Sunday, July 31, 2011

'Who's Next' Is What Was Next in Year of Classics

In an era when music listeners are conditioned to download single tracks rather than invest in an entire album with several songs on it — as music lovers had to do not so long ago, even after CDs became the format — it's a good idea to acknowledge a few things.

First of all, it seems to me that today's music consumers have more in common with those from their grandparents' generation, who bought singles that were often — but not always — compiled into a long–play album months or even years later, than they do with the baby boomers from which their parents came.

Although the technology had existed for years, LPs in the 1950s and early 1960s were often merely collections of successful singles with a couple of filler songs. There was no concept or theme, to speak of, except the age–old marketing theme of trying to squeeze every possible penny out of an artist's work.

Much of that changed — at least as far as albums were concerned — in the 1960s. Long–playing albums became the products of design, not happenstance, which meant that the second half of the 20th century was really a golden age for the album concept — and 1971 was possibly the epicenter for classic albums.

That year, Janis Joplin, Jethro Tull, Carole King, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Marvin Gaye, Rod Stewart, John Denver, Black Sabbath, John Lennon, Don McLean and others released recordings that are still considered groundbreaking and innovative 40 years later.

One of them was "Who's Next," the album released by the Who on this date in 1971.

Now, when the topic of conversation is concept albums, I guess you could say the Who wrote the book.

Theme albums were really nothing new when the Who came along, but concept albums were something else as far as I was concerned. A theme album might have songs that were related to each other because they explored the same kind of emotion (i.e., love or fear) or experience, but there was no real unity beneath the surface.

Jazz and blues artists had been doing theme albums since the 1950s, and some of the rock 'n' roll groups (like the Beach Boys and the Kinks) dabbled with them in the 1960s.

But the Who really re–defined things with "Tommy" in the late 1960s — and that continued to influence what the group did for a decade.

"Tommy" was called a rock opera, which was like a traditional opera in that it told a story. It evolved into a fairly successful movie, too, just as some traditional operas have.

But the music was entirely different.

Later, the Who released "Quadrophenia," another rock opera. In between, "Jesus Christ Superstar" told the stories from the Gospels in a unique and compelling way.

There have been other attempts by popular performers to write rock operas in the years since — few have been very successful — but my best guess is, that when most people think of rock operas, those three are the ones that come to mind.

"Who's Next" was hardly a rock opera — that was really a highly specialized kind of composition — but it was more conceptual than thematic.

I felt that way long before I learned that the album actually has its roots in a science fiction rock opera composed by Who guitarist Pete Townshend.

That rock opera was intended to be the followup to "Tommy," but the Who abandoned it in favor of the album that was released on this day in 1971. Some of the songs from Townshend's project wound up on "Who's Next." Others could be found on the group's 1978 album, "Who Are You."

On "Who's Next" can be found some of the Who's most memorable songs, such as "Baba O'Riley," one of the compositions from the rock opera project, which may be more familiar to modern listeners as the theme for the CSI: NY TV show.

Rolling Stone says "Who's Next" is the 28th best album of all time — and it is hard to argue the point (unless it is to take issue with some of the albums that Rolling Stone ranks ahead of it).

In addition to "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley," you'll find songs like "Behind Blue Eyes," "Bargain," "The Song Is Over" and "Going Mobile."

Great stuff.

Even 40 years later, the music still sounds fresh.