"Tommy", The Who's first rock opera, was released in mid-May 1969, to immense critical acclaim and sales, and cemented their reputation as a band and act on what was for them the ever-elusive USA. Based on other works, such as the Pretty Things' "SF Sorrow", it tells of a messiah-like child who is deaf, dumb and blind, and is cured through pinball, before starting his holiday camp/cult and spreading his teachings to his followers. When performed live, the whole piece transformed them into most probably the greatest live band of the period, as was demonstrated in 1970's "Live at Leeds", and their appearance on both the Woodstock and Isle of Wight films. This conceptual double album was what kickstarted their domain over the UK and America over the 70s, and is still heralded as a masterpiece, with the group resurrecting the piece periodically since 1989, and always playing at least a couple of selections off it live. So from the get-go, the band knew it would be no easy task to follow such a blockbuster album, which especially frightened songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend, on whose shoulders was the responsibility to top what he saw as his best work. In order to gain time for the next LP or project of theirs, while still remaining on the public eye, they released the aforementioned concert as a stopgap of sorts, and started recording as soon as January of that year alternating the recording with more continued touring for "Tommy" around the world.
Pete's first attempt at writing a song after the opera's release was "Naked Eye", that evolved from one of the many "My Generation" jams they played as part of their act at the time, while on tour. After that first try, the rest of the songs started coming rather naturally to him, managing to write a couple more along the year. John Entwistle, their not-so-secret weapon, had also penned some songs, and it seemed that all was coming together for them, song-wise. Recording at both IBC Studios and Eel Pie, located in the guitarist's garage, they released their first new material in the year in the form of the single "The Seeker", backed with one of Roger Daltrey's few compositions, "Here for More". It did considerably well, managing to hit the Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic, however, Pete remained unsatisfied. He still deemed it vital for The Who to have another concept to work under, instead of just having stand-alone songs without any link between them. However, while he didn't figure out what that concept was, they kept recording new material on and off through the year, during tour breaks. The sessions turned into an EP project, jokingly titled "7ft. Wide Car, 6ft. Wide Garage" by drummer Keith Moon, after the rather unusual location of their recording studio. However, that four-song release ended up scrapped by them and their label, Track Records as they would end up focusing more on tracking a couple more songs for the project, turning it into a new studio album.
However, during a break on their activities during September 1970, Townshend composed "Pure and Easy", the very beginning of the new concept he had asked for. From then to early 1971, he wrote the storyline and composed songs for a new 2LP opera, prospectively titled "Bobby". It was a story about a dystopian future, set in the year 2000, about people living in "lifesuits" due to the world being too polluted, and living in a virtual reality of sorts called the Lifehouse. Rock music was banned, then, so some hacker, named Bobby, ends up transmitting rock (obviously through Who songs), and helping the people rebel against the establishment. So from then on, the '70 material had two options: either being abandoned and left in the vaults for the time being, or being added into the new concept, as was the case with some of the album's tunes. As work progressed on the new opera, retitled "Lifehouse", they started new recording sessions in New York's Record Plant studios. They managed to track some 10 songs, before the concept was abandoned, mostly due to the rest of the group's inability to understand the concept of the album, and Pete's inability to explain it to them. Returning to England, sessions in Olympic with Glyn Johns on the producer's chair gave birth to "Who's Next", their stadium rock masterpiece, born from Lifehouse's best songs. A single album without any underlying concept, it ignored their songwriter's ideas, but ended up being a massive hit nevertheless.
So, what I wonder is: what if they had soldiered on with the 1970 project? Had the sudden inspiration for Lifehouse not happened, what was going to be next for the Who? First of all, any song written before September 1970's early conception of the opera is fair game to be included in this album. Due to that, two of the songs weren't even recorded in 1970, but I believe that had they carried on with the project, they would end up recording them for inclusion on the project. Also included is a live-in-the-studio BBC version of a song that wasn't properly recorded by The Who, back in the day. Since it fits in with the rest of the material sound-wise and is period accurate, it's included here. Both sides of the "The Seeker" single are present here, as I believe they would feature with the rest of the material from the sessions, despite being released early in the year. Live staples such as "Summertime Blues" and "Shakin' All Over" aren't included, as I don't think the band would be up to record such covers at the time. I also don't think Pete's worries that they needed a concept had reasoning, due to the immense success of "Who's Next", and the unfortunate scrapping of Lifehouse (a reconstruction of which you can find here). To me, the album would have to be released in about November 1970, and feature about ten songs. I kept the joke title they gave, as it is pretty good, and it matches the theme of some of the more humorous songs on the album. Without further ado, here's our tracklist:
Heaven and Hell (Maximum A's and B's)
Now I'm a Farmer (Odds and Sods)
I Don't Even Know Myself (Then and Now)
Water (Odds and Sods)
There's a Fortune on Those Hills (Who Came First)
Behind Blue Eyes (Who's Next)
Naked Eye (Odds and Sods)
Shakin' All Over/Spoonful (BBC Sessions)
|Townshend, Daltrey, Moon and Entwistle in late 1970|
Starting off the album is their usual show starter through most of the 1969-70 tours, "Heaven and Hell". First played during their late-1968 live performances and staying in that spot until December 1970, it only wasn't included on the Tommy album due to the lack of a conceptual link, something that isn't an issue here. Surprisingly enough, up next is a song from 1973's "Quadrophenia", the great "Drowned", seen here in Pete Townshend's March 1970 demo of it. Despite being recorded some three years after the rest of the album, it was already finished by the time of the recording sessions for this project. And since had they soldiered on with this project, they would have used all or most of the songs available, it seems fair to think they would end up recording it, hence it's inclusion. Written in late 1968, but not included on Tommy due to the lack of a connection to the concept, "Now I'm a Farmer" is up next, finally being recorded by the group in 1970. Townshend's composition has a pretty humorous side, with them singing about life in the country and being able to grow your own food. Apparently, Townshend was pretty proud of the song, giving it considerable praise on some pre-Tommy interviews. It's the first song included here that was a part of the scrapped EP, as was "I Don't Even Know Myself". Later added to Lifehouse, it was recorded in May 1970, in the garage studios at Eel Pie. In their Isle of Wight gig that August, it was introduced as from their next LP, which they were still recording.
As an album, "7ft. Wide Car, 6ft. Wide Garage" is one of the best representations of the era which I consider to be the peak of their talents in the studio and live. With great compositions and individual performances, with special praise to drummer Keith Moon, who of course was at the top of his game as a drummer back then, the ten songs featured in this reconstruction are some of their best. Clocking in at 40 minutes with two even 20-minute sides, this unreleased album is in the same league as "Who's Next" in the terms of quality, at least to me. And considering that both were planned less than a year apart and overlap by only a single song, that's really impressive. Its release would certainly have affected the Lifehouse project in some pretty significant ways, I believe. On one hand, it would give the band more freedom to write and record without the pressure to release an album in 1971, since they already had the previous year. On the other, the project now misses some songs that were key to it, both on the narrative side and on the musical aspect as well, which Pete would have to fill in with new songs, further overloading him with work in a much troubled period of his life. As the group had said, it would be no easy task to follow such a mammoth of an LP as "Tommy", but they sure did try their best to do it, with some pretty impressing results. We now have the "missing link" of sorts between their two biggest albums, and it's in the most literal way possible, a garage rock album.
The Who - Who's Next