It’s hardly surprising that, to this day, The Who’s 1971 classic album, Who’s Next, is regarded by many rock fans as the band’s masterpiece. Released 45 years ago this month, the disc’s rich textures, exquisite songwriting, and sonic bluster still pack an incendiary wallop.

How do you follow up a masterpiece? That was the challenge that confronted Pete Townshend in late 1970, in the wake of the success of The Who’s landmark opus, Tommy.

Never one to shy away from grand ambition, Townshend conceived something even more extravagant than his pioneering rock opera: a multimedia project, titled Lifehouse, described by the Who mastermind as “a portentous science-fiction film with Utopian spiritual messages into which were to be grafted uplifting scenes from a real Who concert.”

The Who

"We were riding on the back of Tommy, a hugely successful concept album, which was actually very dodgy in premise,” Townshend later recalled, speaking with Billboard. “[Tommy] had done so well I almost had a carte blanche from everybody around me to do whatever I wanted. In a sense, the concept behind Lifehouse was a mechanical device to show how we become disconnected and unaware of the spiritual mechanics that go on in day to day life.”

Sound overblown? No matter. In its middle stages, the project collapsed under its own weight, Townshend suffered a near-nervous breakdown and, according to frontman Roger Daltrey, The Who “were never nearer to breaking up.” Fans were left wondering, what’s next?

Amazingly, “what’s next” turned out to be Who’s Next.

Intrigued by the possibilities offered by synthesizers, Townshend had begun experimenting with the relatively new technology in his home studio. In keeping with the futuristic themes of Lifehouse, he crafted demos that made liberal use of synthesized rhythm tracks and machine-generated melodies unleashed by his new “toys.”

In the end, however, what brought those tracks to life was the integration of those newfangled textures into The Who’s explosive rock sound. The cornerstone of that sound was, of course, Townshend’s extraordinary guitar playing.

Gathering together the Lifehouse demos, The Who first tried recording the new album in New York, with longtime producer Kit Lambert at the helm. According to Townshend, however, Lambert was in the throes of substance abuse, and “out of control.” Mountain’s Leslie West, who made a guest appearance on the sessions, recalls that Lambert was “running around the studio holding up signs” in front of the musicians, with phrases like “Good Job!” and “Keep it Up!” scrawled on the cardboard.

Those sessions were quickly abandoned, but not before Townshend settled on the guitars he used to shape the new songs—both acoustically and electrically. In particular, with regard to Gibsons, West gave Townshend a “really great” Les Paul Junior, and Townshend himself bought a “superb” J-200. Armed with his trusty Gibson SG as well, Townshend, along with his Who mates, returned to London’s Olympic Studios with new producer Glyn Johns, and set about recording the rough-sketched material.

And what extraordinary material it turned out to be. From the start, on the swirling synthesizer intro to “Baba O’ Riley,” the band signaled that this music would be flavored with new and exciting ingredients. Against the backdrop of crashing power chords, Daltrey sings like a man possessed, with Townshend tenderly reflecting upon “teenage wasteland” in the bridge. Townshend was especially happy with the music’s sonic character.

“It was one of the first records The Who had made that to me sounded good,” he later said. “At that time [Olympic Studios] was at its peak. It was a great big room—nearly 100-foot-high ceiling. Also, because we'd done so much rehearsing on the material … we went in and we just kind of played it, so it had that immediacy as well.”

Stunning moments abound. The churning rocker, “Bargain,” showcases the propulsive interplay between Townshend and drummer Keith Moon, and is fitted with a beautiful acoustic interlude. Townshend’s newly purchased J-200 is put into service for the country-tinged “Love Ain’t for Keeping,” the Townshend-sung pop ditty “Going Mobile,” and, most notably, the classic ballad “Behind Blue Eyes.”

The album’s most memorable song, however, was saved for the finale. Awash in pulsating synthesizers, spitting guitar licks, and layered electric and acoustic rhythm guitar textures, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” distills rock and roll to its primal essence. Even after all these years, Daltrey’s blood-curdling yowl—“Yeah!!!”—still stands as one of rock’s purest expressions of ecstatic splendor.

As pointed out in the liner notes to the deluxe edition of Who’s Next, Townshend never let go of his dream to complete the Lifehouse project. Elements of the production were incorporated into his 1993 solo album, Psychoderelict, and, in 2000, the project was presented in three incarnations: as a BBC Radio play, as a multi-CD box set, and in two staged performances at London’s Sadlers Wells Theatre.

Still, one can’t help but marvel at the ironic outcome of the project’s original failure. In the process of abandoning the most ambitious concept he ever tried to bring off, Townshend—and The Who—made one of the greatest albums in rock history.