Counterbalance No. 33: The Who’s ‘Who’s Next’

The Who
Who's Next

Klinger: I hate to once again sound like a Midwestern rockist nerd, but I can’t help expressing my surprise that Who’s Next, the first Who album to make it to the Big List, clocks in at a relatively modest 33.

Mendelsohn: Why are you surprised? The Who are a second-rate British rock band. Before you can get to them you have to go through the Holy Trinity of British rock (in the name of the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie, amen). No. 33 is a good place for them.

Klinger: Mendelsohn, you’re just lucky 15-year-old Klinger isn’t here—he’d be giving you an earful right now. He’d be telling you that the Who was the third best British group, just behind the Beatles and the Stones and just ahead of the Kinks. And then he’d let you know that Who’s Next was a huge transformation for the band as they made their way from Day-Glo mod singles to rock operas to arena rock superstars. It’s a pivotal album for them, and in many ways it’s a harbinger of what’s to come later in the 1970s (yes, I talked funny back then too).

Mendelsohn: Whatever. Coincidentally, 15-year-old Mendelsohn would have said the same thing except he would have tried to say it with more apathy before giving you the finger and going back to listen to Nine Inch Nails.

I’m just not into this band. It’s not the music–they write good rock. It must be Peter Townshend’s face. Or Roger Daltrey’s face. Or both of their faces. Hell, I even change the channel during the opening credits of any of the CSI shows (unless its CSI: Miami, in which case I wait for the first shot of David Caruso so I can throw something at the TV, and then I change the channel).

I don’t know. My dislike of the Who might stem from the whole rock opera thing. I find the idea of a rock opera to be really pretentious. You want to tell me a story? Do it within the confines of one song. If you need more than one song, you should have been a novelist.

None of this has anything to do with anything. You were saying?

Klinger: I wasn’t saying anything—15-year-old Klinger was. Old Man Klinger’s ardor for the Who has cooled significantly, although the first blippety-bloops of “Baba O’Riley” do still take me right back to my awkward youth. I certainly agree with your contention that the rock opera is fraught with problems, especially one as nonsensical as Tommy (more on that in about 80 weeks).

Who’s Next famously arose from the ashes of Townshend’s Lifehouse project, which was apparently even less adaptable than his previous magnum opus, if you can imagine that. So while the album might have felt like a punt to Townshend at the time, it’s easy to see why Who’s Next would work much better as a simpler collection of songs. I couldn’t bring myself to pony up for that six-disc LIfehouse Chronicles dealie that Townshend eventually barfed up in 2000, but I can’t imagine it changing my mind.

Mendelsohn: If only they’d packed more explosives into Keith Moon’s drum set on that fateful Smothers Brothers show, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation. As it is though, Townsend survived so here we go. After Led Zeppelin, it sounds like the Who set the template for what would become the majority of rock in the ’70s. Their use of synthesizers may be one of the best, or worst, things to happen to rock, depending on your Rock Purist ranking.

Klinger: Always pushing people’s buttons, eh, Mendelsohn? I’m going to let your more incendiary comments pass. But you’re right to bring up Zep. In many ways, the Who and Led Zeppelin were opposite sides of the coin. While Page & Co. were creating loving homages to the blues masters, Townshend appears to have been bent on distancing themselves from rock’s bluesier influences (there are rootsy leanings, notably on the more acoustic “Love Ain’t for Keeping” and “Goin’ Mobile”, though). In 1970, the Who released Live at Leeds, the Zeppiest music they’d ever make, but by ’71 Townshend is explicitly striving for a more classical feel—and the blues essentially goes out the window. It’s most explicit in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, from its introductory theme to the symphonic chords that bring the song to a close, but it’s found throughout the album.

Mendelsohn: There is definitely something grandiose in the Who’s music that seems to go hand-in-hand with a classical school of thought, a sort of romantic view of rock music that doesn’t jibe with the blues-inspired licks proffered by Zep or the Stones. Maybe that’s why I don’t like the Who, too much classical sensibility and not enough down and dirty blues.

Klinger: I don’t want to suggest that the Who transformed into Emerson, Lake and Palmer here. God forbid. Who’s Next still rocks quite convincingly, and their Maximum R&B roots never fully went away (Daltrey’s rasp is the vestigial tail there). And as much swagger as Daltrey brings to the Who’s sound, it was always undercut by the understanding that it was Townshend’s introspection and often downright frailty that was really the driving force behind the group.

That combination of braggadocio and navel-gazing found on ’70s Who records is the same weird mix that’s found in most teenage boys, and that’s probably why it affected me so strongly when I was a scrawny, awkward 15-year-old. Listening to Who’s Next again for this project, I found myself taken right back to that time—even as I recognized that some of the songs (“The Song Is Over”, “Behind freakin’ Blue stinkin’ Eyes”) were more than a little mawkish and overwrought in their broodiness (I also recognized how thoughtful it was of Townshend to let John Entwistle sully his masterwork with the irredeemable “My Wife”).

But even though as an adult I can see Who’s Next more clearly, I’m still tempted to lift my skinny fists like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club whenever I hear these songs. And no matter how silly it might seem now, I just can’t deny that part of myself.

Mendelsohn: That may be the greatest aspect about music—its power of transformation and transportation. While this record has little effect on me, there are albums that cause my stomach to drop and can send me hurtling back through time. I feel my brain shrink and suddenly I’m seeing the world through the rose-colored glasses of a teenager. But then I remember I have a mortgage payment and it all ends abruptly. As a transformative power, music can show those scrawny, awkward 15-year-olds that they aren’t alone and on the other side, it can allow the band to find its true sound. As with the Who and Who’s Next we see a band finally strike upon the formula that would define them and strike a counterbalance to Led Zeppelin as the two figureheads of ’70s AOR.

Klinger: Right, on Who’s Next we see all the pieces and parts of the group finally fall into alignment. Remember, this group is like a bumblebee: on paper, it shouldn’t fly at all. The two rhythm players, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, each played as if the drums and bass were lead and/or melody instruments. Both of them play with a technique that’s completely distinct (it’s one reason why you seldom hear crappy bar bands successfully cover Who songs) and probably wouldn’t work anywhere else. Plus, this is the record where Roger Daltrey fully comes into his own. Although he started out as a fairly standard-issue British R&B belter, a couple years of touring Tommy gave him the courage necessary to be an honest-to-goodness rock star. Throw Townshend’s grandstanding style into the mix and you essentially have four lead players each propped up against each other like a house of cards. In the hands of any other musicians it would have repeatedly collapsed into chaos. And yet not only were they able to create lasting songs out of that mix, they were able to navigate together through the twists and turns of an eight-minute epic like “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

Yes, this album’s impact is somewhat diminished by the baggage that comes with the Who’s seemingly endless war on dignity—the Super Bowl halftime show, the farewell reunion tours. And yes, I’ve come to see the cracks in the Who’s wall of rock. But it’s no surprise that the rock nerds who make up the Criterati regard Who’s Next so highly. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to give “Getting in Tune” one last spin, then I’ve got some bills to pay.