Finally, fifty years after the event, the Who’s legendary 1968 recordings from the Fillmore East in New York City are available for purchase by the general public. While there’s been no shortage of live Who releases in the last decade, this is perhaps the most significant surviving document of the Who on stage prior to the Tommy era. It catches them in a moment of transformation, an exceedingly brief period where they are trying to shed their Mod skins and evolve. At times the results are a little funny. Tempos swerve back and forth, harmonies become ragged. But it is one of the truest and most essential documents of a live band that had ambitions that went way beyond “making it sound like the record.”
Prior to 1968, the Who weren’t exactly slacking as a live group – they were explosively energetic, a tight little unit that paid its dues playing hyperactive R&B covers to pilled-up yobbos. Their early years of pop stardom saw them playing short, sharp sets made up of their hit singles and some topical cover songs with a noisy smashup at the end, but by the time they were touring the US as headliners on the psychedelic ballroom circuit, it was expected that their appearances would now be timed by the hour. This was also right when Jimi Hendrix had taken over the collective imagination of rock guitarists, and Townshend’s playing in 1968 sounds like a direct response, his own attempt to be equally free. So this set shows them straddling the line between the ready-to-please singles band vs. the hippie jam band. To be clear, we’re talking ENGLISH hippie jams, Zeppelin and the Pink Fairies, not the Grateful Dead.
The versions of “Relax” and “My Generation” recorded on this night sound like no other Who music I’ve ever heard. They are improvising collectively without a rope. “My Generation” alone runs for 33 minutes, which must be the longest single Who jam on record. Parts of it are brilliantly exciting, parts are unbelievably crazy and dissonant, like some kind of proto-Sonic Youth noise band. And inevitably, for parts of it, they’re kind of losing each other and finding their way back. They would continue to hone their approach to improv, and by the time of Live At Leeds two years later, they’re virtually telepathic. But also more prone to self-editing: after 1968, they would never again jam without walls for half an hour.
One big thing that allows Townshend to get away with this indulgence is the merry joining-in of Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Moon’s energy is just unimaginable, and it’s a treat to hear him so clearly on a tape of this vintage. Likewise the earth-shaking rumble of Entwistle’s bass, which sounds rich and detailed, revealing what a master of the craft he really was. The three-way interplay between them is what makes the live Who phenomenon possible.
Lead singer Roger Daltrey is terrific throughout, just starting to find the power at the top of his range. He also keeps the other three in their place during a ramshackle bounce through “C’mon Everybody.”
Roughly half of this show has been heard by Who collectors before in the form of bootlegs, taken from acetates of rough mixes at the time of its recording. Rabid fans who know and love those bootlegs will still have much to enjoy here, not just from the improved sound quality. While those boots contained a mixture of songs from the April 5 and 6 shows, this new release contains all that exists of April 6, roughly half of which has never been heard before. This set also restores the complete version of “Relax” which was irritatingly chopped off on the bootleg source.
This was one of the recordings that sparked my imagination as a youngster, not just about the Who and their live prowess but also the nature of bootlegs themselves, these secret, illegal (remember Rerun at the Doobies show?) albums and cassettes that got passed from fan to fan, some of which contained incredible music that could not be obtained any other way. Myy understanding and appreciation of many of the bands I love today is based partly on these illicit communications, and it’s personally gratifying to see such a document not just made available to the public, but improved and extended for those of us who already have the boots.
By coincidence, April 20 also sees the release of some other Pete Townshend music that made a huge impression on me as a young fan, via bootlegs. Through pen pals in the UK, I managed to locate a pirate copy of a private-release album produced in 1970 by the Universal Spiritual League called Happy Birthday, featuring Townshend and others playing songs inspired by the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba. If the Fillmore boot showed a raw, chaotic side to the Who I had never heard before on record, this album showed a fragile, lovely and haunting side to Townshend’s music that almost never came through on his “real” records. It was stunning to me that someone could work in such polar opposites, and that such a famous rock star would produce this wondrous music that was not even intended for his normal audience. It’s one of the few albums I ever felt truly lucky to have gotten a copy of.
Townshend contributed original material to two other devotional albums to Baba, I Am and With Love, and his 1972 solo album Who Came First was an only slightly toned-down devotional album of its own. It’s an oddball of a solo album, including tracks written and sung by Ronnie Lane and Billy Nicholls, several Who songs (though his audience may not have known them as such in 1972), a Jim Reeves cover, and more of this gentle, exquisite acoustic music we hardly knew Pete was capable of writing.
The new reissue of Who Came First contains an entire disc of extras, including virtually all of the unique songs heard on those three Baba tribute albums, including a mindblowing nine-minute instrumental version of “Baba O’Riley”. (Sadly, “Lantern Cabin” from With Love, a free-flowing meditation similar to the piano intro that opens “Love Reign O’er Me”, is left off.) Also included are previously unheard Townshend originals “There’s A Fortune In Those Hills”, “Meher Baba In Italy” and “I Always Say”, a lovely live version of Ronnie Lane’s “Evolution”, and a recording of “Drowned” made during Pete’s 1976 visit to India.
Any Who fan – hell any ROCK fan – will find much to love in these two releases, some of familiar, some of it not so much. It’s kind of neat that a band with more than 50 years in its rear-view can still be surprising when they feel like it. Take the wine and shout.