Few albums in the pantheon of classic rock recordings embody the greatness of an artist more than 1971’s Who’s Next. Arguably the Who‘s finest effort, the album came at a time when the group was at its creative peak. Fresh off the monumental success of the rock opera Tommy in 1969, the band had ridden a wave of critical acclaim for the album and subsequent live performances of its material, highlighted by memorable gigs at the Metropolitan Opera House, Woodstock, and the Isle of Wight. The scope of Tommy had drawn attention to Pete Townshend’s emerging genius as a songwriter, and in the process set a standard that he would be measured by throughout the Who’s illustrious career. The viability of Tommy as a recorded and live vehicle had given Townshend renewed confidence in his own abilities, and had motivated him to take on larger challenges. His primary focus post Tommy came in the form of the Lifehouse project, a grandiose look at the possibilities of music in a futuristic setting.
Townshend’s idealized views on rock and roll as an element of one’s being, laid the groundwork for an elaborately sophisticated creation consisting of a feature film, expansive album, and interactive live concerts. While plausible to Townshend, the intricate blueprint for musical salvation proved to be a logistical impossibility, and the project gradually unraveled into disarray. In spite of its failure to reach fruition, the Lifehouse project yielded enough quality recorded material to assemble the nine-song album Who’s Next. At the time, no one could have foreseen the magnitude of this release, particularly Townshend himself who had viewed it as a commercial compromise of his Lifehouse vision.
Despite Townshend’s initial misgivings, the magnitude ofWho’s Next is undeniable. The scope of its grandeur is evidenced by every track having become an FM radio staple, with much of the album’s material incorporated into the Who’s long standing concert set list. While each song is memorable in its own right, most notable are “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which has reached rock anthem status, and the John Entwistle penned “My Wife” that proudly displays the bassist’s skills as a songwriter. Simply put, it is as close to perfect an album as could be imagined. How then could a recording of this stature be improved upon? Read on.
MCA has given Who aficionados an early Christmas present with the release of Who’s Next Deluxe Edition. The original album has been coupled with added songs, and a complete second disc has been included featuring a live Lifehouse performance at London’s Young Vic Theater. Altogether, the twin CD set provides 29 tracks totaling two and a half hours of vintage Who material. Additionally, an updated Townshend essay describing the Lifehouse project is featured, as well as extensive liner notes that shed light on the history of the album’s recording processes.
Disc one is comprised of 15 tracks; Who’s Next in its entirety, and six newly remastered recordings from early studio sessions that did not make the final album cut. Alternate versions of “Getting in Tune”, “Love Ain’t for Keeping”, and “Behind Blue Eyes” give listeners slightly different looks at the material, while the original recorded version of “Pure and Easy” showcases the song’s melodic beauty. The inclusion of an extended Motown cover of “Baby Don’t You Do It” harkens back to the group’s early club days and provides an interesting counterbalance to the album’s more readily recognized tracks. The most fascinating of the additional material comes by way of a previously unreleased alternate version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. This take utilizes a different synthesizer track than the traditional version and is missing Daltrey’s trademark scream. Overall, the six additional listings supply a welcome compliment to the album’s original nine songs.
Disc two offers remixed versions of 14 songs performed at the Young Vic during the Spring of 1971. Taking place at roughly the same time as gigs at Leeds and the Isle of Wight, this Lifehouse concert maintains the distinctive live sound from the period, and includes much of the same material from those shows. It also provides evidence of the Who’s ability to flawlessly transition brilliant studio material to the stage. Featured tracks from Who’s Next include “Love Ain’t for Keeping”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Getting in Tune”, “Bargain”, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Fiery covers of “Young Man Blues” and “Road Runner” are included in the set, as are somewhat lesser played, but no less potent renditions of “Pure and Easy”, “I Don’t Even Know Myself”, “Too Much of Anything”, and “Time Is Passing”. Also in the set is an outstanding trio of concert mainstays “Water”, “My Generation”, and “Naked Eye”. Throughout the performance, Daltrey’s vocals are strong and gritty, Moon’s drumming is sharp, Entwistle lays down his usual virtuoso thunder, and Townshend’s guitar playing is flawless.
The Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next is noteworthy for two reasons. First, in an age of rampant re-releases and often sub par offerings, MCA has deviated from the curve and put together an exemplary package of material for Who fans. The sound quality on both CD’s is excellent, while the booklet included is informative and enlightening. Second, the creative dynamic that went into the aborted Lifehouse project can be more fully appreciated as a greater amount of original material is made available. Townshend’s musical vision may have been ahead of its time, but three decades later his songs still resonate with power and passion. For the most part, Who’s Next rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of Lifehouse, catching lightning in a bottle as the group was at its pinnacle of greatness. Now, the album returns to much of its original conceptualized splendor, making it even better.
Long live rock.