The Who’s fifth studio record, 1971’s Who’s Next?, features some of the band’s most memorable moments. It represents what one would argue is their magnum opus and not its predecessor, Tommy, as many contend. The Who we get on Who’s Next? is a refined and mature version of the snotty mod-rockers who gave us My Generation way back in 1965. Consequently, many of the tracks on this outing are their most enduring.
‘Behind Blue Eyes’, ‘The Song Is Over’, ‘Let’s See Action’ and the album’s euphoric standout track, ‘Baba O’Riley’ are just four parts of the album’s incredible tracklist. A rock opera at heart, this gave the album a consistent artistic thread that has helped it to endure all these years.
Come to the close of the album’s recording sessions in June 1971, the band were confident that what they’d just produced was going to be a success. So understandably, they needed a striking cover image to boot.
One would argue that the cover image for Who’s Next? is the band’s most memorable, even more so than the bean riddled madness of 1967’s The Who Sell Out. Featuring a cold, metallic-looking sky, the band appear to have just urinated on the imposing concrete piling protruding from the ground. The image was perfect for the futurism that underpinned the record, and of the era’s affinity for all things science fiction.
Stood on the black spoil tip of the local mines, the image of the band gives off the impression that they do not know they’re having their photo taken, and one can only imagine this came as a part of photographer Ethan Russell’s direction. The location for the shoot was the old English mining town of Easington Colliery in County Durham, in the country’s North East.
Of course, the most striking factor of the image is what appears to be the urine stains the four have left on the concrete monolith. However, Russell revealed that it wasn’t actually their urine. He said: “Most of the members were unable to go, so rainwater was tipped from an empty film canister to achieve the desired effect.” In fact, only guitarist Pete Townshend had managed to relieve himself. What a strange thing to want on your album cover.
The decision to shoot the cover image came from a discussion John Entwistle and Keith Moon had about Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, instilling it with the science-fiction of the album’s lyrics. Ever wondered why the concrete slab looks familiar? They took their inspiration from the mysterious monoliths that are featured across the story in Kubrick’s 1968 film.
Furthermore, the cold looking sky was also added later. Its addition gave the image what Russell saw as “this otherworldly quality”. It worked, and the decision to alter the sky really created a bleak futuristic essence that is similar to the one that would be outlined a few years later in David Bowie’s classic 1976 flick, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
The album cover helped to augment the record’s forward-thinking sounds, and together the package they created is one of the most consistently lauded in the whole of rock history.
Listen to Who’s Next? in full below.