Dante Alighieri wanted his Magnum Opus to be Il Convivio (The Banquet): a long treatise with an extended metaphor of food to explain the beauty of philosophy. Long, ornate, and masterfully crafted, one part was written before it was abandoned in favor of a considerably smaller poem about some guy going through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to find salvation. Seven hundred years later, we’re still obsessed.
Who’s Next follows an astonishingly similar trajectory. Originally intended as an ambitious sci-fi rock opera called Lifehouse, the concept album fell apart under its own weight, and Who’s Next was culled from those sessions. The result is easily described as epic.
Each track is a paradox. The infamous Keith Moon and John Entwistle form the melodic basis of the band as the drums and bass. Moon flows like level-5 rapids as he ADHD pounds the skins to an early grave (and a wrecked hotel room), while Entwistle elegantly keeps the low end sweet and savory. Meanwhile Pete Townsend brings those sweet rhythmic highs, with chord progressions that make me weep with their ferocity and utter emotional satisfaction. Then we have the incomparable Roger Daltrey singing with unrestrained passion over the tumult.
But more than that, the Lifehouse idea isn’t altogether abandoned. The lyrics recall moments from what would have been: “Getting in Tune” is the main hero’s realization of music’s power; “Behind Blue Eyes” sees from the perspective of the main villain, Jumbo. And, to top it all off, those moments of solid hard rock are sprinkled with moments of genuine invention, and artistic expansion. Terry Riley’s beautiful A Rainbow in Curved Air is recalled in the keyboard trills of “Baba O’Riley” (Pun intended?).
When I listen to “Baba O’Riley,” a track so full of promise I feel like I’m in the beginning of a movie.
Few records scratch an itch this well for me. Each time I listen, I gain a deeper appreciation. When I was younger, I was all about those chord changes and belted vocals that sit right in your heart. As I got older, I shifted to the drums and bass, their utter virtuosity. Now I notice those smaller moments, the pieces you’re meant to miss on first listen. This is condensed Who, mainlined to perfection.
Of particular note, however, is “Behind Blue Eyes.” As I have blue eyes, am introspective, and listen to the self-hatred, I used to indulge in this song with Byronic passion. I languished in that darkness. I listened as the character makes reasons why he needs to be evil to justify how he’s treated. So too did I blame the world.
Nowadays, I know I control my destiny: I listen to “Baba O’Riley,” a track so full of promise I feel like I’m in the beginning of a movie. I listen to eight-minute beauty “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and am re-affirmed. Just because you’re the main character of your story, doesn’t make you the hero; that doesn’t mean you can’t be, though.
Dante and The Who Learned that; now I am too.
Until I get in tune.