See also Adam Williams’ review of this DVD
A lot of times, these ultra-cheap-looking DVDs that purport to unlock the mysteries behind or tell the “true story” of a canonical album or band wind up being such a sham that they’re actually worth telling people to go out of their way not to watch. The talking heads, the condescending tone and, most glaringly, the lack of even the illusion of involvement from the band itself make for grim viewing indeed.
I don’t know if it was an effect of going into Classic Albums: Who’s Next with such low expectations, but this DVD was much, much better than I’d anticipated. It’s not without its faults, sure—live footage from Roger Daltrey’s ugly striped-shirt, running-in-place era isn’t exactly contemporaneous, and some time is wasted with introductory discussion of the band’s early career up to and including Tommy—but this hour-long video remedies most of the shortcomings of similar documentaries.
What makes Who’s Next especially ripe for this kind of treatment is that it’s one of those rare classic albums that could’ve been a totally different classic album. Its roots in Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse project are covered well enough, considering the time limitations and that the focus isn’t on Lifehouse, but on Who’s Next. As Townshend’s demos indicate, Lifehouse would’ve been a hell of a record (well, two of ‘em), but the concept was so ridiculous as to have been impenetrable to all but the composer. Whittling Lifehouse down to Who’s Next risked a further blurring of the concept, but this actually worked in its favor. Rather than clearly laying out a story, as on Tommy, the songs on Who’s Next could be heard as exploring themes and ideas, if the listener was inclined to think about them. If not, well, the songs still packed some serious punch. As multiple parties remark during this documentary, the songs hold up just fine without the story.
Oh, about those multiple parties: They include a bare minimum of questionable folks, chiefly an “ex-Mod” named Irish Jack. But also among them are guys who played pivotal roles in the production of Who’s Next (producer Glyn Johns, manager Chris Stamp, and others), people who you’ll probably never see in anything else (Dave Arbus, the violinist on “Baba O’Riley”), one of the most hyperbole-happy rock critics on the planet (Dave Marsh), and all the members of the Who except Keith Moon. (John Entwistle’s appearance makes me question when the band-member interviews were shot, but at least they’re well-integrated into the production.)
Best of all, the important talking heads (sorry, Irish Jack) are the ones who dominate the proceedings. There’s no voiceover narration, and the participants avoid patting themselves on the back or speaking in empty platitudes. No, they actually do a fine job of walking through the making of Who’s Next, using the video medium to its full advantage. They don’t just talk; they show. Glyn Johns gives us “Going Mobile”, first playing the track as it was cut live, with Townshend’s vocal and acoustic guitar, Entwistle’s bass and Moon’s drums. He then integrates the other elements, from the synthesizer to the electric guitar solo. They take a similar track-separation approach to Townshend’s demo of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, also using that opportunity to illustrate the differences between Townshend’s bass playing and drumming and those of his bandmates. It’s great for fans of all stripes, as it presents these well-known recordings in a way that those of us sitting at home have never been able to hear them. Ancient footage of Townshend messing with synthesizers, as well as more current clips of same, are equally illuminating.
My only real complaint, and it’s a minor one considering how this disc might’ve turned out, is that there could’ve been more on the actual making of Who’s Next. Not that what’s here isn’t surprisingly informative and entertaining, but there seems to be some padding on this DVD. The aforementioned introductory material is one example, but the last 10 minutes are equally questionable. A Townshend solo acoustic version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, as well as what was apparently a promo clip for “Join Together”, scream “bonus material”, and will make you scratch your head as to why there is nothing labeled as such on this disc. Reference is made in the documentary to videotaped performances of the Who live at the Young Vic Theatre. Why is none of that footage included here? And why is there no discussion of “Bargain”, “Getting in Tune”, “The Song is Over” or “Love Ain’t for Keeping”, otherwise known as almost half of the album? At least we get a dose of the stunning castoff “Pure and Easy”. But the lack of completeness hurts this DVD just a bit, preventing it from being a documentary to come back to again and again. Let’s hope somebody, someday, gets it right. But at least Classic Albums: Who’s Next will whet your appetite for more from this productive period of the Who’s career, and make you return to Who’s Next with the utmost attentiveness.