Tuesday 20 July 2010

The WHO: Who’s Next

(#97: 18 September 1971, 1 week)

Track listing: Baba O’Riley/Bargain/Love Ain’t For Keeping/My Wife/The Song Is Over/Getting In Tune/Going Mobile/Behind Blue Eyes/Won’t Get Fooled Again

If you think that this is a foolhardy, unfinishable project then consider Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse. It was going to be an interactive stage show, and a double album (at least), and a big budget film, and an example of proto-internet musician/audience barrier-breaking. And probably much else besides; there is a six-CD box set, the Psychoderelict project, a radio play, and a now discontinued website, each acting as depositories for whatever has been considered part of Lifehouse for the last forty years. I’m not certain that Townshend himself knows what it was all about, except that its central precept was that rock ‘n’ roll could save the world, that it could bring the world together in a blunt approximation of Meher Baba’s concept of the oneness of divinity (“Join together with the band”). The theatre aspect promised extraordinariness; a regular audience would assemble at the Young Vic theatre in Waterloo and the music and plot thrust would be worked out by the musicians and audience simultaneously. Furthermore, given the internet-anticipating concept of Townshend’s “Grid” – insulated techno-suits within which humans could interact with anyone or anything in the world – the proposal to feed the personal details of each member of the audience into a computer-cum-synthesiser, thereby giving them their own individual musical code, all culminating in a “universal chord” which would elevate everyone involved to a level approximating Godhood, was the most far-reaching, if also the most far-fetched, concept rock had yet thrown up. Exercises in demolishing the boundaries between artist and recipient, and between competence and incompetence, were the order of the adventurous 1971 day – Cardew’s The Great Learning, Centipede’s Septober Energy and (inevitably) Escalator Over The Hill all had similar aspirations in mind – but aesthetically and technologically, had it worked, Lifehouse would potentially have surpassed all of these. Tommy was a hard act to follow.

Not surprisingly, the enterprise pretty much broke down entirely, and nearly broke Townshend with it, and it was finally decided to shelve the concept, rescue the project’s best songs and make a straightforward Who album. Songs from Lifehouse continued to crop up on Who discs for several years to come (up to and including 1978’s Who Are You) but it is probably accurate to say that the haunting prospect of a Townshend gestamtkunstwerk is more alluring than anything that might actually have been realised at the time, and that, in its decidedly more modest ambition, Who’s Next manages to sum up all the thoughts and emotions that Townshend was nurturing in a far more direct and convincing way.

If Tommy was an extended attempt by Townshend to sum up his own life and facilitate and explain his delayed entry into adulthood, then Who’s Next sees both writer and band coming of age, maturing into an integrated entity which really no one in 1971 could match. Although Townshend had been steadily working towards the extended, grand statement since A Quick One, his ambitions sometimes obscured the power which the Who were able to generate as a working group (this is also why, for example, most recorded examples of large-group British jazz from the sixties onward tend to consist of constipated, confused “suites” which more often than not constrain and frustrate the musicians; it was the only way that the Arts Council would give them any money). In addition, the grand concepts tended on occasion to obscure Townshend’s status as the author of (in the opinion of this author) the most remarkable run of singles by any British group of the sixties, the Beatles, Stones and Kinks included. The 1965-7 run which spans “I Can't Explain” and “I Can See For Miles” works in terms of aesthetic power and urgent “now” reportage; Townshend is ceaselessly looking outwards, towards his audience, wanting to understand and empathise with them – these songs completely avoid sentimentality, oneupmanship and navel-gazing, and Townshend’s character studies don’t have the “at one remove” get-out clause of Ray Davies (although nobody could doubt Davies’ capacity for empathy as a writer or performer); via Daltrey’s as yet untutored voice, you feel that they are singing to you and for you – and, sometimes (“My Generation”) at those who would rather not listen. Although generally a little too hard-boiled for the real mass market – the Who have yet to score their first British number one single – songs like “Substitute” and “I’m A Boy” converse with their listeners while happily inverting expectations in terms of subject matter, song structure and delivery. And their influence fed back at an early stage; the feedback on “I Feel Fine” was inspired by the Who, as was the rumble of “Ticket To Ride,” while “Helter Skelter” was an attempt to outblast the terminal ecstasies of “I Can See For Miles” (which latter effectively invents My Bloody Valentine).

But the group, and specifically Townshend, grew up, and slightly away from their core audience; The Who Sell Out remains their most consistent (and most sheerly entertaining) long-playing record but its pre-postmodern tactics (mock radio adverts, the deconstruction of the record as it goes along) confused many. Still, in its final moments the record gave birth (literally) to Tommy, and Townshend was able to hone his skills sufficiently to develop a coherent suite of songs (which, despite the subsequent stage productions and film, still works best when played as an integrated and committed group).

Rather than the humbled compromise of a follow-up that it must have seemed to Townshend at the time, however, the strengths of Who’s Next lie in the record’s humility, combined with its not at all paradoxical openness and willingness to embrace its audience. The cover finds them stranded in a Northern slagheap – not Sheffield, as the CD booklet avows, but Easington Colliery in County Durham, the scene of a famous mining disaster in 1951 when an explosion in the pit killed eighty-three workers. They are standing around a large, grey monolith and indeed have just micturated on it (or such was the intent; when it came to shooting the photo, the band found they couldn’t go, and thus splashed water had to be used as a substitute). No doubt 2001 was on their mind, but their stance is not so much a satire as a regretful commentary on where and how humanity had washed up. It also signifies a complete lack of bullshit, which comes as a refreshing contrast following the grandiose fence-sitting exhibited by some recent Then Play Long entries, while the music sets forth a genuine sense of musical adventure (again, in marked contrast to the superficial modernity of some of its immediate predecessors).

There is, for instance, really no precedent for “Baba O’Riley,” one of the great rock album opening tracks; certainly synthesisers were gradually moving into common parlance but here the VCS3 and ARP synthesisers are used as a central propulsive force rather than mere decoration. The title nods to both Meher Baba and the systems music composer Terry Riley, hence the loop – actually played, as is the bookending loop on the closing track, on a Lowrey organ – with its minute but evolving melodic and rhythmic differentials. But why one of the great rock album opening tracks? Because it remembers to roll, because it doesn’t play all of its cards in its first fifteen seconds, and because, as the harbinger of an album, it announces, with far less fanfare and fuss than Lifehouse would have managed, that there is a story to be told. Note how a very grand piano introduces the song’s riff, how Keith Moon’s drums uncannily stumble into the picture – Moon has the astuteness to drag the tempo slightly behind the chords, like the teenage escapees of the song attempting to shake off their ball and chain – how Entwistle’s bass lumbers into vision to provide the song with its unshakable foundation, how Daltrey – an older, more formed but no less vital voice – grasps the implications of “Out here in the fields” and “I don’t need to be forgiven” immediately, and finally, how Townshend’s guitar does not enter into the song until the second verse. In contrast to the homecoming cravings of other recent entries, “Baba O’Riley” reintroduces us to the concept of collective escape (“Don’t look past my shoulder/The exodus is here”) while remembering a fond and not too distant youthful urge – the “My Generation” reference of “Let’s get together/Before we get much older” (in other words, “we” might still die young, but it’s not going to be by our own hand). Amidst all this, the calming, penitent voice of Townshend surfaces: “Don’t cry/Don’t raise your eye/It’s only teenage wasteland,” which Daltrey then joyfully tears asunder, turning it into an anti-anthem. Townshend offers a patient, meditative guitar solo which is rapidly cut off by his own down-slamming piano. “They’re all WASTED!!” Daltrey finally, and happily, barks – no moodily blue sops here – before East of Eden’s Dave Arbus and his violin, which have been subtly rising up within the texture of the song for a good thirty seconds, lead the group into an accelerando Celtic jig which jitters to a decisive orgasm.

Where the Stones of 1971 existed in their own hermetically happy universe, the Who make us realise that they wouldn’t have a universe were it not for us paying attention to them. “Bargain,” introduced by acoustic guitar and backwards electric before Moon’s whorls of percussion crash in like a mislaid Soviet submarine, is a declaration of self-lacerating desire – “I’d gladly lose me to find you,” owns up Daltrey, before proposing the definitive sacrifice: “To win you I’d stand naked, stoned and stabbed.” Note the double alliteration and the imagery which hardly turns up elsewhere in this sequence of records. In each chorus there are two “the best [bargain] I ever had”; the first Daltrey whimpers in recollection of his 1965 self, the second he roars in complete self-confidence. As with “Baba O’Riley,” there is a mid-song pause for Townshend thought, which leads into a sequence of unison melody for acoustic guitar and synthesiser which could easily pass for Neu! or Robert Wyatt or Stereolab were it not for Moon’s restless drums; he will not let us become complacent, or settle back. Much of the marvel of Who’s Next, indeed, relies on the best-recorded drumming on any Who record – Moon’s work reveals its true three-dimensionality, ricocheting around the speakers, emphasising his debt to Elvin Jones and Phil Seamen, his determination not to beat on the beat (which he hardly ever does), his cunning deployment of triplets and quarters. Guitar thrashes then lead us back to the main song, and then the sequence is repeated, with the song finally settling in quietude. One always gets the feeling that the band are listening intently to each other, which wasn’t always the case in 1971 rock.

“Love Ain’t For Keeping” and Entwistle’s “My Wife” are comparatively minor pieces but both Daltrey and Townshend have fun with the Faces mid-tempo acoustic slack boogie of the former, whose lyrics marry the semi-abstraction of “Flowers In The Rain” with the who-gives-a-fuck abandonment of the Small Faces’ “The Universal” – he’s lying on the grass and it’s raining, but enjoy the sepia and the springtime and the black ash from the foundry, because none of it, and therefore he, will be around forever. “My Wife” in contrast is a hysterical shaggy dog story where a hapless Entwistle, who’s been messing around, is scared of his other half catching up with him and doing serious harm (“…and a machEEEEEEEEne gun!”) but is also one of the album’s finest performances; as a power trio workout one can see quite clearly the road which will eventually lead to the Jam, but note the completely unexpected blossoming of synthesiser midway through, and the alternately parping and farting brass figures.

“The Song Is Over,” however, is a major piece; Laura Nyro piano chords (a terrific performance by guest keyboardist Nicky Hopkins) and low-key guitar set the scene as Townshend takes the vulnerable initial lead vocal; despite the eventual entrance of drums and guitar, and the song’s intermittent aggressive takeovers by Daltrey, piano and drums eventually tumble into nowhere – Townshend’s “But it stopped” is answered by Moon angrily snapping the wish shut. As powerfully as, but more subtly than, Lennon’s “God,” it says farewell to the sixties, to the façade of togetherness (hear how the baffled “She tried to find me” finally decays into the unreachable “Can’t hope to find me”) and acknowledges the process of ageing (“They’re all ahead now”). A whining synthesiser signals the point where Hopkins breaks free, working up some steam on his piano before the song reluctantly heads back to its solemn base. The final verse quotes lines from “Free And Easy,” the 1970 song which inspired the initial idea for Lifehouse (although not included on Who’s Next proper, it does appear as a bonus track on the CD release). Moon’s ominously thundering drums conclude this remarkable performance, and (on the LP original) side one.

Side two finds the Who limbering and loosening up somewhat, at least in part; “Getting In Tune” and “Going Mobile” are both lightly optimistic songs. In the former Hopkins’ extremely quiet piano opens the song before a roving bass joins him and the song crashes into the power of being. Again the empathy between the musicians is demonstrated; the symbiotic echoing of vocal harmonies with piano and bass before moving back into rock, the repeated ascending, hopeful chords, as though trying to dig their way towards heaven, Moon’s doubling of the tempo in the song’s final lap – and the song itself is all about the process of songwriting, although in truth its “getting in tune with the straight and narrow” is the core of the album’s philosophy; Townshend would not have been capable of the tenderness that he exhibits as a writer and performer in “Bargain” or “The Song Is Over” even two years previously. It’s about growing up and facing the prospect of approaching extended life without digging a complacent trap for oneself (and halfway through the song there is even a quick nod to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; this album still isn’t thrown together at random). Townshend again takes lead vocal on “Going Mobile” as the group (again, largely acoustically) set up a simmering rock mood which foreshadows Presley’s “Burning Love”; there is a slow, measured middle eight, and then rhetorical stops and starts. Townshend’s living it up – “Yee-hoo!,” “Beep beep!,” the referential cry of “Taxman!” in the second middle eight – and loving the freedom of the road, and by extension the more flexible concept of “home,” home being wherever and whatever makes you feel the happiest, even if one does end up an over-fifty “hippie gypsy.” Townshend’s command to “MOOOVE it!” dovetails perfectly into his guitar solo, which rapidly strides into Hendrix territory with furious wah-wah fanfaring over a torrent of drums from Moon. Home is exactly what you make it, even if it is a Ken Kesey variant on Anthony Burgess’ Dormobile.

But then we reach the album's starkest song. Listening to the forceful harmonies which respond to Daltrey’s pleas to be understood and loved in “Behind Blue Eyes,” we could almost be listening to the Moody Blues, except that Hayward and Lodge would never venture to offer such homilies as “AND I BLAME YOU” and “My love is vengeance,” let alone entreaties in the nature of “If I swallow anything evil/Put your finger down my throat”; this is an authentic working-class cry – the protagonist knows he’s a bit of a fuck-up, quick to use his fists and slow to think, but he wants to know and learn better, desperate not to be misunderstood; the dichotomy is further underlined by the explosion of electricity and tempo into the song’s second half, where Daltrey switches to a hissy Eden Kane growl. The song then returns to its initial acoustic lament, but the closing group harmonies are undermined by Moon’s brief but furious coda; no other rock drummer could make his kit sound quite as angry as Moon.

At last, we reach the other end of the “revolution” telescope, and what a relief to feel and absorb the full power of the real “Won’t Get Fooled Again” after the previous entry, thus demonstrating that folk art, in order to speak to folk and be an art, has to reach back out towards its listeners rather than passively reflecting their preferences. As with “Baba O’Riley” the song dives and curls on a Lowrey organ made to sound like a processed synthesiser (but played live in the studio by Townshend and then phased). Nothing else in 1971 rock – certainly not Tarkus – approached this adventurous gesture, and it makes the explosion of the band into the song proper all the more liberating and enticing. There are deliberate references to “Street Fighting Man” – ah, but we now have our children to consider; did we really believe we were going to be the last generation? – and “Revolution,” and while Townshend’s spirit for revolution is not diminished, his viewpoint is infinitely more realistic. Daltrey offers his most exultant and exuberant vocal on the album – his “they deci-ey-eided” harks back again to the days of “I’m A Boy” – and Entwistle’s bass is miraculous, with his glorious, cartwheeling James Jamerson descents through the first half of each chorus. Moon plays as though he were Edmond O’Brien in the final moments of D.O.A. Despite the song’s slight emotional ambiguity – Daltrey very pointedly sings “don’t get fooled again” rather than “won’t” in each chorus – the mood is an upbeat but unbreakable resolve to make music and society matter again; the lost sea of the extended organ loop returns for a long, pondering time in the middle of the song before (via a nod from Moon towards Ringo’s solo on “The End”) Daltrey leaps back in with his ebullient, tenement-cracking “YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!”s. The group knows that it’s all cosmetic on the outside and that history is foredoomed to repeat itself – “And the parting on the left/Is now the parting on the right” – but refuses to be browbeaten into received notions of normality. Instead, they look back, but constructively – “Pick up my guitar and play/Just like yesterday” – ushering in some lively group passages where Townshend joyfully returns to Chuck Berry (while dropping hints of Hendrix throughout his two solos) and the rhythm falls in with him as naturally as Creedence; the wonderful fool still believes that rock ‘n’ roll will save us all. “Meet the new boss!” roars Daltrey at the coda. “Same as the old boss!” Or so some would want you to think – but they’re clearly having none of it; the revolution has to start within ourselves but we have to be capable of reaching out and touching our neighbours and colleagues with the same reddening fervour. And the album crashes towards a triumphant close; you and we have saved rock ‘n’ roll. The Who’s outlook may be rationalist, but there’s nothing cold here; they are a naturally warmly rational group, and Who’s Next was, and is, a decisive punch in the face of hedging bets, settling for twelfth best, because it dares to suggest that nothing worthwhile is ever finishable, simply because humanity, if treated properly, could still, if it so wished, go on forever. The house of achieved life is now lived in, and the waves of Quadrophenia will beckon two years hence, but still the Mod rises from the ruined waves – it’s too late to go back, but far too late to stop with the now.