Rock Albums that Changed the World: Who’s Next

To those that were in attendance, Woodstock (August 15-18, 1969) may have been rightly billed as “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” but it was nothing but a drag to the bands who performed there, mostly a bunch of waiting around, according to Roger Daltrey. Moved to the backstage area at 7pm, The Who waited another 10 hours (!) to go on and by that time, alcoholic Keith Moon was raging drunk, normally straight-laced Daltrey was inadvertently tripping, and Townshend was exhausted and enraged and, if you’ve seen the film, you know it didn’t matter. The Who stole the show.

Woodstock may have been a chaotic mess to its organizers and performers, but it was a true milestone for the youth movement of the late 60s that spawned a cultural renaissance — a meeting of the tribes and a peaceful oasis of music-making and humanism during a violent era of assassination, angry protest, and war. Woodstock was not the first giant music festival. That distinction goes to the Monterey Pop Festival of two summers earlier, also produced as an extravagant concert movie and it’s interesting to compare the styles of the two productions. The earlier film reflects the more pop side of 60s rock with briefer, “peppier” sets, often one song per segment, and with abrupt, almost MTV-styled cuts between acts. The Woodstock movie on the other hand is much more elongated, often cutting to bands tuning up and casually bantering, the segments are longer and the music is more developed, in a word, more rock. 

It’s fitting that The Who were featured in both movies because they are one of a handful of bands that are major exponents of the two main vectors of 60s music. In their earliest manifestation, The Who embodied England’s proto-punk Mod movement, early 60s Brits that dressed in sharp suits, took speed in pill form by the handful (called “leapers”), and clashed violently with leather-clad Rockers on weekends. The band played shows for hopped-up Mods as The Detours, then The High Numbers and finally settling on the name, The Who once they replaced their management and developed a distinctive pop art marketing identity for the band. It was at that time that homely, self-conscious guitarist Pete Townshend accidentally stuck his Rickenbacker through his amp, creating a howl of feedback and a huge approving response from the overactive crowd and soon, both he and drummer Keith Moon were taking out their frustrations in full smash-ups of their gear at the end of each show. The band’s proceeds mostly went to replacing equipment but they were making a name for themselves and soon, with the aid of Townshend’s songwriting and the band’s unique style, they’d cement their place in the early British Invasion pop side of the history of rock.

After a string of what can only be characterized as “power pop” hits (a genre name not yet coined but how else can songs like “I Can’t Explain,” “Substitute” and “The Kids Are Alright” be described?), Townshend started to tire of the 3-minute pop song form and started to pursue more ambitious goals with his songwriting starting with “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” a song-cycle with six distinct movements, then “Rael,” the mini-opera that finishes the 1967 concept album The Who Sells Out, and culminating with a full-blown large scale work, the milestone rock opera Tommy, released in album form in 1969. A double disc of 24 tracks maintaining a high level of excellence throughout, with recurring musical motifs and a complex plot, there really is nothing like Tommy in the rock oeuvre, except maybe The Who’s own sublime Quadrophenia album (1974), which is another highly developed rock opera with a storyline set in the Mod era of the band’s earlier career.

But Tommy was what put Townshend on the musical map as a major force in the songwriting world — it was also the vehicle that carried The Who into the pantheon of rock band legends. It was their performance of Tommy that made The Who the stars of the Woodstock movie; they would play the opera in full over the next two years of concerts, as documented in what many consider the greatest live album of all time, 1970’s thunderous, The Who Live at Leeds. A quick analysis of Tommy shows Townshend dipping into musical complexities like polychords (where the chords would cascade over one static bass note), occasional odd time signatures, and recurring melodic themes that would develop over time. But, listening to the Tommy album, it still feels very rooted in the 60s era for a few significant reasons, chief among them that, except in a few extended passages, Townshend is still relying on that limited form of expression the 3-minute pop song. Even more consequential to the overall sound and feel, Tommy is produced by Kit Lambert, the group’s manager and as thrilling as it is to sit between the speakers and listen to the story of Tommy unfold with all of the modernistic music and recurring themes, it still sounds like The Who is being boxed in. Not just because the group’s combustible quality is being suppressed in order to execute a meticulously constructed opera, but mostly because the producer at the helm just didn’t have the sonic knowhow to translate the power of the world’s most explosive stage band onto the studio tape.

Tommy was what put Townshend on the musical map as a major force in the songwriting world — it was also the vehicle that carried The Who into the pantheon of rock band legends

Following the mega-success of Tommy proved to be a daunting task for Townshend. Probably against better judgement, Townshend dove into yet another large-scale project, this one even more ambitious than Tommy. By the later part of 1970, Pete was hard at work constructing the structure, songs, and storyline for Lifehouse, an intricate multimedia, live interactive spectacle involving an extravagant light show and a prototype version of virtual reality with an early concept of the internet as part of the storyline. Lifehouse was so complicated that explaining the labyrinth of the plot, the complex mechanics of the stagecraft, and the indecipherable thematic structure to the band didn’t take hours, it tooks days, even weeks. Lifehouse was depicted by Townshend as a rock opera, a double album to be recorded live, and a fully-scripted film project. In the end, Lifehouse sent Townshend into a complete tailspin ending in a nervous breakdown, but not before he recorded brilliant home demos for all of the songs and musical themes. Lifehouse Chronicles was released in 2000 and is available today as a fascinating 6CD set that includes a film-length radio play stretching across two CDs.

Luckily, the collapse of Lifehouse did not do any permanent damage to Pete and in the aftermath, the group convinced Townshend that they should reduce the project to just recording a simple, single album and thus the path to Who’s Next was set. Ironically, narrowing the focus and scaling back their ambition was what created the one undisputed masterwork of their career, the album that succinctly demonstrated the power and grandeur of the band and their connection to their moment in history, providing a touchstone for generations of fans, and by combining pure sound, virtuosity, and a sense of mission, pushed the boundaries of rock into an as yet unwitnessed level of intensity and commitment. It set a new standard for songwriting, performance, and sonics and if there is a rock canon, this album is at or near the source.

Luckily, the collapse of Lifehouse did not do any permanent damage to Pete

Time was booked at the Record Plant in New York but the abortive sessions resulted in the firing of Kit Lambert as producer, his hard drug use cited as the reason. It was decided at that point that The Who would self-produce the album of a select group of Lifehouse songs with an assist from one of rock’s truly great engineer-producers, the sublimely talented and quietly arrogant Glyn Johns.

The Glyn Johns discography is a Who’s Who of the golden age of rock — Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan, The Eagles, The Band and about 20 other essential artists. Rock owes Glyn Johns perhaps the biggest debt of anyone, his sound and conception is so bedrock to the whole enterprise of rock music.

Rather than utilizing a huge array of microphones and console inputs, the Glyn Johns style is no-frills with an emphasis on minimalism, perfect mic placement and musical performance (very similar to Rudy Van Gelder of the jazz world). Johns, for instance developed a famous three-mic technique for drums known as the “Glyn Johns Method” utilizing one mic in front of the kick drum, a single overhead mic, and one distant mic in front of the kit, the two distant mics forming an equilateral triangle with the kit’s snare drum (without actually miking the snare itself). You would think that without close mics on the kit that his drum sound would lack detail, but the resulting image and sound is actually very focused and powerful. One listen to the thunderous drums on Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” will make anyone a believer. There are many ways to skin a cat in the studio, but The Who’s reliance on the power and precision of the Glyn Johns minimalist style was what put their next album over the top in terms of pure sound, something the group needed to convey the hurricane force they generated onstage but could never succeed in communicating on their records.

The introduction of Glyn Johns to the music of The Who also meant a move away from the 60s-era sound of tube technology to the more modern 70s-era sound of high quality transistor-based audio. The advance in technology from a recording console stuffed with oversized vacuum tubes that were fragile and generated a lot of heat to miniaturized transistor components soldered onto a circuit board provided more than just a convenience, it was a whole shift in the sound of the records, best understood by comparing all of the Beatles records to their final album, Abbey Road. Earthy vs. glossy? Concrete vs. steel and glass? It’s pointless to describe it with words, but there is a distinct difference between the sound of the two technologies and you can hear that The Who has jumped a gulf in sonics on this album. When Glyn Johns took them into Olympic Studios with their house-designed transistor-based console (what was to be manufactured and sold as the Helios brand), he brought The Who into a new era, the sound of 70s rock.

Another interesting detail in the recording and mixing of the album is how Pete’s electric guitar was treated at the mixing desk. There is a “dual compression” trick shown to me by my own recording mentor where a single guitar signal is brought to the board on two identical channels (the signal is “split”). The technique is to strap a limiter across the main guitar channel and squash the signal to the extreme, removing all of the dynamic peaks from the performance and reducing it to all one volume, but then, from the other channel, bringing in just enough of the pure, original signal to breathe life and natural sound back into the composite sound. I was told that this is how Pete Townshend’s electric guitars were treated on Who’s Next and whether that’s fanfiction or oral history, there is indeed a great leap forward in how the sound of Pete’s electric is portrayed on Who’s Next (mostly playing a Gretsch 6120 guitar through a tweed Fender Bandmaster amp, both gifted to him by Joe Walsh in early 1971).

And one last technological advancement to mention is Townshend’s use of synthesizers and sequencers on Who’s Next, a jarring aspect of the album according to Who fans that experienced its release in real-time, but a signature sound for the band on this landmark work. First introduced to the ARP 2600 synthesizer at Cambridge University, Pete bought one and experimented compulsively with it and other keyboards, shaping sounds with their myriad knobs, running other instruments through the filters, and playing with an analog sequencer module, which allows for the step-by-step inputting of notes and subsequent playback at any speed, set by the turning of a dial. The latter technique was utilized to great effect on Who’s Next but the fruit Townshend’s keyboard experimentation would be brought to bear in the simulated strings and french horns featured on Quadrophenia, and would remain a pillar in his work all through his career.

When Glyn Johns took them into Olympic Studios with their house-designed transistor-based console… he brought The Who into a new era, the sound of 70s rock

All of this discussion of recording technology and sound would be pointless if the songs were mediocre and the playing just perfunctory. Instead, Who’s Next captures the band at the pinnacle of their mad, flailing brilliance and the songs are arguably among the strongest collection anywhere in the annals of rock. To begin with, Who’s Next is Keith Moon’s best album by far. Unleashed and inspired, the drums are the lead instrument in many memorable passages, and Entwhistle is equally possessed on bass, the two of them in a constant improvisation through almost the entire album. Townshend seems to be maintaining an out of body experience throughout and the three virtuosos playing at full-tilt intensity is breathtaking, but the crowning achievement in terms of performance has to be the suddenly mature Roger Daltrey whose commanding vocals embody all of the angst, tenderness, and gut-wrenching disappointment of a generation of promise now staring down into the abyss. Yet — as indelible and thrilling as these performances are, it is the majesty of Pete Townshend’s songs that elevate Who’s Next to its masterpiece status.

Right out of the gate, the rippling, electronic texture of the ARP synthesizer intro lets the listener know that The Who has dropped us into a new, futuristic realm. The shimmering, wandering cascade of patterns from the analog sequencer builds tension in anticipation until a three-chord piano riff is pounded out. Moon starts bashing away and supported by Entwhistle’s bass, Daltrey finally thunders in, blasting out a dystopian tale played out in the ruins of a society, where he fights for his meals and seeks no forgiveness — for what other dirty deeds, we are not told. By the time Townshend enters with those thick, super-compressed power chords from his distorted Gretsch, we are fully ensconced in a dark, post-apocalyptic world, and the suspicion that Townshend might be talking about something more timely than just science fiction here is confirmed. The drums stop, the smoke clears, and Pete himself emerges, his fragile tenor crooning the refrain so overfamiliar to us, but so relevant to the post-utopian Woodstock generation in that moment. Don’t cry — it’s only teenage wasteland. “Baba O’Riley” ends with a manic futuristic hoedown, the burbling synthesizer cascades battling it out with guest fiddler Dave Arbus with the band hammering away as the tempo gradually increases, crescendoing into a mad burst of energy and pent-up rage.

The songs of Who’s Next retain the basic sinew of the Lifehouse story. They read as a post-mortem on a utopian dream told in the context of a Hobbesian universe where good only exists as the lesser of evils, where murder bargains are struck, where love is impermanent and fleeting, where peace can only be found by searching inward, and where skepticism and distrust are currency and alienation reigns.

The choice to make “Bargain” the second track of Who’s Next is a brilliant move because it doubles down on every aspect of “Baba O’Riley” while simultaneously expanding the musical terrain. Sally, who is mentioned in the opening track, is the object of the hero character’s devotion in “Bargain,” for whom he will happily give up everything, perform unspeakable acts, and even give up his own identity just to find her, to win her and possibly salvage any meaning from a life of privation and dread. Musically, the song opens peacefully with a delicate volume-swell guitar melody arching over a few tentative acoustic guitar strums, but after four bars, Moon provides one of those memorable “lead drums” passages, the tempo doubles, and we’re back to that scorched battlefield with Townshend’s slashing electric facing off with Moon’s manically constant fills. The bridge is a revisit to the transitory calm of the intro with Pete’s delicate tenor returning for a moment of tenderness underpinned by Entwhistle’s ever-active bass. The vocal handoffs on Who’s Next (as well as on their next album, Quadrophenia) add a dimension that exceeds the range of the usual musical and lyrical devices. Instead of portraying different characters, the two voices always embody different aspects of the same person which makes the sections resonate with a humanity and empathy that music and lyrics can’t normally depict. It’s a strong feature of The Who in their prime which sadly doesn’t figure much if at all into their later work.

Along the way to side A’s finale, we are treated to a pastoral roll in hay in “Love Ain’t For Keeping” before reaching a lot of Who fans’ favorite John Entwhistle composition, the hilariously passionate, “My Wife” which features his own brass section and is sung with a palpable sense of fear as he’s being chased all over creation by his enraged, murderous bride. The lyrics are a Chuck Berryesque litany of protections he is considering, a gun, a bodyguard, a speeding car, a tank and an aeroplane. The B sections are a nice contrast where he explains what happened and how he’s coping. This is Entwhistle at his playful best and while the quality is at the high level of the rest of “Who’s Next,” and the themes of persecution and weariness fit into the themes of the album, “My Wife” acts as a brief respite before heading into one of the album’s major thematic anchors, the side-ending “The Song Is Over.”

After a serene, languid intro of gently swaying piano chords (played by guest pianist, Nicky Hopkins) doubled with a droning low synthesizer with lovely chorused guitar fills, Pete sings one of the most gorgeous ballads in rock music, the sensuous, alternately tearful and empowering “The Song Is Over.” It’s a breakup story which finds salvation in the power of music and the communing with nature, and even though it was written for Lifehouse, the resonance with the post-utopian disappointment the Woodstock generation was experiencing at the time of the album’s release contributed to its relevance and connection with its audience. Musically, the biggest feature of the track is the trading of vocals between Townshend on the more regretful passages and Daltrey on the more inspirational choruses. Moon and Entwhistle are breathtaking in their succinct but still passionate undergirding. It’s worth listening to the song just paying attention to the bass and drums, their eloquence being so important to the sincerity and power of the song, which is The Who at their towering, majestic best.

Flip the record and we are treated to two songs about self-care in a dystopian age. “Getting In Tune” is about bearing down, looking inward, and finding internal strength in an external hellscape, while still looking out for a human connection. Nicky Hopkins bangs out a soulful turn on grand piano, and Roger Daltrey puts in another commanding performance. “Going Mobile” is a fun excursion about finding solace in hitting the road and driving free and is sung by Pete. It’s an amped-up Keith Moon feature with Townshend going off on guitar through an envelope-follower pedal, which gives it an extreme wah-wah filter effect and only adds to the fun. It’s a needed bit of comic relief before once more heading into the darkness for the album’s finale, the one-two punch of “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the towering pinnacle of Who’s Next.

“Behind Blue Eyes” has got to be one of the darkest songs ever written. It’s the story of a man who looks inward, the same guy who previously is getting in tune to the straight and narrow, but this is an off day. It must be hard to live in a dystopian hellscape because this time, he looks inward and sees nothing. His conscience is empty. His dreams fail. His love, his ability to nurture is manifested as vengeance. He is never free. He is hated. He tells only lies. By the time the band kicks in, he is pleading for mercy, asking for help in survival. The bleakness is made only more palpable by the beauty of the melody, Daltrey’s vulnerable vocal performance, and Townshend’s masterful accompaniment on acoustic. It’s the album’s most penetrating song with emotions right on the surface, readying the listener for the ultimate sardonic payoff.

There are simply no songs ever written more cynical than “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It’s what keeps Who’s Next from backsliding into the muzak dimension of classic rock radio fodder. The scorn is right up front and the only prayer is for abiding skepticism.  We are back in the battle zone, fighting in the streets in an absurd world without morals, where false prophets wield shotguns and factions change sides on a whim. Slogans are all that are offered by the power class and so, self-preservation is the only imperative. The narrative here is scattered and most of the tale is told through tone of voice and the frenetic power of the band in a constant firefight of rock guitars and drums. 

Opening with a cymbal crash and the throb of Townshend’s Lowry organ pushed through a pulsating synthesizer filter, an element preserved from the 4-track tape of Townshend’s demo, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the prototype of the new evolution of The Who. Fiercely suspenseful, anticipation and building tension is paid off with violence and manic overplaying. The track is explosive and cutting, with Townshend’s low staccato single notes answering his slashing chords and Entwhistle simply tearing shit up on bass throughout the track while Moon plays “lead drums” with a true sense of purpose and Daltrey screams bloody thunder from beginning to end. There’s nothing in rock to match the intensity of The Who going at full bore and this song is the band at its energetic peak. The frustration in the lyric combined with the catharsis of Daltrey’s primal “yeah!” scream at the end of bridge leading us back to the new boss/old boss final verse and coda is a proper, weighty end to Who’s Next — this is the song that defined them and much of that rich period of the 1970s when rock was still in ascendancy and hadn’t yet self-destructed. That it continues to be a staple of rock radio is not just a testament to its commercial appeal, but more to the purity of its statement and the continued relevance and power of its message of individualism as a bulwark against the the threat of faceless dehumanization that comes with modernity and only increases over time.

The legacy of The Who lives not only in its pervasive influence on future bands, but in the hearts of rock fans everywhere because the songs of The Who are about the redemptive power of music, sometimes spelled out explicitly in the lyrics, but always embodied in their sound and the way they play. Who’s Next is a permanent fixture because its themes, the ones that spoke so well to a disillusioned generation coming down from the high of the heady 1960s, are evergreen. Disappointment, disillusionment, and frustration with how humanity has betrayed us, distrust of leaders, and the search for redemption are sentiments that speak to all of us who struggle through daily life and yearn for something more. Who’s Next made a huge impact at the time of its release in terms of sound, the power of the band’s performance, and the weight of its themes. The unsurpassed quality of its songs keep it relevant through the passage of time. This album along with a handful of others defined the sound of rock music as it broke out of the construct of the 3-minute pop song and moved into its richest period, the rock era of the 1970s, and in that way Who’s Next is not just one of rock’s best albums, but one that shifted the ground, upped the ante, and changed the game for rock bands and fans forever.