Listening To You: The Who at The Isle of Wight Festival FILM review
Apr 24, 2007, 04:01
LISTENING TO YOU: THE WHO AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL directed by Murray Lerner; 1996
I love New York. Just knowing all the things you can do and see is almost as great as actually doing or seeing â€˜em. Naturally, it follows that I rarely have the time, dough or energy enough to indulge my desires. You gotta prioritize, right? So, I'm glad I managed to squeeze my ever-widening butt into a plush plastic seat at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. Last September the Film Society stepped outside of its usual dry and academic role and put on a program entitled Cine Rock: Loud Films, Rare Music. Curated by a Cleesian professor who fancied himself an expert on rock film and television, the series featured no-surprise classics like Rust Never Sleeps, A Hard Day's Night, and The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. But, it was the inclusion of many saliva-inducing rarities that enticed my Brooklyn-bound self to explore Manhattan's Upper West Side in search of rock kulcha. Sadly, I missed the 1975 BBC Queen concert; Punkin' Out, documenting the CBGB's scene circa 1977; and Hype, the (then) soon-to-be-released filmic evidence of the commodification of 1990s Seattle rock.
My good fortune was to view the currently unavailable Ladies and Gentleman, the Rolling Stones featuring a hyper-sexualized Mick Jagger, a motivated Charlie Watts and a laconic Mick Taylor. The last named providing some unusual Les Paul fueled hard rock chunk to the band, though his noodling grew tiresome as the axe grew bored and impatient with its keeper.
Anyway, the never before shown Listening to You... was a soul affirming, gut kicking, cinematic destroyer of a flick shot by the film maker who also caught Hendrix at the same festival. As the first drop of sound leaked out of the meager theater speakers, my jaw dropped, my heart stopped and my hair blew back. I was rapt, caught like a deer in headlights, immobilized for 85 minutes. “A Quick One,” excerpted from the Rolling Stones Rock n' Roll Circus (it too unseen until now, available on VHS and Laserdisc and accompanied last September by a huge release screening, party and promotional push—previously shelved due to the Stones being blown off the stage by The Who!), seen in the Who's The Kids are Alright, comes close. And certainly the re-mastered and extended Live at Leeds CD is second in the running, featuring a similar set (both the Isle of Wight and Leeds concerts open with John Entwistle's charging “Heaven and Hell”). But this film documents a gig even more ferocious, with The Who at the peak of their creative and performing powers.
The set begins at 2 a.m. on August 30, 1970. Townshend is in requisite white jumper and Docs, with much flooding; a clean-shaven Entwistle sports the coolest full-length leather white on black skeleton outfit. I can always forgive Roger Daltrey's fringes and goldy locks and Keith Moon might as well be naked considering the blurred shroud of his manic, meth and alcohol-fueled funny car drumming. There's no riser and the four musicians are within steps of each other. GGGGUDDAANGG and they're off to the races. Entwistle and Moon never stop their rolling, thunderous steam locomotive and Daltrey's throat is wide open, releasing shouts and sweetness. And it's up to Pete to pick up the gauntlet laid down by his mates.
When reviewing comments made then and since by Mr. Townshend it's reasonable to surmise that his opinion of his music and his band, whilst fluid, was generally positive. It's also reasonable to surmise, however, that he found his responsibility as the guitarist in a live setting, quite daunting. His ground-breaking big amp bluster and bravado were at least partially in response to the virtuosity of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and their respective power trios. Due to a seeming lack in conventional ability as a substantial soloist, Petey created what was to become the archetype of hyper-rhythmic, chord and arpeggio based instrumental proto-power-pop-n-punk instrumental expression (at least up to the point where he switched his Gibson SG for a more polite Les Paul and lowered the volume a notch). He sculpted a sound of percussive abstractions and nut rumbling feedback howls that were arguably more cohesive, band related and musical than Hendrix's. (Sure Jimi was the man, but stylistically the Experience, as well as Cream, explored a more typical trio interplay. And Jeff Beck's brilliant bursts of noise were well integrated into his fluid soloing.) All Townshend could hope to do was play catch-up to Keith and “the Ox,” and in his doing so The Who developed a strikingly modern and original, small ensemble, loud rock text. Listening to You is a roiling hour and a half example of this constant combustion—“Sparks” indeed!
The set list of standards, unexpected treats and pulverized covers is complemented by the extensive Tommy tunes which are revealed to be formally classic and easily expanded guitar rock boilerplates. The Who at this one moment in time had a unique sound enveloping unique songs. Naturally occurring melodies you never heard anywhere else are snagged from the air by giant chords and riffs and buried by a wall of bass and drum bricks falling in space. They were sonic like no band at the time and few since (witness the MC5's noted adoration of their Union Jack draped contemporaries). The frightening and glorious beauty in their power, and power of their beauty are displayed in this rare film. (Late notice: I've just been informed that Listening to You is indeed available on Sony/Legacy laserdisc and as an audio release entitled Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 on Sony/Legacy CD.)