I can remember the first time I ever heard The Who, I was sitting in the back seat of a truck heading towards Boy Scout camp, attempting to pass hour two of four by reading quietly while my scoutmaster switched CDs. There are twenty-one tracks on the first disk of The Who: Ultimate Collection and I did not hear the first twenty. Then “Baba O’Riley” came on and my whole world stopped. For five minutes and six seconds I did not move, I did not blink, I barely breathed. My whole perception of rock music, to which I had previously been more or less indifferent to, transformed to the tune of a rapidly oscillating synthesizer, some arena-sized power chords, and a fiddle solo. When I got home from camp, Who’s Next was the first CD I ever bought for myself and I would listen to it for hours on my “No-Skip” player. I imagined that I sat alone on the floor of the ocean, my problems distant blue waves above me, as Roger Daltrey asserted, “I don’t need to fight/to prove I’m right.” My life can successfully be described as BTW and ATW: Before The Who and After The Who.
Who’s Next began as Lifehouse, Pete Townshend’s ambitious sci-fi companion to his seminal rock opera Tommy. When that project fell apart, Townshend used songs from it most prominently on Who’s Next, with other selections appearing on later albums.
Who’s Next does not feel like an album resurrected from the ashes of a failed project. It soars with a pulsating rhythm section accompanied by soulful guitar licks and warmly programmed synthesizer riffs. The songs of Who’s Next acts as an examination between freedom and what “My Wife” and “Going Mobile” expressed two sides of an intangible idea: the desire to be free and what keeps one from being free. In “My Wife,” a man spends a night in the lock-up because of his drinking and fears the retribution of his jealous wife. He is trapped between a rock and a hard place: he can’t go home without taking abuse from his wife and yet the longer he stays away from her, the more vicious her attack will be. “Going Mobile” describes the love of the open road, the joy of being an “air-conditioned gypsy.” It’s a happy tale of casting off the cares of the material world and settling where the gas runs out. “Bargain” becomes a sweet song disguised as a tough man trying to explain his love. He tells the listener that his relationship was “a bargain/the best I ever had.” But things get tenderer in the bridge when Townshend takes over for a moment to assert, “one and one don’t make two/one and one make one.”
Other superb hits on Who’s Next include “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Both express a weariness of the world and a resignation to accept what pain may come. The marvelous pathos within “Behind Blue Eyes” works so well because the narrator pushes away the listener: “Nobody knows what it’s like/to be the bad man/to be the sad man.” Yet the viewer knows these feelings and becomes more involved in the narrative, trying to connect with a voice that wants to be understood on his own terms. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a synthesizer opus, call to revolution, foot stomping end to Who’s Next, but the fate of the narrator isn’t so final as his rebellious efforts have resulted in “meet[ing] the new boss/same as the old boss.”
Who’s Next emerged from Pete Townshend’s breakdown over Lifehouse, but The Who triumphed over adversity and changed my life in the process. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by my adolescent life, I’d smile and whisper, “it’s only teenage wasteland.”