The way we listen to popular music has been changed in a major way by technology. The first long format (33rpm) record albums I listened to were collections of singles arranged in no particular order. It wasn’t until the Rubber Soul / Pet Sounds / Sgt. Peppers volleyball match between the Beatles and the Beach Boys that we started to see cohesive themes in record albums, a trend that continued until we got album-length full blown rock operas such as Tommy by the Who.
Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon continued that concept with subsequent album Quadrophenia, but I think they also unconsciously followed that format with other albums as well. Case in point: Who’s Next, which was originally pasted together from the bits and pieces of an abandoned rock opera entitled Lifehouse. In my interpretation the songs on side A have a theme: the life-cycle of a young adult romantic relationship.
Before I continue please note the following:
- I don’t always play close attention to the lyrics; to my ears the vocals quite often become another instrument blending and harmonizing with the guitars, keyboards and other music-making devices.
- Yes, there are stand-out tunes on Side B such as “Behind Blue Eyes” but when Who’s Next was first released I listened to music on a record player; if I really liked one side the flip side didn’t get much play and in this case I really, really, really liked Side A.
- Baba O’Reilly opens with an oscillating backing track played on an organ set to a marimba beat, then quickly goes into triumphant measured notes played on a piano with the loud pedal pushed all the way to the floor. At that point Roger Daltrey opens up with “OUT HERE IN THE FIELD…” and even at age 64 I am up on my feet with right fist in the air and eighteen again! This is the soundtrack to the couple’s first meeting when Stukas start dive-bombing in your stomach until the day you find out she’s as interested in you as you are in her – a development also worth a right fist thrust in the air.
- Bargain is deeper and a bit murky. You’ve fallen in love but there’s no firm commitment yet. You love her but there might be some parental disapproval or friends who aren’t overly fond of her or the way she’s monopolizing your time. You weigh how much she means to you – calculate the bargain – against what you’ll have to give up.
“I sit lookin’ round I see my face in the mirror
I look at my face in the mirror
I know I’m worth nothing, without you
And like one and one don’t make two
One and one make one…”
- Love Ain’t for Keeping: the relationship has been going on for awhile and has become routine. You’re both comfortable but the Stukas are no longer conducting close air support on your innards.
- My Wife: You’ve been together for a while, but the flame is flickering, and you start to take each other for granted. One or both of you develop a roaming eye and the specter of cheating perches over the relationship.
- The Song is Over: The break-up. You’re no longer together …but your heart still skips a beat when you see her on street.1
Is this interpretation autobiographical? In the case of girlfriends of my youth most definitely. Fortunately, I eventually lucked into finding my beautiful Saxon Princess and 40 years later we’ve still never gotten to numbers 4 and 5.
I love music like this, but while not completely moribund, the concept album has been pushed aside in favor of singles-as-MP3 files and downloading. Personal playlists on MP3 players or smart phones could embody a cohesive message like that I found in Side A of Who’s Next, but I wonder if we’ll ever again be presented by similar concept albums.
I kind of doubt it.
- Carly Simon presents her interpretation of a break-up in Darkness ‘Til Dawn on her 1976 release Another Passenger. I wish all my young break-ups had the closure that Ms. Simon sings about but in my case (with my freakishly sharp mutant memory) it has always been The Song is Over version:
The song is over
I’m left with only tears
I must remember
Even if it takes a million years….