A good portion of my summer vacation in 1971 was spent trailing my two older brothers and cousin around Brainerd, Minn., visiting every record store and head shop in hopes of finding the new album by The Who. My cousin had just seen them in concert at the Mississippi River Festival, and “obsessed” is not too strong a word to describe his quest to find the record. That show at MRF lives on in St. Louis lore as one of the best concerts in this region ever; my cousin tells the story of a concertgoer who, so blown away by the performance, pulled up his chair and took it home with him as a souvenir … but on the way out of the venue, ran into someone with an even better memento—the neck of a guitar, smashed by Pete Townshend and thrown into the crowd.
I was only 12 years old at the time, and didn’t really think much about The Who—or Who’s Next, the album in question—for six more years, when I left home to go to college. My roommate at the time had a copy of Who’s Next and was pretty reverent about it, but he only ever played Won’t Get Fooled Again, the last song on the album.
At the end of my first semester, I went home for the month-long break. I was sharing an old beat-up stereo with my brother Jim, who was also home for a while. (Bear with me if you’ve read this before; it’s key to the story.) Jim borrowed a few albums from our other brother, Phil; among them was Who’s Next.
My bedroom in those days was right above my parents’ bedroom; fortunately, I had a nice set of headphones and was able to listen to the music without having to keep the volume down. One night I settled in to listen to some of the music; I put on the headphones and the Who record, and within a few seconds of starting Side 1, Track 1, my life had changed forever.
That first track is called Baba O’Riley. You’ve heard it; but you may have thought it was called “Teenage Wasteland.” I had probably heard it before that night as well, but it never really registered until then. By the time Roger Daltrey sang “I don’t need to fight, to prove I’m right…” I was a confirmed Who fan.
Next was the song Bargain, followed by Love Ain’t For Keeping. My Wife … The Song Is Over … Gettin’ In Tune … Going Mobile … before I’d listened to the album one time through, I wanted to know everything there was to know about this amazing band. I’m completely clueless about audio engineering, but every song on the album sounds perfectly clean, with a slight echo — it sounds incredible on the headphones. Of course you don’t need headphones to appreciate Who’s Next. Every song on the record is worthy of release as a single. I would count Won’t Get Fooled Again as the best rock song ever. But not far behind are the aforementioned Baba O’Riley, Bargain and Behind Blue Eyes. The third-tier songs—which constitute the rest of the album—would be first-tier on any other album ever put out, by anybody.
All of this was immediately clear to me on that first listening in December of 1977. Nothing I have heard since has changed my mind about any of it.
Not quite a year later, a new guy moved into my dorm at Mizzou. Geoff was from New York, and it turned out he had the same reverence for The Who that I did; further, he had “discovered” The Who at almost exactly the same time I had, during that 1977-78 Christmas break. We became fast friends, ultimately best-manning at each other’s weddings. Our paths diverged after just a year or so at Mizzou, but we had an epic reunion revolving around a Who concert in St. Louis in April 1980, recounted here and here and here.
The back story on Who’s Next is that it was originally drawn up to be another “concept” album, The Who’s follow-up to the groundbreaking Tommy “rock opera.” It was to be called Lifehouse. But Pete Townshend’s concept was way too elaborate to ever pull off, either on a record or in a movie or in a concert venue, and they ended up pulling the best nine songs from the effort and making Who’s Next.
Even though Lifehouse the movie was never made, a few years later a movie was made about The Who, using clips from throughout the band’s history to that point. Naturally, two songs from Who’s Next were the highlights of the movie. It is of course possible to love The Who’s music without ever seeing them in concert, but their stage presence was simply phenomenal. Check out this video of Won’t Get Fooled Again from the movie The Kids Are Alright. (Actually, this version was recut by Geoff from the original scene, using alternate camera angles from the DVD).
Today is Who’s Next’s birthday: it was released on this date 40 years ago, August 14, 1971. We never did find it while we were trekking around Brainerd that summer, but I’m confident my cousin and my brothers picked it up as soon as we got back home. And over the years, I’ve bought it several times myself, as I’ve worn out the vinyl copies, or new editions of the CD were released. It goes down, in my estimation, as the best album ever recorded.