Judge Bill Gibron knows what it's like to be the bad man behind brown eyes, but he's still enthralled by the story of Who's Next, a tale captured expertly by this stellar British documentary series.
Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals…
It was a challenge that none of the band was quite prepared for. After years of playing to packed houses, mostly filled with the last vestiges of Britain's Mod movement, those maximum R&B renegades The Who were faced with following up an almost instantaneous legend. In the brief few years since it arrived in stores, Tommy was seen as the new face of rock 'n' roll. While the idea of a concept album that told a cohesive story was really nothing new, the response to Pete Townsend's allegorical tale of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a pinball wizard and—inadvertently—a religious icon, had really struck a nerve with the people populating the Peace Decade. Looking for more meaning to the crumbling dream of humanity united in love and respect, the flailing hippie audience and a stellar showing at Woodstock, made the double album a monster. Not only that, it was rapidly becoming a monkey on the band's backs, a curse that left chief songwriter Townsend trapped as to how to top himself.
The answer seemed simple enough—write more music, set up shop in a local theater, film the resulting auditions and then meld the songs with the multimedia material and present it live. It would be a combination be-in and mind-blower, something akin to a blending of performance art and virtual reality. The hope was that this new project, tentatively entitled Lifehouse, would bring The Who closer to their audience, the intermingling of ideas and philosophies forging popular music and the culture in a clear, concise direction. The only problem was that nobody understood the model except Townsend. The rest of his bandmates—provocative, Pan-like lead singer Roger Daltry, impish if insecure drummer Keith Moon, and fundamental, business-minded bassist John Entwhistle—felt their fellow artist had gone prematurely potty. As the rehearsals ground to an unproductive halt and manager Kit Lambert exerted more control over the project (he had been instrumental in shaping Tommy as well), Townsend sensed they would never complete the project.
His instincts were correct. Eventually, Lifehouse went the way of Brian Wilson's original Smile, a forgotten folly that would ultimately be viewed as one of music's most powerful myths. Such a sentiment was helped by the inclusion of many of the concept's key songs on the band's true Tommy follow-up, Who's Next. As a result, though a legitimate full-length version never really arrived (Townsend would eventually treat the world to a Wilson-esque revisit of the material in the new millennium), fans found themselves salivating over the classic anthems their favorite rockers had released. Indeed, Who's Next is considered by many to be the definitive album for the band, a statement as strong as any made before and certainly stronger than what would come afterward. Allowing us the opportunity to bear weird witness to the actual process of creating this masterful record, the British documentary series Classic Albums picks up the story with Tommy's universal acclaim, and then allows the three remaining members of The Who a chance to argue, agree, and amicably describe how an aborted experiment in audience and artist unification became a slice of stadium rock royalty.
This is Townsend's show, without a doubt, and Daltry and Entwhistle don't mind taking a considered back seat. They realize that everything, from the concept to the final call to ditch the project belonged to their lead guitarist and chief songwriter. Daltry does a lot of cheerleading, arguing for the late, lamented Keith Moon's amazing drumming (there truly hasn't been another since his death in 1978), and shows sizeable strength in the lyrics he is asked to sing. Entwhistle, on the other hand, has more to say about the whole "concept" album idea, and describes how his only contribution, "My Wife," was tossed in at the last minute to avoid the total domination of the project by Pete. Watching him recreate the brass lines for the song, or hearing Townsend mix out everything other than the bass guru's great finger work, the acknowledgement of the solid band components at play in The Who is never very far away. While Classic Albums in general does tend to glorify the writer (it's the same with other installments, like those focusing on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), there is enough hands on examples of the amazing musicianship that made up these albums to keep more than a few egos in check.
Perhaps the most compelling element of the documentary is Townsend's still sobering inability, almost 20 years later, to describe just what Lifehouse was or would have been. As we hear him struggle through various incompatible explanations, it definitely sounds like Tommy taken high-tech, an attempt with 20th Century science to forge a 21st Century immersive situation. Townsend has always had a strong connection to music, its power to heal, and its ability to follow and facilitate change. It is clear that what he was really looking for with this post-Tommy effort was a way to turn himself—and perhaps his fellow bandmates—into the central character in the story: isolated and yet idolized, all important and still very much misunderstood. Songs like "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" were indeed meant as anthems for a growing youth movement, yet the lyrics argued for champions as well as cynicism, reminding the masses that if they weren't careful, they'd be consumed by the teenage wasteland around them. They shouldn't only rely on The Who, however, since as the new boss, they were merely the same as the old boss.
Other songs seem strangely out of place. "Going Mobile" is described as being a "traveling bit"—music meant to suggest the path from one portion to another. While everyone marvels at Townsend's acoustic runs, the words are left unaddressed; same with "Bargain," "Love Ain't for Keeping," and "The Song Is Over." All get short shrift in deference to more discussions on the use of synthesizers as rhythmic accompaniment and Townsend breaking out in a couple solo spots ("Behind Blues Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again"). It's all nice stuff, but nominal to the overall emphasis here. Somewhere, inside all this backslapping and aesthetic admiration is a story as sad as the one featuring a beached boy and the band who no longer appreciated his fudged up head music. Townsend was trying for something more significant than a set of songs. He wanted to change something, and the desperation shows in the Lifehouse songs. Sadly, he would trade on them for most of the '70s, seeing his friend fall victim to his vices as he too turned on, tuned out, and more or less fell away. The story of Who's Next is deeper than this non-definitive documentary. This is still a remarkable discussion of an era-defining record, but as with most myths, there's more here than we are given a chance to explore.
As for the technical presentation, Eagle Vision Entertainment renders these hour-long efforts near-perfect with their 1.33:1 full-screen image and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo audio presentation. All the music sounds amazing and the visuals are vibrant without noticeable transfer flaws. Sadly, there are no extras here, which hurts the power of the packaging. Updates would have been appropriate, especially since Townsend has more or less realized his ambitions for the project over the last few years. Still, for fans of the album and the talented men who made it, this is instantly ingratiating stuff. Many people hold Who's Next close to their hearts. It was a memento of the final moment when human beings felt that art could transform artifice into something significant and socially redeeming. That such a notion failed along with the initial ambitions for the project is as important to note as the ultimate expression of the ideas. While Who's Next may have been the question, What's Left may have been a more appropriate sentiment.
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