1971: The Who / Who’s Next

by J A Gray

I love The Who and I love Pete Townshend.  If anyone reading this has a major problem with such a viewpoint then it may be better if you sod off and skip this chapter.  And that especially goes for anyone who thinks Townshend is a sex offender or a child molester.  The true story is out there if you care to look.  The man has been exonerated.  Now this may come over as being overly defensive or even a touch hostile, but so be it.  Certain misunderstandings and assumptions have seriously damaged the reputation of one of rock music’s greatest talents, and with it the reputation of one of the finest rock bands of all time.  And that ruffles my feathers so I had to get it off my chest.

Growing up I’d see old black and white clips of The Who on TV playing songs like My Generation or Substitute.  Marcus also had some of their records, and I recall him borrowing some others, but I suppose I wasn’t paying as much attention to the records he was playing as I once had.  I must have started to plough my own furrow by that time.  I liked what I heard but it wasn’t until early on in the 90s that I finally got around to having a proper listen.  I had bought a copy of A Wizard/A True Star by Todd Rundgren, taken it home, played it, thought it was mostly horrible, taped the handful of songs that I thought were at least bearable and taken it back to the shop where I was told I could exchange it for something else but couldn’t get my money back*.  After much desperate searching, I picked up a two-volume Who compilation which was in the sale called The Who Collection.  I was very glad I did.

I became utterly smitten with the music and couldn’t believe how I’d manage to survive this long without it.  I suppose that I had assumed that The Who belonged to what I thought of as the ’60s groups b-list’, so I’d never made them a priority.  I probably thought of them as a poor man’s Rolling Stones.  I have since come to totally reverse that opinion.  The Stones have a mighty presence, can play a great groove, and have an exceptional showman out front in Mick Jagger.  But the more I saw and read about Jagger the more my opinion of him diminished.  He seems to me to be shallow and flakey, refusing to delve into his soul to truly give of himself.  He seems to prioritise showbusiness over artistic impulses.  I lost all belief in him.  He gives a great show, but it all seems so hollow.  Keith Richards, for all that he is wont to slip into the role of a cartoon pirate, at least strikes me as being the real McCoy.  He obviously eats and sleeps rock ‘n’ roll.  (Not that he appears to do much sleeping.)  But it’s not enough to completely save The Rolling Stones for me.  I really like many of their records, but there’s a barrier there that prevents me from having a complete emotional connection with most of their output, and that barrier is Mick.

Some of you will now be thinking “yeah, but what about Roger Daltrey?”  It’s a fair point.  The Who have a singer with no input into the band’s songs.  He is essentially Pete’s mouthpiece.  But The Who needed a singer like Roger, a tough guy upfront.  Pete has quite a high, feminine singing voice.  He can get certain emotions over very well with it, but Roger can cover a whole other patch of ground.  Combining the two voices, as The Who often do, give them a considerable range.  Many of the best Who songs feature Roger singing the main body of the song with Pete offering a reflective middle eight and it works brilliantly every single time.  Yet despite Roger being the nominal frontman, he has never really been the main focus of The Who.  It’s Pete that just about all Who fans look to.  With The Stones, Keith has a kind of hardcore cult following, albeit a sizeable one, but with The Who it’s universally understood that the main man doesn’t stand centre stage.

On stage Pete put on a fiercely physical display.  Leaping into the air, windmilling his right hand to play power chords, smashing his guitars.  He’d often injure himself in the process.  His announcements were usually surly and snidey.  He projected himself like a punk, a yob, a hooligan from Shepherd’s Bush.  It was great theatre, and actually a true reflection of part of his personality.  But what makes him really stand out above the crowd  (though you could argue that his stage antics already do enough to achieve that), was his other side – a songwriter who thought and reflected deeply and expressed himself with a rare and brave honesty and sincerity.  Combine these two seemingly diametrically opposed facets and you have one of the richest, most fascinating characters in rock music.

The Who’s career path changed forever after they made Tommy.  Up until then they had been a great singles band who also made albums.  Their singles were concise and punchy.  If they were all The Who had ever given us then it would have been enough to seal their reputation as one of the great bands of the 60s.  Their albums contained more of the same, but also hints of what was to come with longer tracks like A Quick One, While He’s Away and Rael.  Pete was itching to write on a grander scale, and in 1969 The Who released Tommy, a full-blown concept album, a song cycle, or as it became better known, a ‘rock opera’.  Tommy wasn’t the first album to have a common narrative thread running through all its songs, but it did have the highest profile of the first wave of these attempts to push pop’s boundaries into more consciously arty territories.

With Tommy, The Who succeeded in making the leap from ‘pop’ to ‘rock’, from singles group to album artists.  The same leap that The Kinks found so difficult to manage.  Other great bands had a similar struggle.  The Small Faces, for instance, would have to lose one singer Steve Marriott, gain another, Rod Stewart, and drop the ‘Small’ before they managed to make the jump.  The pressure was now on Pete to produce another magnum opus.  Initially The Who sidestepped the issue by releasing Live At Leeds, but time was marching on.

Pete’s answer to the challenge was to conceive Lifehouse, a complex multi-media blend of science fiction, ecology, spirituality and rock music.  He tried explaining his ideas to everyone within the band’s organisation and time and again was met with incomprehension, or he ran up against people with conflicting agendas.  Lifehouse never came to pass, but many of its best songs would be recorded for the next Who album, simply named Who’s Next.

Who’s Next is a failure in so much that it isn’t Lifehouse.  Any narrative has been destroyed by abandoning the linear sequence Pete had intended and by simply presenting the album as a set of rock songs.  Pure And Easy, an absolutely key song in grasping the story of Lifehouse, wasn’t even included, and John Entwistle’s My Wife, which conversely had nothing to do with Lifehouse, was included despite sounding horribly out of place.  I could have chosen an album to represent 1971 which was much less flawed – David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, for example, is near perfect.  Ditto Roy Harper’s Stormcock.  They both achieve everything they set out to achieve, and more besides.  But Who’s Next is a success in that ultimately the whole Lifehouse concept was unnecessary, at least as far as enjoying the songs was concerned.  Who’s Next is probably the greatest album of 1971 because it includes Won’t Get Fooled Again.  And Baba O’Riley.  And Behind Blue Eyes.  And Bargain.  I would argue that no rock ‘n’ roll band has ever matched the dynamics, passion, intensity and anthemic grandeur of these recordings.  Nobody.

Hats off to Glyn Johns for his exemplary engineering skills, but mostly it’s down to the band.  Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon weren’t your typical run-of-the-mill musicians.  Pete’s guitar playing had never been recorded with this much force and clarity before.  And Who’s Next was also the album he first unveiled a battery of sympathetic synthesiser parts.  He was a synth pioneer in many ways, but his greatest skill was to make the synth work within the context of a full-blooded organic rock band.  The sound was so beautifully integrated that Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again would now be inconceivable without their synth parts.  It’s a blend of muscle and machine that he would return to on future Who albums, but he never bettered these initial attempts.

John Entwistle was always the bass player’s bass player.  How many times would a TV cameraman be pointing his lens at Pete while John was doing something utterly ludicrous up and down the neck of his bass.  John was such a quiet presence on stage that he rarely diverted your attention from the showmanship of the other three.  But you’d always hear him.

Somebody could fill a whole blog with what made Moon such a spectacularly individual drummer.  I’ve yet to meet a drummer who doesn’t admire what he did.  Many go further than that.  Mike, the drummer with my old band Tenderloin, used to practice playing drums on old cardboard boxes when he was a kid and couldn’t afford a real kit.  One day he’d had some small trauma – girlfriend trouble or something like that – and came home in a foul mood.  He stuck Who’s Next on as loud as he could get away with and played Keith Moon-style drums on his boxes to get all his stress and tension out.  At the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again, he knocked all his boxes over and threw his sticks across the room triumphantly.  And felt much better for it.

I know how Mike felt.  You can offload a whole bunch of anguish when you listen to The Who.  Daltrey’s primal roar in Won’t Get Fooled Again.  The way the band come crashing in after the first delicate section of Behind Blue Eyes.  The power and the volume seem to take your frustrations and any sense you have of being disenfranchised or lost or alone.  They gives these feelings a voice, raise a clenched fist on your behalf, and then they cleanse you.  Yet the words are intelligent even when the music is belligerent.  More so than any other rock band The Who managed to be simultaneously visceral and sensitive.  But sometimes the music does too good a job on your system.  There can be such a rush of adrenalin and endorphins after listening to one of these songs that it’s hard to come back to earth afterwards.  I used to listen to Won’t Get Fooled Again before going out on a Friday night and I’d just be way too pumped up.  Everyone else would be sat around a table filled with a gentle bonhomie, ready to unwind after the working week.  I’d find myself all wound up with no immediate outlet.  Like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.  Utterly out of step with the surrounding vibes.  I had to learn to start my weekend with less powerful magic.

Most rock fans probably take the Who’s Next‘s cover photograph for granted now.  We flip past it in the racks in shops or at friends’ houses, maybe give a passing nod of our heads in appreciation.  We probably don’t stop and think any longer that we’ve just glanced at an album sleeve with a picture of four blokes having a whizz on a concrete slab.  Surely it’s the first album sleeve in history to feature urine as part of its design concept.  It must have been quite bold and shocking back in 1971.  Just three years previously, those ultimate bad boys The Stones had been denied a photograph of a toilet with its graffiti-covered wall – their intended cover for Beggars Banquet.  The Who cover also serves as a metaphor for Who’s Next itself.  With Lifehouse, Pete had worked long and hard to realise what should have been his masterpiece, a groundbreaking multi-faceted work of cultural and spiritual depth, only to have his group and his management piss all over his ideas.  There’s also a knowing reference to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, here rendered in brutal concrete, which serves to illustrate the ongoing schizophrenic nature of the group as a whole, and Pete in particular – a symbol of intelligent life and civilisation being desecrated by yobbish rebellion.  All topped off with that delightful punning title which suggests queueing for the toilet as much as it does any worldwide anticipation for the group’s new album.

I’ll probably never hear a greater out and out rock record than Who’s Next, and that’s OK.  I can live with that.  And when the time comes, please play Won’t Get Fooled Again at my funeral.  If I don’t at least twitch a little bit then you can be sure that I really have snuffed it.

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* Out of a niggling curiosity to find out if the music was really as weird as I thought it was, I played that tape through a few times, decided I actually loved at least those songs I had recorded, figured that was good enough, and went back out and bought A Wizard, A True Star again a few weeks later.  It’s now one of my favourites.

N.B. Who’s Next is currently available, in remastered form, as both a single CD with bonus tracks, and as a ‘Collector’s Edition’ double CD pack with a different selection of bonus tracks plus a contemporaneous live show on the second disc.  Sadly neither edition includes all of the songs recorded during the studio sessions.  Two such songs, Let’s See Action and Entwistle’s When I Was A Boy were paired for a single release.  The former can be found on various compilations, but the latter remains hard to find on CD.

Another song, Time Is Passing, has only ever been released on an expanded version of the Odds & Sods collection in a compromised mono mix consisting of just one channel of the original stereo recording.  This was allegedly because the other channel was damaged.  A bootleg version of this same song surfaced with the supposedly damaged channel intact but the former channel impaired.  Go figure.  Some enterprising gent out there in internet land synchronised the two clean channels and recreated the full stereo version.  You’ll probably still find it out there if you go looking.

Meanwhile Pete has released all his meticulously recorded one-man-band demos for the original Lifehouse songs, plus other material dating from later attempts to revive the project, as an internet mail-order only box set called The Lifehouse Method.

My other nominations for 1971 albums of merit:

Roy Harper / Stormcock

David Bowie / Hunky Dory

The Doors / L.A. Woman

Todd Rundgren / Runt. The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren

Pink Floyd / Meddle

The Rolling Stones / Sticky Fingers

Leonard Cohen / Songs Of Love And Hate

Shirley Collins And The Albion Country Band / No Roses

The Beach Boys / Surf’s Up

Serge Gainsbourg / Histoire De Melody Nelson

Joni Mitchell / Blue

Marvin Gaye / What’s Going On?

Grateful Dead (aka Skull & Roses or Skullfuck)

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