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.
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