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Who’s Next is widely considered the Who’s best album because of its cohesive songwriting and accessible musical themes. But nobody would’ve likely predicted such triumph if they’d witnessed the nervous breakdown-inducing strain lead singer and songwriter Pete Townshend experienced prior to the record’s 1971 release.
Brilliant hard-rock stadium anthems like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and moving folk-rock ballads such as “Behind Blue Eyes” were originally part of Lifehouse, a massive project Townshend intended as a follow-up to the Who’s genre-defining rock opera, Tommy. Steeped in Sufi mysticism and the teachings of Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba, Townshend envisioned merging the band with its audience using synthesizer vibrations, quadraphonic sound, and live interaction.
No one, not even his fellow band members, could quite explain the intricacies of the science-fiction-tinged storyboard Townshend struggled to get out of his head. Just as the band seemed on the verge of breaking up over the chaos and stress, a mentally exhausted Townshend abandoned his byzantine plot lines and allowed producer Glyn Johns to help the quartet assemble a traditional album. The course correction resulted in an emotionally rewarding collection of statements about politics, social upheaval, and relationships that continues to withstand the tests of time and repeated listening.
Fans looking for a fresh copy of this classic shouldn’t allow themselves to be fooled by the 2015 Geffen Records reissue. While the lacquers are cut by Ron McMaster and the pressing flat and relatively quiet, the music sounds dull and empty when compared to an expensive U.K. Track Record original. “Baba O’Riley” teems with dynamic swings and a wide range of instrumental textures—from the distant opening piano chords and repeated Marimba Arpeggiator effect on Townshend’s Lowery Berkshire organ to Keith Moon’s aggressive drum attack and John Entwistle’s melodic bass lines. On the Geffen remaster, these thrills are presented on a one-dimensional canvas that turns the performance into background fare. Playback on three vastly different audio systems confirm this assessment. Any of the album’s full-resolution streams on Tidal sound better.
Kevin Gray’s all-analog 1995 remaster for MCA proves Geffen could’ve done a much better job. The record’s accompanying liner notes explain Gray’s cut avoids noise suppression and bass roll-off, and the results speak to such claims. The MCA LP is lively, with balanced frequencies and a wide-open soundstage. You can turn it up as loud as your system can endure. But the elevated level of sonic satisfaction comes at a cost: The Gray cut remains out of print and regularly sells for upwards of 50 bucks.
So, what’s a Who fan to do? While a tad brittle and splashier on cymbals than a U.K. original, a clean U.S.A. MCA repress might be your best bet. The 1977 edition used for this review exhibits the analog depth, texture, and dynamics demanded by the music. It also serves as a stark contrast to Geffen’s lifeless wax.
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