In the Jurassic pre-MTV decade of the 1970s, instead of five-minute videos, the most prestigious rock and roll groups got to make movies to promote their careers. They weren’t always very good (Remember The Song Remains The Same? “Does anybody remember laughter?” Why yes, yes we do…), but there was something viscerally powerful about seeing our heroes projected 20 foot high on a midnight Saturday viewing.
The Who’s 1979 documentary, The Kids Are Alright, was a model of this genre. As Dave Marsh wrote in his excellent biography of the group:
Kids is one of the most anarchic documentaries ever assembled, running two hours without a shred of narration and with not so much as a subtitle identifying characters or dates. [The new DVD has optional titles that can be switched on to do just that, and a commentary by Jeff Stein and the film's producer--Ed] Kids was the perfect cult item, and Who fans flocked to it. Hardly anyone else did, however, so even though it remained a staple on the midnight movie circuit, part of every kid’s introduction to the verities of the Rock of Ages, the film had little impact outside the Who’s cult. The Kids Are Alright is, nevertheless, one of the great rock & roll movies, capturing all of the Who’s sass and humor and taking the wind out of the band’s pomposities at each and every opportunity.
What saves the film is that Jeff Stein, its director, managed to get excellently played–and filmed–performances of the Who’s three most important songs of the 1970s: “Who Are You”, “Baba O’Reilly”, and most importantly, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. The latter two songs are from the Who’s 1971 album, Who’s Next which introduced a new vocabulary to rock: the rhythmic, sequenced synthesizer, running in the background as a kind of music concrete, providing the structure and rhythmic pacing for the Who’s power trio of instrumentation to blast over the top of.
For “Who Are You”, Stein simply filmed the band in the studio, recording the song. But “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were filmed as part of a concert of handpicked English Who fans, who were carted to Shepperton Studios outside of London on the 25th of May 1978, to cheer their favorite band on.
Unfortunately, Stein didn’t get the climactic performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” he wanted, and felt that “My Generation” was too much of a hoary old warhorse to end the film on. Backstage, he goaded the band into doing one performance of it. As Marsh wrote:
[Pete] Townshend thundered curses and imprecations, swore that Stein was incompetent and downright evil. Then he and the band looked at one another and trooped back to the stage. They were met with hosannas and calls for all the favorite songs they’d not yet done that night.
Townshend stepped to the lip of the stage, and a sneer curled his lip. “There’s a guitar up here if any big–mouthed little git wants to f***in’ take it off me,” he snarled, and was met with cheers. He stepped to the rear of the stage, twiddled an amplifier dial, zipped up his waist-length brown jacket and signaled Bob Pridden to begin the synthesizer tape for “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Knowingly or not, Stein had provoked the Who. They went through the motions, giving him just what he wanted in the most grudging way. But their resentment just added an edge to their performance; try as they might to shrug this one off, every bit of strain that was added to the song only improved it.
Stein managed to get it all: a performance that-if it doesn’t quite leave the previous version of the song from Who’s Next in the dust, it significantly improves on it. A filmed version of the Who in full flight: Townshend’s windmill guitar playing, Roger Daltry’s microphone strutting and twirling, and John Entwistle’s brilliant, fluid bass playing.
Under A Raging Moon
Most significantly, Stein recorded Keith Moon’s last live performance on film.
Pete Townshend of course, wrote “Hope I die before I get old”. Moon lived–and died–by it. As Marsh documented in his book, and Stein’s film provides ample visual confirmation, “Moonie” was in a period of decline beginning around 1976: drinking heavily (and possibly consuming other substances), he had started gaining enough weight that for the cover of his last album with the group, Who Are You, he was posed sitting on a stool whose back faced the camera, to hide his paunch.
As Roger Daltry explains on the second disc that accompanies the deluxe version of the Kids Are Alright DVD, Moon attended a private screening of the film with the rest of the band just before his death-and did not like seeing what he looked like at 32, compared to his appearance just five or six years before.
His years of debauchery and out of control behavior finally caught up with him on September 7th, 1978, when he overdosed on Heminervin, medication prescribed to curb his alcoholism.
The Who survived without him, even making an album (Faces Dances) that in hindsight holds up pretty well. But they were clearly a very, very different group. And the timing of Moon’s death allowed for The Kids Are Alright to neatly document the most important period of its history.
Restoring The Film
Unfortunately, the film has never been served well by home video. Released onto VHS in the early 1980s, the video had all sorts of problems: the audio was speeded up in parts (particularly on the key songs we mentioned above). Ten minutes of footage was cut out, including an entire interview with Townshend explaining how their first long-form song, “A Quick One” (“that was ‘the mini-opera’” Townshend explains to an interviewer with a mischievous twinkle in his eye) came to be. The harmony vocals that open the song, and Keith Richards’ depraved introduction from The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus were also edited out. (For years, I’d watch my VHS copy of Kids, which I purchased in 1983, and my early 1990s laser disc version of the film, and wonder why Richards’ name is on the credits when he’s not at all visible on the tape. Now we know why.)
Two Different Versions of the DVD
Pioneer Entertainment went all out to restore the film, and it shows: it’s never looked, or sounded better, or been in more complete a shape, making this DVD a must–have for any Who fan. But is the two-disc deluxe version worth buying?
There are long interviews with the men behind the scenes who restored the audio and video. If film restoration interests you, if mixing audio for 5.1 surround sound interests you, this is fascinating stuff. For others, it may very well be a bit on the dry side.
But the second disc also takes advantage of DVD’s multi-angle capability, allowing the viewer to shift between all of the cameras used to film “Baba O’Reilly” and “The Kids Are Alright” to focus individually on each member of the band.
One of those cameras was trained on bassist John Entwistle, the second disc has optional isolated audio tracks of his bass playing. And on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, it’s a tour de force of brilliant, brilliant playing. Obviously, I would have loved isolated tracks of each of the Who’s instrumentalists, but given Entwistle’s recent death, I can understand why this was included. Hopefully James Jamerson and Entwistle are somewhere talking shop about the joys of bass playing, and the recent DVDs that spotlight just how amazing they were.
Every Who fan will look at the Kids Are Alright and wonder why their song wasn’t included. But as a celebration of arguably the most influential rock group since the Beatles, and one of rock’s greatest live acts, one of the two versions of this DVD belongs on every rock fan’s shelf.