Who’s Next Turns 50

Exactly 50 years ago today, on August 14, 1971, The Who released their fifth studio album Who’s Next. The English rock band is one of my all-time favorite groups, and if I would have to pick one album, it would be this gem. As such, I felt it was appropriate to dedicate a post to the record’s 50th anniversary. Who’s Next without a doubt is among my top 5 releases of 1971, an incredible year in music, along with The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Led Zeppelin IV, Carole King’s Tapestry and Pink Floyd’s Meddle.

After the tremendous success of Tommy, Pete Townshend conceived Lifehouse, which was to become another rock opera, yet on a much more ambitious scale. The project was supposed to involve a live-recorded concept album that would provide the music for a film. The live footage would be captured in a series of concerts at the Young Vic theatre, a performing arts venue in London. During these gigs, the audience would be asked to interact with the band to create material for the film.

But after a few concerts at the Young Vic, Townshend grew disillusioned when he realized the audience was only interested in listening to The Who, not interact with the band to create material for the film. Together with other complexities of the project and a bad falling-out between Townshend and manager Kit Lambert, Lifehouse became mission impossible and was abandoned. The doomed project led to major stress within the band and a nervous breakdown of Townshend, with Roger Daltrey reportedly saying at the time The Who were never closer to breaking up.

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Ironically, the Lifehouse disaster led to Who’s Next, one of the best if not the greatest album The Who ever made. A key figure in this context was recording engineer Glyn Johns. Not only did he convince the group to make it a single as opposed to a double LP, but he was also given license to assemble whichever songs he thought would be best in any order. Who’s Next ended up with eight tracks from Lifehouse and one additional tune. The focus was on recording great music, not to force-fit different tunes into an overarching concept. Despite his remarkable role, Johns only received credit as an associate producer (apart from recording and mixing). Let’s take a closer look at the album.

Opening side one is the majestic Baba O’Riley, one of the aforementioned eight songs from the Lifehouse project. Like all except one of the other tracks, the tune was written by Pete Townshend. Songfacts notes the “Baba” in the title refers to Meher Baba, Townshend’s spiritual guru. “Riley” comes from experimental, minimalist composer Terry Riley, one of Townshend’s influences who inspired many of the keyboard riffs and sound effects on the album. Referencing the liner notes, Songfacts also points out the tune reflects Townshend’s vision of what would happen if Baba’s spirit was fed into a computer and transformed into music. “The result would be Baba in the style of Terry Riley, or “Baba O’Riley.”” Here’s a neat lyric video.

Bargain, the second track on side one, is another homage to Baba, according to Songfacts. Townshend believed in his message of enlightenment. “Bargain” refers to losing all material goods for spiritual enlightenment. The song also featured a then just introduced ARP 2500 synthesizer, “the same synth used to call the extraterrestrials in the 1977 movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.” Now, there’s some trivia you always wanted to know!

My Wife, written by John Entwistle, is the album’s only song that wasn’t composed by Townshend. Morever, it is the one track that didn’t come from the Lifehouse project. Entwistle who sang lead vocals also included the tune on his third solo album Rigor Mortis Sets In that first appeared in the UK in May 1973.

On to side two. Here’s Going Mobile, the album’s only song featuring Townshend as the sole vocalist. From Songfacts: This is about taking a vacation by riding around in a car with no particular destination. It was something Pete Townshend liked to do...For the solo, Townshend ran his guitar through a device called an Envelope Follower. It was a type of synthesizer distortion that made it sound like he was playing under water.

Next up: Behind Blue Eyes. The lyrics were inspired by an encounter Townshend had with a female groupie after a gig in Denver in June 1970. While he was tempted, he ended up returning to his room by himself. Once there, be began writing a prayer that started with the words “When my fist clenches, crack it open,” which became part of the song’s lyrics. At least so the story goes. Here’s another lyric video.

The last track I’d like to call out is Won’t Get Fooled Again, the album’s epic 8:30-minute closer. From Songfacts: Pete Townshend wrote this song about a revolution. In the first verse, there is an uprising. In the middle, they overthrow those in power, but in the end, the new regime becomes just like the old one (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”). Townshend felt revolution was pointless because whoever takes over is destined to become corrupt. I’m also including a link to a clip of The Who’s live performance of the tune at Shepperton Studios in 1978, filmed for the 1979 rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. What has to be one of the greatest moments in rock history sadly also turned out to be the last public performance by Keith Moon prior to his death on September 7, 1978 at the age of 32.

Who’s Next is widely considered to be the best album by The Who. It topped the UK Official Albums Chart, reached no. 2 in France and The Netherlands, and climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. As of February 1993, the album reached 3X Multi-Platinum Certification in the U.S., meaning it has sold more than three million units. It is Platinum-certified in the UK as well.

Who’s Next also received broad acclaim from critics. Even Robert Christgau had something positive to say, calling it “the best hard rock album in years.” Who’s Next was ranked at no. 28 in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in both the 2003 and 2012 editions. In the latest revision from September 2020, it came in at no. 77.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Who Rock New York, Backed By Symphonic Orchestra

Singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson opens with captivating set

Last year, I read several stories about Roger Daltrey being pretty candid about aging, saying he’d stop performing if he realized his voice was no longer up to par. While other music artists haven’t followed through on similar retirement talk and The Who previously suggested their 50th anniversary tour could be their last, Daltrey’s above comments felt genuine to me. When I learned about Moving On! tour, I got a ticket right away, thinking this may well be my third and last time to see one of my favorite British bands. But there was one detail that I somehow had completely missed. Apart from traditional touring musicians, Moving On! features local symphonic orchestras backing Daltrey and Pete Townshend. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have jumped to get a ticket, had I known that.

In general, the thought of combining a rock band with a symphonic orchestra gives me mixed feelings. One can easily picture that the former gets drowned out by the latter or that the music becomes overly massive and feels overproduced. On the other hand, The Who are known for a grandiose sound. So did the combination work Monday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City? For the most part it did for me, so my initial ignorance about the details of the tour wasn’t a bad thing after all.

Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend

Before getting to The Who, I’d like to say a few words about New York singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson, who performed a captivating opening set. In 2009, following the release of her second album Swan Feathers, Mendelson was compared to Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones, and her record was nominated for a Grammy. Then a series of setbacks stopped her upward trajectory, but things seem to look more promising again for Mendelson these days. A new album, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, is almost done. She’s currently raising money through Kickstarter to support promotion for a planned autumn release.

Monday night, Mendelson was accompanied by her longtime collaborator Steve McEwan, a British songwriter and musician, who played a vintage-looking electric guitar and provided backing vocals. Since I wanted to conserve my aging smartphone battery, unfortunately, I didn’t take any footage, but here’s a clip of The Hardest Part, a single from the new record, captured last December at a much smaller venue. The guy in the clip is McEwan. I’m pretty impressed with Mendelson and plan to do a separate post on her in the near future.

After a short intermission it was time for The Who! The first section of their show was with orchestra and mostly focused on songs from Tommy, The Who’s first rock opera from May 1969 – an appropriate choice, as the album nears its 50th anniversary of release on May 23. It started with the record’s first five tracks: Overture, It’s A Boy, 1921, Amazing Journey and Sparks. This was followed by Pinball Wizard and We’re Not Gonna Take It.  The remainder of the first section featured tunes from various other albums, including Who Are You (Who Are You, 1978), Eminence Front (It’s Hard, 1982),  Imagine A Man (The Who By Numbers, 1975) and the non-album single Join Together (1972). Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, the final track from Tommy, which like most Who songs was written by Townshend.

The middle section of the concert featured The Who only. Daltrey jokingly pointed out that union rules required the orchestra to take a break and now it was only the band, “so we can fuck up things even more.” The section consisted of five songs: Non-album single Substitute (1966), I Can See For Miles (The Who Sell Out, 1967),  Won’t Get Fooled Again and Behind Blue Eyes (both Who’s Next, 1971) and Tea & Theatre (Endless Wire, 2006). Here is I Can See For Miles.

Perhaps the highlight of the section was an acoustic rendition of Won’t Get Fooled Again. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture it, in part to conserve battery, but here’s a clip from the tour opener in Madison, Wis. Even though the camera person was much closer to the stage than I was, the MSG performance felt more dynamic, so I feel the footage doesn’t do it full justice. Or maybe it was the excitement of the moment!

The third and last section of the show, which saw the return of the orchestra, almost entirely focused on Quadrophenia. The Who’s second rock opera perhaps is the album that best lends itself to the use of symphonic orchestration. It’s the band’s only record that was entirely composed by Pete Townshend. Here’s section opener The Real Me, one of favorite Who tunes.

Other tracks from Quadrophenia included I’m One, The Punk And The Godfather, 5:15, Drowned, The Rock and the mighty Love, Reign O’er Me. Of course, I couldn’t resist recording the last track, so here it is.

By the time I had Love, Reign O’er Me in the can, my phone battery was on life support, so I couldn’t capture the show’s finale, Baba O’Riley, another tune from the Who’s Next album. Luckily somebody else who was there did, so I’m borrowing their clip – thanks, “ForgottenNYC”! Check out the solo by amazing lead violonist Katie Jacoby, which starts at around 3:40 min – that woman stole the show from Townshend, at least temporarily!

Monday night saw Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend in excellent shape. Daltrey still commands the stage, singing with a strong voice and swinging his microphone like a mad man, while Townshend continues to be a kickass windmilling rock guitarist. One could almost forget these guys are in their mid-70s! I think they also deserve credit for continuing to push the envelope at this stage in their careers, when they could have played it safe instead of bringing in a symphonic orchestra. The fans including myself would have been perfectly happy with a “regular” performance.

I must also mention the great backing band: Simon Townshend (guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Pete’s younger brother; Zak Starkey (drums), son of Ringo Starr, who has been The Who’s touring drummer since 1996; Loren Gold (keyboards, backing vocals), and one of the standouts in addition to Jacoby; and Jon Button (bass).

Upcoming dates for the Moving On! tour include Noblesville, Ind (May 18); Tinley Park, Ill (May 21); St. Louis (May 23); Philadelphia (May 25); and Detroit (May 28). The full schedule is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Leslie Mendelson website, The Who website, YouTube