The Kids Are Alright: Fifteen Years of The Who

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

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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.''

In typical Who fashion, the film took about three times as long to complete as expected, but it was worth the wait. For those who love this band, The Kids Are Alright is as near to the realization of our dreams as we are likely to come. The Who were always the one band that refused to conceal its inner conflicts and torments. There's no copping out here, either. And Stein never loses sight of the fact that the music was what made it all mean anything.

In another way, too, Stein tells the real story. After the first fifteen minutes, in which we've seen Moon young and at his peak, Stein cuts to the version of ''Baba O'Riley'' shot at Shepperton in spring 1978. Moon struggles to keep up with the rest of the group – themselves looking a bit faded – which only makes their remarkable performance seem more miraculous. But there's something scary in seeing what time, rock's ultimate enemy, has done to the best drummer in the history of the music. And there's something scary in Townshend's admission that what he is now is ''a desperate old fart . . . not boring, though.''

Finally, though, it's Keith's movie. Stein shows Moon in a variety of antic stunts, from the Keystone Kops-style promo film for ''Happy Jack'' to a bizarre sadomasochistic interlude at a Hollywood porn emporium. Moon also provides the film's most sobering comment. Asked by the cameraman to tell the truth for once, an overweight, bearded and beleaguered Moon turns his eyes upward. ''The truth as you want to know it? Oh no, dear boy. No, I'm afraid you couldn't afford me.''

Keith Moon: The Different Drummer

Stein's been accused of making no statement at all, but I think he's made a major statement about what's happened to rock in the past fifteen years – and what's happened to those who tried to follow it.

''The message is there in the last three songs – 'My Generation,' 'Won't Get Fooled Again' and 'Long Live Rock,'" Stein explains. ''When we were younger, 'My Generation' summed it all up for us, in terms of anger and self-destruction. 'Won't Get Fooled Again' is about being a generation that wanted to become a force and how we all had let ourselves down. We were the New Boss and we were the same as the old bosses. We were cynical now instead of just angry; we had gotten our way and we had fucked up.

''But at the end, I put 'Long Live Rock,' which is a basic roots type of song in the Chuck Berry mold, because that song's a celebration of rock & roll. And that's what the Who is. That in spite of fucking up, rock & roll was still something worth dreaming about, something worth fighting for, and it had been worth loving. And no matter how cynical one gets, it is 'Long live rock, we need it every nite.'"

In that sense, The Kids Are Alright stands at the opposite pole from the other great rock documentary of our era, Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, where the audience was genuinely irrelevant; rock was no longer a matter of idealism and passion, violence and alienation. It had become a streamlined money machine, truly musical but also truly a commodity.

At the end of the film, Stein has captured the definitive ''Won't Get Fooled Again.'' Quite accidentally, as it happened. The show had closed with that song, but Stein, who was filming, didn't feel it was as ''definitive'' as he wanted. So he went backstage to try to convince a band that never did encores to do it again. ''A definitive end!'' Townshend replied facetiously. ''What would you like me to do, go out there and fall asleep while playing, or just die onstage or better yet just smash that motherfucker over the head with me guitar who keeps yelling out 'Magic Bus.'"

The song begins with Townshend in a comic rage, wiggling his hips in a true parody of his legend, leaping and grimacing in mock savagery. But when Daltrey lets loose that final scream and the lasers shut off, the lights come back up to reveal Townshend in an astounding, knees-bent leap across the width of the stage, sliding on the floor as he hits the chords. A few bars later, he's smashing his guitar, the satire gone; if he ever meant it, he means it now, as he raises his red Gibson high above his head and sacrifices it one last time. ''Sacrificed for us,'' says Jeff Stein, ''and for everything we ever wanted – and for the moment. That moment is the moment, all we ever lived for and the moment we'll always remember. For that, I'm grateful.''

American Grandstand: Bang the Drum Loudly

Me too, but it's hard not to remember with equal clarity what comes next. Moon climbs painfully over his drum kit – which had been nailed down so he couldn't destroy it – to join the others at the front of the stage, where they wave goodbye as ''Long Live Rock'' fills the theater. As if he knew it was the last one, Keith reaches round for a hug and a kiss from each of the others, a last goodbye. And Pete Townshend, rock's once and future Sun King, stands and waves, his eyes red from the tears, while the camera pulls back one last time, to show a sea of hands raised and waving, saying goodbye for all of us to the final expression of our dream, our innocence, our vision.

The Who can duck The Kids Are Alright and the comment it makes about their career. But they'll never duck that moment, which is as close to the truth about rock & roll as anything that ever hit the screen. It's not only an emblem of the last time rock captured you; it's a symbol of the first. The last words belong to Jeff Stein.

''What sums it all up for me,'' he says, ''is that after the first time my brother and I saw the Who at the Fillmore, we walked out of the theater not caring if we got run over by the Second Avenue bus. Because we knew we would go straight to rock & roll Valhalla.''

This story is from the August 9th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 297: August 9, 1979