The Who reflect on over a decade of music and mayhem
Cinematic autobiographies by bands can often be tedious, over-bloated, self-aggrandising affairs, short on fact, and high on celebrity (U2’s 1988 Rattle And Rum being one such example). Yet The Who, while no strangers to cinema, with two ambitious rock-epics already under their belts – 1975’s Tommy and Quadrophenia (1979) – the band had finally decided that the time was right to release a theatrical retrospective of their extraordinary journey from young mods to stadium-filling rock deities.
Completed in 1979, The Kids Are Alright was more than four years in the making, and might never have happened were it not for a serendipitous encounter between American director Jeff Klein and his editor Ed Rothkowitz at the New York premiere of Tommy, who proffered to them the idea of a mini-compilation of live clips illustrating the group’s evolution over the years. The Who immediately agreed, and upon that, the concept that would eventually become a full-blown film was born.
But the movie also came with a double-LP soundtrack of the same name, preserving many moments seen in the movie, along with some that weren’t. And while it’s intriguing to hear these tracks, nothing can beat witnessing the actual footage, thus ensuring that the album will always remain an inferior experience.
From 15th September 1967 we have two cuts taken from The Smothers Brothers Show, “I Can See For Miles,” and an urgent, punky “My Generation,” which includes an explosive ending thanks to Keith Moon’s dynamite-loaded drum kit (apparently Moon had bribed a technician to install twice the amount as originally planned).
“I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” stem from early TV appearances in 1965, and as such are tamer, far more faithful renderings of their studio counterparts. Although things heat up with a phenomenal “Happy Jack,” from Leeds University, 1970, an exhilarating “Young Man Blues” (London Coliseum, 1969), plus a then previously unreleased (tho’ oft bootlegged) recording of “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” made for The Rolling Stones’ 1968 Rock and Roll Circus.
When The Beatles embarked on their “Magical Mystery Tour,” Pete Townsend responded in kind with “Magic Bus,” even if The Who were never really hippies (too cynical, too cockney). However in spite of their underlying suspicion of Flower Power in general, didn’t mean they were denied access to the counterculture movement entirely, as their participation at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair on 17th August 1969 abundantly demonstrates, here represented by three electrifying takes of “Sparks,” “Pinball Wizard,” and the dramatic “See Me, Feel Me.”
In order to update the movie, Klein thought it would be best to include some more recent stage footage, so in May 1978, the group held a one off gig in front a select audience. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was chosen, and while it may not be as definitive as The Who might have hoped, nearly forty years on it remains one of the catchiest polemical rock songs ever written.
Yet what makes this particular performance so memorable, was that three months later, Moon was dead, sadly making it the final show by the original line-up.
For its day, The Kids Are Alright soundtrack must have made for a fascinating listen to anyone who had grown up with The Who from an early age. And while much of the material can nowadays be found elsewhere, as an album, each track offers precious insight into one of the most unique rock outfits of the late 20th Century.