The Who’s “Who’s Next”

The Who's "Who's Next" album cover

I’ve been listening to The Who‘s 1971 LP “Who’s Next” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I wasn’t much into the Who growing up. My parents had the soundtrack to Tommy; This was not the album “Tommy,” but rather the songs re-recorded with performers from the film adaptation. I loved it growing up, fascinated by the apparent story from a movie I wasn’t allowed to see. From oldies stations, I knew a handful of their earlier songs.

In my late teens, I saw the film “Quadraphenia” on IFC at night. I fell in love immediately.  Soon, I discovered that my father-in-law had a copy of the album which I borrowed and never returned. This has long been my favorite Who album. When I went to school for painting, I probably annoyed my studio mates with the frequency I played it. Anyway, except for a couple of songs, I wasn’t really too familiar with “Who’s Next” and I found this album to be great as well; Not as a solid work like “Quadraphenia,” but better perhaps as a collection of individual songs.

The album opens with the electric arpeggio texture of an analog synthesizer. That synth may’ve been an EMS Synthi like Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon. This is joined by piano playing chords in a two bar pattern. This hits the first and fourth beat of the one measure, which leads into the second measure where one the first beat is struck. The bass and guitar soon join in giving this simple rhythm an epic percussive sound. Of course, alongside the constant synth, Keith Moon drives away on the drums. He uses the crash cymbals to emphasize the rhythm. This rhythmic pattern of hitting the first beat of each measure and using the fourth beat to lead into the next second measure gets used in some form throughout the album.

The chords played here follow a classic rock I-V-IV pattern. Though occasionally the order may change some, this is effectively a three chord rocker. The chorus takes a break from the big rock pattern with a V-I-V-IV-I-V-IV pattern coming solely from the synth.  

Roger Daltrey’s vocals complete the sound of the song; they fill it with that punk rock musical passion that The Who were able to pull off. He sings “Out here in the fields, I fight for for my meals, I get my back into my living.” It’s important to know that several of this album’s songs where originally written for a scrapped rock opera called “Lifehouse.” this opening track was to be sung by a farmer heading into London. Townshend wrote the “teenage wasteland” bit as a bit of negative reaction to seeing drugged-out kids at Woodstock

The fourth track “My Wife” was also one of my favorites this week. The use of horns during the second half of the song, really just to punctuate the beat, got my attention first. Each measure start with a full chord strum on the first beat. Again, we hear that classic Townshend straight-forward overdriven electric guitar sound. I think it’s fantastic. Then there’s some partial strums, occasional muted lower notes and arpeggio higher notes. The piano plays syncopated chords bouncing in rhythmic conversation with the guitar. This conversation has been emphasized by panning the guitar left and the piano right. 

The chord progression is not as heavy as the I-IV-V of the first track. I’m not sure I’m getting this right, but this is what I believe the chord progression to be. The verse is I-VI♭-VI♭-IV-III♭-III♭-IV-I then ii-ii-VI♭-IV-III♭-VI♭-V-V. So much for the class rock progressions we heard earlier in the album! This is more the sort of stuff you’d expect from Cole Porter. Rock music typically doesn’t use so many chords in one song, especially borrowed chords.

The track is a bit of a folk-country ballad (in the classic ballad sense) with the Who rock sound. The speaker tells the story of how he got thrown in jail for getting drunk and the trouble he’s in at home because his wife thinks he was with another woman. The tale is dated, but it does make for a good song.

The closing track “Won’t Get Fooled Again” stands as one of the Who’s strongest and most iconic songs. (I’ll reuse the word “iconic” in a bit) The song starts with a lone overdriven guitar power chord that fades out naturally. Beneath this flows another pulsating rhythmic arpeggio synth texture similar to the opening “Baba O’Riley.” Pete Townshend explained the sound is actually an organ played through a sample-and-hold modulated filter. This is heard clean in the left channel with through a delayed-reverb in the right channel to give it depth.

The verses run a I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-V-V chord progression. The chorus also make use of a repeating I-IV progression, though at twice the speed and close with III-V7-III-V7-III-IV-IV7-I. That major III in the chorus gives a more majestic feel than the typical minor iii. Also to be noted is that Pete Townshend prefers to give these more rocking strong anthems simpler chord progressions. These gives the listener something easier to immediately grab unto.  Also, again, the majority of the guitar work is bursts of overdriven strums allowed to ring out. It’s also worth noting that, except for vocals, The Who don’t really have a lead instrument. So, Townshend at times will ramp up from rhythm guitar to a lead-rhythm. 

This 8 minute 33 second song is the climactic closer of the album. At 7:44, Roger Daltrey produces a nearly four second scream of “Yeah!” that is the climax of the song. It also remains one of rock n roll’s most iconic moments. That filtered organ sound is another, and they’re both in the same track. After that “yeah,” he delivers the punch-line (and message) of this lyrics about revolutions: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” After this, the song quickly wraps up The song leads up to that 7:44 mark. A first-time listener might not be aware what they are building up to, but Townshend and crew were seemingly aware that repeat listeners would be. They give a similar moment at 4:29, with a 2 second “yeah” that does not have quite the same power but does tie the two parts of the song together. 

This is an amazing album from start to finish; It really shows what can be done with the essential instruments of rock n roll (drums, bass, guitar, vocals) in the hands of impassioned talented experts. Each member of the band is amazing at what they do. True, Pete Townshend is typically not playing anything technically difficult or complex. People who love Joe Satriani’s showy lead guitar are not necessarily going to be impressed, but I am. Keith Moon always impresses me. I’ve often heard complaints that he didn’t know when to calm down, but I think they just aren’t hearing the whole catalog. Anyway, I love this album.  I still think “Quadraphenia” is better, but we don’t really need to compare, do we?

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