Anyone who saw the trailer for the movie American Beauty will have been struck by the brilliance of ‘Baba O’Riley’, the track chosen to accompany it and which effectively doubled the impact of the clip. That track is the opener from Who’s Next from 1971, an album that proved massively successful for the band thanks in no small part to the song ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. The high quality of songwriting, composition and playing across the nine tracks on Who’s Next has never been in doubt but the sound of the recording has never really lived up to expectations. So I was interested when long time Who fan and KEF honcho Danny Haikin told me about the hi-res version that was released five years ago, remastered using original master tapes, with Pete Townshend keeping an eye on the proceedings.
This album has been remastered in the past, but it seems that those versions were based on copies rather than original tapes which clearly makes a difference. Equally interesting is that the Deluxe Edition (which was remastered for CD in 2003) is effectively three albums in one consisting of the original Who’s Next tracks, six songs recorded in sessions at the Record Plant in New York including four versions of songs from the album, and finally 13 tracks taken from a 1971 gig at the Young Vic in London. A total of 29 tracks available in 24-bit/96kHz makes the c£20 asking price seem quite reasonable, look on Qobuz downloads, HD tracks or your preferred hi-res download site as it doesn’t always show up on browser searches.
Released primarily for diehard Who fans this edition has appeal beyond that realm thanks in no small part to the sound quality that it offers, I can’t claim to be a big fan myself but I can see certain tunes from this release getting heavy rotation in future. The opener ‘Baba O’Riley’ has impressive clarity and plenty of power, the drums and bass in particular are clear and purposeful, in fact these two elements stand out across the album perhaps because they are usually hidden by the vocals, keyboard and guitars. The late John Entwhistle has long been regarded as a giant among rock bass players but on many releases his efforts can really only be felt; here you can tell how complex and yet musically compelling they were. Likewise the short-lived Keith Moon who could do torrential power as well as the best of them and leave space for the music to breath when required.
The best sounding tracks on the Deluxe Edition are those made at the Record Plant in March 1971, which like the Beatles remasters of alternate takes have a fresh, open vitality to them that suggests very little post processing was done back in the day leaving plenty of detail to be revealed by modern mixing tech. The first song is an eight minute plus verion of Dozier/Holland and Holland’s ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ which sounds very different to its soul roots thanks largely to Townshend’s guitar antics and the fabulous playing of all involved. The take of ‘Getting in Tune’ is more open and clear than the album version with some real groove injected by Entwhistle. A version of ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is also dare I say it an eye opener, with considerably greater transparency to the layered vocals and nuances of playing. The live version found later on the album shows that the band had got it down remarkably well given that it was only a month later but the banter from Townshend indicates that this was far from easy to achieve, he tells a lone dancer that his antics are proving a distraction, rock and roll, it ain’t what it used to be.
The live tracks are generally excellent and include favourites like ‘Young Man Blues’, a Mose Allison cover that is a highlight from the earlier Live at Leeds (also available in hi-res) and a rare example of the band playing blues. There’s also a blistering take on ‘Road Runner’ and a cracking version of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
If you want to get a good idea of what The Who was capable of at the peak of their creative and performing powers the Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next will let you know. If you just want to hear The Who sounding much better than usual it does that too.