The Who: Who's Next

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Classic Albums DVD

Image Ent., standard 1.33:1, languages: English PCM Stereo, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 12 chapters, rated NR, 61 min., $19.99, street date 4/11/2000.

Studio Line

Who's Next, is viewed by many as the greatest testament to the songwriting talent of Pete Townshend and the musical power of The Who. When the album was released in 1971, it climbed to the Number 1 spot on the British album charts and remained in the Top 50 for over three months. In the United States, the album went Top 5 on the Billboard chart and remained in the Top 40 for five months.

The story of how The Who came to record the album is told by group members Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle, together with contributions by those who were close to the group during the making of this classic album.

Early archival footage of The Who performing classic tracks such as "I Can't Explain" and "My Generation" helps to illustrate how the group made the transition from performing in small London clubs to the rock giants they became upon the release of the pioneering Tommy album.

Pete Townshend explains the diffulties the group faced in trying to fruition the ideas he planned for the group's follow-up, the ground-breaking "rock opera" Tommy. The orginal idea, as Roger Daltrey tells us, was a multi-media event that would incorporate a live concert, a film and a soundtrack album. When Townshend's version proved beyond the grasp of his fellow group members, The Who set about recording the songs that would have made up the soundtrack to the proposed movie.

The songs recorded for the Who's Next album and featured here include such classics as "Won't Get Fooled Again", "Baba O'Riley" and "Behind Blue Eyes." We hear from the group members about how these songs would have fitted into the original concept. We are also given an insight as to the importance of the late great Keith Moon to the success of The Who and hear how greatly his larger-than-life personality often overshadowed his musical contribution to the group.

Included in this documentary program are previously unseen performances of songs from the album that prove the longevity and lasting appeal of Who's Next a true classic album.

Picture/Sound/Extras (C+/B/F)

You know all those jokes about "dinosaur" rock bands who embark upon farewell tour after farewell tour? Most of those seem to focus on the Rolling Stones, and this bugs me. As part of my never-ending quest against injustice, I think I should address this misperception.

At no point in their career did the Stones ever officially break up, although a de facto split happened in the mid-Eighties when the Jagger/Richards relationship was at its lowest. Nonetheless, no official word from anyone in or associated with the band ever indicated that the group had indeed called it quits.

For every tour on which the Stones have embarked since at least 1978 - and probably before - fans have speculated that this trek would be the final one. 1981-82 sure seemed to have been the end when the band effectively ceased to exist a few years later, but the 1989-90 Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle outing removed that question mark. Nonetheless, subsequent tours in 1994-95 and 1997-98-99 continued to be regarded as probably the last go-round for the Stones, despite the fact the 1997-99 Bridges to Babylon/No Security extravaganza displayed the greatest level of activity and cohesion the band had shown in years; the length and breadth of that tour was almost unprecedented for the band and certainly didn't look like it came from a group on their last legs.

My simple point: the Stones have never stated or hinted - officially or unofficially - that any of their tours would be their last. Not one of these treks has been dubbed a "farewell tour".

The same cannot be said, however, for the Stones' peers in The Who. That band has made a second career out of split ups and reformations. The group's natural time for dissolution should have occurred in 1978 after the sudden death of anarchic drummer Keith Moon, but the remaining three soldiered on with the steady but underwhelming support of ex-Faces drummer Kenny Jones.

By 1982, however, the original three had decided a Moon-less Who was a sham and opted out of the arrangement. Following a final album - It's Hard - and tour, The Who would be no more.

No more than seven years passed before they changed their minds. The allure of greenbacks associated with a tour connected to the twentieth anniversary of overrated pop "opera" Tommy ensured that, especially since singer Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle weren't too careful with their money over the years. (As the main songwriter, guitarist Pete Townshend reaped the lion's share of the band's royalties, so he experienced no such difficulties.) As such, a reunited Who embarked on a terrifically successful stadium tour in the summer of 1989, after which they again stated the end had arrived.

Seven more years passed and The Who reunited once again, though initially, this wasn't official. For reasons I still don't comprehend, the band opted to perform a few world-wide dates in which they would play all of their 1973 opus Quadrophenia. If I remember correctly, they had never done such shows; Tommy received full exposure at its concerts, but I don't think Quadrophenia enjoyed similar support. The timing made no sense to me - it was the album's twenty-third anniversary, which doesn't sound very good - and the scope was limited - only a handful of dates in major cities, such as six North American dates at Madison Square Garden - but the reunion once again was on.

Or was it? Apparently at the insistence of Townshend, this band was not to be billed as "The Who". The shows were listed as "Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle Perform The Who's Quadrophenia". Allegedly - and absurdly - Townshend thought he could fend off inquiries about another reunion by billing the concerts this way, as though anyone would regard the conglomeration as anything other than The Who.

This handful of shows was very successful and this spurred more concerts. (That fact makes those of us who went out of our way to attend some of the MSG shows bitter - if I'd known they'd be coming to my town four months later, I wouldn't have made the trip!) However, although these shows were indeed billed as "The Who", they didn't succeed to the level of the other performances. High ticket prices (about $75 a seat) or fan apathy? I don't know. All I can say is that a band who sold out two concerts at 55,000 seat RFK Stadium in 1989 were only able to move maybe 8000 tickets at 18,000 seat Capital Centre in 1996, and that total was padded due to a nearly-unprecedented two for the price of one sale days before the show.

To show that old rockers never learn, the group added a few more shows the following summer. Tired of shelling out for the band that wouldn't go away, I skipped their local performance, so I can't comment on the success or lack thereof they experienced that time. Amazingly, The Who are going for it again this summer and have re-re-re-reunited for yet another attempt to separate money from the wallets of aging fans. The band who could barely move tickets during a two for the price of one sale three and a half years ago expects to sell sufficiently to support a top ticket price of - drumroll, please - $128 a seat! The cheap seats are $78! (Lawn positions go for the relative bargain of $31.50, but in my opinion, if you're going to be on the lawn, you might as well stay home - it's not much of a concert experience.) If these shows consistently sell well, I'll eat a bug.

They can count me out. $130 for a half-assed performance by greedy geezers? I don't think so. Hey, the Stones may have maxed out at $300 a seat on their No Security tour, but they also provided lots of seats in the $35-$50 range, and many of those were quite good, and the Stones continue to put on solid shows, something I don't think The Who can guarantee.

No, I think I'd rather stay home, watch a DVD like Classic Albums: Who's Next and remember the times when The Who actually mattered as a band. (Bet you thought I'd never actually mention the DVD, didn't you?) The Who were never my favorite Sixties band. Actually, they only rank fourth, after the Stones, the Beatles and the Kinks, but that relatively low standing is more a testament to the amazing quality of the other acts than a slam on The Who themselves.

Tommy remains the band's most famous album, but 1971's Who's Next stands as arguably their best. Personally, I might give the nod to 1967's The Who Sell Out, but it's a close call, and Who's Next clearly makes a strong case for itself.

Actually, Who's Next was the group's follow-up to 1969's Tommy so its power and scope are even more impressive since it arrived with much-elevated expectations. The Who had been largely a singles band prior to Tommy, but that all changed when that record hit and made them a "super group."

As documented on this DVD, Who's Next actually emerged from the wreckage of another attempted conceptual project called Lifehouse. That idea died - or went comatose, as Townshend recently revived the material - and splintered into a more traditional album that became Who's Next.

In general, the DVD does a nice job of relating what happened, though it doesn't make the whole Lifehouse experience completely clear. Classic Albums also gives much of Who's Next the short shrift. Based on this presentation, you'd think the album was named Won't Get Fooled Again and Other Songs because the focus is very clearly on that seminal tune. Some other numbers aren't mentioned at all, and most of the rest get discussed only briefly, though "Baba O'Riley" receives a bit more attention.

Nonetheless, the focus remains squarely on "Won't Get Fooled Again", and the DVD even includes a new solo acoustic performance of the song from Townshend. While I wish the DVD offered a more balanced view of the album as a whole, the presentation is a winner. We see lots of good archival footage of The Who plus new interviews with the three surviving band members and others involved with the project such as producer Glyn Johns.

For me, the highlight of the only other Classic Albums DVD I'd seen - U2's The Joshua Tree - came from segments that showed band members and producers messing around with song mixes. We got to hear different aspects of certain tunes, some of which never made the final mix, and these offered fascinating looks at the creation of the material. Who's Next does the same and also seems terrifically interesting.

Also, we see brief recent stabs at the songs by the band members. I already mentioned Townshend's new take of "Won't Get Fooled Again", but we hear him do bits of "Behind Blue Eyes", and Daltrey and Entwistle also provide snippets of their vocal and instrumental work. It's a pretty cool aspect of the program.

As I mentioned, we witness a fair amount of vintage video footage of the band, most of which does not appear in its entirety. The one exception closes the program when we see The Who lip-synch "Join Together" on some pop show. Ironically, that song didn't actually appear on Who's Next; it was an outtake that came out later. It's not a great song, but the video makes for interesting viewing.

As does the Classic Albums program as a whole. One thing fascinates me more than movies, and that's music. I love this kind of material, and while I don't always agree with the focus of the program, it makes for an informative and enjoyable experience.

Classic Albums: Who's Next is one of those DVDs that's almost impossible to rate in regard to picture and sound because of the wide variety of sources that make up its contents. The image - which was presented entirely in a 1.33:1 ratio on this single-sided, single-layered DVD - takes new interviews, performances from the mid-Sixties to late-Seventies, and a few other sources, all of which vary in quality.

The new interviews uniformly look very good. Sharpness seems excellent, although I noted some jagged edges and gentle moiré effects at times. Since these were shot on video, no print flaws result, and no grain can be seen. Colors are accurate and vivid, and black levels look fine.

As far as the other material goes, it seems much iffier. There's absolutely no consistency to the archival footage. It can be sharp or soft, clean or dirty, colorful or flat. I'd say that most of it looks reasonably good for its age. After all, some of this stuff is more than 30 years old, and few really thought to look after it carefully. This DVD doesn't offer a great visual experience, but it seems satisfactory.

The stereo PCM sound also varies quite a lot but it generally seems good. The new interviews all appear warm and natural, with no intelligibility problems. No songs taken directly from Who's Next appear in their entirety, but the snippets sound terrific; it always was a very sharp and deep album that possessed tremendous snap (and a little distortion at times, which also comes through clearly). Performance clips sound erratic but acceptable. In general, I found the audio to seem good but not great, but that's about the best we could expect due to the wide variety of sources in use.

Unlike the DVD for The Joshua Tree, this edition of Classic Albums contains absolutely no supplements. In fact, it doesn't even have a main menu; when you try to go to it, you just arrive at the first page of chapter listings. At least The Joshua Tree featured a band history and discography; why nothing similar appears here is unknown.

Nonetheless, Classic Albums: Who's Next remains a strong program. Casual music fans will probably think it's dull and a waste of time, just as your average filmgoer doesn't understand why some of us so enjoy audio commentaries and other behind the scenes materials. However, more serious rock partisans will doubtless love the program and should add it to their collections.

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