The loudest band of The British Invasion offset a destructive 1979 with a definitive documentary and soundtrack
There’s a moment in Jeff Stein’s Who documentary The Kids Are Alright in which Pete Townshend is holding forth on why it’s important that pop music is art and that it remains art, and then we have a cutaway to The Who’s music video for “Happy Jack” (one of my personal favorite songs, but not exactly a very artistic video).
It’s a nice sort of pre-Family Guy cutaway-as-punchline moment, and it captures the push and pull that most rock bands went through and continue to struggle against: the divide between popularity and artistic integrity. Some bands never quite figure it out, but I think that The Who did an admirable job.
1979 was a tough year for The Who; in September of 1978 they lost Keith Moon, arguably the glue that held Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle together, and in December of 1979 they would be at the center of the Cincinnati concert stampede that left 11 dead. But they also experienced a resurgence in popularity that many of their peers from the Sixties would envy; The Clash may have proclaimed “no Beatles, no Elvis, no Stones” at the beginning of the punk movement, but The Who were considered forerunners and thus always revered by the younger crowd. With the release of both Kids and the cinematic version of Quadrophenia in 1979, The Who were relevant and popular.
The film can’t help but be seen as an elegy to Moon, who dominates the footage Stein shot of him and who shines in the archival material (including his astounding drumming during an otherwise routine performance of “Shout and Shimmy” from The Who’s early days). But to view the film as a funeral dirge for a fallen bandmate is a mistake, of course. The movie works as a celebration of The Who’s unique live performances, their explosive chemistry, and their dynamic music. The opening scene, where an overstuffed drum explodes during the “auto-destructive” portion of their performance, is justly famous and infamous (Tommy Smothers was in on the joke that stuff would get blown up, but even he seems taken aback by how big the explosion is). It doesn’t get any quieter from there.
The Who were obviously one of the best bands to come out of the “British Invasion,” even if they had to wait their turn to come to America. They only arrived in 1967, supporting Herman’s Hermits in between performances at the Monterey Pop Festival and The Smothers Brothers. They became stars at Woodstock two years later (a great scene is Townshend’s defiant feedback rolling over the crowd as he winds down their epic performance of Tommy and dismissively flings his guitar into the crowd at dawn). Though they became part of the stadium rock crowd so hated by the punks of the Seventies, they never really lost their ability to call upon their roots and perform the hell out of great songs that stand the test of time. My own personal favorite sequence from the film is their take on “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” a rock opera in miniature whose performance here (from the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus) so upstaged the headliners that Keith and Mick shelved their film indefinitely until the early Nineties. Stein’s own film helps make the case that the Stones had every right to be afraid; in live performance, few could top the Who. And not just because they smashed their instruments.
The Kids Are Alright is never boring, and it speaks to the continuing legacy of The Who. Countless reunions later, with the original band now a twosome following John Entwistle’s epic rock-star-party death in 2002, The Who continue to be one of my favorite groups of all time. And The Kids Are Alright is one of the essential rock documentaries, a film whose lasting power is all about those power chords and amazing drumming.
VIDEO: The Kids Are Alright trailer