‘Who’s Next’: The Rock Classic That Freed The Who From Their Shackles

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It may not sound like the greatest of eulogies by the man whose songs underpinned the album that became a staging post for The Who, and in rock history overall.

Pete Townshend wrote in his autobiography Who I Am that songs from Who’s Next were “slow to become familiar and established,” and that the set was “pathetically titled.” Roger Daltrey, too, has been qualified in his praise of the LP. Contrast all of that with the 2007 news that, after decades of regular placings in the upper echelons of numerous all-time best album lists, the album was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Who’s Next, produced by the band with associate producer Glyn Johns – whom Townshend would compliment by saying it was “the first Who material in a long time to be properly recorded” – would become their most successful in the States in terms of RIAA certification. Released in the UK on Friday, August 27, 1971, it was certified triple platinum and reached No.4 in a 41-week chart run. That repeated the peak of the Tommy album that preceded it; while Quadrophenia went to No.2 in 1973, it’s only certified single platinum.

The LP grew out of the abandoned sessions for Townshend’s far-seeing Life House project, a work that he conceived partly as a film script and partly to be a “live musical experiment.” That vision, on which Townshend foresaw the invention of the internet and described the advent of virtual reality and a pandemic-style lockdown, can be heard as it was intended from September 2023 on a lavish, multi-format Super Deluxe boxed set featuring Who’s Next and the complete Life House project.

The set is the first full sonic description of what was in Townshend’s mind for Life House, and how the songs that we came to know on Who’s Next were born. As he told John Tobler in Zigzag in 1974: “The whole thing was based on a combination of fiction – a script that I wrote – called The Lifehouse, which was the story – and a projection within that fiction of a possible reality.

“In other words it was a fiction which was fantasy, parts of which I very much hoped would come true. And the fiction was about a theatre and about a group and about music and about experiments and about concerts and about the day a concert emerges that is so incredible that the whole audience disappears.

“I started off writing a series of songs about music, about the power of music and the mysticism of music. ‘Getting In Tune’ is a straight pinch from Imrat Khan’s discourse of mysticism of sound, where he just says music is one way of individuals getting in tune with one another, and I just picked up on that. And there’s a couple of others which I don’t suppose you’ve heard. One’s called ‘Pure And Easy.’ You hear the beginning of it at the end of ‘Song Is Over.’’

For all of its imperfect origins, and the band’s own reservations, Who’s Next came to be regarded by many as one of The Who’s most powerful statements. Bookended by the superb “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” it also includes such all-time Who classics as “Bargain,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and the majestic “The Song Is Over.”

As Who’s Next was being released, rock writer Dave Marsh avowed in Creem magazine that the band’s new album “is to The Who what the White Album must’ve been to The Beatles.” His point was that, in both cases, these were the studio follow-ups to brilliant concept LPs, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for one and Tommy for the other.

‘A fine fine record’

Marsh concluded in his Who review that they had succeeded, just as The Beatles had. Live At Leeds was, he wrote, “a fine fine record, one you can shake your ass to and think about both, one that does everything The Who can do in legend (which is a lot, just like the White Album was a lot).”

Johns provided a link between these two giants of British music, since he had served as an engineer on Abbey Road in 1969. He would later reflect that The Who album had become even more significant in their canon than he thought it would. “When I was cutting it, I was really thrilled with it,” he said, “but I never imagined it would become as important as it became, because one’s a little bit insecure, obviously, when you’re making a record. You don’t really know how the public are going to receive it.”

Who’s Next is also the surprising answer to the question of how many weeks The Who have spent at No.1 on the UK album chart, since their first appearance there in December 1965: one, when this landmark record spent seven days at the summit of the September 18 chart.

Listen to the best of The Who on Apple Music and Spotify.

Three other Who studio albums made No.2 in the UK (Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Face Dances) and they also reached runner-up spot with 1976’s The Story Of The Who compilation. Who’s Next was their fifth LP to reach the UK Top 10, a feat they would repeat another ten times, including with 2006’s Endless Wire. Then the acclaimed 2019 set simply titled Who debuted in the UK at No.3.

Who historian Chris Charlesworth said of one of the LP’s linchpin tracks, the soaringly ambitious “Baba O’Riley”: “Pete didn’t use his synthesizer simply as a solo keyboard that could make strange underwater noises, but as a rotating musical loop which underpinned the melody and added a sharp bite to the rhythm track.”

Liberating the group

In December 1971, Townshend had told Steve Turner in Beat Instrumental: “I’d always felt rock was capable of doing more than the three-minute-fifteen-second track approach. But the question now is what we can do with this extended piece of time? Today the Who’s problem is that piece of time on the album and on stage has become so predictable. We feel we have to find a new thread that maybe isn’t a standard rock procedure, but that nevertheless has the same fundamental simplicity. My cause is to liberate the group from its own shackles.”

Who’s Next/Life House is released on September 15, 2023.

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