[Author's Note: The Who have released several good archival videos since this article was written. The Maximum R&B-Live video is now out of print, but is scheduled for a DVD reissue with a disc of bonus material sometime in 2009.]
After the Beatles, the Who were the second rock 'n' roll group that caught my ear and made a fan out of me. Both my parents are classically trained music teachers and when I was younger, they didn't exactly approve of my growing obsession with rock 'n' roll. So when an aunt, who had already corrupted me with the music of the Beatles, turned me on to a "rock opera" called Tommy, I thought I had discovered a work would bring some respect to rock 'n' roll. My parents weren't impressed but I was. Tommy was my first exposure to the music of the Who and perhaps because it was being described in classical music terms, my early perception of the band was that they were more intellectual than your average rockers. (I didn't know it at the time but the Who and their management fostered this high brow image themselves when, in 1969, the group performed the opera in the most prestigious opera houses throughout America and Europe.)
Over the next few years as I listened to some of the Who's previous albums and post-Tommy releases, I heard very little to change my arty image of them. Sure, much of what I heard was powerful rock 'n' roll but it most of the time it seemed to have some kind of an ambitious idea or theme behind it. The early album Happy Jack touted its own "mini-opera" called "A Quick One" (the song was the album's title in the UK), while Sell Out, used a format modeled after pirate radio programs heard in England in the mid to late 60's. The early part of the next decade brought the even more complex concept album Quadrophenia and the group's most popular work Who's Next. It's very cohesiveness and innovation (one of the first uses of the synthesizer on a rock record appears here) makes Who's Next feel like a high art, even though doesn't happen to be an opera or concept album. (It comes as no surprise that most of the album's songs were the cream of an aborted larger conceptual work entitled Lifehouse.) It seemed like guitarist and primary songwriter Pete Townshend was interested in making albums that were fully realized works of pop art rather than merely collections of pop songs.
Right in the middle of the albums mentioned above, the Who unleashed an album called Live At Leeds. I didn't hear the album until much later but had I encountered it when it came out in 1970, I would have been most confused. My art-rock perceptions of the group would have been confounded. While I saw them as a more studio oriented cerebral group, Live At Leeds presents the Who as a balls-to-the-wall, full blown R&B influenced, almost heavy metal live band. Once I heard the roar of "Substitute" on Live At Leeds, the rather folky studio version of the song was knocked out of my consciousness forever. However, it wasn't until I saw the documentary The Kids Are Alright in the late seventies that I fully realized the power of the Who live. Among the archival treasure-trove of clips from various live shows and TV appearances, the film features two songs from Keith Moon's last performance with the band before he died. Moon is sometimes a bit sluggish but the performances of "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" may still be the best versions of the songs ever. Townshend is positively inspired as he smashes a tambourine against his fist in the intro to "O'Riley", leaps and windmills his arm, and even at one point wiggles his bum as he fires off his incredible guitar licks on "Fooled Again." These two performances alone are proof enough that in their prime the Who were one of the best live bands around.
Other than the one live album and the film, the Who have been fairly stingy in releasing any more evidence of their on-stage brilliance. The Who's Last and Join Together albums present lifeless concert recordings from late in their career, while the Thirty Years of Maximum R&B box set retrospective doled out only a handful of previously unreleased vintage live songs. And to add insult to injury, the set's liner notes goes so far as to mention a number of great shows that were recorded but not represented in the collection. Well, a few steps have been made to rectify these sins of omission with the release of a home video called Thirty Years of Maximum R&B Live. As the title implies, the video is a companion piece to the four CD set but can also be seen as a sequel to The Kids Are Alright, since it fills a few of the gaps left by the documentary. The video features concert performances from throughout the band's career, along with recent and often entertaining interviews with Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle. It also includes archival and rare footage such as a video tape recording of the well known incident when Keith Moon collapsed during a show at San Francisco's Cow Palace in 1973. He had taken an overdose of some animal tranquilizers and once it was determined that he wasn't dead, the group finished the show using a volunteer drummer from the audience.
Keith is most certainly very much alive on much of Thirty years of Maximum R&B Live. One of the great aspects of having these moments of musical history captured on video is that it shows a facet of the band that can't be experienced through LPs audio tapes or CDs. It shows how visually startling the band could be. From the very first clip, a 1965 performance of "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" filmed in black and white, my attention was riveted to the kinetic energy of Keith Moon. The guy never, ever keeps still. Moon isn't a drummer in a conventional sense who is content just to keep the beat going. It's more like he is a sonic Jackson Pollock, filling every hole and space in the music with his aural splashes of sound. In order to compete with Keith Moon's aggressive style, Pete Townshend has to be more than a virtuoso guitar player. He too seems to be in perpetual motion, with his leaps and propeller-like arm movements, as well as the semi-obligatory guitar and amplifier smashing which concluded many of the Who's shows. In order to top Keith's overwhelming presence, a drastic action such as destroying your guitar becomes a necessity. Singer Roger Daltrey, the microphone whirling tough guy of the group, makes an excellent frontman, even though his vocal abilities are sometimes rather limited (more about this later). And stoically standing amid all the violence and mayhem is bassist John Entwistle, nicknamed "The Ox" because of his steady on-stage demeanor. No matter what chaos is occurring on-stage, he remains stock still except for his lightning fast fingers that produce some of the most amazing bass runs ever heard. Perhaps the most accomplished musician of the bunch, I honestly wonder if Entwistle has ever played a wrong note.
Very little footage of the Who's mid sixties TV appearances and concerts exists since most of what was filmed during this period has been lost or destroyed. This is why there is a two year gap between the "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" from 1965 and the next two songs on the video. "So Sad About Us," from the Marquee Club in London, and the Monterey Pop Festival version of "A Quick One," show the band more polished in appearance (dig those psychedelic clothes!) and still musically exciting, even though they are often a bit ragged and flat in the vocal department. The group come off rather stiff and self conscious in this footage, though this may be a case of on-camera nervousness more than anything. By 1970, the flashy outfits and self-consciousness have disappeared and this is when things really take off for me. Once Thirty Years Live hits the seventies, we see a self-assured, tight band at their best. While the earlier portion of the home video offers only a glimpse of what the band's early concerts were like, we get a moderately generous helping of the Who's 1970 and 1974 shows. (Apparently, the group didn't allow many concerts to be filmed in the intervening years since they felt the cameras blocked the audience's view of the stage. This generosity towards the fans of the past is the loss of the high-tech fan of the 90's.)
The three songs from the 1970 Tanglewood Music Shed gig kick off with Entwistle's "Heaven and Hell," the standard show opener at the time. The dark, sardonic tune about the afterlife is a great way to warm up a crowd. It rocks hard but doesn't go too over the top so that the audience is worn out too soon. The band themselves seem fresh and relaxed and I was shocked to learn that Tanglewood was the final stop of the U.S. tour. I can't detect a trace of road weariness here. Each chord of the ersatz Kinks intro to "I Can't Explain" that Townshend hits sets off a unique reaction in his body. He spins around, kicks up his feet and at one point almost does the splits. A red hot performance that is a lot of fun to watch. The subdued start of the Who's Next-era single "Water" cools things off temporarily. It soon turns into a hard, bluesy rocker that makes a perfect home for Daltrey's belligerent vocals. The dynamic structure of the song also provides a fine opportunity for the other three to stretch out and jam. Listen to how the formidable Who rhythm section of Entwistle and Moon is able to follow every nuance of Townshend's guitar playing. An outstanding blast from a decade and a half ago that is as vital and alive today as it was then. And this is only the beginning....
A little more than a month after Tanglewood, the Who played England's huge Isle of Wight Festival. It is this performance that the Thirty Years box set cites as one of the Who's classic unreleased live recordings. Rumors have been surfacing recently that it is going to finally be released on CD. It hasn't happened yet but if the two songs from Isle of Wight that are featured on the video are any indication, such an album would be a monster. "Young Man Blues" from the Live At Leeds album is an unforgettable, incendiary rock 'n' roll moment. The Isle of Wight version is at least as good, if not better. It's hard to tell because the visuals definitely enhance the audio in this case. (It makes one wish for a Live At Leeds video. The mind boggles at the thought!) Townshend virtually wrings the music out of his guitar, shaking and slamming it to produce sheets of sound. Moon responds with his percussive volleys as he attacks his drum kit. Entwistle calmly stands off to one side dressed in a skeleton suit, his busy bass notes more than keeping up with the other two. And Daltrey, in all his post-Tommy, golden curled, fringe-vested and bare chested glory, is once again in his element and turns in an outstanding vocal. "I Don't Even Know Myself" follows and is less intense but no less inspired. Not only is it good to hear one of their lesser known songs done live, the song's stop-start arrangement proves that Keith Moon, the human perpetual motion machine, could stop on a dime if need be. Whenever the rest of the band stops playing, he never misses a cue.
My favorite part of the video is the four-song selection from the 1974 Charlton, England gig which fans agree is one of the Who's most inspired shows. The band leaps out of the blocks with a powerful "Substitute." John's bass takes over as almost the lead instrument as its rumbling riff breaks through the maelstrom. Two songs from Quadrophenia follow. "Drowned" is obviously a concert favorite for both the fans and the band since it remained a staple of their live shows for the rest of their career. Townshend even played an acoustic version of the explosive rocker during many of his solo shows. And the Who don't disappoint at Charlton as they deliver a stirring, perhaps definitive rendition of the tune. Keith Moon does an impressive job on his turn at lead vocals on "Bell Boy," maybe even bettering his performance on the album version of the song. Watching the video, you realize what a considerable feat this was for him. During the song, whenever it comes time for him to sing, Keith has to stop drumming in order to grab the microphone from Roger, remove his headphones as he starts to sing and has to put them back on before he's through to start drumming again. There are a few times he even tries to keep drumming one handed as he holds the microphone in the other. And through all this, I doubt he ever misses a beat. An instance of a typical Keith Moon balancing act caught on video that makes fascinating viewing. "My Generation Blues" is up next and it pleasantly surprised me. I've heard other live versions of this slowed down, sneaky version of the group's earliest hit and have always thought it was a bit of a draggy bore. Not so with the Charlton take. For one thing, it's much shorter than usual so it's over before I lose interest. For another, the boys look like they are having a blast playing it and their enthusiasm is contagious. Pete really camps it up by doing a kind of shuffle variation of Chuck Berry's duck walk. After viewing these four songs, Nothing less than the whole show on video is going to do me now.
The loss of Keith Moon in 1978 left fans and the Who themselves wondering if the band would be able to carry on. But carry on they did as they entered a rehearsal studio at the start of 1979 with a new drummer Kenny Jones. Thirty Years Live contains previously unreleased footage of these rehearsals and it shows the new Who looking fit and raring to go as they run through lively interpretations of "Who Are You" and "Sister Disco." The relaxed atmosphere of the rehearsals make the footage from Chicago at the end of the same year all the more shocking and sad. Pete no longer looks healthy and relaxed. He looks awful. Drinking, drugging and the other rigors of the road have taken their toll on him. You can see it in his eyes and in the way he acts that he's on some other planet. The Who still manage to sound pretty good here though. The other three keep the proceedings solidly in line as Townshend tries out some interesting, if somewhat sloppy guitar lines. On "Music Must Change," his solos take on a jazzy feeling. Even Pete's vocals take a different turn on the same song as he kind of scat sings during the middle eight which is quite lovely. And his vocals on the "Why should I care?" line from "5:15" have rarely sounded so full of desperation. At this point in their career, the Who are still a powerhouse on-stage but one wonders at what cost? From the looks of things, the band could have easily lost another one of their members if Townshend hadn't been able to pull himself out of the downward spiral his life was taking.
By 1982, with the release of the It's Hard album, Townshend was back in shape and it really did seem like the Who were raring to go this time. It's Hard signaled a return to form for the band, after the somewhat subdued and sterile Face Dances. On Face Dances, the Who uncharacteristically sound like faceless session musicians, while It's Hard has a tight band feel to it and sounds much tougher. The Who hit the road, for what they said was the last time, to promote the album and this was when I got my one and only chance to see them live. I saw them in the Seattle Kingdome in the fall of '82 and even though I'm not a big fan of huge stadium shows, I have to admit I enjoyed the show. There were no real surprises or revelations, and I didn't exactly feel any intimate connection with the band (Somehow, opening act the Clash did manage to make the crowd of 60,000 seem like a small club though.) but they were in fine form. The show's format was the standard one that the band used in the later years: Begin with some oldies and obscurities for the hard core fans, break in the new material in the middle, and then reward the audience with the big hits at the end. Pete says in one of the video interviews that this is still the kind of concert that he likes to do. He also says that he did not want to play the 1982 Shea Stadium gig because the venue was too gigantic. The one song from '82 that is featured on the Thirty Years Live collection is from this very show and, well, maybe Pete was right and they should have taken the night off. One thing that I have noticed from reviewing all this live material is that Roger Daltrey doesn't seem to know how to control his voice when it isn't in the best of shape. Most vocalists learn to work around their limitations when their instrument is rusty but when Daltrey's voice is weak, he pushes it even harder. The Quadrophenia finale, "Love Reign O'er Me," is a vocal showcase for Daltrey. It is most certainly one of his finest, most powerful moments. On the Shea Stadium version presented on the video, his voice is gone. It's a painful experience.
I wish I could say that 30 Years of Maximum R&B Live ended on a more inspirational note but it doesn't, for me anyway. Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle reformed the Who for a 25th anniversary tour in 1989. Kenny Jones wasn't with them this time around but they were augmented by backup singers, various percussionists, and an extra guitarist, who handled many of the solos, since Townshend seemed content to just strum an acoustic guitar. What I've seen and heard from the tour has been pretty dire. I could barely make it through the TV broadcast of one of the special Tommy performances and turned the radio off in disgust when another one of the shows was aired. The three songs from the '89 tour that end the video do nothing to change my mind regarding this hobbled together version of the Who. All the additional musicians cannot save these tired and flat performances. Even the ever-dependable John Entwistle can muster only a perfunctory "Boris the Spider." The proceedings pick up a tad bit with "I Can See For Miles" but the sight of Townshend blithely plunking an acoustic guitar as an unseen guitarist handles the fiery solos is disconcerting to say the least. And then we get Roger screeching the "See Me, Feel Me" refrain from Tommy which makes me wish I were deaf, if not dumb and blind. After viewing the many fine past Who performances on video, it's especially depressing that such a great live band should end on such an unflattering note.
But wait. They're back. Earlier this summer, I heard that the Who were going to perform Quadrophenia in its entirety for the first time at the Prince's Trust Concert in England's Hyde Park. Quadrophenia is one of my favorite albums so this was exciting news. About the time I started working on this piece, HBO aired excerpts from the concert. The broadcast included a scant thirty-five minutes of highlights from the Who's set (Bob Dylan's fine set was mutilated as well) but judging from what I saw, it was 1989 all over again. The big band format has returned. Not only were there extra musicians helping out but there were guest stars this time too. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd actually supplied one of the only highlights as he handled "The Dirty Jobs," which fit his style and vocal range quite well. On the other hand, British pop singer Gary Glitter came off as an embarrassment dressed in a tight leather outfit. He looked and sounded ridiculous as he tried to help Daltrey out on "I've Had Enough." All I could think about during his performance how lethal his big black microphone stand looked as he recklessly swung it around. (And indeed it was dangerous. I found out later that Roger was wearing an eye patch because Glitter had smacked him in the eye with the thing.) What about the Who, you ask? Other than a nice acoustic "Drowned" from Townshend there is really nothing more worth mentioning. Roger forced his voice and once again strangled "Love Reign O'er Me." After the Hyde Park show, the Who brought Quadrophenia to New York for a wildly successful run at Madison Square Garden and now there's talk of a full scale tour. Hmm, I think I'll stay home and watch my Who laserdiscs instead.
In one of the interviews included on the video, Roger Daltrey says that the Who were never captured at their best on record. He believes the Who were at their finest live, on-stage. It appears that it is now impossible to experience this first hand. We have to rely on releases like the Thirty Years of Maximum R&B Live for a reminder that what Roger says may be true. As great as much of the material on the video is, it still makes me hungry for a release of a complete recording of a vintage Who concert. I have yet to get the CD reissue of the Live At Leeds album, which I hear contains almost twice as much music than the LP did. But even this is still incomplete. The rest of the concert is made up of a performance of the entire Tommy opera. Townshend nixed its release saying that there were already too many Tommy's out on the market. [Author's Note: The complete Live at Leeds concert has since been officially released.] This is a shame since many fans insist that the definitive version of the rock opera was the one heard live at those early concerts. Interesting. The very work that introduced me to the Who, the concept-album-studio-band, is the cornerstone of the Who, the original liver-than you'll-ever-be punk band. I hope one day I'll be able to compare recordings of both of these faces of Tommy and perhaps experience some of the live magic of the Who. The same magic that now seems to be gone forever.
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