June 20, 2018

The Who Times Two

The Who performing in Chicago, 1975; L–R, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend.
wikimedia commons, Jim Summaria

The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968 and the 45th anniversary expanded edition of Pete Townshend’s Who Came First

From the time Keith Moon joined the band in 1964, the Who were renowned as one of the most exciting live acts in rock — if not the most exciting. It wasn’t until 1970’s Live at Leeds, however, that the group released a concert recording. And even in the numerous unofficial live recordings that have circulated for decades (the first actually dating back to 1964), nothing’s emerged with decent fidelity from before April 5, 1968, when they played the first of two dates at the Fillmore East.

That concert — or much of it, at any rate — has long been heard by fans on bootlegs (taken from an acetate of recordings from both nights) that are missing a few songs from their set of the period, and on which a long fiery version of “Relax” is cruelly cut off in the midst of a lengthy instrumental break. Fortunately, however, the next night was taped too. Even more fortunately, Universal’s now come out with a two-CD set of material from the April 6 show, plainly titled The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968, near the fiftieth anniversary of when it took place.

Especially for those unfamiliar with the bootlegged material, the set will come as something of a surprise. Some of the songs are concise, faithful performances of the early hits that made them stars in their native UK and a burgeoning cult act in the US, including “I Can’t Explain,” “I’m a Boy,” and their first substantial American hit, “Happy Jack.” There are also a couple favorites from their second LP: the mini-opera “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” and “Boris the Spider,” probably the most beloved John Entwistle composition.

Yet there are also a good number of classic rock covers the group hadn’t yet put on their records, and sometimes never would place on their discs. It’s not too unusual to hear “Shakin’ All Over” (which wanders into a riff from the Spencer Davis Group smash “I’m a Man” at one point) and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” both of which would feature on Live at Leeds, recorded just under a couple years later. Less expected are two other Cochran tunes, “C’mon Everybody” and the far more obscure “My Way” (so obscure, indeed, that it was mistitled “Easy Going Guy” on early bootlegs).

They also tackle “Fortune Teller,” the Allen Toussaint-penned early-’60s New Orleans R&B classic (recorded in 1963 by fellow UK bands the Rolling Stones and the Merseybeats), disclosed in Pete Townshend’s introduction to have been played for the first time at these concerts. And it shows — though it’s a heavier arrangement than the Stones’, the harmonies audibly falter at the end of the first verse.

There’s also the off-the-wall “Little Billy,” commissioned as an anti-smoking commercial by the American Cancer Society. Townshend announces it as a possible upcoming single, though it’s hard to see it getting issued in the wake of their recent breakthrough US Top Ten hit “I Can See for Miles” (not played at this show, oddly enough). “Little Billy” didn’t appear on a single, or at all until 1974’s Odds & Sods collection.

who came firstMost adventurous of all are two songs stretched out way beyond the length of their studio versions. “Relax,” a quasi-psychedelic highlight of late 1967’s classic LP The Who Sell Out, gets extended to eleven-plus minutes (and you finally get to hear a full uncut version here), with some extended way-out wobbly Townshend guitar soloing, the riff from Tommy’s “Underture” surfacing at one point. Not music to “Relax” to by any means, it’s intense improvisation, with Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon rocking louder and harder than any other trios of the day, rivaled only by Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience in those departments.

A 33-minute “My Generation” — you read that right, 33 minutes, not three minutes — takes up all of side two. It’s arguably too long, especially if you thought the 14-minute one on Live at Leeds was enough. It’s certainly different, though, and a signpost to where the Who were going in their onstage act, which would get harder, louder, and longer as the ‘60s turned to the ‘70s. Also, different, though not much longer, is “A Quick One,” which inserts the lyric “you are forgiven by the very act of creation” in its finale.

For those familiar with the bootleg from an acetate that Who manager/producer Kit Lambert made of performances from the Fillmore East shows, some of this new release will overlap with what they already have, though the fidelity’s better. And the absence of the April 5 cuts that did make it onto the acetate means you don’t have to throw away that boot yet, though the April 6 versions are similar.

In all, however, it’s a fine and worthy document of the Who as they made inroads into the United States and moved away from their power pop base to a heavier, more spontaneous approach, onstage at any rate. It was mixed from the original four-track tapes by longtime Who sound engineer Bob Pridden (who was already working as the band’s soundman at the actual Fillmore East shows). Bob spoke to me about the material shortly before its release.

“The band was so hot at that time,” he enthuses. “They were going through a transition period from breaking America [the shows coming at the end of a six-week tour], working hard at it, plus getting away from the singles era into an album era. The band was very, very tight, mainly because we were working so much.

“They were stretching out and jamming a bit more and opening up. They were not just playing it the same as the record. They were stepping out and extending the things. Pete was playing a lot of guitar solos. It was jamming inserted into some of the songs.”

who live at fillmoreWhen Pridden heard the bootleg made from the acetates, he admits, “I was horrified at it. It was terrible. I couldn’t listen to it. I probably wanted to cut my wrists. It was awful.” But “then they produced the four-tracks for me to listen to, and as we progressed along, cleaning it up, it started to dawn on me how special that gig was. Because it was numbers like ‘Relax,’ ‘My Way’ — the Eddie Cochran number — and the first time we ever played ‘Fortune Teller.’ And it’s probably one of the first times that we recorded, live, the mini-opera [‘A Quick One’]. It was probably one of the first times they played ‘Boris the Spider’ on that tour as well.”

What were the biggest challenges in working with nearly half-century-old tapes? “Cleaning it up and making the tape presentable for me to mix was the longer job,” he responds. “It was a pretty messy recording. There was quite a bit of leakage. The first two tracks [‘Substitute’ and ‘Pictures of Lily’] were missing, they weren’t recorded. I thought, ‘My god, what have we let ourselves in for? This really needs cleaning up, it really needs a lot of work.’ I left Richard [Whittaker] with that; he said, ‘I’ll sort that out and give you a call to come and mix it.’ It was an excellent salvage job, thanks to Richard. Mixing it was a delight, once we sorted it out. We managed to pull it off. This was turning from an ugly duck to a bloody swan.”

Lambert might have recorded the shows with an eye to putting out an album, at a time when the Who’s live act was both already becoming legendary and showing facets of the band that weren’t fully evident on their studio recordings. Why wasn’t it released in 1968? “I don’t think it was ever meant to be an album, to tell you the truth,” Pridden muses. “I knew it was being recorded, but I didn’t know what for. It certainly wasn’t recorded to be an album, I know that for a fact. Because we hadn’t even thought about it then. It had been talked about, but making a live album didn’t come along until a bit later, when we did the groundwork for Live at Leeds. It would have been like a year or two later that we started thinking of a live album.”

As someone who’s heard more live Who than just about anyone, how would Pridden compare Live at Leeds with Live at the Fillmore East 1968? “I think Live at Leeds is much better recorded album, definitely,” he declares. “To me, it was a great album. It’s a whole different period. This is much rawer, and more ragged around the edges. That’s what I liked about these things. And it’s so much energy there. Although Live at Leeds, there’s a lot of energy too. I thought Live at Leeds is definitely a better album, but this is jolly well up there with it.”

OTHER WHO NEWS: WHILE THERE are no other Who catalog projects on the horizon this year, in April Universal also released a two-CD expanded edition of Pete Townshend’s fine 1972 debut solo album, Who Came First. The first disc is a remastered (by Townshend and longtime Who associate Jon Astley) version of the album. These songs gave Pete the chance to present rather gentler, more introspective tunes than he usually penned for the Who. He could also be the primary (as opposed to the occasional) lead singer in his thin, high, wavering, yet engagingly heartfelt voice.

In addition to his own quality versions of songs that were also recorded by the Who (the Who’s Next/Lifehouse outtakes “Pure and Easy” and “Time Is Passing,” and the non-LP Who single “Let’s See Action”), there are also somewhat uncharacteristic ventures that could have only found a place on an extracurricular project. Some of these served as reflections of his spiritual beliefs. Townshend buddy (and fellow Meher Baba devotee) Ronnie Lane takes lead vocals on the rustic-but-rousing “Evolution”; the lovely solo piano meditation “Content” is a poem by another Meher Baba follower (Maud Kennedy), set to music and sung by Townshend; and “Parvardigar” is adapted from Meher Baba’s “Universal Prayer,” again set to music and sung by Pete.

In a different vein, the utterly unexpected “There’s a Heartache Following Me” covers a smash hit by middle-of-the-road country star Jim Reeves, as it was one of Meher Baba’s favorite songs. For those who just wanted a good old Townshend-like tune, there’s “Sheraton Gibson,” his lilting ode to missing home on the road.

Of more interest to major fans is the second disc, which has no less than seventeen bonus tracks, some of them previously unreleased. The first seven songs all appeared as bonus cuts on Hip-O’s 2006 extended edition of Who Came First. Six of those were taken from 1970s various-artist LPs primarily circulated within the Meher Baba community (though these were naturally quickly bootlegged).

Although sometimes more primitively produced than the Who Came First tracks, these were generally in the same league and of the same vibe, highlighted by Townshend’s solo version of the Who hit “The Seeker”; the languid, melancholy “Day of Silence,” which easily measured up to the best of Who Came First; “Mary Jane,” a country-flavored hoedown not far in tone from Ronnie Lane’s similar efforts of the same era; and a left-field, but quite good, version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” (another of Meher Baba’s favorite songs). A wholly instrumental, synthesizer-dominated arrangement of “Baba O’Reilly” — again taken from one of the limited-press Meher Baba LPs — is a welcome additional presence here, especially as it hasn’t been used as a bonus cut on previous Who Came First CDs, though the bluesy outtake “I Always Say” is pedestrian.

That leaves nine previously unreleased tracks, and while those are the main attractions for Who/Townshend completists, they’re also not as interesting as the other extras. “The Love Man,” a nice slice of assertive romanticism, is subtitled “Stage C” as (according to Townshend’s liner notes) “it is a penultimate ‘stage’ in my reel-to-reel recording method,” though it’s not too different from the version used as a bonus cut on previous expanded editions. A variation on “Content” subtitled “Stage A” has a plainer arrangement than the LP version and suffers from its sparseness.

There’s also a ghostly, largely instrumental version of “Day of Silence” that doesn’t measure up to the one that made the cut. An alternate of “Parvardigar” has a bridge/interlude between some verses and is missing the synthesizer doodlings and percussion that punctuate the Who Came First track, sounding more intimate and low-key, if less creatively adorned. And there’s an incomplete solo acoustic take (still lasting four minutes) of “Nothing Is Everything,” aka “Let’s See Action.”

Disc two closes with four songs that haven’t previously been attached to Who Came First editions in any form, though a few don’t really belong here. We finally get to hear the pleasing, if non-earthshaking, wistful midtempo folk-rocker “There’s a Fortune in Those Hills.” The May 14, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone described it as a “slow wailing country song” earmarked for the Who’s next studio LP, though this is the first time it’s circulated in any guise.

The final three tracks have more tenuous connections to the early-‘70s era in which the actual Who Came First LP was cut. “Meher Baba in Italy,” the title theme for a 1976 film Townshend produced about Meher Baba’s times in Italy, is a pleasant but minor instrumental combining synthesizer washes with guitar, sometimes simulating mandolin-like patterns suitable for cruising canals on the gondola. The solo acoustic performance of Quadrophenia’s “Drowned” was recorded live in India by an Australian film crew in 1976, featuring mighty hasty strumming and, of course, Townshend’s vocal in place of the familiar one by Roger Daltrey on the Who’s version. The live performance of “Evolution” that concludes the set was recorded at a Ronnie Lane memorial concert in 2004, and it’s obvious from the deepened voice of Townshend’s spoken introduction how much time has passed since the rest of the material on this release was recorded.

Although this 45th anniversary deluxe edition of Who Came First is the longest version of the album yet released, it’s not definitive. It’s missing “Lantern Cabin,” a nice delicate, moody piano instrumental (first released, like “His Hands” and “Sleeping Dog,” on the 1976 Meher Baba tribute LP With Love) that’s appeared on previous Who Came First expanded editions. Certainly, it should have been given precedence over the live performance of “Evolution.” Even hardcore fans might feel short-changed by the relative paucity of actual brand new material on the two-CD set, though that’s the way it often is with deluxe anniversary editions.

At least you get lengthy new liner notes by Pete Townshend with track-by-track details, though unfortunately these don’t reprint the brief track notes penned by Pete on the back cover of the original LP. (The notes also present Mike McInnerney’s memory of how he came up with the Wave painting that was part of the original LP’s artwork; the painting is included in this expanded edition as a foldout poster.) And if you want to read more from the Who, Roger Daltrey’s autobiography is due in the fall.


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