â€¢ London, 5/2/69: the premiere of Tommy to the press at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club;
â€¢ Newcastle, 11/5/73: the sixth night of the Quadrophenia tour, when the band’s backing tapes failed, resulting in Townshend pulling longtime soundman Bobby Pridden across the soundboard, ripping out backing tapes and smashing equipment, all to the disbelief of the rest of the band … and the entire crowd;
â€¢ Kilburn, 12/15/77: aka the second-to-last Who concert to feature Keith Moon, filmed for inclusion in Jeff Stein’s masterpiece rockumentary The Kids Are Alright but shelved because of a subpar performance by an out-of-practice band (save for the inclusion of “My Wife” on the TKAA soundtrack and a few 15-30 second clips over the years).
Audio from the Kilburn show surfaced on a bootleg in the early part of this decade (oddly enough, most likely from one of my cassette tapes, but that’s another story) and last week, the full concert, warts and all, was finally released in all its six-camera, 35mm glory, along with a second disc featuring footage from a Tommy show at the London Coliseum.
So now, the questions can be answered: were the ‘oo truly ‘orrible? Is the Kilburn show nothing but a display of mediocrity? Were the Who justified in shelving it for all these years?
A bit of historical (Whostorical?) context for you: 1977 was, by and large, a Who-less year. The band had played their last full concert in front of a paying audience in October of 1976. No Who records were released in ’77 and until Kilburn, no concerts were played. It was pretty much the longest period of “dead time” the Who had experienced in 14 years. Pete Townshend released his collaboration with Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix. Roger Daltrey released yet another mediocre solo record, One of the Boys. John Entwistle laid low and Keith Moon got high, living the only way he knew how, in excess in Los Angeles.
As Jeff Stein was gathering material for his documentary, he realized there was very little footage of the band playing their ’70s classics live (the band had banned video recordings after 1970). He asked the band to reconvene for a special filmed concert at Gaumont State Cinema in Kilburn. They agreed.
The concert came at a terrible time for the Who. Townshend, citing problems with both his ears and his role as a husband and father, had recently mentioned he no longer wanted to tour. Moon was in terrible shape, overweight and slow (although, to be fair, he wasn’t exactly in fighting form in ’76 either). The band had lost some of its internal communication, that sixth sense that kept them in sync with each other on the stage. Relying on a typical 1976 setlist, they actually forgot how to play a few of their songs, like “I’m Free” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” (Pete sings “How can we follow?” and Roger responds “Where the fuck are we?”) At Kilburn, after only a couple of rehearsals at most over the year, The Who were sloppy, and Pete Townshend was angry.
Did you read that? Pete Townshend was angry. And Lesson Numero Uno of the Who: an angry Townshend is an exciting Townshend. When shit goes wrong at a Who show — even now — keep your eye on Pete. You’re going to see some amazing stuff. And Kilburn is no different. Watch in awe during “My Wife,” as Pete hits himself in the head with his guitar (twice!), leaps all over the stage, and, near the end, throws a tantrum by his amplifier and causes a roadie to most likely piss his pants in the process. (Addendum to my previous statement: an angry Townshend is an exciting Townshend … so long as it’s not directed at you.)
But forget anger for a moment. Here’s the thing about Kilburn: the Who still were, for my money, the greatest live rock n’ roll band in the world in the ’70s. The Who on an off-night is still The Who. Which means that despite any flubs, the band still sounded pretty fucking amazing, and gave every second of their performance 100% devotion and sweat. When the band line-up consisted of Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle and Moon, they simply didn’t know how to do anything less. Watching this DVD, you’re not only viewing a great concert. You’ve got a front-row seat to some kind of perverted rock science experiment, observing a band fighting tooth-and-nail to retain their identity. You’re also basically witnessing the end of an era; Keith Moon would be dead less than a year later.
Because this concert was professionally shot with six cameras, it offers a rare look at each member of the band and how each of them contributed so much greater as a cohesive unit. You’ve got the time to marvel at Entwistle’s blurred fingers, Daltrey’s lasso of a microphone, and Townshend’s gymnast-worth leaps on, well, just about every song. And even though Moon can’t match his work from the ’60s and early-to-mid-’70s, he’s still playing the shit out of his kit. There’s a fantastic shot during the “My Generation” jam of his little feet and jangly legs, dutifully kicking away at two bass drums. It’s been said that Moon was ashamed of his physical condition (and perhaps wore the god-awful purple jumpsuit to hide it), which makes it all the more fascinating to observe how he, always the clown, forgets about his problems and does his very best to keep a frustrated Townshend in good spirits.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, a second disc features the Who at the London Coliseum on December 14, 1969, a number of months into Tommy mania. Though the visual quality of the concert can’t hold a candle to Kilburn — much of it is a blurry mess — it’s a performance like this one that begat the genius of Live at Leeds and is fascinating from both a musical and historical perspective. Now this is the Who at pretty much their peak power: young and hungry with something to prove. Round these two discs out with fantastic liner notes from four Who historians (and genuine fans), and you’ve got a collection not to be missed.
I first discovered the Who at 17 years old. Shortly after, I went to my local library and rented The Kids Are Alright. I sat mesmerized as I watched the band rip through a version of “Baba O’Riley” so electrifying from both aural and visual standpoints that I had to actually pause the video and calm myself down. My heart was beating a mile a minute after watching such well-filmed performances from four musicians with fire in their guts. The Who at Kilburn is an hour of this stuff. 14 years later, I still can’t watch these guys without stopping to catch my breath.