14.4.14

A BARGAIN – THE BEST YOU EVER HAD, Part 6

Tommy arrived at just the right moment, not just for The Who but for the times in general. Packed to the gills in a mystical, wonderfully non-specific aura, packaged beautifully, and with heaps of terrific rock music, The Who’s major opus was an absolute cracker, especially on stage where it and the band came alive as no rock group had ever done before. Repeated musical themes, the riffs and choral motifs that echoed across its 75 minutes and interconnected so as to create a seamless whole, implanted itself on the brain and confirmed that The Who were at the forefront of rock’s pioneering travellers. The grandeur of those Tommy tours in 1969 and ‘70 sealed their reputation as all-time greats, and this was why I wanted a complete live Tommy in the box set. It was, and remains, their finest moment. But Pete wasn’t so keen and there was a question of whether a complete live Tommy that met the exacting standards of The Who and this box actually existed on tape anywhere. I actually don’t think it does. The Isle Of Wight Tommy issued in 1996 cannot compare with the Leeds Tommy, and Pete thought the Leeds Tommy lost momentum after the first half hour, which was only true on a relative level. Then there was Polydor’s parsimoniousness, so to my everlasting regret we were unable to include within 30 Years… the very best set that The Who ever performed on stage, the music that turned them into superstars.
         The original double album itself was under-produced and sounds flat, as did early CDs (this was put right on the 1996 reissue), but we remixed ‘Overture’, ‘Acid Queen’, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘I’m Free’, included the ‘Sparks’/’Underture’ from Woodstock and ‘See Me Feel Me’ from the Leeds concert, and much to my delight resurrected what we called the ‘Abbie Hoffman Incident’ from Woodstock, the iconic moment when Hoffman, the radical Yippie, jumped on stage during The Who’s set to offer his opinion on MC5 manager John Sinclair’s bust and imprisonment, only to be booted into the front row by Pete. As I said earlier, I’m always overwhelmed by the ‘Sparks’/’Underture’ instrumental, on which Pete, John and Keith pile on climax after climax, spiralling higher into the kind of freeform, heavy duty rhythmic slabs of pure adrenaline that characterised the live Who at their very best. The version on the box had been heard before – on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack – and is pretty hot, but I’d still recommend the slightly cleaner version on the new look Leeds more (and, as has come to light more recently, the version from Ottawa, 15/10/69). ‘Pinball’, the studio album version here (the single was speeded up slightly), remains the very best example anywhere of Pete’s ability as a rhythm guitarist, a master strummer. That opening riff, descending down four notches of his fretboard and enhanced by John’s fedback bass, has set hearts pounding for almost 30 years; playing the guitar like he was a-ringing a bell, in fact. The closing ‘See Me Feel Me’, the Tommy hymn, just had to be live because of the atmosphere it created at those 1969/70 concerts, and this version came from Leeds. I’ve always felt the studio version should have been cranked up to climax Tommy more robustly.
         Disc 2 closes with John’s ‘Heaven And Hell’, his best song after ‘My Wife’, and two cuts from the original Leeds album, the knockout punch of ‘Young Man Blues’ and ‘Summertime Blues’. I’d wanted a live ‘Heaven And Hell’ because it was used to open Who shows circa 1969/70, and it generally became a pacey free-form work-out on which the band could warm-up for the evening’s set. Unfortunately the sound-crew were also warming up, and live versions suffered through poor sound balance. The ‘Heaven And Hell’ on the new edition of Leeds was enhanced by John for this reason. ‘Young Man Blues’ was an even more frenetic work-out, perhaps the most exhilarating display of truly Maximum R&B that The Who ever offered. Though well known, the Leeds ‘Young Man’ is simply a sensational display by a band at the very top of their game (but the best version I’ve ever heard was played at that ’69 Ottawa show). The free-form improvisation of this era (most notable on the Leeds ‘My Generation’, which wasn’t on the box because it was just too long) is a forgotten art nowadays and, as John Atkins wrote, Townshend often seemed to be playing without any prior consideration or rehearsal. “They seemed to be instant expressions of his musical thoughts as they were occurring,” wrote John in a letter to me. What made it even more remarkable was the ability of John and Keith, and sometimes even Roger, to cotton on to Pete’s ideas almost instantly and play along. This combination of the live Tommy and their unique ability to compose on the spot made The Who the world’s hottest live ticket in 1969 and 1970. And, of course, they looked great too, what with Pete careering around the stage, windmilling and jumping all over the place, and Roger chucking the mike everywhere, and Keith animated like 10,000 volts was charging through his arms, legs and eye-sockets, and John po-faced and cool as hell while his fingers did the dancing, but this essay must confine itself to the music and not stray into this other great reason why I and so many other fans just adored watching The Who live.
         Finally on Disc 2 there’s ‘Summertime Blues’ and, to keep up continuity, we opened Disc 3 with what has become its companion piece, ‘Shakin’ All Over’. Both are fifties rock’n’roll songs that The Who had been playing since they were The Detours, and they seem to me to emphasise that for all Pete Townshend’s worthy ideals and the artistic heights to which he aspired in his own writing, deep down The Who were still quite simply a great rock’n’roll band. In their hands both these songs are stripped down, reconstructed and turned into ball-crunching rawk. Eddie Cochran’s bouncy, rhythmic guitar style was a huge influence on Pete, but The Who’s take on the song is vastly more rugged than Cochran’s light, springy version, and one reason why they reintroduced ‘Summertime Blues’ into their set around this time was to emphasise their rock’n’roll roots. What was once almost a novelty song is turned into a demolition job as Pete and John rumble from E to A to B and back down to E again. With the possible exception of Cliff Richard’s first two singles, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ is the only truly wonderful pre-Beatles British rock’n’roll song, and Roger, eternally a rocker at heart, always sings his heart out on material of this vintage. John, too, had his roots in fifties rock’n’roll and this shows in his dazzling bass lines, especially in the way he improvises around the basic ‘Shakin All Over’ riff. The inclusion of these two old favourites on the original Leeds was intended to take the emphasis off Tommy, and their inclusion on the box – between Tommy and the Lifehouse material – served a similar function.

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