Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Who's 'Who's Next' is hard rock classic but much more

It's funny how the meaning of an album can change over time. Not so much the album itself, but how a person understands it. As we all mature, we all begin to look at life differently. We become able to understand music (or spirituality or relationships or politics, etc.) from different angles and points of view that can completely turn upside down how we originally understood something.

Who's Next is an album just like that. When I first discovered this album as a teenager, I enjoyed it as simply a head-banging rock and roll album. And that it is. With classics like "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Baba O'Reilly," and "Behind Blue Eyes," this album is easily one of the greatest rock and roll albums ever produced. I don't use the word "greatest" lightly. This album has a level of musicianship and songwriting rarely heard.

In many ways, Who's Next is the ultimate hard rock album, but then again, it really isn't. Calling this a purely hard rock album doesn't do it justice. There are some beautiful piano and acoustic guitar driven songs. There is an undeniable spiritual element to it, and it also includes synthesizer work that was groundbreaking for its time. However, one of the most fascinating aspects of this album is that it was born out of failure.

In 1969, The Who released Tommy, which was a huge worldwide hit. After years of laboring on the edge of success, the band became superstars. The Tommy breakthrough culminated in August of that year when they knocked the socks off everybody at Woodstock. After this breakthrough, however, the pressure was on to follow up on it.

The project the band decided upon was actually a film to be called Lifehouse. It had a science fiction plot, but it eventually collapsed. However, sometimes in the rubble of failure lay the seeds of success. And that is what happened when the band decided to go ahead and record the songs written for Lifehouse.

Taken all at once, this is an overwhelming album. The two best songs are "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Bargain." "Behind Blue Eyes" has become a radio staple over the last 40 years, and its twin themes of self-pity and rage are both emotions in which everybody can identify. By probing these two universal themes, the band committed to album what rock critic Dave Marsh described as one of the fiercest prayers ever sung. The song's thunderous final 90 seconds are nothing less than a universal prayer spoken with pain and honesty.

"When my fist clenches, crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool,
When I smile, tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool.
If I swallow anything evil,
Put Your finger down my throat
If I shiver, please give me a blanket,
Keep me warm, let me wear Your coat"

Each line reveals fears and insecurities that all of us have had at some point. The songwriter, Pete Townshend, has taken his fears to the Source, and it is delivered with sledgehammer force. Some may believe this is a disrespectful approach to God, but above all things, I believe God wants our prayer life with Him to be totally honest. Sometimes a person needs to tear the bark off the tree and tell it like it is.

On "Bargain," the spiritual yearning is no less intense. The delivery is still fierce, but the writer's heart has moved from rage to what he will do to have a closer fellowship with God.

"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'll pay any price just to get You
I'll work all my life and I will
To win you, I'd stand naked, stoned, and stabbed
I call that a bargain, the best I ever had"

There are no duds on this album. When originally released, the integration of the synthesizer into the band's sound was unique. At the around the same time, Stevie Wonder was also pushing the envelope in terms of synthesizer use. The Who wanted to use it to add atmosphere to the science fiction plot of Lifehouse. They wisely chose to keep it for the Who's Next album. In addition to "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," the 'popcorn' synthesizer effect on "Goin' Mobile" added much juice to the song.

"Getting in Tune" has a beautiful piano and backing vocals, and Roger Daltrey's vocals have never sounded so vulnerable. Written by bassist John Entwistle, "My Wife" includes his trademark wit and includes some nice horn work.

The Who never reached this album's heights again. They had moments, but much like The Rolling Stones, once they hit superstardom, their genius came to the surface only occasionally. However, an album like this is more than enough to ensure their place in musical history.

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