Date first listened to: 2013
Purchase date: Someone gave it to me
The Who, along with David Bowie and Bob Dylan, are one of the main reasons I am listening to the NME Writers’ Top 100 Album list. I am not really much of a fan and I have only really heard their material on the radio and on t.v., so I mostly just know singles and famous album tracks.
I am aware that the quality of some of their L.Ps can be a bit hit and miss and I avoided listening to these artists because I only really wanted to hear the good stuff. I don’t want to accidentally take on a difficult concept album if I can avoided it.
I had seen the Who films Tommy and Quadrophenia, and I was assuming that I had heard both the albums as a result. I am afraid that I found them confusing and self-indulgent both as screenplays and as soundtracks. Tommy is visually interesting but it is effectively a musical cry-for-help to Childline from Pete Townshend, and I found it over-long as well as uncomfortable viewing.
Quadrophenia was only really of interest to me as a pre-teen when mod was briefly fashionable again in the 80s. I liked that it had drugs, scooters, swearing and fish-tailed parkas in it, but both the soundtrack by the Who and the story were confusing. I thought the ending of the film was a cop out and the music sounded decidedly un-mod. I wanted sharp, tight, angular beat music that soundtracked the strung-out 1960s mod scene.
I was frustrated that the soundtrack was mostly mainstream sounding film music with big brass sections or mournful piano pieces which sounded like they were from a stage musical. It is possibly unfair of me to expect a band to exemplify an single sub-culture of music for their entire career, but The Who did make a big deal about allying themselves with the mod movement and yet Quadrophenia – a film about mods – had a very un mod like soundtrack. I found it hard to trust The Who after that.
Having been released in 1970, just one year earlier than Who’s Next, I was aware of the album The Who – Live At Leeds and its reputation for capturing a killer live performance from a band at the top of their game, but I had not heard it. I had reasonably high hopes for Who’s Next presuming the band would be playing close to their best, but I was also concerned to see that it was released between the studio albums for Tommy and Quadrophenia so I was bracing myself for more progressive big-band guff and soppy ballads about being lonely and misunderstood.
The same brass section from Quadrophenia is very much in evidence on Who’s Next, but the most striking musical innovation undoubtably comes from the use of electronic synthesiser keyboards throughout which at the time were unusual to hear on mainstream releases, particularly by a rock band.
I imagine that Baba O’Reilly must have sounded pretty out-there in 1971 and even today the intro it is close to some kind of Philip Glass modern classical work. Both of these synthesiser sections are easily my favourite bits of the album. I was familiar with both tracks before listening and they still sound massive.
A lot of Who’s Next makes similarly big reaches, but sadly it sounds a bit bloated and at times pompous. Keith Moon‘s drumming is still fluid and creative at this time, but there are drum rolls all over the bloody shop and effect for me is diminished rather than emphasised. The flourishes are too frequent and it started to tire on me to constantly here drum rolls all through songs.
Apparently this was the last album recorded before Keith Moon was overwhelmed by drugs and booze, and although he does sound match-fit here it ultimately sounds quite formulaic. I don’t imagine that it would have been possible to have a sensible conversation with Keith about this at the time so there was probably little you could do about it.
From what I can tell most of the tracks have Roger Daltry double-tracking the vocals, which adds a strange echo/delay to everything. With this effect all the songs sound big, like they were recorded live at some enormo-dome gig and the sound is bouncing across the massive open space of a venue.
Maybe this is a product of The Who’s ambitions to be The Biggest Band in the World. They would certainly have felt themselves to be in competition with The Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin at the time and within five years they were record holders for ‘largest indoor gig’ (75,000 in Pontiac U.S.A) and ‘loudest gig’ (120 db at the Charlton Athletic football ground).
I don’t really have much idea what the songs on Who’s Next are specifically about. Pete Townshend, who wrote all the songs (except for My Wife written by John Entwistle), seems to write songs about identity, isolation and how he needs to be free or escape and find his true expression. There is a real them-and-us feel to The Who, which possibly explains why so many adolescent boys were attracted to their music. It probably sounds great when you are 15 but it didn’t connect with me as an adult.
I thought Love Ain’t For Keeping was ok, possibly because it doesn’t try to overreach itself unlike some of the tracks which have ambitions for greater things. It’s a decent rock ballad which sounds like something that could have come from Led Zepplin IV (which was also released in 1971).
The Song Is Over is yet another exploration of identity and isolation which, through no fault of its own, keeps threatening to become the chorus from Greg Lake‘s I believe in Father Christmas, which was released three years later. That is unfortunate.
The most difficult song for me was Going Mobile. I had heard it once before on 6music and I remember staring in confusion at the radio the whole time. The theme is about the freedom that the open road brings I suppose.
I think Going Mobile is weak like an unfinished demo. It sounds like Roger Daltry’s heart isn’t in it and his vocals sound unconvincing. Once the Keith Moon drum frenzy kicks in about two-thirds of the way through, and Pete starts wigging out with a wah-wah peddle there is not much left for Daltry to do but woop and shout ‘mobile, mobile, mobile, yeah’. There is no dignity in that.
In fact the only positive thing I instantly thought about it was that Going Mobile would work as an empowering theme tune to a BBC education programme about adult literacy.
After listening to Who’s Next for a few days I didn’t really find that any melodies stuck in my head. It was unsuitable for listening on headphones at work as I found it frustrating that a rocking tune would break down to piano and lonesome vocals before building back up again and then breaking back down again. I didn’t know where I was with the structure of the songs and the frequent key changes and as a result I didn’t relax into it.
I did find that I Keith Moon’s drums were still rattling around in my brain quite a lot after listening, but this was mostly in some kind of unconscious parody. ‘Du-duh, du-duh diddley, diddly diddly doo di diddly-diddly diddly-diddly..smash!’
We Won’t Get Fooled Again has been on my mind, especially for the excellent lyric right at the end:
Here comes the new boss
Just like the old boss
from We Won’t Get Fooled Again, Who’s Next 
I am glad that I listened to Who’s Next since I got to learn a lot about The Who and came to an understanding about the context in which this album, Tommy and Quadrophenia were released. It has not however made me a fan.
I have learned that they were a beat mod group who released some kick-ass singles in the mid-sixties and then went on to write a series of ambitious concept albums that sounded very different from their early sound, most of them dealing with issues that Pete Townsend still had after what sounds like an unhappy childhood.
One positive is that it has made me want to listen to The Who Live at Leeds, which I will do when someone gives me a copy.