Sandwiched between two rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia is The Who’s fifth studio album Who’s Next. It was released in 1971 and fifty years on it remains their most memorable work. This album was never meant to be. Pete Townshend had gotten the band to work on a grand project “Lifehouse”. It was supposed to be a futuristic rock opera, which would use other media like film rather than the same old album/tour cycle. The band spent early 1971 trying to develop material for “Lifehouse”. They went through multiple live concerts, studio recordings etc. But with time going by, the stress levels rising, and not much headway being made, Townshend finally decided to abandon the project.
Salvaged out of the remains of “Lifehouse” was Who’s Next. It was released in August 1971, it contains nine songs with a combined playing time of 43.38 minutes. Everything about Who’s Next was different, starting with the album cover, which shows the band members having just urinated on a concrete slab in a slag heap.
I am not sure how many of you have heard about the mystic Meher Baba. But there was a time when this religious Guru was popular not just in India but abroad too. Pete Townshend was one of his followers. Townshend incorporated many elements of Baba’s teachings into his lyrics.
The album opens with the classic “Baba O’Riley”. Townshend’s vision was the spirit of Meher Baba transformed into music and composed in minimalist composer Terry Riley style, thus creating “Baba O’Riley”. Townshend starts with a lovely backing tune that continues throughout the song, Roger Daltrey’s energetic vocals with Keith Moon’s excellent drumming and the exquisite violin solo at the end make this an incredibly unique song. This song is erroneously known as “Teenage Wasteland” as these words were repeated in the chorus.
“Bargain” is the next song – here Townshend fuses Meher Baba’s “Sufi ideas” into rock & roll. Daltrey sings “I’d gladly lose me to find you, I’d gladly give up all I had, To find you I’d suffer anything and be glad, …., I’d call that a bargain, the best I ever had”. Townshend has a gentle segment in the middle where he sings “…. I know I am worth nothing without you”. While it is considered a love song, the subject of the singer’s love could be a person or even God. A melodious country ballad “Love Ain’t For Keeping” follows.
Next up is “My Wife” – composed and performed by John Entwistle (he did lead vocals, bass guitar, piano & horn) with Townshend on guitar and Moon on drums. It is about a man who was out drunk and now is on the run from his wife who thinks he was with another woman. It describes the innovative ways (police protection, Judo expert Bodyguard, fast car, tank, aeroplane etc) he tries to protect himself from her anger. It is a lighthearted, comic interlude with a lovely horn section.
“The Song is Over”- a beautiful song which manages to convey both the sadness of an ending and the promise of a new beginning. The two singers present contrasting styles – Townshend begins wistfully “The song is over, it is all behind me” with a gentle piano background before Daltrey energetically charges in with “singing to wide open spaces, …, to the infinite sea”. The four band members complement each other very well.
Oh, the lovely numbers keep coming – “Behind Blue Eyes” – is the lament of a villain, a person who has always been misunderstood by society and pressured into behaving in certain ways. Talk about being in another person’s shoes – “no one knows what its like to be hated, to be fated to telling only lies” or “I have hours, only lonely”. Daltrey excels in this song. Then there are “Getting in Tune,” and “Going Mobile” which are good songs on their own.
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” – will there ever be a better song to end an album with? This is a monster, eight minutes long and packed with goodies. A defiant rock anthem with loads of political cynicism, it has everything – Daltrey’s vocals, Moon’s powerful drumming, Entwistle’s bass and Townshend’s lead combine beautifully with the background synthesized organ tune. Don’t we all know “Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss?”
The Who were famous for destruction on stage – destroying guitars, drums etc. But with Who’s Next, they truly set the music world ablaze forever. Overall, this is an excellent “Bargain” – the best you will ever have.