37th Favorite Album

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Who’s Next. The Who.
1971, Decca Records. Producer: Glyn Johns and The Who.
Purchased cassette, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: The sonic power of The Who is undeniable – Pete Townshend’s aggressive guitar, Keith Moon’s unbelievable drumming, John Entwistle’s ferocious bass, Roger Daltrey’s soaring voice – and Who’s Next brings it all together perfectly, then blends in synthesizers, country-rock and introspective lyrics to build a masterpiece. The different parts of the band play off each other perfectly, and no band has ever made more inspiring anthems.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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One of the more ridiculous aspects of popular music appreciation in my youth during the 70s and 80s was the existence of strict lines between musical genres, which delineated boundaries in a multi-combatant Cold War pitting synthesizer against guitar; dancing against head-banging; innovation against broad appeal; and, very often, white against black. This war was waged by the fans of the music, not the musicians themselves – although they’d sometimes take snipes at other artists. Most people who were more than casual music fans knew which side they were on – and they also placed those casual music fans in their own enemy-combatant group. And for many fans, the disgust for the other sides was real.

It is quite true that the genre- and sub-genre-fication of music has only continued and expanded since that time. During my youth we didn’t have Emo, techno, drum ‘n bass, dubstep, death metal, nü metal, rap metal, metalcore, mathcore, rapcore, gangsta rap, trap-rap, snap rap, trip hop, glitch hop, homo hop, crunk, wonky, bounce, or Kenny G1. But the animosity between genres doesn’t feel as intense today. I’ve talked to my teenagers about it, and while there may be types of music they don’t like, kids don’t harbor the same judgments against those who enjoy different music. If my era was the Cold War, today seems like the post-Soviet/post-Colonial era, when the number of nations and identities grew yet the global existential fear declined.

Key to taking part in the music-appreciation war was picking a side for yourself. As with street gangs, the mafia or the military, affiliation seemed to run in families. If one had an older sibling with a record collection or musical bent it was very likely to be passed down. When my older sisters were hitting the disco, I was a Village People fan. My one sister moved into AOR rock, owning a magic milk crate of music I’d explore, and my other sister was strongly Top-40 and a fan of dancing. They definitely influenced my induction. I became an AOR soldier, listening to Classic Rock2 on the radio and proudly declaring my allegiance to Cheap Trick, Styx, Rush and Led Zeppelin.

But I was also a double agent for the enemy, Top-40, taking my secret orders via MTV. A key factor in defending one’s territory is the era in which one comes of age. An 18 year old in 2001 may have wanted to fight against “Terror;” in 1981 it was “Communism.” Musically, I came of age in the MTV era, starting high school the month after the channel debuted. Many kids around me, other Rock Music fans, thought MTV was the enemy. I mocked it to many friends, but I was 100% on its side.

As I said above, the disgust for other music types and its fans was real. Popular music is continuously changing, and rapidly so, and such change can be difficult to understand, particularly when you’ve invested so much in your identity as a music fan. We rock fans felt like our music was under attack in the late 70s and 80s, that this music that teenagers past had fought to make mainstream – a blues-based music of electric guitars, with a steady backbeat and strong vocals – was being pushed aside by phony-sounding drum machines and computerized keyboards. It galled us that nerdy guys who pushed buttons in a studio were being regarded the same way as talented guitarists and singers who’d spent years on their craft.

Rock fans started using the language their parents used 25 years earlier to dismiss Rock and Roll and its lack of diverse instrumentation: “That’s not music!” They often used the language of hatred to describe other music: “fag” music, “n*****” music. These terms were used all around me by other rock fans. (My family and I didn’t use “the N word,” but I realize now that it was really a linguistic choice akin to our decision not to swear – meant to connote respect for the dignity of language, sadly, more than the dignity of people.) “Rage” is not too strong a word to describe rock fans’ feelings.

I described the scenario as a war, but here’s the thing about a war: it requires two sides, minimum, who want to fight. Looking back at that time 40 years later, I don’t believe anyone else was really fighting against Rock Music. My rock friends and I felt under siege, perhaps, but I don’t think fans of pop or R&B or disco or punk thought much at all about Rock – except, perhaps, to wonder why its fans were so pissed off. (Okay, punk fans definitely thought about Rock Music: thought it was bollocks.) The “war” was really just a bunch of us whiny rock fans angry about … something. But it certainly wasn’t music.

While 1979 rock fans held “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago, in which anyone bringing a disco record3 to that night’s White Sox game got in for $0.98 in return for allowing the record to be destroyed, and started a riot that caused 40 arrests and canceled a baseball game; disco fans’ counter-attack was simply to keep dancing in the clubs.

The stress of the siege, this changing musical landscape, even caused fissures within the Rock Music Army, where factions developed and judgments were made. The fans of the loud, heavy metal rock were bone-headed thugs. The fans of prog rock were fantasy freaks and dorky nerds. The fans of newer, punkish rock were arrogant, pretentious. Fans of the more weenie side of rock were poseurs. The music you liked and the artists you chose to align yourself with were opportunities for character assessments. It was a tribalism based on what cassettes you owned. It was – frankly – exhausting.

I wouldn’t break from the constraints of my tribe, or begin valuing other tribes, until some years after high school. And I still consider myself in The Beatles’ tribe, which means I still feel superior to any other tribes that might exist out there4. But as early as my senior year in high school I did have my eyes opened to the nonsense of tribalism by an exchange student from Austria on a school trip to Philadelphia. His name was Christian, and the school trip was one of those ostensibly educational jaunts organized by a club or a class in which an hour is taken to, say, look at an old building, then the remaining three hours go to spending money on clothes, accessories, and other decidedly non-educational products.

A few of us went to Zipperhead, a now-closed Philly punk rock store made famous5 by the Dead Milkmen, then to a nearby record store. This is where I purchased Who’s Next on cassette. Many of the songs on the album were rock radio staples by 1985, and I couldn’t wait to get home to listen. I sat next to Christian on the bus ride home, and the cassette got us talking about music. He said of course he knew The Who, and was very familiar with the album. But, he said, he didn’t own it. “It’s old,” I remember him saying. “I like new stuff.” We talked about music, and he knew a lot about the rock that I loved. But he knew a lot more about bands like Depeche Mode and Bronski Beat and Yazoo (who were known in America as Yaz). He spoke about them with the same interest and excitement as I spoke about mine. In some spirit of international harmony, I continued the conversation with him with a consideration I probably wouldn’t have offered to an American synth-band fan. And he also wanted to hear about what I liked, and said he’d check out some of those bands that he didn’t know well, like Rush and Van Halen. I told him I’d do the same, and I eventually bought Upstairs at Eric’s, by Yaz, and enjoyed it!

Back at school, back among my rock music friends, a kid with a don’t-rock-the-boat personality, I didn’t further pursue many other “new sounds” of the era. I’ve written before about missing out on great music of my youth, and it remains a bit of a regret. I don’t think I would’ve connected with Christian’s synth-based bands (although I did enjoy that Yaz record), but there were other guitar-based bands of the era that I could’ve connected with. That bus ride with Christian stuck with me, and planted a seed on my journey to musical peace, love and understanding. I eventually got past the music-based character assessments and began to seek out music that I’d have hated – and whose fans I would’ve hated – in years gone by. Who cares what music you like, anyway? It’s not what we listen to that makes us who we are6, it’s how we treat the people around us.

But look: all that lovey dovey stuff is fine, but let’s not gloss over the fact that the cassette I bought that day was FRIGGIN’ AWESOME! It was, and is, Classic Rock 101, a guidepost in 70s Rock by one of the best bands of the last century (and one that didn’t mind getting into the thick of the era’s genre wars). I loved listening to it on my Walkman, feeling like I was inside the songs, the sounds. The sonic power of The Who is undeniable – Pete Townshend’s aggressive guitar, Keith Moon’s unbelievable drumming, John Entwistle’s ferocious bass, Roger Daltrey’s soaring voice – and Who’s Next brings all that together perfectly, and blends in synthesizers, country-rock and introspective lyrics to build a masterpiece.

And it doesn’t make sense to start any description of the record anywhere else except the opening track: “Baba O’Riley.”

One of the band’s most iconic songs, and famously misbranded “Teenage Wasteland” by the masses, “Baba O’Riley” immediately introduced listeners to a sound they’d never heard much before – and certainly not on a Who album: the synthesizer. The opening sounds both space age and classical, like a robot string quartet that’s stuck in an infinite loop. At 0:42, its intricacy is exploded by three simple chords on piano, chords that are the basis of the entire song. Moon’s brilliantly untidy drums enter at 0:56, followed by Entwistle’s bass and Daltry’s vocals at 1:16. The song’s power builds, like an old-time gas engine sputtering from startup to a mighty roar, full-tilt once Townshend’s guitar enters at 1:48. The lyrics are about young people seeking freedom, and really only sort of make sense in the context of Townshend’s Lifehouse project, which is a story I don’t want to spend time on7, but which is summarized pretty nicely here. And to the dismay of millions of stoned youth since 1970, Townshend has said the song WAS NOT a celebration of teenagers getting wasted, but about the bleakness of that reality. But regardless of meaning, it’s undeniably an anthem, which makes Pete’s quiet two measure vocals, about 2:16, extra powerful. The song’s aimed directly at the heart of 70s teenage rock fans: anger, defiance, guitars and drums. Pete plays a nice little solo about 3:10 that leads the band into the extended ending section, in which that robot string quartet is brought to life by a violin solo (of all things!) played by a buddy of Keith Moon’s, Dave Arbus. The ending is perfectly built to whip those screaming, wasted teens to a frenzy – introducing the album as a piece of art to be reckoned with.

Pete Townshend wrote most of The Who’s songs, and Roger Daltrey sang most of them. But very often they’d share vocal duties, typically Daltrey taking the roaring parts and Townshend taking the more sensitive, as heard on “Baba O’Riley.” That’s the case on the raucous drum-extravaganza “Bargain,” as well.

This song may be the most representative of all four members’ skills, not only on this album but maybe of their career. And it opens with a strummed guitar and a lilting synth. Moon’s thunderous entry, at about 0:10, is one of the great drum intros in rock. Daltrey is in excellent form on a love song to God, written by Townshend for his spiritual guru Meher Baba. Townshend throws in cool little guitar licks, like at 0:25. He’s a unique Guitar God – a rhythm guitarist at heart, who never much deals in the blues wailing or fleet-fingered flashiness of many others. He’s distinctive and great, but this song is all about Keith Moon’s drumming, for me, a rumbling, tumbling unstoppable force. He gallops into the bridge, at about 1:30, leading into Pete’s quiet vocals. Behind these vocals (1:49), John Entwistle’s masterful use of countermelody on the bass is featured. From 2:20 to the end, the song builds through a synthesizer melody while Moon goes crazy. The final verse features more Townsend style and then a few verses of Moon. From 3:46 to the end, there’s a relentless ferocity that is set off nicely by Pete’s acoustic guitar at the end. It’s a pretty incredible song.

That outro features the three instrumentalists in the band, and they’re also featured on the song “Going Mobile.” It’s a jaunty road song, almost country in its feel, and Townshend handles the traveling lyrics nicely. Amazingly, the song was recorded live in the studio8!

Perhaps even a better drum song than “Bargain,” I can’t truly describe Moon’s playing. If you’re so inclined, listen to this isolated track of just the drums. It is astounding. At 1:57, Townshend plays one of his coolest solos ever, using an envelope follower9 to create another spacey sound. Most amazing is how effortlessly the trio pulls out of Pete’s solo, about 2:53, to change musical direction. To do that live demonstrates the hours of work the band spent playing together, communicating sonically together. It’s brilliant.

But just because Roger is missing from a song doesn’t mean he’s forgotten. He gets to shine on the tender (for The Who) “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” a country-western effort, though Roger’s power makes it much more. Behind lyrics on the beautiful, yet fleeting, nature of love, there are excellent harmony vocals throughout, an excellent skill of the band, often overlooked10. Entwistle’s bass rolls along merrily, and Townshend plays a terrific acoustic solo. Daltrey’s masterpiece on the album, however, is the excellent Townshend song “Behind Blue Eyes.”

This is actually a divisive song, I’ve learned over the years. Some people are very put off by it’s needy lyrics and bombast. I’ve always loved it. When I was a teen I was a sucker for aggressively macho emotional lyrics like “if I swallow anything evil/put your fingers down my throat/If I shiver please give me a blanket/Keep me warm, let me wear your coat,” and I still love the song today. Pete’s acoustic, and the band’s backing vocals are once again excellent during the opening. Then about 2:12 the mayhem starts. Check out how Keith Moon – going against all common sense – plays his fills WHILE ROGER SINGS instead of in the vocal breaks, where every other drummer would put them11! Pete adds nice guitar fills throughout, as well, then the band pulls everything back into the gentleness for a very satisfying ending.

If it all sounds very serious, these songs about troubled teens, spiritual love, human needs, allow bassist and all-around musical genius John Entwistle to lighten things up with his ode to an angry wife, “My Wife.”

Like George Harrison, on Beatles records, Entwistle typically had at least one composition on each Who album. Lots of terrific ones, like “Boris the Spider,” “Success Story,” “Trick of the Light,” and “Had Enough.” He was also a multi-instrumentalist who played all the horns on all The Who albums, including this song. It’s a humorous romp with funny lyrics, and even though he’s not as strong of a singer as Daltrey or Townshend, Entwistle does just fine carrying the song.

Two songs that have always seemed connected to me, maybe because they ended Side 1 and began Side 2 on my old cassette, are “The Song Is Over” and “Getting In Tune.” However, I think it’s more than just their proximity in sequencing. It’s that, collectively, they form a kind of Winter/Spring for the album. Maybe “The Song Is Over,” but another one is coming, so we’ll be “Getting In Tune.”

“The Song Is Over” is melancholy from the beginning. “The Song” in question is a love that has been lost, as Pete sings. About 1:15, the power comes with Roger’s section. Moon and Entwistle play nicely off one another between verses, for example at about 1:30. Piano actually carries much of the song, played by frequent Rolling Stones collaborator, Nicky Hopkins. Once again, much should be said about Moon’s drumming, but anything more than a simple, loudly exclaimed “Holy Shit!!!!” is superfluous. The controlled mayhem of his sixteenth notes from 5:30 out are … “Holy Shit!!!!”

Getting In Tune” also features piano by Hopkins, with Entwistle playing a lovely melody behind. This song features his patented “lead bass” style, a countermelody throughout the song. I love this song, even though it could be considered a forerunner of the dreaded 80s monstrosity known as the “Power Ballad.” It’s lyrics are quite a bit beyond Power Ballad, however. Backing oohs and aahs are again wonderful, and the song ends in typical berserk style.

The album closes with one of my all-time favorite songs, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

As with “Baba O’Riley,” a synthesizer pattern opens the song, but this time there’s an electric guitar chord with it, a bit of foreshadowing of the grandness to follow. The band enters at about 0:30, and Roger begins singing an anthem of resistance that could have been the fight song for us angry Rock fans back in the day. The backing bass, particularly the descending runs in the choruses, and Moon’s drums (again: “Holy Shit!”) hold everything down. Pete’s guitar riffing and stylish, one-of-a-kind rhythm playing throughout bring extra life to it. It’s an 8 minute song, and his guitar after about 3 minutes through the bridge and to about 3:40 is simply inspired playing. Afterwards he plays a really nifty double-tracked solo, leading up to (at 4:28) the first (and smaller) of two momentous screams from Daltrey. We’re only halfway through, and the song keeps getting better. More incredible singing, incredible Entwistle/Moon and incredible Pete, soloing better than he ever has, leading to the 6:33 mark, when the synth comes back in with some rather ominous tooting for the next minute or so. Moon gives a couple drum fanfares, and then comes the best rock and roll scream ever: 7:45. Whenever I hear this song, I can never really tell when he’s gonna do it, and I don’t try to figure it out because it sounds so much better when it’s sort of a surprise. It’s a powerful song, it means a lot to many people, and if you can make it through the band’s performance of the song for the first-responders of September 11, 2001, at the Concert for New York City, and watch the effect of the song on the audience without tearing up, you’re a different sort than me.

The last two lines of the song (and the album) “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” may be the most profound couplet in rock music history. Sure, they’re a rehash of the old saw “The more things change …,” but in the context of the song, and the path the singer has traveled, they mean much more. They mean personal integrity, staying true to one’s self. At the start, the song sounds like a defense of the old guard (“The men who spurred us on/Sit in judgment of what’s wrong/They decide and the shotgun sings the song”). But the perspective seems changed by the chorus and second verse. “I’ll take a bow for the new revolution;” and “Smile and grin at the change all around me;” and “The change it had to come/We knew it all along.” These lines seem to reveal the song as welcoming of the new. And yet, by the end, there’s a realization that the new is really just a rehash of the old, and the same fights are going to reappear anyway. The New was feared; then it was welcomed. Either way, it didn’t matter. Old vs. new is really a pointless debate. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. All you can do in the face of it is to maintain your Self, and keep doing what you do.

It seems true in both the political and the personal worlds, but it’s also true in the musical world. Whether it was disco, new wave, country, funk, whatever – at the end of the day, what’s the point of getting angry and fighting? And, also, what’s the point of hopping on a bandwagon? The best reaction is neither indignation nor fawning, but to simply stay true to yourself. Pick up your guitar and play. Just like yesterday.

Maybe back in the day, we should have taken that message more to heart.

Track Listing:
“Baba O’Riley”
“Bargain”
“Love Ain’t For Keeping”
“My Wife”
“The Song Is Over”
“Getting In Tune”
“Going Mobile”
“Behind Blue Eyes”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again”

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Filed under Albums 40 - 31

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