Little did I know when I posted this on April 12, 2006, that exactly eight years later I would be going to see Simon Townshend — whom I had just interviewed for The Somerville Times — at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.
THE WHO’S GOODBYE TO ALL THAT
(Originally posted on Amazon.com on April 12, 2006)
For many, the end of the 60s came with the break-up of The Beatles in April 1970. For others, it came shortly before that, at the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. Or, in the political world, it may have occurred in 1968 – which author Jules Witcover called “The Year the Dream Died” – with the election of Richard Nixon.
But whether it was marked by a musical event or a political event, the fact is that at some point the glorious 1960s ended, and not simply by virtue of the fact that it eventually became the 1970s. The 60s were defined as much by attitude as they were a calendar.
Released in 1971, Who’s Next was Pete Townshend’s farewell to the previous decade, and all that it encapsulated. 26 years of age when the record was released, Townshend had survived the first five years of his band’s career with both massive popularity and the accompanying scars to show for it. Who’s Next sounds like the result of a songwriter who had taken stock of his life and the world around him, and in doing so, cleared his mind and soul enough to make his greatest album to date, and probably of his entire career, even 35 years on.
And while it was initially intended to be an ambitious concept album like Tommy and Quadrophenia, the finished product ended up achieving an epic scope at least as great as its predecessor and successor.
The most obvious eulogies for the 60s come at the very beginning and very end of the record. While just two years earlier The Who was rocking Woodstock, the disc’s opening track “Baba O’Riley” finds them surveying the wreckage of a “teenage wasteland.” Such a masterful phrase brings to mind unmistakable images of the site of a cultural milestone which had probably not yet recovered from from the event which was a generation’s last hurrah.
On the other end of the record, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is more straightforward in its recognition of the end of an era. The new boss – Nixon – is the same as the old boss – Johnson, and the parting on the (political) left is now parting on the (political) right. Yet there is still hope, and thus the prayers that “we don’t get fooled” again. (Yeah, I know that I am focusing on events in America, but if only Pete Townshend knew at the time what awaited the US in the 1970s.)
In between these bookends, Townshend seems to be putting himself together emotionally – “getting in tune,” as he might say – with some of his very best songs as the result. The fact that Roger Daltrey never sounded better certainly doesn’t hurt. (I mean really, who knew the guy could sing so well?) These songs are divided between straight-ahead rock songs and slower ballads, the latter featuring the always superb piano work of – who else? – Nicky Hopkins. Bassist John Entwistle also contributes his morbid black humor on the genuinely great song “My Wife.”
“Going Mobile” also references the ethos of the previous decade, with its wah-wah guitar solo and its air-conditioned hippie gypsy protagonist. I am guessing that Townshend may have had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this one. Then there is “Behind Blue Eyes,” a virtuoso performance by Townshend and Daltrey, with the latter flawlessly capturing every iota of the former’s vulnerability and anger, and probably tossing in a bit of his own while he was at it.
This song and the equally beautiful “The Song Is Over” are the most plaintive songs in the band’s repertoire. “Bargain” and “Love Ain’t For Keepin’,” meanwhile, are classic Who rock songs.
Who’s Next tamed and perfected the elements that had made The Who one of the greatest and most popular bands of the 60s. Without being the lead vocalist, Pete Townshend proved himself to be as capable of composing in the singer/songwriter mode as any of those who were famous for doing both.
Roger Daltrey, as mentioned, sounds spectacular, and more like a great singer than he ever did. (Not that he ever sounded bad, but here….whoa.)
Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, who made up The Who’s infamously combustible rhythm section, keep themselves finely in check on this record, and earn their spurs by being more musical, rather than more rackety, than ever. In short, each member of the band emerged sounding like rock ‘n roll musicians, rather than rock ‘n roll players. And lyrically, one should obviously not take Townshend seriously when he claims, on “Getting In Tune,” that he “can’t pretend there’s any meaning hidden in the things I’m saying.” This is a classic rock CD that you will continue to appreciate long after you have outgrown classic rock.
The Who would create five more records over the next decade of their career, each, alas, bringing diminishing returns. After breaking up in 1982, they would eventually come together solely for the sake of lucrative tours.
But perhaps such tours are the band’s reward for being a great singles band (“Substitute,” I Can’t Explain”), albums band (The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Quadrophenia), and one of the loudest and most influential rock groups ever. Who’s Next will forever survive as a testament to everything that was great about this band.
(Having said all this, however, I am still a bigger fan of The Kinks, who were — as Pete and Roger themselves have acknowledged — a major influence on The Who. Too bad that there will never be any chance for them to charge $200 per ticket.)