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50 years of The Who masterpiece 'Who's Next?'

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic albums of all time. The Who‘s fifth studio record, 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 back in 1965. 

In many ways, Who’s Next? is inextricably linked to Tommy. The band’s fourth album, the 1969 rock opera concerning the fantastical life of the titular boy, was a critical hit upon release and is hailed as the Who’s true break into superstardom. Retrospectively though, the classic album seems a tad dated. However, the critical point is that the majority of the content for Who’s Next? derived from the sessions for Tommy‘s doomed follow-up, Lifehouse. Guitarist and Lifehouse mastermind Pete Townsend ended up letting go of the futuristic project in its original form, as he had a nervous breakdown owing to its status as an unrealistic vanity project. 

The final point we can take from the band’s dalliance with Lifehouse is that they were “never nearer to breaking up”, per frontman Roger Daltrey. The band were increasingly disillusioned when testing new material for Lifehouse over a series of shows at London’s Young Vic Theatre in February 1971. They were met by a largely apathetic audience whose sole concern was to witness the band play ‘My Generation’ and Townsend smash up his guitar. Whilst this is largely a story for another day, it is effective in demonstrating the juncture the Who found themselves at during the early months of 1971. 

However, some vital elements of Lifehouse would remain and make it on to Who’s Next?, and they would become some of the album’s most enduring. Namely, the use of synthesisers and computers. Furthermore, the band felt unchained by not having an overall theme to write for, which gave them a new lease of life. They were free to write a concise body of music. In this sense, Who’s Next? is a triumphant return to form, representing the Who as a reinvigorated force.

As it was the era of “classic rock”, a time characterised by the perpetual shoulder-rubbing of the stars, the Who enlisted a little help from their friends. The first session for the album was completed at Mick Jagger’s famous manor house, Stargroves, deep in the Hampshire countryside at the onset of April 1971. They wasted no time in recording the backing track for what would become the album’s meandering lead single, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. This was done using the infamous Rolling Stones Mobile studio.

Before too long, the band and producer Glyn Johns decided to relocate to the hallowed London studio, Olympic. It was here that the band found their true rhythm and recorded the rest of the album, the bulk of which came in May 1971. The sessions at Olympic kicked off on 9th April, where they recorded the first iteration of what would become track two on the album, the pulsating ‘Bargain’.

The May sessions saw the band record ‘Time is Passing’, ‘Pure and Easy’ and ‘Love Ain’t for Keeping’. In fact, the latter was reworked from a markedly different acoustic piece into the hazy rock classic it is today. Listening back, you can certainly hear its acoustic origins, with the driving factor being Townsend’s swaggering guitar licks. 

The Who would go on their winning streak recording ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, ‘The Song Is Over’, ‘Let’s See Action’ and the album’s euphoric standout track, ‘Baba O’Riley’. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is not only one of the Who’s most iconic, but it is one of the best songs ever written. It is on this track that the Who’s newfound maturity can be heard. An incredibly adult, introspective number, there is no surprise it continues to live on in the collective conscience. It even spawned that terrible Limp Bizkit cover in 2003, with the hilarious music video featuring a trapped Fred Durst and a longing Halle Berry advertising the film Gothika. Even more interestingly, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ was intended as the theme song for Lifehouse‘s villain ‘Jumbo’, as a fly on the wall lament, “No one knows what it likes to be the bad man”.

Bassist John Entwistle’s addition, ‘My Wife’, was written after an argument with his spouse and was recorded in the latter sessions for the album. Entwistle shines on the track, and it features him on vocals, guitar, piano and the psychedelic, droning horn section, a true testament to the late legend’s skill. 

The album is also characterised as one of those rare occasions where a band were happy with the producer. In 2002, Townsend recalled that “we were just getting astounded at the sounds Glyn was producing”. This sentiment can be heard throughout the album’s 43-minute duration. Johns’ contribution to the album cannot be stated enough, and, in a way, he can be regarded as the captain steering the ship. He convinced the band of the album’s strength as he was acutely aware of the songs’ soon to be iconic quality. The Who even gave him free rein to assemble the tracklist in the order he saw fit. 

The album is also significant as it saw their rhythmic wildcard, Keith Moon, take up a hitherto different drumming style than on their earlier works. His style became more dialled back and formal, owing in equal parts to the instruction of Johns and the guidance of synthesised backing tracks. Johns had a strict production style that called for quality over showing off.

No discussion of Who’s Next? would be complete without the album’s spine-tingling opener ‘Baba O’Riley’. The stadium-filling number is another highlight of the Who’s career. Featuring that iconic introduction, using the synthesiser processed Lowry-organ as the focal point, the song embodies the way that the Who had adapted their sound. Instead of using synths and computers to add a finishing touch to the album, they heeded the advent of technology. In this way, they were ahead of the curve in acknowledging the direction that music was starting to head in.

Who’s Next? is a masterful body of work on so many levels. Whilst elements of it today are understandably dated, in terms of composition, it is a fine example of a band finding its rhythm. Furthermore, the cerebral restrictions that the Who overcame to create it serve to make the album a glorious example of greatness through struggle. Just like everyone in life, the Who matured. They accepted the changing times, something many of their peers did not, which paved the way for them to continue on their long, sonic journey throughout the rest of the ’70s. So why not revisit this masterpiece as it reaches half a century?