1. Who's Next (1971)
Songs that find their way into constant circulation on classic rock radio have a tough row to hoe: How can a tune you've heard hundreds, or even thousands, of times still be majestic, much less even enjoyable? And, worse yet, is there even an inkling of hope they can seem fresh? But the truly great ones find a way; Who's Next is chock full of them.
Released between Tommy and Quadrophenia, Who's Next is akin to Coppola's The Conversation. Sandwiched between two epics, the work's genius is in its restrain. Of course, Who's Next isn't exactly lo-fi garage rock. But, when compared to its predecessor and follow-up, the record is a relatively straightforward rock 'n' roll effort. It just happens to be one of the best of all time.
The album didn't start off that way: Pete Townshend originally had designs on a rock opera which he named Lifehouse. The futuristic opus was abandoned in favor of a more traditional album, though many of its songs appear on Who's Next and elsewhere in the band's canon. The relative lack of concept turned out to be advantageous, allowing the band to explore disparate themes. "Love Ain't For Keeping" adds twang the inevitable expiration of affection while "Getting In Tune" deconstructs song assembly. And despite Fred Durst's best efforts to forever taint it, "Behind Blue Eyes" is a slow-burner nonpareil. A yearning heart and soul bleeds into badass escapism, the second half a sibling to the album's cover art: men pissing on a monolith, all that is holy and right.
Who's Next creates a sandwich of its own, two massive rock classics bookending the affair. "Baba O'Reilly" is best known for its organ-based synth-esque intro, but it also stands as the pinnacle of the Townshend's empathy for -- some might say "obsession with" -- youth. Partially inspired by the drooling masses at Woodstock, "teenage wasteland" has entered the lexicon in a way that would make T.S. Eliot proud. On the flip side, "We Don't Get Fooled Again" is as striking as ever for its unabashed bravado. After almost all of the nearly nine minutes of drum-bashing, power chord-exploding ferocity have expired, Daltry screams and proclaims, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Driving to work on a Monday morning, could anything still ring more true?
On “My Generation,” Roger Daltrey famously proclaims, “I hope I die before I get old.” It was 1965: Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics just as he was turning 20. Forty-eight years later, neither the singer nor the guitarist-composer has fulfilled that prophecy. Only one member of the Who did: Keith Moon, drummer and merrymaker extraordinaire, who died of a drug overdose in 1978 at the age of 32. (John “the Ox” Entwistle took his thunderfinger bass licks to his grave in 2002 at the still relatively young age of 57.) Still, it’s a line worth considering in 2013. The Who is still around, and just what does that mean?
Although the Who stands as an outfit with only one-half of its original members, Townshend and Daltrey are getting away with it … and then some. Five years ago the two were knighted USA-style at the Kennedy Center and, in 2010, the Who played a raucous and underrated Super Bowl halftime show: the next level these days, it seems, after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And the band’s performance at “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief” was expansive and one of the highlights of the night. Like another stand-out, Billy Joel, the group pillaged through seven songs; the Who’s set included a rendition of “Bell Boy” with Keith Moon lending his vocals via monitor. And the group is currently knee-deep in the second leg of an American tour, “Quadrophenia and More,” that takes them to Europe this summer. It could be its last ever.
So, why keep going? It seems as though they have some unfinished business. Townshend — long a troubled figure with a blazing media spotlight upon him — released a tell-all memoir last year, Who I Am. And, then there’s the issue of history: The Who has always been considered “one of” the greatest rock bands of all time but rarely “the best.” When boarding the Magic Bus, the Who has always been seated at the back while the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin fill out first-class. Townshend and Daltrey, approaching 70, are out to prove something.
And even looking outside of its recent accolades and achievements, the Who has cause for renewed consideration. This is a group that contributed to the framework of how rock ’n’ roll musicians behave: They break instruments and have bad attitudes. They brand themselves: Who wouldn’t readily identify that Union Jack target logo with the group? They make money: T-shirts on the current tour are fetching $40 a pop. They come up with signature moves (Townshend’s jumping windmill guitar stroke) and they bare their chests (Daltrey). They fight with each other like brothers, they have sex with the Western Hemisphere, and they write songs about it all. And, then, one-by-one: They die.
The band’s recordings are the heart of the matter, though, and go a long way toward reopening the case on the brilliant band. The Who has recorded 11 studio albums that have, in turn, given rise to a myriad of greatest hits collections, rare outtake compilations, and some of the best live music ever committed to tape (including the granddaddy of them all, 1970′s Live At Leeds.) Here, though, we consider those 11 LPs as a portfolio in its own right. As the Who criss-crosses the country, it’s readily apparent that, to paraphrase Townshend, the song will soon be over. And it’s these primary documents on which the Who’s legacy will be judged.
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