The Who – Who’s Next

Who’s Next (1971)


1. Baba O’Riley 2. Bargain 3. Love Ain’t For Keeping 4. My Wife 5. The Song Is Over 6. Getting In Tune 7. Going Mobile 8. Behind Blue Eyes 9. Won’t Get Fooled Again


I assume most people look at Who’s Next and see either a) one of the premier rock records ever made, jam packed out the wazoo with a fearsome lineup of classic FM radio staples, or b) the cardboard square they’ve been cutting up lines of coke on for the past forty years. Amazingly, I look at it and see a lost opportunity. Undoubtedly, Next is, track-by-track, the Who’s greatest recorded accomplishment. Its famous anthems are awe-inspiringly majestic and timeless; there’s a reason that at least half the songs on this album are being played somewhere on the radio or TV every twelve seconds to this day. But I can’t listen to it without imagining what it could’ve been; without hearing it as only the remnants of Pete’s great lost masterpiece, Lifehouse.

Lifehouse was to be Pete’s second rock opera and his grand one-upping of Tommy; his Ultimate Statement of Great Truth About God, The Lost Note, and the Sacred Music Within Us All. By 1971, it had collapsed under the weight of its own massive scale, ambition, and notoriously confusing premise, and Pete had suffered a nervous breakdown in his desperate attempts to prop it all up. Needing something new to put out, the Who decided to select a few of the best songs Pete had penned for the project and turn them into a regular old album. A wise move commercially, for sure. But the quality of the stuff that got left on the cutting room floor as a result is absolutely astounding. I’ll cover a bunch of the outtakes when I review Odds & Sods and other later records, since Lifehouse leftovers popped up on Who albums throughout the duration of the 70s. But I’ll throw caution to the wind and make this kind of outrageously bold statement now: the Who, from 1970-1972 when they were writing and recording Lifehouse, achieved a peak of songwriting and performance power that no other rock band has ever matched. EVAH. And Who’s Next, while it mostly represents the cream of their output during that period, is hardly the whole story.

From a conceptual standpoint, Lifehouse has always fascinated me, even though I don’t totally, um, understand all that much about what the concept and story was actually supposed to be. It sure seems like nobody outside Pete himself ever has, not even his own bandmates. Indeed, they apparently showed little support or understanding of Pete’s ideas; Roger publically dismissed its viability in curious fashion, saying, “Nah, won’t work – you’ll never get enough wire.” Who knows what the hell that means, but the point is that resistance from within the band and its management is largely what led to Lifehouse being aborted (note to self: to piss off right-wing fundamentalists, use “aborted” in reference to Lifehouse as much as possible from now on. Also masturbate repeatedly while reading the Koran. That’ll show ‘em).

I’ve never heard the Lifehouse radio play that Pete did in the late 90s (the CDs have been sold out for years. Where’s the fucking supply for my demand, goddammit?). So again, I’m not clear on all the plot details. Here’s what I do know: in a dystopian future, a totalitarian government controls everyone by hooking them up to “the Grid,” which is like an alternate reality computer program (some have credited Pete with inventing the internet by coming up with this idea in 1970. I have no comment on this). A young girl from the country named Mary runs away to the heavily polluted city, where she meets our hero, Bobby. Bobby, with the help of his aged mentor/guru, is attempting to overthrow the government by putting on a concert, which he would then broadcast to everyone by hacking into the grid. The concert goes forward and the authorities bust in and shoot Bobby, but the attendees discover “the lost note” and disappear or ascend to the next spiritual plane or whatever. I’m doing a terrible job of describing it, but then again, so has Pete over the years.

But the story is not what led to Lifehouse’s downfall. From what I’ve read about it (and honestly, just google it. My description is crap), I find it pretty fascinating and cool, despite the new-agey Meher Baba crap about “the lost note” and spiritual balance and what not. Pete’s fatal error was to trust his audience to fulfill his aspirations for the project. See, he planned to accompany a Lifehouse record with a movie, which would be interspersed with actual concert footage of the Who. So they scheduled a run of concerts at the Young Vic Theatre in London, where they performed a bunch of new material. Pete’s idea was that over the course of these shows, individual audience members would emerge organically from the masses and Pete would write songs about them and they’d become characters in the story. Or something. Kind of crazy to expect that level of participation from people who, in 1970, probably just wanted to get high and hear “Pinball Wizard.” Naturally, this scheme didn’t go according to plan, and the Who retreated to the studio with only Pete’s new songs to go on.

Fortunately, they were the best songs he’d ever written. They were also songs unlike any he had written before. Indeed, the Who’s Next Who certainly ain’t the “I Can’t Explain” high energy power pop Who, or even the Tommy or Live At Leeds Who. No, they’re grown-ups now, playing Serious Songs about Serious Stuff, all mid-tempo mega bombast. But for tunes this awesome, I’ll gladly trade the schoolboy humor and a few extra bpms. These songs are enough to make me believe in the Great Lost Chord or whatever the fuck Lifehouse was about – and that Pete had discovered it himself and used it to write all his new material. Never in the history of arena rock has anyone come close to replicating anthems like “Baba O’Riley” (and not “Teenage Wasteland,” as Seth Rogen’s character in Freaks & Geeks helpfully points out) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” In large part, that’s because nobody has ever used synths like Pete did here. Such as the inhumanly fast arpeggios that form the bedrock of “Baba O’Riley” and sound something like a futuristic banjo. Yup, don’t listen to Pete’s bullshit about inputting data about Meher Baba into a computer and having that synth pattern come out… he played that live. Which is a hell of a lot more impressive if you ask me. The ultimate result is pretty much the definitive arena rock anthem, and the only arena rock anthem I know of with a fiddle-led Jewish folk jig at the end. Classic rock radio staple #2 is also track two, “Bargain,” which shares the opening cut’s bombastic rock power, use of synths, extended instrumental section, gentle Pete-sung bridge, and has an even more awesome money note (“the best I ever HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD”) than “teenage WASTELAAAAAAAAAND.” I’m the best at imitating rock singers by typing.

Unfortunately, this album is not comprised of nine “Baba O’Riley”-quality classics. The middle section, in fact, is sometimes criticized for being overblown as all get out without the balls to back it up. I can sort of understand lukewarm reactions to bombastic ballads “Getting In Tune” and intended Lifehouse finale “The Song Is Over,” with their lumbering tempos and lyrics about music (sort of annoying topic for a rock song if you ask me). But, shit, man… Nicky Hopkins. He plays piano on them. And if there’s ever been anything that makes a song automatically good, it’s Nicky Hopkins playing piano on it. Fortunately, these songs also have beautiful vocal melodies. And if bombastic music bothers you, then you probably shouldn’t be listening to 70s Who anyway. Or you can just listen to the gorgeous all acoustic “Love Ain’t For Keeping” or Pete’s giddy ode to drivin’ around with nowhere to go, “Going Mobile,” which is by far the most flippant lyrically or musically Pete gets on this album. For yet more precious fun, you’ve got “My Wife,” a kickass black comedy about getting drunk and trying to outrun a murderous spouse by—who else?—John Entwistle. It’s not a Lifehouse song, of course, but it’s good enough to belong amongst the anthems. If you need more levity, well, the band is taking a piss on the album cover, so there’s that.

The album wraps up with two more classics… the pathos-drenched “Behind Blue Eyes” (later covered by… Limp Bizkit! Good god. One time in sixth grade I was wearing a baseball cap backwards and my friend told me I looked like Fred Durst. I have not worn a baseball cap backwards since) was written as a sort of theme song for the villain in Lifehouse, Jumbo, who controls the Grid in the story. It’s a sympathy for the devil song, about what it’s like to be evil and still have a conscience. Or what it’s like to be an angry fucker unable to control one’s temper and having to plead, “when my fist clenches, crack it open/Before I use it and lose my cool”… like Roger Daltrey, for instance. Even though these songs were written for a sci-fi rock opera, they can be more universally applied. “Baba O’Riley,” for instance, was, apparently, originally written about the garbage left behind after Woodstock, which Pete saw firsthand. Teenage wasteland, indeed.

Closing it out is “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which is, with no caveat required, my favorite rock song, nay, my favorite piece of music, ever created. It’s the ultimate anti-establishment, apolitical rock song, despite some gigantic dumbass deciding to name it the “greatest conservative rock song ever” or some such shit. If the idea that it’s dangerous to worship a political figure or institution is conservative, then someone tell the Republicans to stop sucking zombie Reagan cock every waking moment of their lives. Blech. In any case… I could write an entire essay about “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but this review is way too goddamn long already, so I’ll just leave you with one more word that sums up my feelings about the song nicely:


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