Well, well, well, what have we here? Praise be, for it is nothing less than the first ‘new’ and officially sanctioned live recording from The Who’s golden era since the live version of Tommy (from Ottawa, October 15, 1969) that was included in the 2013 de lux two-CD re-issue of Pete’s first rock opera.* Furthermore, it predates that by about 18 months having been recorded at the Fillmore East in New York on April 6, 1968, when The Who were on the cusp of becoming the greatest live rock band the world has ever seen. The fairly brief Monterey set and the BBC sessions aside, this represents the earliest and, in terms of historical significance, most important archive release ever from The Who. Although available as a bootleg for years, it is deeply satisfying that such a noteworthy slice of Who history has finally been given a proper release.
In 1968 The Who’s recording career was temporarily in the doldrums but, crucially, they were blazing a trail on the US concert circuit that opened the doors to a new kind of rock performance which continues in far more sophisticated forms to this day. They, Jimi Hendrix, the Jeff Beck Band and Cream (who unlike The Who were formed for the purpose), saw the future: shows that would last for 90 minutes or more in which hit singles and LP tracks would be performed loudly and in ways that far enhanced the original recordings, either through sheer volume or musical virtuosity or both. Added to this would be improvisation, a liberating stage show enriched by lighting effects and the chance to hear new material yet to be released or even recorded.
This sort of thing required skills and temperament lacking in almost all the pop groups that emerged in the wake of The Beatles. The Who, however, were ideally equipped for this new era of presentation: their song-writing guitarist was enthusiastically unrestrained on stage, their bass player was extraordinarily proficient, their drummer was a wild, abandoned showman and their singer was relishing the opportunity to prove himself. All of this contributed to the kind of show that rock audiences had never seen before and, thanks to word of mouth and Tommy, within 18 months of this Fillmore concert The Who had raced through the pack to become the brand leaders of the modern age.
Promoter Bill Graham initially booked The Who for two shows a night over two nights but this plan was abandoned due to fears that the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on April 4 might trigger unrest in Greenwich Village. Instead they played two longer shows, one on each night, both of which their co-manager Kit Lambert recorded for a live LP that was subsequently shelved. In the event things went awry with the tapes of the April 5 show, so all 14 tracks on this double CD come from the following night.
Regrettably, the opening songs, ‘Substitute’ and ‘Pictures Of Lily’, also proved unusable, so CD1 opens with the third number played, ‘Summertime Blues’, the first of three Eddie Cochran numbers in the evening's set.
Although it’s just less than a minute longer than the well-known version from Live At Leeds, it doesn’t seem so. It’s taken at a slightly quicker tempo and Pete’s guitar, a white Fender Stratocaster, has a sharper, angrier, more metallic tone than the Gibson SGs he switched to playing the following year. Keith explodes at the back, Roger sings his heart out, John chips in on the bass vocal and Pete solos fairly recklessly, his Strat in distort mode, and when they shift up a key for the final verse there’s a sense that The Who are out to prove something tonight.
‘Fortune Teller’ follows, a touch more ragged than on Leeds. As on Leeds they up the tempo at 1.50 but there’s a slight hesitation, perhaps because, if Pete’s introduction is to be believed, this was only the second time they’d played it live, at least since they were The Detours. Similarly, the segue into ‘Tattoo’ is a tad tentative, but once they’re into their stride the vocals especially, Roger joined by Pete and John, are top notch.
‘Little Billy’, the anti-smoking song, is prefaced by a fairly lengthy explanation from Pete as to why it was written and recorded. A bit of a curiosity that remained unreleased until John thought to include it on Odds And Sods in 1974, this was the first time I’d heard it played live, and they make a decent fist of it, with the threesome on vocals again impressive.
An absolutely crackling ‘Can’t Explain’ follows, with Keith skittering all over his kit during the breaks and Pete soloing quite differently from the recorded single and subsequent live versions. Equally strong is ‘Happy Jack’, another showcase for Pete’s power chords and Keith’s expressive drums.
Nevertheless, these performances seem almost throwaways compared to the first real highlight of the show, a 12-minute version of ‘Relax’ in which Pete throws off all restraints and solos free form for the best part of 10 minutes. My friend Andy Neill’s essay in the accompanying booklet draws attention to Pete’s recent visits to the UFO Club on London’s Tottenham Court Road where Pink Floyd, led by Syd Barrett, perfected the art of psychedelic jams. While the Floyd were never inclined, or probably even able, to attack a song in the manner of The Who, it’s clear that Pete was thinking along the same lines as Syd, especially towards the end of this lengthy workout when he conjures up some spacey echo washes from his guitar. Not until 30 seconds before the end does he find his way back into the melody and allow Roger to close out a final verse.
‘I’m A Boy’, again rougher than on Leeds and marred by slightly off pitch backing vocals and a sloppy finish, is followed by ‘A Quick One’, the mini-opera, introduced by Pete as indicative of the direction that The Who’s career will shortly take, at least on record. It’s as good a live rendering as I’ve heard anywhere, powered up by the clang of Pete’s Fender and the hint of a blues lick here and there. As ever, the vocals are outstanding. The climax – ‘You Are Forgiven’ – is fast and furious, and as the mini-opera cruises to its conclusion there’s some lovely little fills and arpeggios from Pete that don’t appear on other live versions of the piece that I’ve heard.
Now up to racing speed, The Who thrash out a couple more Eddie Cochran songs, ‘My Way’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’, of which the latter, though shorter, is the pick of the pair. The group barely take time to catch a breath before Pete launches into the descending ‘Shakin’ All Over’ riff and the group tumble into this, for my money the best pre-Beatle rock’n’roll song to be recorded by any British act. Longer than Leeds, it’s a full-tilt downhill ride, Roger at his full-throated best giving all he’s got on a song he clearly loves to sing. Pete’s solo is another improvised leap into the unknown, with searing feedback added to spontaneous riffs while John thunders away on the well-known secondary riff.
There’s a two-minute respite while John offers up ‘Boris The Spider’ before Pete introduces ‘My Generation’ which, at 33 minutes, occupies the entire second CD. After two regular verses, the bass solo and one more verse, the song veers off into a free-form universe of its own, Pete taking the basic riff and twisting it first into a bluesy riff, then into a more Who-style open-handed barrage of chord riffs and ringing strings, John and Keith gamely hanging on, waiting for cues.
Longer and even more abstract than the ‘My Generation’ jam on Leeds, this is the most prolonged Who jam on record, with Pete somehow taking on the mantle of an impressionist painter, looking for ways to utilise his palette, melodic one moment, discordant the next, sharp and shuddering one moment, echo-laden and bell-like the next. Although the octave drops are absent, there are recognisable snatches of ‘Rael’, as it was then known, or ‘Sparks/Underture’ as it became in Tommy, but they ebb and flow and, as they dissolve into another free-form attack, it seems at times as if Pete is out at sea, his guitar his rudder, feeling his way through the water until he finds an undercurrent that leads him home. At around the 14.30-point John becomes more assertive, leaving Pete in a jazzy mood, and a couple of minutes later Keith comes to the fore, his strength on the snare cutting through the waves. At around the 20-minute mark there’s a sense that it might all fall apart, but Keith comes to the rescue with a series of rolls that inspire Pete to produce a searing clamour, sliding his pick up and down the bottom string of his guitar and yanking its tremolo arm before bringing it all back into some sort of shape on an improvised, repeated riff. Then, of course, it happens again, and again.
Left high and dry while all this is going on around him, Roger isn’t heard from until the 28th minute when he begins to sing, ‘Talking about…’, but he soon abandons the attempt. Two minutes later the group seem to run out of steam, but then return for one final three-minute assault in which guitar and bass seem to unite as one, John seeming to replicate the sound of Big Ben chiming the hour while Pete lays waste a guitar that has served its purpose with honour. As Andy Neill puts it, “The Fillmore patrons must have left dazed and confused.”
I saw The Who for the first time 16 months after this concert was recorded by which time they were a bit more polished than they are here. But the odd bum note and missed change was only to be expected when you consider the athleticism that Pete, Roger and Keith put into their performance while John looked on like a wise old owl, knowing that someone had to hold it all together. There’s a tangible awareness of The Who’s future on this CD – they know it and the audience knows it – and that great things lie just around the corner. Smartly designed and packaged with photographs taken at the show by Linda Eastman, as she then was, it is – quite simply – a peerless snapshot of The Who on the verge of becoming the greatest rock’n’roll band of their generation.