Classic Album Review #1: The Who – Who’s Next (1971)
At the end of the 60s, The Who had a major success with fans and critics with their album Tommy, a concept album that managed to sum up their turbulent concert energy, Townshend’s adventurous songwriting and state-of-the-art recording techniques. But the downside to every great record is the expectations everyone has towards the next. The Lifehouse project, that Townshend thought up after Tommy, was supposed to be the next big step forward conceptually, but he failed to fulfill his vision due to its complexity. Nevertheless many songs from the project ended up as unconnected and independent pieces on Who’s Next.
This album is considered a classic, as it has been placed on #28 of the Greatest Albums of All Time by The Rolling Stone. For me personally, this album and single songs off of it have accompanied me for most of my youth. Still I want to review it, as there is to find out, whether or not it is a ‘legitimate’ classic, and if so what makes it so great.
Songs & Production
There are a lot of words that come to mind when talking about The Who: powerful, energetic, driving, alive. The cornerstones of this particular album that fulfill every one of these attributes are Baba O’Riley and Won’t get fooled again. It’s no wonder, why these songs belong to their most beloved ones. Every section of Baba is perfectly timed to either build up tension or orgasmically release it. It is still one of the best openings to any album; when those three piano chords strike after the hypnotic synth intro, I still get goosebumps every time. Also, the seemingly insignificant drum fill after the first ‘chorus’-break is an unparalleled example of emotion put into drums: unrestrained, unleashed and free. Teenage Wasteland, that’s what it’s all about, leaving everything from the past behind and start into a new life. At least, that’s what I hear in this song.
Won’t get fooled again is another great song that agitates me. Visions of youthful revolt and revolutions flash before my eyes, as the innovatively used organ duels with the guitars, while Keith Moon and John Entwhistle are casually grooving underneath. Undoubtedly, the best part is after the quiet breakdown section where the only thing that remains is the organ, that is staying in its filtered pattern. When this hypnotic trance is broken by those drumfills and the unique YEEAAAHH!! is overdriving the mic, I’m in heaven. For me, this primal scream summarizes the whole restless and sturm-und-drang nature of youth in only one sound; emotional and angry. It is all there in that scream, in that song.
While these two are the most stellar songs of the album, the others are everything but filler. The ballad-esque Behind Blue Eyes, that later has been brutally butchered by Fred Durst’s lifeless performance, deals as much with depression as it does with anger and thusly connects with the listener on a deeper emotional level. I won’t go into detail about the other songs here, as I don’t want this to be too long.
Most of the other songs complete this well-rounded and diverse album. The only weak song for me is My wife. While one might get used to it, it sticks out like a sore thumb, with it’s monotone vocal performance and, frankly, rather boring songwriting. The structure and arrangement is also rather dull, as the brass is more irritating than interesting in this song.
Recorded in 1971, this album is on the verge of, what I call, the dryness of the 70s. While other artists have already adopted that new aesthetic, The Who still used quite a bit of reverb and room sound even throughout the 70s and especially on vocals. But that’s not a bad thing, as this album still has a very coherent sound and nothing really seems outdated, even to this day. The innovative use of synthesizer and recording techniques like reversed playback and double-tracking also makes this a milestone in the integration of electronic instruments into (non-progressive) rock music.
So, has The Who met the high expectations that came after Tommy? Yes, definitely. Even though there is no overarching story that ties the songs together, this album is still an advancement. I especially like how over the years they developed from a destructive live band into an evenly creative studio band, staying true to their roots, but without repeating themselves.
The Final Judgement
All in all, it remains one of my favorite albums. But regardless of my opinion, this record has deserved its place in the heart and minds of the rock community.