Thursday, June 21, 2007

No. 28: Who's Next

Band: The Who
Album: Who's Next
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Some of the Who's classic songs are on here, including "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." For a band in a superstar mode, the use of keyboards on the album was a major risk and produced some cool effects.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: In the same way that Nirvana is responsible for all the Linkin Parks of the world, "Who's Next" is a big reason as to why America was subjected to stadium rock during the mid-late '70s.
Best song: "Baba O'Riley" is pretty cool, as is "Won't Get Fooled Again."
Worst song: "Behind Blue Eyes" is absolutely awful. It's the prototype of stadium rock balladry.
Is it awesome?: I'm not sure. On one hand, there is a lot to like on "Who's Next." On the other, it's stadium rock at its most pompous.

Because more and more of these reviews are including my personal narrative in them, let's go through my relationship with The Who:

Like most boys in the suburbs, I was inundated with classic rock from the time I developed any interest in music. My parents played me a lot of Beatles records as a kid and as soon as I started having any control over my own radio listening (aka in my bedroom), I subscribed to the baby boomer idea of "the only good rock and roll came out in the '60s and '70s."

So, I loved Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the like. I borrowed my parents' records and listened to them on headphones in my bedroom and sought out old vinyl copies of records at garage sales.

My favorite band during these years was The Who. I worshiped the Who. I thought "My Generation" was so coolly defiant. I thought "Who's Next" was so smart. I thought the synths used on "Who Are You?" were so interesting. I thought "Quadrophenia" and "Tommy" were so much better than anything in current music. The Who could do no wrong. I even went to see one of their dreadful reunion shows.

Looking back on that time, it sounds kind of foolish. But, really, it was just youthful energy put into rock and roll. Considering that the modern popular music at the time was either West Coast hip hop (which I don't think I could've appreciated at the time) and awful alternative rock in the wake of Nirvana's demise (Green Day was very popular at the time), I probably went the right way in The Who.

I still love the Who, but I love their pre-Tommy stuff more than anything. As genius as "Tommy" is, as a concept, as each record came after, the Who were increasingly awful. "Who's Next" was the first in a series of albums of deteriorating quality.

For the uninformed, "Who's Next" is the wreckage of Pete Townshend's follow up to "Tommy," a dystopian view of a future without rock and roll called "Lifehouse." "Lifehouse" never really materialized, but the remnants made up "Who's Next."

Let me say that I'm happy the Who didn't do another double album of rock opera stuff. Double albums have lots of filler and the proposed "Lifehouse" track listing is no different. By stripping away songs like "Too Much of Anything," "Who's Next" becomes a slimmer, more impressive record.

"Who's Next" sounds like an identity crisis record, because the Who clearly were trying to find themselves in a rock and roll landscape they never really fit into. They weren't the huge pop darlings that the Beatles were, they didn't have the blues chops of the Stones and were much more popular than fellow Mods The Kinks. They weren't involved hugely in the psychedelic scene that Genesis and Pink Floyd were part of. They weren't really hippies like the Jefferson Airplanes, Hendrixes and Joplins in America.

Coming off "Tommy," it was clear that Pete Townshend wanted to continue using strings, horns and keyboards to augment the band's sound. This is why the interesting keyboards (evident in "Baba O'Riley' and "Won't Get Fooled Again" ) litter the record. However, this is also the time when the members of the band took themselves far too seriously. Songs like "The Song is Over," "Getting in Tune" and "Behind Blue Eyes" are total nonsense and simply portend the overly emotional nonsense that was the stadium rock ballad (see Journey for examples).

Is that to say that "Who's Next" is terrible? No, because it's not. "Won't Get Fooled Again" is bloated, but in a good way. It's epic and the repetitive keyboard breakdown six and a half minutes into the song is oddly moving and very, very cool. "Baba O'Riley" is a similarly bloated (in all the right ways) track based on a keyboard riff and a very simple guitar part. Are the Townshend "Don't cry. Don't waste your eyes" parts stupid? Absolutely. Does that ruin the song? Nope.

To say this is the Who's best work is silly, I think. The Who was a great proto-punk band and a great bunch of mods. Their first three albums built on that mystique much better than the shifting sensibilities of "Who's Next."


bob_vinyl said...

Who's Next is the definitive rock album and as near perfect as an album can be. I see your point about the arena rock crapola that tried to immitate this album, but like Fleetwood Mac, a great album can't be held accountable for everyone else's inability to recreate its magic. Are we in turn going to blame the Beatles for ELO (or even some of McCartney's post-Band on the Run schlock)?

Anonymous said...

behind blue eyes is a great song