Saturday, January 08, 2011
For those familiar with the series of events leading up to release of the Who's pristine fifth disc, there is a certainly a sense that the finished product could have been yet a notch higher in terms of excellence. Even a cursory look at the tracks from these sessions that didn't find a home on Who's Next is enough to give you a "one that got away" feeling about the project. ("Pure and Easy", "The Relay", "Let's See Action", "Join Together", "Slip Kid"...there are more as well)
Nevertheless, the album was a stunning exercise in technological and creative terms that was well ahead of its time upon issue in the summer of 1971. Townshend, aided and abetted by Glyn Johns, actually managed to top Tommy as opposed to merely following it up. In doing so, he worked himself to the brink of nervous collapse and was forced to abandon his original concept in the process.
Determined to push rock to greater heights, Pete intended for the Lifehouse project to be his magnum opus. In truth, the idea was another version of the Legend of the Lost Chord or the Universal Note which, when sounded, will restore humanity to its original state of harmony with the Creator.
Music and vibration are at the basis of all
Still, it was fairly heady stuff for that time.
Rather than go tumbling through the looking glass, recounting the Lifehouse saga here, I leave you to go to this link which offers a superb, concise synopsis of the story.
Assembling the band at the Old Vic Theater, the concerts that were to be filmed as a key to the plot didn't work as the audience would not play ball. They wanted the group to play "My Generation" and smash the shit out of their gear. The other members of the Who had no significant roles to play (or input) nor did they fully understand the storyline. This realization drove Townshend to the precipice of madness:
Every technical bridge that we came to was very hard to cross, because we were trying to do everything all at once: Trying to make the film, invent the new Who, make incredibly big strides in music, write a whole load of new numbers. I was trying to write a film script, we were trying to service a quadraphonic PA we were up to our ears in it and getting nowhere very fast. In the end, about halfway through the recording, I just phoned up Chris Stamp, our manager and said let's just knock it on the head and put out an album, otherwise I really will go crazy. And I would have done, no doubt about it. I'd be sitting in a room and everybody in the room would suddenly turn into frogs and the whole room would start to go. It was brought on by problems and none of them ever getting solved-not being able to see anything in the distance. Everybody was treating me as if I was some kind of loony, and I think for a while I lost touch with reality. The self control required to prevent my total nervous disintegration was absolutely unbelievable. I had the first nervous breakdown of my life.
There were many songs to sift through and remix/record. In March 1971, Kit Lambert made an attempt to do just that with the band in New York, though these sessions flopped miserably.
Enter Glyn Johns.
Offering his services for a week as a test, Johns stated that if it didn't work out then The Who would be free to carry on and they could keep the results without paying for a second of his time. Things went exceptionally well as Johns captured the band firing on all cylinders, utilizing the Stones' mobile recording unit in the process. Agreeing to move the operation to Olympic Studios in London, they went to work and laid down two records worth of material in just a few weeks. All that was left to do was mix and choose the tracks that would make the final master tape.
Four of the LP's nine songs stand pretty tall and are virtual staples of classic rock playlists almost forty years after they first appeared.
"Baba O'Reilly" must have been an obvious choice to kick off this groundbreaking set. Opening with a wildly inventive pattern that was taken from Pete's nine minute demo version on ARP synthesizer, a tension of sorts is created by this patchwork quilt of electronic sound. Reportedly, Townshend translated Meher Baba's vital numerical statistics to the synth to achieve this hypnotic sequence. Bricklayers hands come down on the ivories to introduce those iconic three chords and Moon quickly joins in with a flourish on the kit. Entwistle and Daltrey enter the fray together and the building blocks of an anthem are nearly complete. The icing on the aural cake are those big power slashes on the electric, which arrive close to the two minute mark.
Don't cry, don't raise your eye, it's only teenage wasteland
Blasting back to the main riff temporarily, everything hangs in the air with a final scream from Daltrey and a series of punches. What follows is a wild violin solo from Dave Arbus that moves across this transition as the band goes from mock jig to wild abandon. Moon shifts to a scattershot snare roll that climbs to a ridiculous crescendo, sweeping everyone else into his madness, and the rush of beautiful noise ends abruptly.
All is presented with a clarity that had escaped their grasp in the studio up to this point.
"Bargain" is another stunner, cleverly employing the moog synth for the hook. The lyric ("I'd gladly lose me to find you") can be construed on several levels, though according to Pete, "This song is simply about 'losing' one's ego as a devotee of Meher Baba. I constantly try to lose myself, and find him. I'm not very successful I'm afraid, but this song expresses how much of a bargain it would be to lose everything in order to be one with God."
Moon and Entwistle are inspired throughout, both playing with their usual fire. Their recorded contributions now cut through powerfully, no longer strangled or off balance in the mix.
Moving ahead to the two monumental tracks that close out Who's Next, the electric thrill that pervades each performance is more than enough to send listeners back to repeat the experience over and over again. Beginning with delicate acoustic picking, "Behind Blue Eyes" was designed as a vehicle for a shady character named Jumbo in the scheme of Lifehouse. Outside that context, there does seem to be more than a hint of bile in the lyric ("I have hours only lonely/my love is vengeance/that's never free), though the melody is fantastic. After two cycles of muted rumination about how it feels to live behind those aforementioned eyes, the arrangement roars to life. It is almost as if Keith had been tied to a chair for the first bit and freed himself in time to turn in a series of rolls that amaze as Daltrey practically spat out the words:
When my fist clenches, crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool
When I smile, tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool
And if I swallow anything evil
Put your finger down my throat
If I shiver, please give me a blanket
Keep me warm, let me wear your coat
Power chords fly, bass runs blaze and drums tumble back to earth only to go quiet again as we are returned to where we began.
No time is allotted for recovery as the soft landing gives way to a quick shot of adrenaline. Another synthesizer envelope heralds "Won't Get Fooled Again", prefacing nearly nine minutes of this startling call to arms. Curiously, the use of the ARP to set up the final shot across bow serves to bookend the disc in grand style. Isn't this where we came in?
The subject matter also served to disabuse certain followers from any notion that The Who would lend their support to radical movements that sought societal change by revolutionary or violent means in that era.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Again the theme of change coming from within and not by following the lead of another crop of idiots in Harris tweed suits was expressed beautifully by one of rock's most eloquent spokesmen. The sheer power of these four songs alone could light several large cities for a year.
Out of the remaining five tunes, there are very charming highlights. Entwistle's "My Wife" is hilarious, with nice changes and punchy brass parts that hit the spot. Similarly, "Love Ain't For Keeping" features immaculate acoustic work and very tasteful playing from the rhythm section. Daltrey should have let Townshend sing lead, though.
"Going Mobile" is one of my personal favorites out of the second string numbers. While the remaining two selections boast nice melodies and are certainly inoffensive, I would have left them off. Make no mistake, this is a top shelf piece of vinyl as it is, though allow me to tamper with the time machine a bit.
Love Ain't For Keeping
Let's See Action
Pure And Easy
Behind Blue Eyes
Won't Get Fooled Again
Five fuckin' stars!
This is work that anyone would be proud of. With Townshend's creativity at a peak and the focus that Glyn Johns brought to the table, The Who pulled themselves back from the abyss. They were now able to put the Walker boy aside for awhile to follow their own act with grace. Surviving the sixties, which had wrought its share of casualties and wreckage, the band now took a step ahead of the pack as the seventies began.
The next act would see them looking to the past for inspiration.