They’re in the news again, so I thought I’d post some extracts from my book The Complete Guide To The Music of The Who that haven’t already found their way onto Just Backdated. Elsewhere there’s text adapted from the book on My Generation, Sell Out, Tommy and Leeds, so I’ll fill in some of the gaps over the next few days, beginning with Who’s Next.
This book was originally written in 1994, and updated in 2004 with help from my friend and fellow Who collector Ed Hanel. It’s out of print now but we’ve been working on a further update which might get published one day.
Who’s Next is widely regarded as the finest studio album The Who ever recorded and one of the best rock records ever. Certainly, it’s far and away their most consistent in terms of quality songs – there isn’t a duffer among them – and it introduces an important new element, the synthesizer, into the group’s overall sound. More importantly, The Who were now at their creative peak, both as individual musicians and as a band: on stage they regularly performed with breathtaking panache, their confidence was at an all time high, and their status as one of the world’s greatest rock bands was secured for eternity.
Who’s Next started life as another of Pete’s concepts, this one a movie/musical called Lifehouse which contained enough songs for a double LP, but the project became bogged down in its futuristic and philosophical complexities and was eventually reduced to a single LP and no movie. The concept of Lifehouse is long and bewildering, and the random nature of the songs on Who’s Next gives little clue as to its story line, such as it was. In view of what Who’s Next became, there is little point in trying to explain it here, but among its many ideals was Pete’s design for The Who to somehow become one with their audience, to break down totally the barrier that exists between audience and performer. (For those interested in pursuing the story, visit Pete Townshend’s website at www.eelpie.com where its creator offers a book co-written with Jeff Young, entitled Lifehouse, that is the unedited transcript for a radio play first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in December 1999. Townshend also offers a recording of the play on The Lifehouse Chronicles and makes a credible argument that he had envisioned the internet when he was originally struggling with the Lifehouse concept.)
What makes Who’s Next different from any of its predecessors is the clarity of sound afforded by producer Glyn Johns. Kit Lambert was the perfect foil for Pete to bounce ideas off and his creative influence on The Who cannot be over emphasised, but he was no technician, and as hi-fi equipment and recording studios became more and more sophisticated during the Seventies, far greater attention was being paid to the way records actually sounded. The second great leap forward on Who’s Next was Pete’s introduction of the ARP 2600, an early synthesizer, into The Who’s sound, most notably on ‘Baba O’Riley’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ the two songs that open and close the album.
Unlike so many of his less imaginative peers Pete didn’t use the instrument simply as a solo keyboard that could make funny noises, but as a rotating musical loop which underpinned the melody and added a sharp bite to the rhythm track. In this respect, he and Stevie Wonder were the first musicians of their generation to make proper creative use of this new and subsequently much abused electronic toy. In fact, Townshend’s synthesizer style on Who’s Next is the first appearance on a rock record of the repetitive electronic sequencing that is so predominant on modern pop and dance music.
There were other leaps forward too. Pete’s song writing showed a sustained level of brilliance he would never again achieve (although he came close on Quadrophenia), John’s bass lines were more melodic and as fluid as ever, and Keith managed to rein in his wilder antics while maintaining his usual key expressive role. However perhaps the greatest musical triumph belonged to Roger: the Tommy experience had improved his confidence as a vocalist immeasurably and it shows, whether on the melodies of the beautiful ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and ‘The Song Is Over’ or, at the other extreme, the torturous scream that climaxes ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
Who’s Next started out being recorded as Lifehouse in New York with Kit Lambert as producer, but the band weren’t satisfied with the results and returned to London to re-record them at Olympic Studios in Barnes with Glyn Johns. Most of the songs recorded with Johns appeared on Who’s Next while the leftovers appeared on singles and later, Odds & Sods.
Who’s Next became the only Who album to make number one in the UK charts. It peaked at number four in the US, but songs from the album are continually played on US ‘Classic Rock’ radio stations to this day.
There are now two upgraded CD versions of the album. The first followed the format of including a number of bonus tracks on a single disc. The Deluxe Edition dropped four of these bonus tracks but included additional tracks from the New York Record Plant sessions, some of which feature Leslie West on guitar and Al Kooper on organ and had previously appeared on bootlegs in rough mix form. The real treat is the second disc that features an almost complete show at London’s Young Vic theatre when Pete was trying to bring Lifehouse to fruition. For some reason, younger listeners apparently found the roughness of the show a little disconcerting, judging by the comments posted on Amazon.
Considering the brief period between Pete writing the songs and their live debut, the Young Vic material is staggering and every bit as worthwhile as the Leeds show. It captures The Who at their undisputed height as the greatest live rock band in the world. Because of this, if you’re going to own a CD of Who’s Next, the Deluxe Edition is the one.