‘Who’s Next’: The Masterpiece That Freed The Who From Their Shackles

·4 min read

How many weeks have The Who spent at No.1 on the UK album chart, since their first appearance there in December 1965? The very surprising answer is one. On the chart for September 18, 1971, Pete, Roger, John and Keith hit the top with the mighty Who’s Next.

The album, released on August 14, had debuted in runner-up spot the week before, behind Simon & Garfunkel’s long-running Bridge Over Troubled Water. In week two, Who’s Next moved to the summit, before itself being unseated a week later by Deep Purple’s Fireball.

Three other Who studio albums made No.2 in the UK (Tommy, Quadrophenia and Face Dances) and they also reached runner-up spot with the 1976 compilation The Story Of The Who. But they have never got back to No.1. Who’s Next was their fifth LP to reach the UK Top 10, a feat they would repeat another ten times, including with 2006’s Endless Wire. In July 2015, the Who Hits 50 compilation came extremely close to extending that run when it rebounded to No.11, during the band’s 50th anniversary tour. Then the acclaimed 2019 set simply titled Who debuted in the UK at No.3.

Who’s Next, produced by the band with associate producer Glyn Johns, would become their most successful in the States in terms of RIAA certification. It was certified triple platinum and reached No.4 in a 41-week chart run. That repeated the peak of the Tommy album that preceded it; while Quadrophenia went to No.2 in 1973, it’s only certified single platinum.

Regarded by many as the band’s finest hour, Who’s Next is bookended by the superb “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and also includes such all-time Who classics as “Bargain,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and the majestic “The Song Is Over.”

As Who’s Next was being released, rock writer Dave Marsh avowed in Creem magazine that the band’s new album “is to The Who what the White Album must’ve been to The Beatles.” His point was that, in both cases, these were the studio follow-ups to brilliant concept LPs, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for one and Tommy for the other.

‘A fine fine record’

Marsh concluded in his Who review that they had succeeded, just as The Beatles had. Live At Leeds was, he wrote, “a fine fine record, one you can shake your ass to and think about both, one that does everything The Who can do in legend (which is a lot, just like the White Album was a lot).”

Johns provided a link between these two giants of British music, since he had served as an engineer on Abbey Road in 1969. He would later reflect that The Who album had become even more significant in their canon than he thought he would. “When I was cutting it, I was really thrilled with it,” he said, “but I never imagined it would become as important as it became, because one’s a little bit insecure, obviously, when you’re making a record. You don’t really know how the public are going to receive it.”

Adding ‘a sharp bite’

Who historian Chris Charlesworth said of “Baba O’Riley”: “Pete didn’t use his synthesiser simply as a solo keyboard that could make strange underwater noises, but as a rotating musical loop which underpinned the melody and added a sharp bite to the rhythm track.”

Listen to the best of The Who on Apple Music and Spotify.

Townshend would write in his Who I Am autobiography that songs from the album “were slow to become familiar and established,” and that the set was “pathetically titled.” But he paid compliment to Johns by adding that it was “the first Who material in a long time to be properly recorded.” In 2007, after decades of regular placings in the upper echelons of numerous all-time best album lists, Who’s Next was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Liberating the group

In December 1971, Townshend had told Steve Turner in Beat Instrumental: “I’d always felt rock was capable of doing more than the three-minute-fifteen-second track approach. But the question now is what we can do with this extended piece of time? Today the Who’s problem is that piece of time on the album and on stage has become so predictable. We feel we have to find a new thread that maybe isn’t a standard rock procedure, but that nevertheless has the same fundamental simplicity. My cause is to liberate the group from its own shackles.”

Buy or stream Who’s Next.

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