“The One thing that disgusts me about The Who is the way they smashed through every door in the uncharted hallway of rock ‘n’ roll without leaving much more than some debris for the rest of us to lay claim to it” —Eddie Vedder
You can’t talk about rock ‘n’ roll without mentioning one of its greatest figures who changed the genre’s trajectory. Among the star-studded legends from England, The Who was one of the hottest bands during the British Invasion years. Their rise through the mid-1960s integrated into the platinum selling record Tommy. Rock Opera was now the new thing from the band that established breakthrough success. Critical rave and hyped-up songs placed The Who on a pedestal where everyone thought they peaked. At the time, it seemed like everyone was right. But a follow-up would show the capturing of what made the band’s sound resonate with a live audience. Take a seat and enjoy the retelling of a record produced from one of rock’s monumental giants that trademarked hard rock.
Lead singer, Pete Townshend, viewed albums as a theatrical production with stories, themes and resolutions. After releasing an innovative record, The Who continued their refinery of rock opera in a follow-up project. Lifehouse was tailored around the elements of science fiction that Townshend described feeling during the Tommy tour. “I’ve seen moments in Who gigs,” he states, “where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the whole world was just going to stop, the whole thing was just becoming so unified.” Townshend was a bit eccentric, to say the least. But it was the hippie era. Part of which, combined with mounting pressure of fame (and other psychedelics), caused the lead singer to have a nervous breakdown. Townshend abandoned the ambitious project as it drew dangerously close to breaking the group up. But the departure from Lifehouse presented an ultimatum of returning to their roots with a basic sound. An endeavor that created an album which showed audiences worldwide The Who isn’t just a band; they’re creative geniuses.
The early concepts of Lifehouse were transferred over to The Who’s next album pursuit. Townshend’s newfound love of synthesizers and computer sounds became groundbreaking for the band to build from. Initial sessions took place at Mick Jagger’s estate in Stargroves before relocating to the legendary sound stages at Olympic Studios. The basis of the album bridged on the focus of individual tracks that were unified through music instead of storytelling. Droning effects from synth techniques paired well with electronic organs in several tracks. The production churned out the “good sound” the band had been looking for with free rein. With the engineering talents of Gly Johns, who favored rustic over grandiose styles, every song was given the edge it needed. The band’s complete faith in Johns’ reassurance of the album’s excellent material was met with control over track arrangement. Upon completion, the band released the album in 1971 under the title: Who’s Next. But The Who, genuinely, had no idea what was next.
Fans and critics mired in The Who’s ability to enthrall audiences with a huge sound through their live shows. Who’s Next was the tour de force studio album that finally hooked their dynamic and manic sounds. The music was loud and relentless but balanced by lull ballads. The contrast between the ballad styles alone showed ingenious arrangement differences. Whether it was the wrenching melody of “Behind Blue Eyes” or the comforting tone of “The Song Is Over”. All tracks outlined the focus The Who searched for as they approached the next decade. It became much more than another rock album to them. It was passion. It contained heartbreak, triumph, outrage, desire and hilarity. All packaged by a band that looked to abandon the “teenage wasteland” as defined by Townshend’s view on the 1960s.
Previous years of touring and fan admiration inspired the bulk of these tracks. But its opener charms the previous project Townshend looked to accomplish with a spiritual infatuation. “Baba O’Riley” unhinges the synthesizer instrumentation that The Who famously pioneered with the album. The namesake of Townshend’s mentors incited the track’s rouse of backing tracks and marimba dance beats. Its iconic opening combined with backing vocalist Roger Daltrey at his absolute best created a hit. The invigoration set the motif of how Who’s Next built further from its kickstarter. It was true rock ‘n’ roll, and the critical acclaim that followed was magnanimous.
The coalescence of Keith Moon being relentless on drums, John Entwistle’s grooving bass and Townshend at peak vocals was synergetic. The reviews on the album’s energetic, live sound poured in with critics growing rampant with praise. Rolling Stone quoted the record as “intelligently conceived, superbly-performed, brilliantly-produced, and sometimes even exciting.”. But the excitement didn’t end there as the annual poll by Pazz & Jop, voted by critics, landed Who’s Next as the best album of 1971. Fans appraisal came from the group returning to their rock ways but still remaining fresh with newer, slick concepts. The album reverberated through time with publications not only listing it as their best album, but as the greatest album. Ever. A true pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll music.
Sales figures drove the album to hit number one on Billboard with a triple platinum status to boot. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later inducted the album’s tracks for its historical and artistic significance to the world. But for Townshend, the true success was releasing a work of art that played from the fears of failure and near departure from the band. While he never abandoned his artistic side and admires his previous rock opera albums, Who’s Next is much more different. Those previous albums were works of art. This was rock. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was written to end the opera section. Here, it’s written to end the rock album. No bows at the end. Only guitar smashing. True rock ‘n’ roll.
Written by Trenton Luber