Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 9, 2005)
If we look at available videos of the Who live, we generally find a mishmash of snippets and newer materials. Programs like 30 Years of Maximum R&B Live mix clips from throughout much of the band’s history - at least through 1994 - while the Albert Hall and Boston packages include more modern performances. What we rarely observe are full-length shows from the band’s heyday in the Seventies, back when Keith Moon was still alive and drumming.
However, unlike bands such as the Stones – whose peak period is represented only through the dribs and drabs of live material on the nonetheless exemplary Gimme Shelter - DVD fans can check out an extended performance from the classic incarnation of the Who. The Who Live at the Isle of Wight concentrates exclusively on a 1970 show at a major rock festival, and it does so fairly well. The program provides the entire setlist, though it doesn’t encompass a standard-length Who concert from the era. The festival setting necessitated a moderately abbreviated performance, but at 85 minutes, the DVD still catches much of the Who’s repertoire at the time.
Since I was born in 1967, I never caught the Who live when Moon was still in the band. They last toured the US when I was nine, and I didn’t even know the band existed at that point in my life. I became a fan around the time when they played the US in 1979, but by that point, Moon was dead and Kenney Jones had replaced him behind the kit. I didn’t actually see the band until their subsequent 1982 “farewell” tour; I wanted to go to the 1979 show, but my Dad thought I was a bit young, especially given the tragic deaths at the Cincinnati concert that occurred only days before their DC appearances.
As many know, the Who didn’t keep their promise to bid farewell to the stage, and they toured again in 1989 for a 20th anniversary celebration of their landmark – though overrated – “rock opera” Tommy. They returned in 1996 for dates that highlighted 1973’s Quadrophenia; although that trek started as an extremely limited excursion, it soon extended and the band remained on the road through 1997. They came back for yet another tour in 2000, and I expect they’ll return in the not-too-distant future; they’re truly the band that wouldn’t die.
I caught the Who on the 1989, 1996 and 2002 tours. My only connections with classic Who have come via video records. The best archive appears in the popular The Kids Are Alright film. It uses an anthology formula, but it includes some terrific performances, highlighted by definitive versions of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, both played at what would be Moon’s last show.
Maximum seems interesting but less successful. Its Moon moments are good but rarely much better than that, and it concentrates far too much on the years after his death. These clips are compelling for archival value – I’d never seen extended footage from the 1979 tour, and some shots from rehearsals are also useful – but it doesn’t provide the band at their consistent best.
I’m not sure how high Wight ranks on that scale, but it’s a much stronger piece as a whole. Considering today’s multimedia live extravaganzas, it’s interesting to see just how simple and scaled-down this production was. Granted, the festival setting made it difficulty for any of the acts to display much personality, but it still seems startling to witness the starkness of the effort. Other than bassist John Entwistle’s goofy skeleton suit – that must have looked bitchin’ 30 years ago – the band didn’t feature too many nods to showbiz.
However, they did perform a pretty fiery little set. Starting with Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell” – a common set-opener from the era – they plowed through a string of Who classics. Of course, the vintage of the program means that you won’t find stalwarts such as “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Baba O’Riley”, “5.15”, or “Who Are You”. At the time, Tommy was their most recent album, and it featured prominently in this and other shows of the period. In addition, we got hits like “My Generation” and “I Can’t Explain” as well as then-new tracks like “Water” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself”.
Intended for a 1970 EP, those last two songs never saw the light of day in that format. Instead, they and other tracks like “Naked Eye” made it out in dribs and drabs as B-sides and other non-album releases. Neither tune distinguished itself, and since both also appear on Maximum, their archival value here seems questionable. Actually, the Maximum rendition of “Water” came from a different show, but that DVD offered the same 1970 Isle of Wight performance of “Myself”. That tune’s easily the better of the two, mainly because “Water” just poured on for days; it lasted far too long to be compelling.
Nonetheless, Wight found the band in good form. The Moon incarnation of the Who have been touted as one of – if not the - best live acts ever, but video releases like Maximum didn’t really let us know what all the fuss was about. Clearly, Wight doesn’t substitute for the actual experience, but at least it lets us get an idea why the Who were so revered in their heyday. Without question, this was a fiery and energetic performance that really kicked many of the tunes into high gear. Moon gave the band an energy that could never be equally by Jones or other replacement drummers.
Many feel that Moon was the greatest rock drummer ever, but I don’t agree. To be certain, Moon was the perfect performer for the Who. He fit the band like a tattered glove, and his style of wild rolls and fills suited the rambunctious and aggressive style of the group. However, he would have been a disaster in many other acts. Try to imagine Moon as the drummer for the Beatles or the Stones and contemplate how terrible they would have been with him.
Moon was an imaginative and creative player, but only a limited number of bands could work with his violent style. The Who happened to be the ideal match for him, but I don’t believe that one can easily categorize someone as the “best” drummer, for that designation depends far too much on the style of the band. If forced to choose, I’d pick Charlie Watts as the greatest drummer, simply because the success of the group depends so much on him. Folks may concentrate on Mick and Keith, but Charlie’s the heart and soul of the Stones. They could – and did – survive the departure of founding guitarist Brian Jones – and replacement Mick Taylor after him – as well as the later exit of original bassist Bill Wyman, but if Charlie split, that’d be it; they couldn’t – and shouldn’t – continue. I’ve seen the Stones live often enough to see what a difference he makes when he’s at his best, and that factor means I think he’s the top. (Big Country’s Mark Brezezicki also plays an extremely strong role in the band’s success; I’ve heard recordings without his fluid and engaging martial style, and the group simply can’t cut it when he’s not there.)
Editorial rant finished. Whether one feels Moon was the best or not, he definitely helped propel the Who into a powerful unit, and Wight adequately replicated the band’s performance. To be certain, the DVD offered a very basic show. The filmmakers utilized an extremely straightforward and simple manner of filming for the most part. As times we got some quick “in-out, in-out” camera zooms that probably looked cool in this drug-addled era – check out “Heaven and Hell” or “My Generation” for some examples – but otherwise the camerawork seemed restrained and accurate.
However, don’t expect a very balanced look at the band. The camera operators really seemed to dig singer Roger Daltrey, as he dominated the show. Guitarist Pete Townshend and Moon also received a fair amount of attention, but poor Entwistle largely got the shaft. Even during “Heaven and Hell” – for which he was the lead singer! – there wasn’t a single shot that concentrated on Entwistle! The bassist also featured in some of the program’s most amusing parts. At one point, we saw shots of Entwistle at the microphone intercut with images of him feet away by an amp.
Obviously the filmmakers inserted some generic band clips at moments that came from different songs, though they usually weren’t so obvious. They also replicated a few crowd images. Probably the worst aspect of Wight related to the excessive examples of audience shots. Those snippets are acceptable when used very sparingly, but above and beyond the occasional glimpse, they become tiresome and feel like a gimmick; it’s as if the filmmakers want to show us the rapture of the crowd to convince us that it’s a great show. We shouldn’t need the approval of others, as we can discern for ourselves whether or not the performance makes the grade.
Wight seemed additionally annoying because it clearly duplicated some of these clips. For example, we saw the same shot of a pregnant dancing chick on a few occasions, and others looked awfully familiar. If you’re going to focus so strongly on the crowd, you should at least feature unique scenes!
Despite the occasionally-shoddy filmmaking, The Who at the Isle of Wight provided a generally compelling document. It helps that this is the only DVD of a fairly full-length show from the classic incarnation of the Who, and the cameras caught them on a good night. Despite some poor editorial choices, the disc captured a great band near their peak, and it definitely merits the attention of fans.