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I've always been a casual fan of The Who, meaning I've been a longtime owner and listener of their greatest-hits album. But that's about as deep as it's gone. Until now.
See, I just watched the documentary, Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
While their story is a familiar one (four young lads form a band and hit it big in the 1960's, eventually becoming arena gods until excess and age begin to catch up with them), Amazing Journey benefits from the cooperation and candor of The Who's surviving members, which include, of course, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, as well as a couple of former managers and Kenney Jones, the drummer who replaced the irreplaceable Keith Moon.
Of course, in its broad outlines, this story is the same as the stories of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But the devil is always in the details, isn't it? And the devils revealed by Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who are (at least for me) mesmerizing.
First, there is the unbridled energy of The Who's live performances, which is evident from even the earliest clips of the band.
Keith Moon played drums like he was literally on fire, as if he needed to hit every drum in his kit as often as possible, constantly playing fills and rolls. It was as if Moon were always playing solos rather than providing backing beats for the band. And the same went with John Entwistle's bass-playing, which consisted mainly of very aggressive lines played at very high volume, in stark contrast to his physical stage presence, which was often (with the exception of his very busy fingers) statuesque.
This rhythm section coupled raucously with Pete Townshend's guitar mastery (which could turn in an instant from intricacy to bombast, with Townshend accentuating his strums with his trademark pinwheeling arm) and Roger Daltrey's throaty, emotive vocals and almost-messianic stage poses, creating the perfect arena-rock band.
Often, when talking about a particular band's performance, you'll hear the term "tightness" used, which refers to how well the band's components work together to create musical effects. Well, The Who was a tight band, but they were also deeply competitive on-stage, so that they often appeared to be a quartet of performers who were dueling each other for the lead line of a given song, sometimes by merely cranking up their amplifiers.
It didn't hurt that Townshend and Moon occasionally amped-up the spectacle by destroying their instruments, which they claim was a direct inspiration for Jimi Hendrix.
And Townshend's material evolved likewise, from the 3-minute singles of their early albums to the rock operas and anthems of their later career. In Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who, both Daltrey and Townshend are frank about the toll that the band's reliance on Townshend-as-scribe had on their relationships. Anyone who has had to deal with the pressure of being creative on demand will sympathize with the frustration and alienation it causes.
Inserted testimonials from the likes of The Edge, Noel Gallagher, Sting, Steve Jones and Eddie Vedder also help inflate the mythic quality of the story, but thankfully their presence is judicious and unobtrusive. The documentary itself does quite a lot of hagiography, so it really doesn't need any celebrity assistance.
But, like all of us, even the members of The Who were all-too-human. And, while of course it's painful to watch the likes of Moon and Entwistle succumb to the excesses of their appetites, it's also comforting to see the survivors reach a level of maturity and acceptance with themselves and their legacy, attaining a kind of hard-won wisdom (as if there's any other kind).
The second disk of Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who is as rich as the first, with segments dedicated to each original member of the band, as well as a segment detailing their aesthetic milieu (a la pop art and the mods) and a final part showing Daltrey & Townshend at work on a contemporary project, a 2003 recording of the song, "A Real Good Looking Boy," with Greg Lake, among others, joining them.
In the end, it all makes me wish I'd made it to one of those concerts in the mid-to-late 1970's when The Who were at the peak of their powers and theatricality. But knowing what I know now, I also wouldn't mind seeing them as they are today -- men who have lived and loved and created and who are still going at it, wiser and more appreciative for having survived the journey.