For Who aficionados, the history of, and story behind, Pete Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse project is well known: Hyper-literate guitarist / songwriter engages in an impossibly intricate and grandiose production of a futuristic vision. Project implodes under its own complexities, but rises from the ashes as a musical Phoenix in the guise of an impeccably timeless album. Through disaster comes triumph, as Who’s next evolves over 35 years into Townshend’s (and the Who’s) crowning achievement. While such a thumbnail sketch provides only a cursory explanation of Lifehouse and its offspring, Who’s next, doctoral thesis papers could be written on the subject, and still fall short of articulating Townshend’s motivations and mindset behind his flawed masterwork.. Thus, a paltry 60 minute video purportedly paying homage to this classic recording could never adequately represent Who’s next in all its sonic glory. Or could it?
Originally released nearly six years ago as part of the Classic Albums series, The Who: Who’s next is once again in rotation with a quartet of other “classic” platters given the DVD critical analysis treatment. As well-intentioned as this venture may be however, putting Who’s next into proper context within an hour’s time is as futile as trying to raise the Titanic with a car jack. What makes matters worse is the video offers little more than remnants found on Jeff Stein’s cutting room floor. Footage of the band in concert is heavily weighted toward the album’s most legendary tracks, “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; not surprising as these songs have become rock stalwarts since their unveiling three-and-a-half decades ago, but the record does have six other exquisite tracks anchoring it. And though the remaining album material is given varying degrees of attention (albeit it much less than the album’s twin bookends) two tracks, “Love Ain’t For Keeping” and “The Song is Over” are completely ignored. Even more puzzling with respect to these missing songs, is the inclusion of “Join Together”, a gratuitous bit of performance footage unrelated to the album, and wholly unspectacular with respect to the Who in a live setting. How is this possible? The answer is simple: Carelessness coupled with shoddy production, lack of quality control, and, as the DVD’s release conveniently parallels the Who’s new CD and supporting tour, a dose of blatant opportunism.
Does the DVD have any merits as an exploration into Who’s next? Admittedly the interview segments are entertaining, with Townshend, Roger Daltrey and the late John Entwistle offering recollections and candid commentary. Other contributors include musical journalist extraordinaire / Who historian, Dave Marsh; original Mod, Irish Jack Lyons, former Who manager Chris Stamp; producer Glyn Johns. Townshend’s narrative concerning his incorporation of synthesizers is fascinating, and his brief acoustic noodlings are enjoyable to watch in his modest studio confines. Yet these positives do not outweigh the negatives, nor diminish the sense that The Who: Who’s next was hastily cobbled together with minimal attention to detail. The original 1971 recording has such an interesting and convoluted history, that analysis is an all-or-nothing proposition. In this case, the DVD falls far short in providing sufficient insights and accurate historical perspective into the album’s legacy and ongoing artistic and commercial appeal. This is truly a shame, as a record such as Who’s next deserves nothing but the best.
For those interested in visually revisiting the Who’s career, indulging in Stein’s magnificent documentary, The Kids Are Alright is a better option than viewing The Who: Who’s next. And for experiencing the grandeur of the album in its infancy, the second disc in the twin CD set, Who’s next – Deluxe Edition, offers 14 tracks recorded at The Young Vic as part of the Lifehouse concerts. Additionally, the liner notes provide a detailed sketch of the musical behemoth that nearly destroyed Townshend and his band, and offer much more than this DVD.
A classic album unfortunately given less than classic treatment ... Somewhere the Ox and Moon are shaking their heads in amused disbelief.
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