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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Who's Next

Another old review. This time it's of one of the very first albums I bought after deciding to expand my tastes beyond The Beatles and their solo albums. My opinion hasn't changed much over the years. It's still an exceptional piece of work - even if it's not quite The Who's greatest album.

From (Originally published 27 October 2003)

Who’s Next is a very important album for me. It’s the album that after listening to the Beatles exclusively for eight years, proved that there was in fact other almost-as-great music out there and caused me to start buying everything from the Rolling Stones and further Who albums to even newer stuff like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips. Still, however great the album may be –and it is- I can’t help but find it to be somewhat overrated.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about Led Zeppelin IV-level overratedness (is that a word?) here, Who’s Next is a definite five-star album, it’s just that it has a major flaw preventing it from being the band’s greatest work (Quadrophenia gets that honor, as far as I am concerned). The album suffers because of four songs that bookend the album: Baba O’Riley, Bargain, Behind Blue Eyes and Won’t Get Fooled Again.

By now, if you have had any exposure to the Who at all, you are probably under the impression that I am unquestionably, most definitely quite insane. Fear not, dear reader, I am not in fact telling you that four of the Who’s most beloved songs are in fact so bad that the album would be better off without them. No, what I am saying is that these songs are so incredibly, ridiculously GREAT that the remaining songs can’t help but look weak by comparison. 

Okay, before I get into detail on these songs it would probably be a good idea to give some information about the album as a whole. Who’s Next started off as one of Pete’s beloved rock opera’s, Lifehouse. The problem was that the concept was so bloated and convoluted, the rock opera fell apart under its own weight. Still, out of the wreckage the Who were able to salvage some incredible songs, many of which are among the band’s greatest work. Lifehouse’s remnants appeared everywhere from rarity compilation Odds and Sods to Pete’s own Lifehouse chronicles but it was here, on Who’s Next, that the band first introduced these songs to the world. 

The album was also a major change of direction for the Who, or to be more precise another change of direction for a constantly evolving band. Most notable, of course, is the much fuller, bombastic production that would characterize most of the group’s seventies work which stands in stark contrast to their lighter, airier sixties albums. This new sound helped to highlight the near-unmatched musicianship of each member of the band in a way that the older albums only hinted at.

To add to the bombastic production, Pete introduced synthesizers to the band’s sound and on the wayside helped to redefine the use of synths in rock music. Despite the disdain most people have for synthesizers (an understandable bias actually, just take a look at some of the more offensive eighties pop music to understand why) Pete managed to use them to greatly enhance the album so much so that the two best songs here are heavily synth-based. 

Now, onto the songs themselves. Except for the four masterpieces that I mentioned above, the remaining songs –be they great or not so great- are all frustrating in or another. Take for example John Entwistle’s My Wife, a great song with a fun, driving melody and some truly funny lyrics about some guy being hunted (in the literal sense) by his wife, spoiled by inaudible singing. The only way I knew what the lyrics were about was by searching for them on the Internet, a great pity considering this song is one of the last purely humorous songs the band would release.

The next two songs, Song Is Over and Getting In Tune are even more frustrating with some truly beautiful verses spoiled by overly bloated, outright silly choruses and pretentious lyrics. Making matters worse, Getting in Tune is also a good two minutes too long. The other two songs, Love Ain’t For Keeping and Going Mobile are good, solid songs –the latter in particular (see Odds and Sods for a longer, electric guitar based, Pete-sung and plain better version)- but both seem to pale into insignificance in comparison to the songs that surround them. 

Amazingly enough, despite all this I am still willing to give the album a near-perfect score. Firstly, despite their flaws, all of the above songs are perfectly listenable to the point that I seldom skip these songs when listening to the album as a whole. My Wife and Love Ain’t For Keeping, in particular are exceptionally strong songs that your average great band would kill for but for the Who, a band capable of flawless masterpieces like My Generation and Won’t Get Fooled Again, I can’t help but have higher expectations.

Secondly, the four remaining songs are good enough to redeem the album’s weaker moments –a truly remarkable feat, especially when you consider that I don’t believe the mighty Stairway To Heaven is able to do the same for Led Zeppelin IV. Baba O’Riley opens the album with a continuous synthesizer loop that soon gives way to subtle piano followed by Keith Moon’s frantic, energetic drumming soon joined by the rest of the band. The melody that follows starts as a fast, powerful rocker morphing for a few seconds into a heartbreaking ballad and back again before ending on a completely unpredictable violin (or fiddle) part that would not sound out of place in Fiddler On The Roof. 

The following song, Bargain is a little more straightforward but similarly moves between rocker and ballad with amazing ease. Pete’s guitar playing is exceptionally impressive here with some crunching power chords and the occasional brief but effective solo adding some variety. Between Keith’s hectic drumming, John’s melodic bass playing and some more synthesizers provided by Pete, Bargain provides a perfect groundwork for Pete’s guitars and Rogers roaring vocals. 

Behind Blue Eyes, the second last song in the album is a powerful ballad exploring the nature of evil, often assumed to be about Nazism despite Pete’s protests to the contrary. It’s more likely that it’s about the antagonist in the story that Lifehouse was supposed to be based upon. Be that as it may, the song’s strength yet again lies in the memorable yet wildly unpredictable melody that starts off slowly with not much more than Roger singing over a sparse acoustic guitar backing, before moving onto an aggressive, genuinely angry sounding hard rocking part and back again, all within three classic minutes. 

The band save the best for last, however, as Won’t Get Fooled Again remains the Who’s most powerful hard rock anthem. Later criticized by Pete as being irresponsible, the lyrics to the song deal with the uselessness of political revolution summed up perfectly with those immortal lines, ‘Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss’. The complex, unpredictable and aggressive melody reinforces this message perfectly. Yet again the synths act as a perfect background for roaring vocals, relentless drumming, fat, melodic bass lines and guitar work where you can almost feel Pete’s windmills. The song is no less than eight and a half minutes long but every minute is absolutely necessary for making the song the tour de force that is. 

There is also good news to everyone that owns the 1996 CD release of the album, there is a wealth of bonus tracks –seven in total- which really enhance the original album. Most of the tracks can be found in different forms elsewhere, especially –yet again- on the Odds and Sods compilation (in case you haven’t gotten the message yet: If you like the Who at all get that comp!) but, with the exception of Baby Don’t You Do It, they all fit in perfectly with the original album. 

Better yet, there is a new deluxe version of the CD, which I sadly don’t own, that is even better: Aside for the extra tracks found on the 1996 reissue there is a further unreleased version of Getting In Tune and an entire second CD consisting of a live performance at the Young Vic stadium. From what I’ve heard this is THE version to get, unsurprising considering what a phenomenal live band the Who were at the time. 

South African readers buy Who's Next from Take2. Either the expanded single-disc remaster or the deluxe edition.

International readers buy Who's Next from Amazon.

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