For ten years, from 2000 to 2010, I served first as a roadie and then as road manager for Hamell On Trial: a solo acoustic force-of-nature whom I described – and at times introduced onstage – as “A four-man punk band rolled into one bald, sweaty guy.” The very first rock & roll conversation Ed Hamell and I ever had when I opened for him at Little Bothers in 1998 was about how we saw The Who three weeks apart back in 1969 as high school boys – me a senior in Columbus, Ohio; him a sophomore in Syracuse, New York. We both agreed unequivocally that it was the greatest rock & roll show we had ever seen. We both agreed unequivocally that The Who in 1969 was rock & roll’s most perfect organism EVER, and that all of our musical standards of professionalism were based on that band, and those four men: Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle & Keith Moon.
I stand by that assertion to this day. The Who – from sometime in 1968 when Pete Townshend started to write Tommy, to sometime in 1973 before Quadrophenia came out – were, quite simply, the greatest rock & roll band of all time. I say this with apologies to my dear friend Jim Johnson – The Rolling Stones have been a great band for a good many decades – and my good friend Chris Clinton – Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band have been the world’s greatest rock & roll band from 1978 until sometime last week – but neither of them of are as good as The Who were at their 1972 peak, when they wrote & recorded Who’s Next.
And this movie – The Kids Are Alright – is a true testament to that band.
Five scenes from The Kids Are Alright that you will see in no other rock documentary EVER:
1) A little perspective: The opening segment in The Kids Are Alright, The Who’s appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on September 15th, 1967, came three months after the June 1st release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” ruined the concept of FUN in rock & roll and made everything DEADLY SERIOUS. The Smothers Brothers really had their hearts in the right place – attempting to bring a little bit of the counter-culture to white-bread Sunday night television – and this night, bringing The Who in all their anarchic, gear-smashing glory to National Commercial television when there were still only three channels, they succeeded. Deadly serious fun. Keith overloads his blast-powder in the bass drum and in the ensuing explosion Pete’s hair gets singed, he loses some of his hearing, you can hear the audience GASP, Bette Davis faints backstage, and Keith gets knocked cold. I was literally stunned, staring open-mouthed at the TV as this performance transpired. I had always kinda liked The Who, now it was Luv, L-U-V.
2) The short segment of Keith throwing his “Pictures Of Lily” drum kit into the audience (and, by the way, the audience THROWING THEM BACK) took place not at the “My Generation” smashing-the-gear-at-the-end-of-the-show finale of the August 6th, 1968, appearance at the Boston Music Hall, it took place THREE SONGS INTO THE SET, when an obviously, let’s say “over-exuberant” Keith Moon lost track of where The Who were in the show and started to forcefully dismantle his kit. The show had to be stopped, the roadies had to regain all of the gear and reassemble the drum kit so the show could resume. Deadly serious fun.
3) The grainy black & white footage from some British teen program in 1966 when Pete Townshend opines – apropos of the musical quality of The Beatles – “When you hear the backing tracks of The Beatles without their voices, they’re flippin’ lousy.” Again, a little historical perspective for the rock & roll youngsters: If you were a rock musician in 1966, you didn’t go on English television and badmouth The Beatles. Deadly serious fun.
4) The compendium of gear-smashing sequences that flows from the Monterey Pop Festival appearance by the boys in 1967. This is not play-acting. This is not Kiss smashing a plywood guitar at the end of “The Act” after they were raking in millions from The Rubes In The Cheap Seats in the 70’s. This is at least three seriously pissed-off young men taking out their aggressions on their instruments, and doing a damn fine job of entertaining the audience while they’re at it. This is the only time Art ever successfully mixed with Rock & Roll. This was Deadly Serious Fun.
5) My favorite scene in the entire movie and, sadly, the one that I think tells the entire Story Of The Who in one glorious 30-second segment: right after “A Quick One Whiles He’s Away” Pete Townshend is pontificating – as he so often has, indeed to this day in 2014 – about how “The Who can’t just remain a circus act, doing what the audience knows we can do, until we become a cabaret act.” It’s pretentious as hell, as Townshend so often was/is, and in the midst of it Keith Moon – feigning agreement in the Lofty Pronouncements being Uttered – proceeds to do a circus-act headstand on his conference-room chair, forcing Pete out of his Painfully Serious Overly Intelligent Rock Star Stance into trying to balance a brandy on Keith’s boot-heel and totally derailing Pete’s pomposity.
Keith Moon died September 7th, 1978, just over four months after the May 25th performance that yielded takes of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for this film. The Kids Are Alright was released in May, 1979, and I think I knew even then that The Who without Keith Moon was never going to be the same again, that without Keith’s genius comic tempering of Pete’s pretentiousness, that everything was going to devolve to the Deadly Serious, and The Who would never be Fun again. I was right.
In some ways this entire movie serves as a tribute to Keith Moon, and as a tribute to a simpler time in rock & roll: when guitars & drums, extreme volume, cool clothes, great songs and a cute blonde lead singer were enough for anybody. In many ways, I have no problem with that.
If you think you’ve ever loved rock & roll music for even a single moment, you’ve gotta see this movie. – Ricki C. / May 17th, 2014.
(So, Ricki C. has been on quite the Who bender this week, but if any rock & roll gluttons for punishment out there among you have a stomach for 2500 more words on the subject, check out Ricki's 2012 blog Shows I Saw In The 60's, part two - including his full account of the November 1st, 1969 Who appearance at Veteran's Memorial. But first, a video.......)