Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Who's "Live at the Fillmore East 1968"

The Who were the first band I loved, and as a result, I've always been more critical of them than other bands, because I expect more: the buzz from that initial moment of discovery. I was puzzled by Tommy when I got it for Christmas the year it came out. It seemed sterile, compared to the band I'd read Lillian Roxon's description of in some Scholastic rag at school. Sell Out was magical and wondrous when I found it in a cutout bin the following spring, conjuring ever after a fictive English summer that existed only in my imagination. But why did Magic Bus, released a year later, have two of the same songs? 

Leeds nailed me to the wall when it arrived, and Sings My Generation proved pleasingly rough and raw. But what the hell was Happy Jack all about? (I couldn't see It's Hard coming.) I didn't dig Who's Next at first (all those synths) even before classic rock radio played it to death, and a lot of their Forest Hills show I witnessed that summer went right over my head (my first rock concert, the one part of which I will never forget is the expression on my father's face -- for he'd taken my sister and me, figuring they must be legit if he read about them in the New York Times -- the first time a joint came around).

Meaty Beaty filled in some of the holes in their mythic discography, which I spent the next couple of years investigating via imports (that great run of singles between Who's Next and Quadrophenia!) and bootlegs. (This was back when you used to have to hunt for stuff.) Quadrophenia kind of saved my life -- sounds melodramatic, but aren't 16-year-olds melodramatic anyway? I dug the rarities on Odds and Sods (some of which I already owned on boots), but by the time By Numbers dropped, I'd lost the thread (my teenage guitar mentor was a Johnny Winter freak, and who wants to listen to a 30-year-old crying about getting old?), although in my dotage, the bridge to "Slip Kid" and the ukelele song "Blue, Red, and Grey" are two of my favorites.

I tried hard to like Who Are You the summer I moved to Texas, but it seemed ponderous and overblown. The Kids Are Alright pulled me back in for a minute -- saw the flick in the theater three times, while playing in a band with some old allies who were also fans -- but the less said about the Warner Bros. albums, the better. I saw 'em again in Dallas in '80 and they looked haggard; I almost walked out before the end, but then I heard them start playing "Naked Eye" and ran back in. I watched the "Unix ponytail and too many people on stage" '89 tour on TV, and figured they were done, but then a friend offered me a ticket to see them in Y2K and I got re-impressed. Freed from the responsibility of writing new masterpieces, Townshend seemed to be digging the stage again, and with Ringo's kid on drums and Rabbit on keys, they were a five-piece rock band who brought a lot of new light and shade to the old faves. The new lyrics Townshend sang to "The Kids Are Alright" brought tears to my eyes, when I was but a callow lad of 43.

Digital technology has changed the way we consume entertainment. After the innumerable upgrades Live At Leeds has undergone over the years, it's ironic that these days, when I want to experience vintage live Who, it isn't a record or a CD I reach for. Instead, it's the Isle of Wight DVD, so I can see the goofy faces Moon makes while playing, Entwistle's ridiculous skeleton suit, Daltrey finally having a role to inhabit besides school bully, and Townshend looking simultaneously Ichabod Crane-awkward and coiled spring-dangerous.

That may change, however, with the imminent (on 4.20.2018, heh) release of Live at the Fillmore East 1968, the first official airing of the oft-bootlegged April 6, 1968 show which manager Kit Lambert had recorded as a possible live album to buy his charges more time to finish Tommy. Instead, the band opted to release the retrospective-but-incomplete Direct Hits in the UK and the patchy (and fraudulently titled) Magic Bus: The Who On Tour in the States, which inexplicably recycled tracks from the previous two LPs at a time when most of their early singles were yet to appear on American album. Fans would have to wait another two years, till Leeds, to hear what Nik Cohn correctly called "the full force of the Who" on vinyl (and another year after that for a decent singles comp).

Fifty years on, Pete 'n' Rog were running out of time to claim copyright on this material, hence its belated release -- same reason Jimmy Page just put out the Yardbirds' '68 Anderson Theatre show (which he'd taken legal action to have pulled when Epic first released it in '71) and final studio sessions (previously released, with Page's approval, by UK indie New Millennium back in Y2K). Universal's Fillmore East 1968 promises cleaned-up audio by longtime Who sound tech Bobby Pridden, as well as some previously unheard music. There's a version of Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" (from a set that also includes two other Cochran songs, "Summertime Blues" and "My Way"), as well as the '66 single "I'm A Boy," and complete takes -- 12 and 11 minutes, respectively -- of Sell Out highlight "Relax" and the "mini-opera" "A Quick One." Most intriguingly, the third LP is taken up with a 33-minute "My Generation."

Looking at Discogs, I see that "I'm A Boy" and the complete "A Quick One," at least, had previously been bootleg-available. But they weren't on the yellow vinyl (!) Trademark of Quality boot I bought in '73, stoking my fandom while waiting for Quadrophenia to appear, or the longer CD-R version I bought a few years ago (and which I've been listening to in the car the last couple of days). On those, the long jam on "Relax" fades out after eight minutes or so, and "A Quick One" starts abruptly with "Ivor the Engine Driver." The bootleg "Generation" I've heard peters out (you see what I did there?) after about nine minutes; one wonders what they do for another 20+ (instrument smashing is promised); we'll see.

The '68 tour, to these feedback-scorched ears, was the moment when the Who started to really find their legs onstage. Compare the '67 Monterey Pop version of "A Quick One," the one on Fillmore East 1968, and the one filmed for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus to observe the progression. Watching Monterey, one can't help but feel underwhelmed by the sonics, if not by the ruffled 'n' spangled visuals (which inspired the MC5, among others, to adopt more flamboyant stage costuming). But the sound of Townshend's Fender, in particular, through the rented Sunn amps is thin and anemic. (Hendrix had his Marshalls shipped over for Monterey, resulting in an iconic performance.)

On the Fillmore East 1968 versions of "Relax" and "Shakin' All Over," you can hear the Who beginning to stretch out and reinvent their material. The former, in particular, sounds like the bridge between the Pop Art autodestructive frenzy of the instrumental break in "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and Townshend's acoustic extemporizations in the Tommy "Overture." Entwistle and Moon are already their classic selves, churning up a thunderous roar you feel in your solar plexus. Sure, when Townshend kicks on the fuzzbox, his tone still isn't quite there. But later in the tour, he'd get his hands on a Gibson SG and with its ringing chords and stinging leads, the last piece of the Leeds sound fell into place.

The "Fortune Teller"/"Tattoo" sequence, familiar to Leeds listeners since the '95 expanded CD, is better here, in spite of the occasional blown vocal harmony. The Fillmore East was where the Who broke in the Benny Spellman R&B novelty, and they played it with more energy there than at Leeds. "Tattoo" is one of the magical and wondrous story-songs Townshend specialized in before Lambert goaded him into setting his sights higher, and "Little Billy," a cautionary tale about cigarette smoking written at the behest of the American Cancer Society (around the same time Townshend unwisely recorded a radio ad for the U.S. Air Force), is part of the same tribe.

Those, then, are the highlights. The rest is a good Who set list you can hear lots of other places. The $64,000 question with the $40 answer is, "Would you recommend this set to a novice Who fan over Live At Leeds?" Well...maybe. (Remember, I'm not a big Tommy fan.)

I'm not going to lie: I'll be happy to have this set, but this could be the last hurrah for my Who fandom -- I don't know. Do I really need to hear more extended jamming from these guys? (I have had at least one friendship which developed solely on the basis of our shared ability to sing all the parts from Leeds, including the mistakes.) And ponder the absurdity of listening to a 50 year old recording of geezers now in their 70s and about to start playing Vegas, singing "Hope I die before I get old." But then I remember the Velvet Underground Complete Matrix Tapes, about which I was skeptical at first, before it supplanted 1969 Live as my go-to VU selection. Technology changes, but we keep on trying (and trying) to recapture the buzz from that initial moment of discovery.


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