Up there among the elite British rock albums, The Who’s Who’s Next was not only a triumphant follow-up to Tommy, but also touched by the hand of Lady Luck – and that’s never more true than with the way the cover concept came together.
“I was working with Pete Townshend on his Lifehouse project, which was an ambitious concept based on a futuristic era when people got their entertainment through being strapped into special suits,” recalls Ethan Russell, the American photographer who took the album’s iconic cover shot. “As far as I understand it, a lot of the songs on Who’s Next were originally intended for that record [Lifehouse]. Anyway, the band had virtually finished Who’s Next, but still didn’t have a clue about what to do about the cover.”
It was at this point that fate smiled benevolently.
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“We were driving back through [County Durham] from a gig one night, doing about 110 miles per hour down the motorway – which freaked me out. Pete was driving, and he asked me whether I had any ideas for the sleeve. Then suddenly, we passed these three or four pillars on the landscape. They were gone in a flash, but I said to him that they might make an interesting backdrop for a photo shoot. That was it. Before I knew what had happened, Pete had swung the car back around a roundabout and was heading back to the spot, followed by three other vehicles carrying the rest of the band.
Without any hesitation, the four Who members gathered around one of the mysterious objects, and Russell started shooting.
“We did a lot of different poses, including some based on the 2001: A Space Odyssey idea of the apes gathering around the black obelisk. Then Pete started to piss on it, and I went with the flow, as it were. The others also tried to take Pete’s lead, but couldn’t actually do it. It was all a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
They poured some rainwater on the pillar to achieve a similar effect.
Russell admits that he didn’t exactly have his finger on the motor drive, and took only a few shots. But 24 hours later, one of his photos had been turned into the cover we know today.
“The odd thing is that it was only later on that I found out what those pillars were used for: to keep waste in place. It was a dumping ground for rubbish.”