For years, serious Who fans have salivated over the rumored existence of a half-hour version of "My Generation" from the Fillmore East in April 1968. Could such a vault treasure seriously exist when no known live versions of the song lasted much longer than a quarter of an hour? Well, not only is the epic "My Generation" real; as we can hear on a new archival set, Live at the Fillmore East 1968, it helped plant the seed for the most famous rock opera of all time.
When we think of the Who as one of the greatest live bands in rock, that well-deserved rep usually originates with the gigs they unleashed on the world following the massive success of Tommy in 1969. Tommy made the Who financially viable, when just the year before, there was doubt whether the quartet would be carrying on for much longer. Failed singles and a ton of busted-up gear don't tend to make for a surplus of funds.
Which could have meant that the two shows the band gave 50 years ago this month at NYC's Fillmore East – on April 5th and 6th, 1968 – might have numbered among their last, and we would not have Live at the Fillmore East 1968, a set to rival even the mighty Live at Leeds in the tussle for best live Who album.
In their now-perpetual disarray after the release of The Who Sell Out, with Pete Townshend contemplating such airy thoughts as a rock band taking a stab at opera, Who manager Keith Lambert thought some well-recorded Fillmore tapes could make for a nice stopgap album.
This live incarnation of the Who was unlike any other that would follow. Their onstage performances were usually tight, faster than on record, a blend of art rock, Mod, and thumping Tamla-soul influences, filtered through an amphetamine haze.
Keith Moon was not yet hailed as a master drummer, and Townshend's guitar prowess was something even he wasn't keen on, telling Rolling Stone, around the time, "I find it hard to believe if anyone rates me as a guitarist at all."
The tapes, in soundboard form, made it out on the bootleg market with the infamous Trademark of Quality label in the early 1970s. The Who were simply staggering, creating an English Wall of Sound in NYC via a three-piece and a singer still finding himself, that managed to sound more Wagnerian than anything Phil Spector had dreamed up.
And not only is there a 33-minute version of "My Generation" occupying the whole of the second disc of Live at the Fillmore East, but with it we can hear the birth of Master Thomas, as Keith Moon would sometimes call the titular hero of Tommy.
Pete Townshend wasn't exactly a stranger to great onstage patter, but even by his Everest-standards of quotability, he had himself some fun at the Fillmore. At one point, he calls the establishment that the Fillmore East used to be, the Village Theater, "a pisshole." At the start of the epic "My Generation," he enters straight into existential mode, as if pondering, aloud, where he and his art fit in within the space-time continuum.
"We thank everyone, again, for coming, and anyone who is just coming, don't worry, because the next one is going to last quite a long time. How long, we don't know ... long enough to get you into it a bit. This is an old one ... and a goodie. It's on my list of classics. ..."
This version of "My Generation" is different from the one that fades out and concludes the old bootleg (which, you might recall, featured a philosophical Townshend treatise about the relationship between packing up your luggage and playing guitar).
Prior to this moment, the Who were a punchy singles combo with arty tendencies. But this is the first time we hear Townshend's burgeoning chops as a developer of leitmotifs more typical of the European classical music stage than a NYC rock club. In essence, this is the sound of the complex ideas of Tommy being demoed, in front of a big old group of strangers.
Speaking of demos to Rolling Stone in 1968, Townshend opined, "What happens is I will suggest the bass riff on the demonstration record," and then everyone "goes from there," which is exactly what you hear play out during this extended number. One musical idea comes to a close, a storming, buzzing, mighty blaze of a riff, and Townshend's guitar, with its lower notes, cues everyone off in another direction.
We hear chordal progressions that would become the famous "Overture" to Tommy, amazing back and forth between bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon that would be slightly altered to form the basis of "Sparks," and undulating polyrhythms of snare and tom that Townshend would have Moon rein in to become the percussive backbone of "Underture."
"'My Generation' is a story," Townshend remarked in 1968, shortly after these shows. "I'm getting storier and storier. The next album" – Tommy, that is – "is just a huge, complicated, complex story, with lots and lots of aspects that are gonna come out in the future."
It's fascinating that Townshend thought to link up "My Generation," the ultimate early Who single from their aggro-rock zenith, and the rock opera that would in many ways underscore their intellectual gravitas.
The story of Tommy is told as much through those reoccurring musical motifs and signatures as it is through lyrics detailing the plight and triumph of a deaf, dumb, blind boy. If anyone knew on that night where the epic "My Generation" would lead, it was only Pete Townshend. But what a glint he must have had in his eye.