (Odds and Sods version with Pete on vocals)

I Don't Know Myself

My Wife

Water

Time is Passing

The Song is Over

Pure and Easy

Naked Eye

Long Live Rock

Join Together

Relay

Goin' Mobile

Behind Blue Eyes

Won't Get Fooled Again

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |

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