The Kids Were Alright

    Considering all that has been written about The Who by music critics, biographers, and pop journalists, there is not much left to say about this forceful, inventive, and influential rock aggregate. Thanks to Amazing Journey (2007), however, there are still fresh things to see.

    The twin DVDs in this set produced by Nigel Sinclair, Bill Curbishley, and Robert Rosenberg include The Story of The Who and Six Quick Ones. These documentaries assemble live performances and recording sessions, archival newsreels, television and movie clips, interviews with the principals, their managers, producers, family, friends, and fellow rock musicians (Sting, The Edge, Eddie Vedder, Noel Gallagher, Steve Jones, and others) from 1964 through 2003.

    The Story of The Who tracks the band’s career from the earliest days of their emergence from among scores of English performers scrambling for attention in the wake of the commercial tsunami known as the “British Invasion” of 1964, spearheaded by the Beatles’ successful penetration of the American marketplace.

    The extraordinary thing about this footage is that there is so much of it. That is owed to The Who’s first managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert – entertainment industry promoters with no particular ear for pop music – who surveyed the lively London scene in the spring of ’64 looking for a promising group to manage and to film in action for a movie. Their selection of The Who – then billing themselves as The High Numbers – for their project proved to be miraculous. Suppose they had picked Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark Five? They could not have foreseen any more than the band themselves that The Who would become rock immortals.

    The hits started coming immediately. I Can’t Explain, The Kids Are Alright, My Generation, Magic Bus, Happy Jack, and I Can See For Miles were chartbusters in Great Britain and the U.S.A. The documentary cameras continued to roll. The Who recorded an advertising jingle for Coca-Cola, which inspired their first concept album, The Who Sell Out.

    One could isolate The Who’s four consecutive studio albums, The Who Sell Out (1968), Tommy (1969), Who’s Next (1971), and Quadrophenia (1973) to bury in a time capsule with the assurance that, when unearthed by archeologists centuries hence, the vigor, spirit, urges, concerns, and musical vocabulary of the first quarter century of rock ‘n roll would be amply represented and potently distilled.

    The Who were by no means a seamless ensemble. Musically and temperamentally they were more distinguished by their individuality than by their cohesion. The subtraction of any one of their members however, would have meant a sundering of the whole, a fact sadly demonstrated in 1978 when rambunctious drummer Keith Moon died shortly after the release of Who Are You?, the group’s last hit. Each of the other three band mates ventured solo careers. Roger Daltrey struggled to find suitable material for his rugged voice. John Entwhistle harnessed melodic, ostinato-free bass figures with brass sections and his sardonic sense of humor in several albums, but could not sustain commercial viability. Only Pete Townshend possessed sufficient artistry and imagination to craft exciting, affecting songs in his own right.

    If there had ever been any doubts, it became clear in later years that The Who had been Pete Townshend’s band all along. The tensile strength in Townshend’s direct, introspective writing embodied thoughtful vulnerability even as his music summoned thunder. The Who wanted their performances to be seen and felt as much as heard. Their decibel level pressurized eardrums and their stage antics – the windmill guitar chords, the amplifiers pounded for feedback, and the furious destruction of guitars and drum kits – suggested rage shrugging off restraint.

    The band members were notoriously fractious. In their interviews, Daltrey and Townshend are candid about their difficulties in working together, as well as their personal weaknesses, creative failures, and affection for intoxicating substances.

    Six Quick Ones is designed to be complementary with The Story of The Who. It covers some of the same ground, including some of the same interviews and documentary footage. Where the first film presents a chronological history of The Who, the second is organized into six segments (plus bonus material), bringing into focus each of the band’s four members, a study of the group’s conceptual framework and art school influences, and a recording session that spotlights The Who as constituted in 2003.

    All writing about music suffers from being naturally unmusical. Its purpose is typically critical, expository, or promotional. Even if it were cast as lyric poetry with inspired phonemes and complex rhythms, it would still be language, absent tonal pitch, timbre, melody, harmony, and sonic dimensions. This review of Amazing Journey can offer only arid sentiment and parched opinion. The DVDs invite the viewer with a thirst for The Who or for the popular music of the ’60s and ’70s to sip cool draughts straight from the wellspring.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, August 2010)