You wouldn’t think there’d be much new to discover about a band that’s been around for nearly half a century. But “Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who” — a two-disc, four-hour DVD chronicle of one of the most extensively documented groups of the ’60s and ’70s — actually does contain some illuminating elements. (The first disc is a self-contained documentary, which will air on VH1 Saturday at 9 pm; the DVD set goes on sale in stores next Tuesday.)
One such element is an eight-minute swatch of film that, until recently, no one had laid eyes on for 43 years. It shows a band called the High Numbers performing in the back room of a grotty North London pub called the Railway Hotel and Lounge in August of 1964. The Railway was a hangout for Mods, a species of youth distinguishable from their greasy antagonists, the Rockers, by an affinity for stylish suits, cool scooters, brain-revving amphetamines and American R&B music. At the time, the Mods were news — in May, hundreds of them had clashed with gangs of Rockers in knife-wielding, bottle-throwing riots at Brighton, Margate and other English seaside resorts. In cultural terms, the Rockers were on their way out; but the Mods were clearly on the rise.
This inspired a pair of young filmmakers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, to try to capture the mod moment and to find an unknown band to embody it. At the Railway, they found and filmed the High Numbers: 20-year-old singer Roger Daltrey, who’d started the group; guitarist Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle, both 19; and recently recruited 17-year-old drummer Keith Moon. They were perfect — Daltrey in his wraparound shades; Townshend with his slick Rickenbacker guitar, looking vaguely angry; Entwistle barely moving; Moon doing quick, intricate things on drums. On the night that Lambert and Stamp filmed them, the band adhered to the mod R&B ethos, playing Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and the Miracles’ “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying.” Presumably they played a number of other songs too, but we’ll never know what they were.
Lambert and Stamp soon became the High Numbers’ managers and changed the group’s name back to the Who, a handle under which they’d briefly done business earlier. The movie the two filmmakers had begun was never completed, and the footage disappeared for decades. Then, a few years ago, a retired Dutch TV producer found a can of film in his attic labeled “High Numbers,” which contained the footage of the band doing the two songs cited above. He contacted the Who, the film was given an expert digital clean-up, and now here it is. Quite a story.
“It is great, isn’t it?” Pete Townshend said in a recent e-mail exchange with MTV News. He noted, however, that he was only peripherally involved in creating the two-hour documentary that makes up the first disc of “Amazing Journey.” The heavy lifting for the project was done by its producers, longtime Who manager Bill Curbishley and filmmakers Robert Rosenberg and Nigel Sinclair. “I run the Who film archive,” Townshend said, “and they’ve been knocking at my door asking for stuff for the last five years. I was not involved in production.”
The documentary is straightforward in its chronology, and plump with concert footage, from Monterey and Woodstock up through the Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001, where a packed house of police, firefighters and 9/11 rescue workers gave the band what must have been one of the most resounding ovations of its career. (That show was also one of the Who’s last with John Entwistle, who died in Las Vegas the following June in sad but classic fashion: of a heart attack precipitated by cocaine while in bed with a woman of his recent acquaintance.)
The film also allots more consideration to Roger Daltrey than has been usual over the course of the group’s career. It was Daltrey’s unhappy fate to be the least dazzlingly talented of a band distinguished by its explosive instrumental innovations. His relations with the other members of the group were prickly from the beginning, and at one early point they actually fired him. He was allowed back in after a month, though, and in the documentary he recalls returning with a new attitude, a humbled resignation to his place in the creative state of things. Today, of course, he and Townshend are the last two members of the original Who left standing. “We’re so incredibly unalike,” Townshend says in the film. “But we’re all we have now.”
The second DVD in “Amazing Journey” is a welter of film (a 2003 recording session shot by rock-doc pioneer D.A. Pennebaker), history (the Who’s visual-arts connections are explored) and informative celebrity appreciation (Eddie Vedder, Sting, Noel Gallagher and U2 guitarist The Edge weigh in). The most striking parts of this disc are four mini-films devoted to the individual members of the group — the ones concentrating on Townshend, Moon and Entwistle being models of compact musical analysis. The Edge makes some interesting observations about the flamenco elements of Townshend’s guitar style (and then picks up a guitar himself to demonstrate them). Drummer Rob Ladd performs a fascinating deconstruction of Moon’s celebrated percussive assaults. (“He’s the Jimi Hendrix of the drum kit,” says Gallagher, with deadpan admiration.) And when onetime Who producer Shel Talmy asserts that Entwistle’s capering breaks in “My Generation” constitute the single most recognizable bass solo in rock history, Sting actually hums part of it, note for note.
Elsewhere, with characteristic candor, Townshend addresses his 2003 arrest during a British crackdown on Internet child pornography. At the time, he acknowledged using a credit card to access a Web site that allegedly advertised such images, but said he did it as research for a book he was writing, based on an anti-child-porn essay he published on his own Web site. (Townshend has had a longstanding and well-known antipathy to the abuse of children.) After the media had squeezed every possible headline out of this story, a months-long forensic examination of Townshend’s computer hard drives determined that he had never downloaded any “indecent images.” Investigative journalist Duncan Campbell reported that the famed guitarist had been “falsely accused” and that the site he had accessed actually had no direct connection to child porn. Via e-mail recently, Townshend said, “Some journalists think they have the copyright on the word ’research.’ I think of myself as a journalist, always have.”
Life goes on, and so do the Who, if diminished in number. Townshend said that he and Daltrey “will continue to try to fly the Who brand flag. We feel comfortable with it, [and] we have a few ideas for the future.” He said he still enjoys touring, in limited amounts, and still finds satisfaction in songwriting. “I am really enjoying writing songs that touch on getting older,” he wrote, “and trying to honour what has lately been christened the ’Greatest Generation’ (the one that came before the Boomers) in my music.”
He also feels that his celebrated guitar skills are still evolving. “I’ve enjoyed being a musician lately,” he said. “I look and see that sometimes I’ve played something new, almost like a jazz player. Notes, rather than pyrotechnics or damage. I’ve felt more like a journeyman, going from show to show, trying to play well and not get in the way.”
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