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The Kids Are Alright: Fifteen Years of The Who

The Who documentary captures the spirit of rock and roll over the past fifteen years

August 9, 1979

In September 1967, the Who made an appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that surely ranks as one of the greatest bits of rock & roll mayhem ever to grace network television. They were almost through a raveup on ''My Generation,'' complete with all the standard special effects of the period: smoke bombs, cracked amps, smashed mikes and busted guitars. Keith Moon had even worked up a surprise gimmick for the occasion: he'd had his bass drum rigged with gunpowder.

According to the legend, what the producers didn't know was that Moon had spent the interval between rehearsal and show time bribing the stagehand charged with loading explosives with twenty-dollar bills and nips from Keith's ever-ready hip flask. By air time, Moon had so successfully befuddled the hapless crewman that his bass drum held ten times as much gunpowder as it should have had.

The Who Come to a Fork in the Road

The blast threw Moon off the drum riser and sent cymbal shrapnel slicing through his arm. Pete Townshend's left ear took the full force of the explosion, which also did in a camera and the studio's monitors. Nonplussed, Tommy Smothers entered from the wings, an acoustic guitar strapped round his neck. Spying him, Townshend forgot the ringing in his ears, grabbed the guitar, smacked it on the floor and put his foot through it. Backstage, Bette Davis fainted dead away into the arms of Mickey Rooney.

This sequence opens Jeff Stein's Who documentary, The Kids Are Alright, on a note of slapstick chaos that doesn't let up for two hours. For the unconverted, The Kids Are Alright offers a glimpse of rock & roll as it was always meant to be: a force of elemental anarchy that dispels gloom without denying it exists. And for veteran Who fans, ''It proves that the Who were the greatest rock & roll band in the world,'' as director Stein put it.

The Kids Are Alright highlights the Who's fifteen-year career, from silent footage at London's Scene Club in 1965 to the final concert with Moon at Shepperton Film Studios in 1978. In between there was Monterey, Woodstock (''I 'ated it,'' Townshend tells an interviewer), television interviews in which Townshend nearly falls asleep and Moon and Townshend shred each other's shirt sleeves, montage sequences of each member and a number of superior performance clips, including the first official release of anything from the legendary Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, the 1968 TV special. Since all of this unspools at a furious pace, without subtitles or narration, The Kids Are Alright has struck some observers as a muddle. New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin called Stein's viewpoint ''willfully uninformative.'' In fact, Stein says, his aim was to make a film as self-referential and potentially alienating as rock is at its best.

Curiously, the band members seem indifferent to the film. Although John Entwistle, new drummer Kenney Jones and Townshend were in town the weekend the movie opened, only Entwistle, who mixed the soundtrack, showed any interest. (Roger Daltrey stayed in London, where he's making a film entitled McVicar.)

''I don't think this movie is a very significant part of my life or the Who's life,'' said Townshend, sitting in his suite at the Navarro Hotel, scene of some of the group's most eloquent mischief. ''Its new significance was never meant to be. The new weight that's been added to it is Keith's dying – with Keith's immaculate sense of timing.''

Those are strange sentiments for Townshend, previously so obsessed with the Who's history that when the band's singles compilation album, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, was issued in 1971, he himself reviewed it in Rolling Stone.

Which leaves it up to the kids, who are quite capable of carrying on the Who tradition by themselves. (In New York, where the film opened June 15th, lines went around the block the first weekend, and on the opening night, the kids took over Fifty-eighth Street outside the Plaza Theatre, forcing cops to cordon it off.) And that's all right with Stein, 25, who's been a fanatic since 1965, when he heard about this group that did a song called ''My Generation'' and then broke up all its equipment. ''After hearing it,'' he remembers, ''I knew, and from then on, I had the disease.''

By 1975, after meeting the band and publishing a photo book about them, Stein finally got the opportunity to broach the idea he'd nurtured for years – to make a documentary about the band.

''I went up to the hotel where Pete was getting ready for the première of Tommy,'' Stein recalls. ''There he was, with his neat little suitcase, polishing his shoes – that was the beginning of the image shattering for me.

''I said, let me put together a compilation for those who yearn for the days of the Smothers Brothers and the Murray the K shows. So you're freed from 'Jump, Pete, jump' and 'Smash your guitar, Pete.'

''Pete came out of the bathroom where he was brushing his teeth and said [imitating Townshend with a mouthful of Pepsodent], 'Thash sha good idea. Lesh do it.'"

Stein spent the next year seeking financing (the Who eventually put up the nearly $2 million production costs themselves) and gathering film clips. It was the classic beg, borrow and steal routine; on their first date, Jeff took his girlfriend to a screening of some Townshend guitar-smashing clips from another project. Halfway through the screening, his girlfriend noticed that Jeff had been stuffing her pocketbook full of the film as it unrolled through the projector.

By early 1976, when the Who were back in New York to play Madison Square Garden, Stein and his editor, Ed Rothowitz, had assembled the Smothers Brothers footage; the group's riotous BBC interview with Russell Harty in which Moon strips off his clothes, rips Townshend's sleeve and generally performs like an unhouse-broken but lovable puppy; the ''Young Man Blues'' sequence from a 1969 concert in London; a Keith Moon montage set to ''Cobwebs and Strange''; some early – silent, unfortunately – footage of the High Numbers/Who at London's Scene Club; and the ridiculous ''Tommy, Can You Hear Me?'' a cappella performance from Germany's Beat Club TV show.

The Punk Meets the Godmother: Pete Townshend Looks Back

He set up a screening of the seventeen-minute film, and ''after the first minute they were screaming, in tears,'' Stein recalls. ''Pete was punching and smacking Keith during the Smothers Brothers episode, especially after the explosion. 'That's where I lost me fuckin' hearing!' he kept saying. 'That's where I lost it! I knew it! I knew it!' Pete was laughing so hard, he was literally banging his head on the floor. Keith was screaming and jumping up and down, of course. 'Tommy, Can You Hear Me?' tore the house down – I knew then that they understood the real meaning of 'Tommy,'" he smirks. ''So I thought, well now I want to show them that we'll be fair and I put in 'Young Man Blues,' and Pete was riveted. He turned to me in the middle of it and whispered, 'Where's this from?' And they said, 'Yeah, go ahead and do it.' To me, this is still the highlight of the project.''

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