By Dave Thompson
Received wisdom claims “Who’s Next” to be The Who’s greatest moment. “Tommy” received more plaudits, by virtue of its grandiosity; “Quadrophenia” gets more sympathy because it was clearly something that the band believed in. “The Who Sell Out” is more entertaining, because who can resist so much in-built nostalgia? And “The Who: Live At Leeds” is more fawned over because someone once called it the best live album ever made, and it probably deserves that title.
Still “Who’s Next” tops them all, though, as a combination of good timing, grand ideals and unimpeachable bookends conspired to lift it above the milieu of a “typical” album and into a stratosphere that was wholly its own.
Or maybe not wholly. 1971 was the year in which the Rolling Stones, too, came back from a two-year studio silence, likewise broken only by the release of a killer live album. It is worth pausing for a moment to remember that both albums were only released to try to stem the flood of bootlegs that were just beginning to leak onto the market. That they also caught both bands at what the critics insist were the peaks of their live prowess was simply the icing on the cake, although the truth about The Who is considerably more complicated than that. They were, after all, still touring “Tommy” when “Live at Leeds” was recorded, and the year that had elapsed since then had seen Pete Townshend battling to create a worthy successor to the rock opera, a sprawling vision of urban youth that he called “Lifehouse.”
That project would never be completed (although his working tapes have since seen the light of day). Instead, he sliced and spliced the proposed contents into an album that, if we allow that simple description to guide us, should have been nothing more than a hodgepodge of semi-conceptual notions, workaday filler and abandoned B-sides.
And the strange thing is, if you listen to its dispassionately, a lot of “Who’s Next” actually fits that scenario. Few people, even among the band’s most tireless apologists, would single out the likes of “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” “Song Is Over,” “Getting In Tune” or “Going Mobile” as representative of Pete Townshend’s most stellar songwriting.
John Entwistle’s traditional one song per album, “My Wife,” is scarcely one of his finest, either and ... well, “Bargain”’s okay, but it’s scarcely “My Generation,” is it? The Who in general, and Pete Townshend in particular, would run into a lot of trouble later in the decade as they battled to make records that lived up to the sheer magnificence of their mid-1960s peak, with the successive horrors of “The Who By Numbers,” “Who Are You” and their entire post-Keith Moon catalog standing as almost supernaturally unfortunate missteps. Fully two-thirds of “Who’s Next” predicts that dilemma with merciless clarity.
“Who’s Next” is The Who’s finest album because it opens with one of the greatest performances they ever created, the teenaged wasteland of “Baba O’Riley,” scarred by some of the most frightening violin ever set to a rocking beat; because it peaks with one of Townshend’s most searching and sorrowful slices of self-examination ever, the beautiful “Behind Blue Eyes”; and because it ends with the song that, quite simply, might well be the last truly great rock song ever written, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”... the soaring interplay between voice, synth and power chord guitar, the scream at the end and the drums that usher it in; the bass that digs for oil in your diaphragm ... and a lyric that nails the death of the hippie dream more dramatically than any other writer of the age, via a song that is now as much a part of the furniture as the establishment that it railed against.
And that is why “Who’s Next” is a five-star album. Not because it is better than most, nor even because it’s a cohesive masterpiece. It is a five-star album because it opens with a crash that is still playing in our heads when we get up to flip the disc, and it closes with a lament that is now a part of our collective DNA.
Other 5-Star WHO Albums:
THE WHO —
Blistering power pop album that both mocks and pays tribute to pirate radio.
THE WHO —
You just don’t compare to Jimmy, Townshend’s other protagonist.
Faux 5-Star WHO Albums:
THE WHO —
Tommy just thinks too damn highly of himself for a deaf, dumb and blind guy.
THE WHO —
Mama had a squeeze box? Really?!! Is that the best you can do?