9.4.14

A BARGAIN – THE BEST YOU EVER HAD, Part I

The first part of the piece I wrote for Crawdaddy! about my involvement in 30 Years of Maximum R'n'B

I set the wheels in motion for the production of The Who’s box-set on 24 February 1993 by writing a long and rather ballsy letter to Pete Townshend, the important bits of which read as follows:
        
         Dear Pete,
         Enough is enough.
         Each month I read in Q Magazine of yet another artist or group whose boxed set of three, four or five remastered CDs is now in the shops, complete with laudatory 12 page booklet, all packaged in the best possible taste to reflect and exaggerate the particular genius of the performer. Each month I walk through the Virgin Megastore and see them piled high, box sets galore, from Led Zeppelin to the most obscure R&B performer, you name them: King Crimson, The Monkees, the bloody Bee Gees, Kate bleeding Bush, even Journey for Chrissakes! There’s dozens more and none of them worthy to lick the boots of The Who.
         So how come?
         How come no-one at Polydor or Phonogram or Polygram or whatever their corporate identity is this week hasn’t proposed and organised a decent Who boxed set? How come you haven’t, or someone at Trinifold? Does nobody care anymore? It’s a fucking travesty.
         There surely exists the most wonderful opportunity to put The Who’s legacy in proper perspective, to finally release a worthy package of retrospective material in a proper chronological setting that isn’t simply yet another ‘Best Of’ album to add to the embarrassingly long list of virtually identical cash-in Who Greatest Hits albums. (With the possible exception of Hendrix, no-one’s catalogue has been exploited so callously as The Who in my opinion.)
         Because I care, I hereby put myself forward as the co-ordinator of such a project.
         I realise this would be a long term project; that I would have to meet and liaise with all manner of people; that I (and you and the others) would have to propose a track listing (which I would hope would include at least 25% hitherto unissued material in order to appeal to real Who fans); that someone would have to remaster these tracks if necessary; that I would have to organise the booklet (my speciality that – I've been commissioning text, buying pictures and organising artwork for years); that I would have to liaise with the record company re the budget; that there'd be loose ends galore to tie up; and that I'd probably piss everyone off in the course of doing it because I promise you I won't cut corners (as everyone else who's ever co-ordinated a Who compilation album in the past – with the possible exception of 'Meaty Beaty' – seems to have has done).
         I write to you because without your backing a project such as this would never get off the starting blocks. If you turn me down, at least tell me why. Of course, for all I know someone might already be doing this. If they are, I'm delighted to hear it but I pray they're doing it right.
         [There followed a paragraph or two of personal stuff before I ended with…]
         Best regards, yours sincerely
         Chris C

I showed this letter to Lisa when I got home that night and she thought I was crazy. The next morning, after I’d left for work, the phone rang. Lisa answered. It was Pete, which blew her mind because she’d never answered the phone to a real rock star before. She redirected him to my office. “Do it,” he said. We were on.
         When I went to bed that night I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. Panic had set in. What had I done? I’d put myself on the line. Could I do The Who justice? Who was I to presume that I could produce a box set for the group I considered (at their 1968-73 peak) to have been the very best in the world at what they did?
          Let me backtrack. First and foremost, long before I ever wrote a word about The Who, I was a fan, which is crucially important. ALL BOX SETS SHOULD BE COMPILED BY FANS. Are you listening record companies? Twenty-five years in and around the music industry has taught me that fans know and care far more about the music they love than anyone else, often even the artists themselves. Music industry professionals who fail to realise this will rot in hell.
         Still backtracking... I first saw The Who on TV on Ready Steady Go! – ”The weekend starts here” – in 1965, when ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’, their second single, became the show’s theme tune. Then I went out and bought ‘My Generation’ which my parents hated, then I tried to teach myself to play ‘Substitute’ on the guitar, then I bought Who Sell Out with its strange cover, then I saw them live at the Queen’s Hall in Leeds, then I bought Tommy and saw them play it live at Plumpton and Dunstable Civic, the first defining moments in my Who life, then I bought and played the hell out of Live At Leeds, then I joined Melody Maker and saw them again at Dunstable where I reviewed them in glowing terms. Then, to my eternal amazement, Keith Moon rang me up at MM the following week and thanked me for the review. (No other musician had ever done this before and this gesture – utterly genuine, Keith was like that sometimes – was another defining moment.) “We must get together for a drink, dear boy,” said the greatest drummer in rock. A few weeks later we did just that, and Keith invited me along to their next London gig, at Hammersmith Palais, as his guest. I met the rest of them that night, and for the next seven years became, unofficially, Melody Maker’s ‘Who Correspondent’, which meant I saw them live around 40 times, wrote about them extensively, interviewed them, travelled with them, and shared so many highs and lows with them that they became an important part of my life, though I was never so foolish as to assume that I was important to them. My happiest moments ever have been at the birth of my children and at truly great Who concerts. Hand on heart, in their pomp they were the greatest live performance rock band that has ever existed, bar none, a better rush than sex or any drug.
         Then Keith died and I lost touch with them. I saw the Kenney Jones band only once, at the NEC in Birmingham in 1982, and came away a bit dispirited. Like all other serious fans I was appalled and brought down by their sloppy Live Aid showing and the Brit Awards farce at the Albert Hall in 1988. All I had was Live At Leeds, a few bootlegs and The Kids Are Alright video to remind me of the glory days. On and off I found myself defending The Who for apparently cashing in on the reunion tours but, unfortunately, after 1989, those tours seemed to have trashed their credibility beyond redemption (in the UK at any rate).
         This view, of course, was subjective. I understood and fully sympathised with the reasons for The Who’s ‘life-after-Keith’ because I knew about their slightly dodgy financial situation first-hand through my old relationship with them, but most people (especially in the media) didn’t understand or know or even care about the reasons and consequently didn’t sympathise at all. There was a great injustice going on here but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The biggest irony was that their great rivals Led Zeppelin appeared to have done the ‘honourable’ thing by jacking it in when their drummer died while The Who – whom I believe were far more ‘honourable’ to the concept of rock as a force for good – appeared to have done the ‘dishonourable’ thing by continuing throughout the eighties and beyond with their eyes fixed firmly on the till despite losing a key member; a contradiction really, and difficult to explain away.
         Then I was given a ticket to see a show on the Kids Are Alright tour at Wembley Arena in October 1989. I was a bit late arriving and they were up there playing ‘Substitute’ as I found my seat, then they did ‘I Can’t Explain’. Of course, it wasn’t The Who up there, not The Who that I’d known and loved so much, but it had been a while and it brought all the great memories flooding back. It was very much a pre-planned show, as it had to be with so many additional musicians, and in this respect it was quite unlike the free-for-all Who concerts I’d enjoyed so much in the past. Then something unexpected happened. It had been clear that Roger’s voice was going when, half way through ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ in the second half, in what was obviously an unplanned gesture, he threw down the mike, apparently in disgust at himself, swore loudly and stormed off. Pete took over on vocals and finished the song, then sang throughout ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. Up to this point I’d been watching, enjoying but not really getting off, but this incident set my adrenaline flowing just as it always used to flow at Who shows, because I knew it would put them on the back foot and they’d have to improvise. It was the old “anything can happen at a Who concert” scenario all over again. Pete was obviously not best pleased at this turn of events. Great! An angry Townshend is an exciting Townshend. During the keyboard bit in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ he whacked his red Schecter Stratocaster against the monitors at the front but it wouldn’t break, so he just tossed it aside in that wonderfully imperious way he has with guitars that displease him, and picked up another one. I’m pretty sure my heart wasn’t the only one that skipped a beat at this. When the band returned for an encore Pete apologised for Roger, explaining that he had the flu. Calm again, he made a witty and deeply self-depreciating speech about how they were only doing it for the money which was at least honest. Most big rock bands who reform try to kid fans it’s for ‘artistic’ reasons but The Who had never lied to their fans in the past and they didn’t start now. He paid tribute to Keith, partly because we were in Wembley, where Keith was born. “We’ve never been able to replace him,” he admitted to warm applause. “I asked Roger if he wanted to come on to do an encore and he told me to fuck off – not for the first time,” Pete added. Indeed not, I thought. They closed the show with John taking the vocals on a belting ‘Twist And Shout’.
         Perhaps because I was older and mellower, perhaps because I grew misty-eyed at hearing Who songs played very loud, as they were meant to be played, perhaps because of the Roger incident and how they dealt with it, perhaps because of Pete’s speech, most likely because of all these things, I enjoyed this show immensely, far more than I thought I would, and even found myself rendering a few Pete-style windmills on air guitar on the way home – the first time I’d done that in 15 years! Indeed, this night was the spark that rekindled my love for The Who and, although it was a slow process, set me on the path to what became 30 Years Of Maximum R&B.
         Another, equally important, factor was coming across a lovingly compiled UK Who fanzine called Generations which, it turned out, had been put together by Who fans far younger than myself. In the first issue co-editor John Atkins, whom I had never met, wrote that The Who were... “loud, brash, hard, noisy, fast and exciting, but also subtle, complex, intelligent, imaginative, and profound”. These words seemed to sum up exactly how I felt about The Who, so I got in touch with John and his co-editor Phil Hopkins and bought up all their back issues. Reading them was a delight and they brought home to me that many Who fans in the early nineties would have been too young to have seen the group with Keith on drums. This realisation dawned on me as I listened again to all my old bootlegs and it inspired the most crucial motive for me to renew contact with The Who.
         For the best part of ten years The Who had given me so much pleasure that it was only fair to give something back, to settle the score, to seal the best ‘bargain’ I’d ever had. All that I had to offer was my enthusiasm to try and help re-establish their reputation as one of the world’s all-time great rock acts, a reputation that seemed to have become tarnished for all the wrong reasons. A good box set, I decided, would go some way towards restoring them to their rightful place at rock’s high table and, if it did, would in some way repay my debt to them. It was a job well worth doing. I thought about this a lot and, eventually, took up my pen to write that letter to Pete. 

3 comments:

  1. Hi Chris, great writing. I stood at the same WHO gig 1989 in London. Pete smashed a red Fender guitar and not Schecter. I made a lot of pictures that night and I liked this show very much. Several times I saw THE WHO live and ever tey were fantastic. Best wishes Stefan

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  2. What better group to do 30 yrs maximum R&B . Saw them at Trade Union Hall Watford 65 ,followed them ever since. Cardiff last year despite awaiting cancer treatment second row centre,stood for 3 hrs singing ,dancing cannot think of any other Band that could do that!! still Rocking New Album in the making . Regards Len

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