At Kilburn: 1977
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2008, Volume 15, #12
Written by John Metzger
Sun December 21, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
At Kilburn: 1977, the latest archival release from The Who, takes its title from a concert that was staged in December 1977 for the purpose of providing footage for The Kids Are Alright, a feature-length documentary about the band that was being assembled by untested director Jeff Stein. The show was, in a sense, a celebration of everything The Who had accomplished over the preceding decade, as it transformed itself from the quirky British Invasion act that had made Sell Out into the full-fledged, arena-ready outfit that had crafted Who’s Next. Superficially, the two versions of The Who were as different as night and day, but the story that is told when the main attraction of At Kilburn: 1977 is combined with a bonus set from 1969 provides enough insight to make sense of it all.
In this regard, The Who’s At Kilburn: 1977 is much more than just another assembled package of old material that has been bundled together and shipped to stores in time for the holidays. For starters, the group’s performance at the Gaumont State Theatre in December 1977 was captured on 16-track recording equipment as well as 35mm film, meaning that The Who was able to present a professionally mounted concert movie, the bulk of which has never been seen before. Right from the outset of the show, the band apologized for being rusty after its year-long hiatus from touring. While it’s true that there were moments when The Who faltered — most notably during a terribly flat rendition of Join Together — the ensemble largely uncorked a rather respectable performance.
By 1977, The Who had settled, by necessity, into a fairly standard routine. Its concerts had become huge events that required careful staging. At the same time, just as the music scene had forced the outfit to alter its approach in the early part of the decade, both the advent of punk and the growing popularity of heavy metal were now beginning to weigh quite heavily on the band. Although The Who never really survived the industry’s transition, At Kilburn: 1977 makes the case, via an adrenaline-soaked pairing of Who Are You and Won’t Get Fooled Again, that perhaps this had more to do with the death of drummer Keith Moon than it did with the group’s inability to keep pace with a younger generation.
As the renditions of Summertime Blues and Shakin’ All Over demonstrated, The Who had lost a step since it gave the blistering performances that were documented on Live at Leeds and Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. In effect, the group had swapped some of its frantic energy when it settled into a polished, arena-centered groove. Over the course of the Kilburn show, Roger Daltrey was in fine form as vocalist, and as he oscillated his style between pure majesty and brute force, he delivered the lyrics in a commanding fashion.
Often, however, the songs The Who performed aren’t the reason that At Kilburn: 1977 is so enjoyable, but rather it is what the band did with them after the lyrics had been sung. Baba O’Riley, for example, mutated into a frenzied Irish jig that twirled and whirled around Daltrey’s harmonica accompaniment, and on Dreaming from the Waist, Pete Townshend looked as if he might injure himself as he manically ripped notes from his guitar in his trademark, windmill-style fashion in support of bassist John Entwistle’s furious attack. Likewise, an expanded rendition of My Wife was a blast of melodic mayhem as crushing chords and pounding rhythms combined with rippling bass lines and gritty guitar tones to fill the tune with an air of thrashing, angry violence.
Casual fans of The Who will have to set aside their frustration with the grainy video and subpar sound of the 1969 concert that serves as the second act to At Kilburn: 1977. Captured at the London Coliseum, six months after the band had begun to incorporate its ambitious rock opera Tommy into its performances, the film simply is too good to skip. Because of an array of quality control issues, the program is divided into two parts: The first portion features a truncated version of the show, which was assembled from the better lit and most complete segments that were shot. The second half presents the entirety Tommy as well as the ensemble’s first rock opera (A Quick One While He’s Away). Although the members of The Who sometimes are lost in the shadows, the power of the group’s music ultimately prevails.
There is no doubt that The Who’s punishing, hard rock approach was considerably less refined in 1969 than it was in 1977. Tunes like Summertime Blues and Shakin’ All Over, which eventually became routine parts of the ensemble’s set list, still packed the exuberant punch of youth. In fact, the entirety of The Who’s performance at the London Coliseum was so relentlessly intense that it often seemed as if the songs would just fly apart, dangerously scattering their serrated edges everywhere. At times, its melodic structures were overtaken completely by the cacophonous roar of the pounding drum beats, driving bass lines, and screaming guitar licks, all of which detonated nearly every tune that was delivered.
As with Live at Leeds and Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970, The Who essentially outlined where it had been and where it was going. In particular, It’s a Boy provided the perfect introduction to Tommy because it connected the rock opera to the group’s mid-’60s output and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Forget the endless streams of retrospectives that have been devoted to The Who’s career. By tracing the group’s explosive evolution between 1969 and 1977, At Kilburn: 1977 says more than any of them about why The Who became so popular and why it faded away. It also is the best tribute to Keith Moon that anyone could have possibly hoped to assemble.
Of Further Interest...
At Kilburn: 1977 is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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