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These Kids Were More Than Alright

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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?

It depends.

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.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    I must disagree: It’s Hard is much better than Face Dances. :-)

    Anyone looking for a bargain might want to head to Costco, where I picked up the 2-disc version for $15.99. If you don’t have a membership, find a friend that does and grab this deal before they wise up!

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com/weblog.html Ed Driscoll

    Tom,

    At least we’re debating which post-Moon album was better. When I was in line for a jazz concert in New York over the summer, the guy behind me said something like, “The Who died when Keith Moon died”, and I replied, that’s not true–they made a decent album or two, and played brilliantly on tour.

    Thanks for the tip about Costco. I was surprised to also see Amazon selling the two-DVD set cheaper than the single disc–and what a far better seller it is over the single disc.

    Ed

  • Eric Olsen

    Great job as always, Ed.

    I will accept, reluctantly, the live post-Moon Who as a valid entity, but there is no post-Moon album worthy of the name of The Who. I don’t even like Who Are You very much.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    wow, i didn’t know that bit about the movie version of Won’t Get Fooled Again…always thought it rocked.

    i guess being pissed off can make you play better.

    or something.

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com/weblog.html Ed Driscoll

    Eric,

    I think this is one of those controversies that there is no right answer for. But you’re right–you could hear Moon’s decline on Who Are You, and it’s painful.

    But I liked several of the songs on Face Dances. I started listening to it again this year for the first time in a while, and thought the production, and especially the arranging of the vocals was really first class. Bill Szymczyk really seemed to get everything possible out the Who as vocalists.

    It’s Hard in contrast isn’t a bad album, but I thought the songwriting was much more inconsistent (although “Eminence Front” was a great song), and the production less interesting.

    But I’m biased: Pete Townshend was my biggest musical influence, and these albums were coming out when I was in my teens, and a rabid Who fan. So there may be a fair amount of nostalgia coloring my opinions.

    Ed

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    ed, you’ve read that relatively recent book “Moon”?

    it was a little distressing to read that Moon had to basically relearn the drums before starting in on the Who Are You material.

    kinda sad.

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com/weblog.html Ed Driscoll

    Mark,

    No, I haven’t read it, but I did read the early 1980s book by Moon’s aide de camp, Dougal Butler, and found it alternately hilarious and sad, which I suppose is the perfect description of Moon himself.

    I’m not at all surprised to read that Moonie had to relearn the drums for “Who Are You”. After their tour to support “The Who By Numbers” ended in ’76, they had such a long layoff before resuming recording that the inactivity actually contributed to a number of Moon’s problems.

    Ed

  • Eric Olsen

    Nothing wrong with having faves and looking at them in the best possible light – I do it all the time. For me, I just loved the energy and chaos Moon brought to the Who, and as that declined they did as a whole for me. I am a huge fan through “Who By Numbers,” which I think is underrated.

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    By Numbers is a great album. “Blue, Red, And Grey” is one of my favorite Who songs . . .

    I love the band as a whole, but what I enjoy most is Pete’s writing, and that’s why I like so much of his solo output. I even like the full Psychoderelict. Speaking of which, fans of this album may want to head to Pete’s official site to pick up a two-disc live set from that tour that he’s just offered up for sale. Much as I like him, his solo work is pretty spotty. I bought The Iron Main on Half.com some time ago for $0.75, but all the negative reviews I’ve seen made me put it aside until I couldn’t think about them while listening to it. I still haven’t gotten to that point.

  • andy

    Have any of you guys seen “Live at the Royal Alber Hall”?

    Zack Starkey plays drums on it, and he holds his own. He doesn’t have the spastic nature of Moon, but he plays his parts and plays them perfectly. He’s actually a lot cleaner than Moon ever was. I’m not saying that post Moon Who is better than The Who w/ Moon, I’m just saying they still hold their own despite loosing 2 of their line ups. The chemistry’s not the same at all, but the band still feels the same to me. Same spirit seems to run through them even to this day.

    This of course is the opinion of a 23 yr old kid who’s too young to have seen the Who in their “prime” and only discovered the joys of classic rock and roll a few years ago. I’m just happy I still have the opportunity to see legendary bands like The Who even if it’s not “really The Who”.

  • andy

    Royal ALBERT hall. Grr.

  • Eric Olsen

    Some garrulous artists enhance and deepen their work with their descriptions, proclamations, and embellishments – some don’t.

    The more Pete has blabbed over the years, the more I wish he would just shut the hell up. And this latest bit with the kiddie porn, and, going back, the “I am a woman” nonsense, and the fact he just looks like hell and all the other stupid chatter makes me want to focus on pre-“Who By Numbers” Who, and “Empty Glass.” I want the rest, and Pete’s mouth, to go away

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    I have both the DVD and triple-CD set of the Royal Albert Hall release. They’re both good, not essential, but if you want something “new” to listen to it’s good enough for that. I could definitely do without the addition of “friends” on the songs – Brian Adams sings “Behind Blue Eyes” and it’s as flat and boring as you can imagine it being. That said, I think the singer from Stereophonics did a fantastic job on “Substitute,” but I’d still rather hear Roger sing it. Disc 1 is the strongest of the two, being only the band, and Disc 3 is 4 tracks from a 2002 show, the last with Entwistle.

    As for Pete and his mouth – I just ignore what most artists whose music I enjoy say. It’s the ones that I can’t stand whose mouths I get most pissed about. Pete’s brush with the law this year was stupid, but I actually buy his claims. I followed the story pretty closely until it ultimately cleared up, and aside from the card number on the site he visited, nothing else negative could be found. What most news stories neglected (read: “didn’t care”) to mention actually backed up his stupid “research” alibi – the card number was required by the site to verify age, but was not charged and did not give the user access to anything but the introductory pages. Were Pete truly a pedophile, the authorities would have found a lot more than a couple entries on credit cards. I urge anyone who cares about this to read through this site to see the rest of the news that didn’t make big headlines.

    If Pete’s claims are true, he’s simply and very arrogantly stupid – and Who fans KNOW that “arrogance” is 100% true of Pete.

  • Andy

    I just bought the single disc release of it. I love it! I can’t believe how well they cleaned up the audio and video. You would never know that some of that footage was well near 30 years old. It’s so clean. I never saw the film before, and I really enjoyed it. It was most definately sad though to see Keith Moon get sloppier and lazier towards the end. You can really see him going down hill.