In June of 2002, when I woke to hear that The Who’s Jon Entwistle had died in Las Vegas, I was deeply saddened. Then, somewhat guiltily, I felt relieved. The band’s umpteenth American reunion tour would surely be canceled and I would not have to schlep downtown to Madison Square Garden that August to see yet another watered-down incarnation of the band formerly-known-as-The-Who. After all, by 2002, I’d been attending "Who concerts" for twenty years, and had yet to see the true Who.
The true Who, of course, consisted of Messrs Entwistle (on bass), Moon (on drums), Daltrey (on vocals) and Townshend (on lead guitar): this was the guitar-smashing ensemble from west London, the band who invented "rock opera" and from 1964 through 1978 produced breakthrough recordings which were only outdone by the intensity and ambition of their live performances.
In truth, despite all my so-called Who concerts, I’d only ever seen the true Who perform live at my local Bronx theater’s "midnight movies," sometime in 1981, where I was seated among much older kids, almost all of whom lit up joints and howled at the screen as the band members were introduced, one by one, on an episode of the Smothers Brothers variety show in September of 1967. That film was Jeff Klein’s brilliant 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright, which even today is as close to a true-Who concert as one will get.
So send the kids to the babysitter, get some good smokes and a few cold beers and fire up the DVD player, hopefully equipped with state of the art 5.1 surround sound, because Jeff Klein’s The Kids Are Alright is back. Thoroughly cleaned of the original’s editing glitches and re-enriched with the colors of the theatrical release, this double DVD-set contains material excised from the lousy video copy that circulated over the years. The package is supplemented with show-and-tell presentations by the brilliant team of engineers involved in the restoration, not to mention a revealing and candid sit-down with singer Roger Daltrey. And for good measure, there’s an interactive tour of the band’s old stomping grounds in London.
That the original film was ever made at all is something of a miracle. Back in 1979, director Jeff Stein had almost no credentials, and the band green-lighted his project with grudging indifference. But Stein, a Who fanatic, persisted by rescuing the band’s television appearances and interviews, gathering their unreleased videos for their early hits, as well as black-and-white footage from the London mod scene and pro and amateur cam shots from the 1970s heyday of the open air-stadium gig. Stein also filmed recording sessions of what was to be The Who’s last significant studio album and two searing live performances of "Baba O’Reilly" and "Won’t Get Fooled Again" at Shepperton Film Studios in Middlesex, shortly before Moon’s death from a drug overdose on September 7, 1978 which marked the de facto end of The Who.
Among all this eclectic concert material, Stein interspersed various television interviews with the band’s songwriter and spokesperson, Pete Townshend and hilarious, Monty Python-like sketches featuring Keith Moon and Ringo Starr.
In The Kids Are Alright we can see and hear how the stark personal disparities among these four guys from working class London somehow coalesced into one of the most influential recording and performing rock acts ever. Operating onstage like a jazz quartet and experimenting with song cycles, synthesizers and laser lighting, The Who harnessed all the styles that would eventually come to be known as psychedelia, heavy metal, art rock and punk. They broke boundaries before those very boundaries had been named, and along the way they never caved in to self importance.
The Kids Are Alright succeeds where other "rockumentaries" often fail because Stein’s film reflects the most appealing characteristics of its subjects. His film is raw, edgy and explosive but always professional and focused; it is aggressively loud and consistently unapologetic, and thoroughly committed to its audience. It is a document of a rock band embracing its successes without ever pandering to its critics or its culture. The film offers no voice-over or neat chronology. And while Pete Townshend is at times visibly tortured by self doubts about the contradictions of pop music, art, money, and authenticity, his band mates were fearless about The Who’s mission.
Nothing substantial from The Who’s career as a live act has been omitted: even the most obscure performances and most subtle moments contain revelations.
My own favorite is a short piece from the 1969 Woodstock festival. The brightening predawn sky occupies almost the same space in the frame as The Who, who are seen on stage in silhouettes as they bear down on their instruments, producing crescendos of rhythmic feedback. As the Woodstock audience gradually becomes visible in the morning light, Townshend walks to the edge of the stage and drops his Gibson into the front rows. As the band members walk off stage, the festival’s MC seems bewildered by their anarchy and aggressiveness as he flatly intones, "Ladies and gentleman….The Who."
Many of the hundreds of thousands who had trekked to Max Yasgar’s farm that weekend had likely anticipated the soothing harmonies of Crosby Still and Nash, or the hippy tripping of Joe Cocker or Country Joe & the Fish. But none would forget the sheer force of this cocky British quartet.
Now we can hit the play button and see why.