You know who The Who are. Their songs have provided the theme music for all the CSI television shows. The original series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation used “Who Are You?” as its theme song. CSI: Miami used “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with the most famous scream in rock ‘n’ roll. And, CSI: New York used “Baba O’Reilly.”
It’s no accident that two of these songs came from Who’s Next. It is, in my arrogant opinion, the quintessential Who album, one of the greatest in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. And, most importantly, it’s a good record, man.
I first purchased this on cassette tape in the mid-’80s. I had been trying to fill in a few of the gaps in my knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll history, and the guy at Peaches Records in Columbia, South Carolina, assured me that Who’s Next was The Who at the alleged peak of their craft. Over the years, I would go on to digitally collect most of the “essential” work of The Who, from both before and after Who’s Next. There are so many good tunes in their discography. “My Generation.” “Magic Bus.” “Pinball Wizard.” “Squeeze Box.” Even “Who Are You?” and “Eminence Front,” two songs that didn’t initially appeal to me that I like just fine now. But, now, in hindsight, I freely admit that the clerk at Peaches was correct. This album represents the band’s best work, and The Who’s best tracks are on this album.
A little more background on this album, the band’s fifth studio release and the one that immediately followed the 1969 album Tommy. Who’s Next was released in the summer of 1971.
An aside: What other albums were released in 1971? ZZ Top’s First Album, by ZZ Top. Tapestry, by Carole King. Aqualung, by Jethro Tull. L.A. Woman, by The Doors. Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling Stones. Thin Lizzy, by Thin Lizzy. Master of Reality, by Black Sabbath. Imagine, by John Lennon. Led Zeppelin IV, by Led Zeppelin. Nazareth, by Nazareth. Hunky Dory, by David Bowie. American Pie, by Don McLean. Every Picture Tells a Story, by Rod Stewart.
1971 was a pretty good year for good music, and I listed only a handful of the releases that stood out to me.
Pete Townsend’s original plan was a rock opera follow-up to Tommy that was called Lifehouse. Townsend envisioned this as a multimedia experience. He was truly before his time. Video, print and audio, surpassing the rock opera that was Tommy with another, more futuristic rock opera.
Fortunately, in my opinion, Pete lost interest in the idea (I, for one, am not a huge fan of Tommy, even though I love “Pinball Wizard”), but many of the songs were repurposed for the studio album Who’s Next.
The result was a cohesive collection of songs, with some futuristic synth elements and a rock-‘n’-roll pedigree that could not be denied, that is elevated to an artform. Who’s Next is a work of art. From the perspective of today, the year 2018 AD, it isn’t a stretch to say that this was The Who’s Magnum Opus.
This is my opinion, I guess I should add. Not just my opinion. But, still—
Let’s do that thing I like to do. We’re going to take this on a track-by-track basis.
The album opens with “Baba O’Reilly.” Come on, I mean, really? The synth intro alone is worth the price of admission. Keep in mind that this is 1971. Where did this synthesizer riff even come from? Sure, we take such things for granted here in the 21st Century. But, I’m a 20th Century boy. This wasn’t commonplace back then. According to that infallible source Wikipedia, that opening was produced on a Lowrey organ on the marimba setting.
“Baba O’Reilly” is often referred to as “Teenage Wasteland,” because that is a dominant lyric in the song. At one point in the song, Roger Daltrey screams, “We’re all wasted!” which makes it sound like he’s in favor of wasted teenagers, but that wasn’t the intended message of the original song. Townsend has stated that the song was about the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where 20 people suffered brain damage. Rather than a celebration of teenage wastedness, the song was meant to be a cautionary tune.
I, for one, misinterpreted this until just recently.
Track #2 is “Bargain.” Another great song with some deep lyrics. “I’d gladly lose me to find you.” I used that on my wife as recently as tonight. That’s just good writing. Roger Daltrey has one of the best screaming rock-‘n’-roll voices ever, and this voice is on good display in this song. “I’d call that a bargain. The best I ever had…..THE BEST I EVER HAD.” There’s a middle part of the song that Pete Townsend sings, and it’s good, too. “One and one don’t make two, one and one make one…” And so on. It slows the song down a bit, but it’s okay on the bridge.
Track #3 is “Love Ain’t for Keeping.” Almost a throwaway song, with a driving acoustic start. Not my favorite song on the album, but still a good tune.
This is immediately followed by Track #4, “My Wife,” a John Entwistle song. Entwistle was the bass player in the band, and he both wrote this song and sang lead on it. As it turns out, this was orignally intended for his solo album. But, here it is, on Who’s Next. According to popular lore, Entwistle wrote this song after a fight with his wife, in which he exaggerated the actual facts of the fight. The results were a great song, with some funny lyrics, and some crazy overdubbed horns. It’s not my favorite song on the album, but it’s far from my least-favorite.
Track #5, “The Song is Over,” ends the first side of the album. It’s not a terrible song, but it’s really just a palate cleanser for side two.
Track #6 is “Getting in Tune.” A nice piano intro and a crazy bass line that builds to a crescendo with the “Riding on you” Daltrey lyric. A good intro to the second side, with a slow build.
Track #7 is “Going Mobile.” This song has the feeling of driving fast the same way that Rush’s “Red Barchetta” did. Townsend is on vocal duty in this one, and he does a good job.
Track #8 is “Behind Blue Eyes.” An iconic song from an iconic band. “My dreams they aren’t as empty as my conscience seems to be.” Powerful lyrics and an iconic, broken chord lead-in. There is a lot of anger in Roger Daltrey’s vocals as well. “When my fist clenches crack it open.” Come on, this is Rock-‘n’-Roll 101 here.
Speaking of Rock-‘n’-Roll 101. Track #9, and the last on the album, is “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the anti-revolution song that also contains what is arguably the best scream in rock. Plus, it contains the line “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss,” which I’ve found appropriate many times during my life.
Oh, there may be better rock albums out there. I might even argue for them myself. But, today, this is still one of my favorite rock albums of all time. Track-by-track.
It’s a good record, man.