The album cover that ‘stank of urine’ – and helped The Who to ignite 1970s hard rock

The Who's Next cover was photographed in Co Durham on a long drive south - Alamy
The Who's Next cover was photographed in Co Durham on a long drive south - Alamy

Pete Townshend was at the forefront of a new generation of rockers who had been to art school and thought profoundly about the visual impact of their work. The Who’s most recent album cover, WHO (2019), was designed by Peter Blake (the artist who created Sgt Pepper for The Beatles) and pays tribute to their pop art roots.

The Who Sell Out (1967), meanwhile, was a witty advertising industry pastiche that involved singer Roger Daltrey sitting in a bath of cold baked beans, which he claims gave him pneumonia. And the elaborate fantasy cover painting for Tommy (1969), by artist Mike McInnerney, was a triptych gatefold that would be hugely influential on progressive-rock sleeves. But The Who’s most iconic sleeve was essentially a tasteless joke arrived at by happenstance.

What is it?

Who’s Next was the fifth album from The Who, released in 1971, following the global success of the rock opera Tommy. The new cover, however, struck a very different tone. It depicts an imposing oblong structure in an almost alien wasteland. It is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science-fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the monolith represents a mysterious source of extraterrestrial knowledge.

The four members of The Who have turned their back on it, zipping up their flies, having apparently used it as a urinal. The image reeks of disdain for art, culture and intellect. Even the title conveys contempt, working as a prosaic pun and territorial provocation to all challengers. You’ve seen what we think of this – who’s next?

The Who in the early 1970s: (l-r) John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey - Michael Putland
The Who in the early 1970s: (l-r) John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey - Michael Putland

The story behind the cover

Ethan Russell was an American photographer who had worked with The Beatles on Let It Be (1970) and on The Rolling Stones’ live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (1970). He was collaborating with Townshend on a book to accompany the next Who project, a philosophically and technologically ambitious sci-fi concept album, Lifehouse, which almost drove the songwriter to a nervous breakdown.

Abandoning their leader’s theme, in April 1971 The Who started to record the best of his new songs as a stand-alone album, playing sporadic live shows to road-test material. Several potential covers were rejected, including drummer Keith Moon in lingerie and a montage of overweight naked women with strategically-placed band portraits. It would appear that a mood of earthy irreverence had descended.

On May 23, The Who played a small show at the 2,000-seat Caird Hall in Dundee, the scene of the album’s back-sleeve photograph depicting the band in a state of rambunctious inebriation. After spending a night near the venue, they headed back towards London on a drizzly, grey Monday morning. Leading a four-car caravan, Townshend was driving well in excess of speed limits, with 26-year-old photographer Russell accompanying to brainstorm some cover ideas.

“Pete’s driving scared me so much, I lay down in the back seat,” Russell said. “I was freaked out.” From this vantage point, he spotted pillars in the distant landscape. “I said 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 to the spot, followed by three other vehicles.”

The location was Easington Colliery, in the coal-mining district of Co Durham. Four concrete pillars stood half-buried in huge slag heaps. “We stepped out into this moonscape,” Russell recalled, noting the resemblance to Kubrick’s mystic monoliths. “We did a lot of different poses, including some based on the Space Odyssey idea of apes gathering around the black obelisk. Then Pete started to p--- on it, and I went with the flow, as it were. The others tried to take Pete’s lead but couldn’t actually do it.”

Russell poured rainwater on the pillar to achieve a similar effect. “It was all a spur-of-the-moment thing.” Replacing the dull sky with a dramatic one from an earlier session, the image was complete. “You can’t brainstorm that kind of thing,” says Russell.

Culture newsletter REFERRAL (article)
Culture newsletter REFERRAL (article)

So what is the music like?

Who’s Next sounded like the future, representing an incredible leap forward for rock, with Townshend integrating brand-new synthesizer technology. The towering Baba O’Riley, dark ballad Behind Blue Eyes and raging anti-revolutionary rocker Won’t Get Fooled Again all became classics. Moon and bassist John Entwistle had never sounded more exciting. Daltrey was on roaring form. The punchy sound had a modernity that hasn’t dated, 50 years on. Producer Glyn Johns boiled down Townshend’s over-ambitious concept to nine songs. The band considered it a salvage job, but it brought them their first UK number one and is still hailed among the greatest albums of all time.

And what is its legacy?

In his autobiography, Who I Am, Townshend called it “a joke in bad taste” and complained that between the band “p-----g on the front” and “being p----d” on the back, “the sleeve almost stank of urine”. Recently, he disparaged it as “a horrible thing. It’s got no artistic consequence whatsoever. No link to the music. It’s meaningless.”

And yet there it is, a vividly memorable image of a fearless band in their prime, evincing a careless swagger that a thousand other portraits could never capture. It is, effectively, the birth of 1970s hard rock, in a single photograph.

Do you disagree with Townshend about the covers artistic value? What are your favourite 1970s covers? Neil McCormick will be in the comments section between 4pm and 5pm today