Friday, October 1, 2010

WHO'S NEXT: The Who (1971)

2. Who’s Next—The Who (released July, 1971; first heard August, 1971)  On the cover, The Who have just had a piss at a monolith.  Who’s next? They saucily inquire.  We can make just about anything be that monolith, but I like to think of it as the view that The Who were not The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World, that The Stones held that coveted spot.  Maybe they did, but in 1971 I wasn’t convinced of that.  In 1971, when I got this record for my 12th birthday, The Who kicked everyone’s ass – or pissed on everyone, if you like – and that’s that.  I hadn’t graduated beyond AM radio at the time, and the song that leapt off the radio and colonized my little adolescent brain was “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – first in its shortened, single version, then in the long version that AM radio would occasionally play (making me have to get the album), with the long (in the land of 3 minute songs) Moog run that sounds like a keyboard solo from Kubrick’s (speaking of monoliths) HAL.  And the way that percolating sound is punctuated by Keith Moon bashing away, then Daltrey’s full-throated scream, and the lyrics, sounding tossed off but undeniably right in their wise-guy shrug: “I’ll  move myself and my family aside / if we happen to be left half-alive / I’ll get all my papers and smile at the sky / for I know that the hypnotized never lie.”  Townshend and co. weren’t just pissing on things, they were giving things (like the counter-culture, to say nothing of the slavish material culture that had become the driving wheel of pop-rock, or, ok ok, had always been the driving wheel of pop-rock, only now, more so, and of course the infamous military-industrial complex) a rather enthusiastic finger.  “And the parting on the left is now the parting on the right / and the beards have all grown longer overnight.”  Not only a comment on fads and fashions, the “left,” “right” switch noted the passing from LBJ to Nixon (1968), and the Conservative government of Edward Heath (1970) that would bequeath Thatcher to the Brits.  And the length of those radical beards must suggest all the thoughtful pondering that would no doubt give us much theory but little gain.

Then there were the other tracks that sometimes got airplay and which later became unshakeable staples of “Classic Rock” radio: “Baba O’Riley,” “Bargain,” occasionally “Behind Blue Eyes,” the latter a misanthropic ode that I just loved to maunder along with (despite the fact that I have brown eyes).  “No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings / like I do, and I beg you / if my fist clenches crack it open / before I use it and lose my cool / and if I smile, tell me some bad news / before I laugh and act like a fool.”  It’s an anthem for wanting to be left alone, and offers the paradoxical glory of exulting in someone else’s version of what it’s like to be persecuted by one’s own uniqueness.  And that was something, I realize now, that drew me to a lot of the music that I loved in my teens and early twenties: the voicing of an “include me out” status, the sense that the singer had seen enough to know that motives were always questionable, that love would always fall short of ideal, that grand causes made for grand losses, that fellowship was usually in the name of something that would not endure, that sex, at its best, always required a bit of the blues, that the methods (and sometimes substances) you used to be “free” became traps in themselves, and being cool with all that was about the best you could hope for.

Pete Townshend, who gave us the inspiring story of the deaf, dumb and blind pinball phenomenon who gains a following only to be destroyed and denounced by his disciples/fans, clearly had a chip or two on his shoulder, but on this album he put his irked spirit to the test and churned out some of his best tunes, and the mighty Glyn Johns (all hail the “Glyn Johns method for recording drums”!) got it all on tape with that amazing crispness and layeredness that still takes my breath away at times – like the descending drumfalls at the close of “Bargain,” or the piano that suddenly comes plunking in at the end of “Song is Over.”  And “Baba” is one of those truly great opening blasts.  In fact I think a given of most of the albums on this “15” list will boast major opening songs and definitive closing songs (here it’s “Won’t Get Fooled”).  And don't forget silent John Entwhistle's harrowing hard rocker "My Wife." This album is what the early ‘70s should be remembered for and as, sez me.

The song is over
I'm left with only tears
I must remember
Even if it takes a million years.
--Peter Townshend, "The Song is Over"

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