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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Under the Big Top # 19: “Gravitational Pull”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “My Generation”
Album: My Generation
Release Date: December, 1965

Rolling Stone Magazine did a nice cover story on the Ramones a few weeks back. (** Side Note # 1:  I find it amazing that all four founding members of the Ramones are dead:  “The Cover of Rolling Stone” has been sadly eulogistic these days with David Bowie and Merle Haggard on other recent covers and now, Prince, in the mail just yesterday).  The issue included a review and ranking of the top 40 Punk albums of all time, the Ramones taking the top spot with their 1976 self-titled debut.  The #2 and #3 slots were predicable (The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut and the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bullocks), but there were some interesting choices further down the list, including The Stooges, Devo, the New York Dolls, and Nirvana, none of whom are considered primarily as Punk bands.  That was fine by me, seeing as each write-up made a valid argument for having the given entry in the mix, including several as Punk inspirations.

The only problem was the inspirations did not go far back enough.  If they had, and were flexible enough to recognize singular songs instead of just entire albums, the Who would surely have been slotted in somewhere, considering their earliest chart entries were truly proto-punk songs: “I Can’t Explain’’, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, and “My Generation”.  Yes, before this band was anything, they were a Punk-like band; maybe even the first (the Kinks could make this claim too).  I realize this probably does not impress many, but part of my job here is to make the case for why this was a big deal.  After all, the Who’s punk origins made them immediately relevant (due to the novelty) and is the key reason why this band will endure the test of time.  I’m not just talking through our age.  I’m talking Mozart-like endurance (the one commonality of the bands I focus on in this blog series is this conviction).  It’s pretty cool to realize something like this at the time it is unfolding, and that you have personally witnessed such a spectacle on numerous occasions.

If Punk itself was anything, it was liberating.  Many Punk bands came from lower class backgrounds, and the music was their ticket out of misery and conformity.  Heck, even middle and upper class kids who did not want to repeat the mistakes of their elders found solace in Punk, which rebelled against the establishment.  Punk even rebelled against most of the Rock establishment that preceded it, seeing as by the mid-70s many of those successful performers were slipping and sliding into the same hedonistic trappings that fame had incurred on so many other famous people before them.  How do you define Punk?  How about “laying it all on the line”; or “nothing to hide”; or “raw and unadulterated”; or “open wound”.  All these work.  I was too young and honestly not angry enough (thank goodness) to fully appreciate Punk when it erupted onto the scene.  But I knew at the time that it was real (my first memory of Punk was actually a funny one, with the Sex Pistols just starting their singular disastrous USA tour, Dad walking in the house after work, looking over at Fred and I with a glimmer in his eye and blurting out "Johnny Rotten!")

The sad fact with many Punk bands however, was that they did not last (fearing rust more than burnout perhaps) and more importantly, they did not evolve.  The Sex Pistols and many others of their contemporaries were shooting stars.  The latter-day Punk band Green Day (recognized at # 18 on the Rolling Stone Punk list for 1994’s Dookie) is a rare exception. They took their roots and stepped it up, ultimately producing the phenomenal Rock concept album, American Idiot. One of the incredible things about the Who is they did this too, only along a much longer and diverse continuum.  That proto-punk foundation was a solid one; extremely important for setting the Who’s work ethic and morality.  And they capitalized on it -- like no other band has since. 

The Who’s Punk origins are captured in all its glory on the 1970 Live at Leeds album, which has consistently been rated as one of the best live Rock albums of all time.  Even the non-punk songs (in terms of their original studio release sound and meaning) come across as Punk here.  Funny thing was I did not pick up on the potency of this album on the handful of times I first listened to the original compact release.  Some of this had to do with live albums in general.  I have forever known the potency of live music, but I guess I had always just concluded that “you had to be there”.  On top of this, as I have mentioned often before, I am an original-studio-album-oriented guy:  Great studio albums lay out concepts whether intentional or not, which I love to diagnose.  Also producers and engineers have the opportunity with studio albums to perfect the sound.  Live events make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to capture and tinker with sound in order to get the sought-after effect onto record.  That was my thinking for many years.

But as music critic Tom Moon once stated, “The more you love music, the more music you love”, and so it was really only a matter of time before this one sunk in.  The first live recording I ever really connected with was Bob Dylan’s 1976 Hard Rain album with the Rolling Thunder Review, which hit me many years after it should have.  And I do recall the very moment the planet’s aligned for me with Live at Leeds – literally.  I was sitting on the deck at Mac’s Humarock cottage on a lovely starlit night about 10 years ago.  Mac cranked up the album and I said to myself “ok, I’m going to give this another go”.   I sat back and looked into the night sky.  There to my left was Mars, and to my right Venus.  Together with my perception of where Earth was in comparison, I could suddenly see the Solar System at play (no, I was not stoned).  And as this image enveloped me, so too did Live at Leeds.  It was one of those glorious moments that you hope can last forever.  Some of it was fleeting, as such moments certainly are, but other aspects remain, including that then new found insight into the power of Live at Leeds. 

Part of the insight I obtained that evening had to do with how that 1970 concert on the West Yorkshire England campus of University of Leeds (at the University Refectory) progressed. The original 6 song release of Live at Leeds was a compilation of highlights from the show.  But in the process of capturing highlights, the original release lost much of the flow and buildup.   Much like fireworks, amazing live events have buildup, often reaching a grand finale.  In the case of a concert however, it’s not so much due to one final outburst as it is to a crescendo effect, or slow buildup.  The first time I realized this as important in a live event was when I went to see Richie Havens many years ago. The show started off slow and tame, but as it went on I came to the realization that I was slowly being reeled in, like a fish on a line.  Not soon after I had the same experience at an Arlo Guthrie show. Professional musicians are masters at this ability.  The Who were among them.  Recorded proof finally burst through with later releases of Live at Leeds which have included more and more of the set list. That evening in Humarock, Mac and I were listening to the whole 33 song event. That Planet-aligning vision, coinciding with my Live at Leeds eureka moment, was no fluke:  I was opening my eyes to a gravitational pull on multiple fronts that night.  (** Side Note # 2: Live at Leeds was the only live recording the Who released in Keith Moon’s lifetime, which dumbfounds me knowing their top-notch reputation as a live act).

Live at Leeds is a 4-man freak show.  It borders on sensory overload.  The Who had everything going for them that evening (and many others), and were masterful on all accounts: Drums, guitar, bass, lead and backing vocals.  Although the entirety of Live at Leeds is mind-numbingly good, I’ll cherry-pick out a couple of highlights here.  First, if I had to introduce someone who was completely alien to the Who’s music to try and define them, I might start with the Live at Leeds version of “Happy Jack”, which captures all their energy and potency in 3 minutes, and then I would compare it to the studio version.  This live version somehow replicates note for note the studio version, but in much more dynamic fashion because it is live.  The amazing thing about it is the studio version is by no means easy to replicate (it actually sounds live itself), and everything seems to be moving at 78 RPM.  But the Who pull it off.   Keith Moon’s drumming is mesmerizing.  Pete Townshend’s guitar work is majestic, as is John Entwistle’s bass and Roger Daltrey’s lead vocals.  Even the Townshend/Entwistle backing vocals are spot-on stupendous. And it’s all note for note (most incredibly Moon’s drums), syllable for syllable, and pitch for pitch (i.e. “lap, lap, lap”).  My point here is, even if you have never heard this song before, you could compare a studio listen of “Happy Jack” to the live version and I believe you would be astounded.

Other moments on Live at Leeds are not so emulative.  One of them is “My Generation”, the second to last number played at Leeds, and this week’s Big Top entry.  “My Generation” has been constantly tweaked in the Who’s live set throughout their 50-plus year career.  The version on “Live at Leeds” is likely one of their longest, taking up most of side 2 of the original album release (the only other song on side 2 was the encore, “Magic Bus”).  Its proof that a Who extended jam could rival anyone’s including the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead.

To witness the Who at their Punk best one only needs to watch the opening scene to the movie The Kids are Alright (“My friends call me Keith you can call me John”) which thankfully, Rolling Stone Magazine has posted on the web ( http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/flashback-the-who-blow-up-smothers-brothers-in-primetime-20160304 ).  It is a truly fascinating moment in pop-music history, and one that no band will likely ever be able to get away with again (for those who do not know what I am talking about, I’ll leave the resolution to this anticipation up to the video link to showcase). 

Years ago great friend Kurt posed the question to me “If you had to choose any event to attend from the past, what would it be”?  It’s a great question.  I immediately rolled out a few concert events, including Woodstock and the Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps tour.  I caught him by surprise, as he was thinking along the lines of sporting events (Bobby Orr’s Stanley Cup winner for example).  But after hearing me out, he reconsidered.  Anyhow, I’ve been thinking more about this exchange all week as I listened to Live at Leeds. No doubt I am adding it to my wish list.  It really is a seminal recording and must have been brilliant to have witnessed in the flesh.   I was once in the sensory-overload crowd with this album, but not anymore.  Through stars aligning, or gravitational pull or luck or blessing or wisdom or a little of it all, I’ve been transported to the other side.

I’ll close with a few images.  The first is a poster that Madeline and Jeff (who receive these weekly rants) presented to me on my 50th birthday.  It’s so punk, and so I dedicate this entry to these two great friends.  The second photo is one of my all-time favorite Who photos which is a caption in Richard Barnes sensational book The Who: Maximum R & B.  It’s another punk moment I could not pass on adding here (note the action-reaction between Pete Townshend and the preppy crowd).  Finally, I add those 4 recent Rolling Stone covers.  Let’s hope 2016 is done with taking away some of the great musicians of our time.


- Pete





 

 




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