The Who may be the best band onstage in the annals of arena rock.
Fifty years ago, America tore itself apart. Violence spread in student enclaves across the world. War dominated headlines. Politicians debated whether to crack down on or to let loose youthful energy. That spring, Bill Graham re-opened the Village Theatre on the Lower East Side. Rechristened as Fillmore East, there the first British rock band to headline was booked for four shows over two nights. Even that group, infamous for their antics in hotels and their rage onstage, had been halted in its mayhem: the night before their first double-gig, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Fears of unrest made what preening singers’ braggadocio suddenly sound like the possibility of real threats to urban safety. The Who’s shows went on, although compressed into one each night.
Manager Kit Lambert recorded the April 5, 1968 concert. But the unpredictability of that time entered the hall; either the equipment or the operator bore blame, but that show’s taping was botched. What Live at the Fillmore East 1968 captures is the second night. Long bootlegged, this stands alongside the reissued recordings from Leeds, Hull and the Isle of Wight as one of that band’s best achievements. Although the Who suffers in retrospect by endless cash-ins peddling their hits in irrelevant repackaging, their accomplishments before a live audience merit acclaim, captured here in this concert’s debut as an official live release.
Certainly, the Who wearied. The morning of their Fillmore rehearsal, they posed in Morningside Park for a Life magazine photo shoot. Art Kane snapped the four as they slouched at the foot of the Carl Schurz Monument. Supposedly Keith Moon nodded off. You can see for yourself on the cover of The Kids Are Alright.
Judging by the results on this two-CD/three-LP set, Moon’s stamina by nighttime may have been either miraculous or chemically fueled. Listeners long familiar with the Leeds song sequence will find Allen Toussaint’s “Fortune Teller” and the blunt opener here, Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” along with two more of the latter singer’s numbers, “C’mon Everybody” and a punishing, punch-drunk “My Way.” Roger Daltrey’s proto-punk sneers spit venom. Moon’s drumming pounds away in his inimitable style: part surf, part soul, all pounding propulsion. In between these fine covers, the album features some of the band’s best songs.
Pete Townshend’s wistful “Tattoo” and an extended, jittery “Relax” display The Who Sell Out’s ambitious lyrical and conceptual range. “Little Billy,” a fresh addition to the repertoire as an anti-smoking warning for the American Cancer Society, receives a rare inclusion among the live tracks in the Who’s discography. The band’s earlier efforts contribute representative staples. “I Can’t Explain” erupts in a raw, less winsome manner, but the grit does not wear off its delicate core. “Happy Jack” proves suitably unhinged; “I’m a Boy” and John Entwistle’s ditty “Boris the Spider” get affectionate roughhousing from the amplified band.
This engaged attitude extends into the showpieces. “A Quick One, While He’s Away” sets up the template for a more complicated integration of tunes and styles into a longer piece. Hearing the Who start to tinker with song structure shows their confidence, honed by touring and heightened by their determination to break down limits in length, volume and intelligence conventionally limiting what rock music could achieve. They stretch dynamics in intensity and emotion, preparing for the next decade’s claim as top live band in the world.
Separating “My Generation” here from not only its stuttering single origins four years before but the rock opera which would sprawl across their subsequent tours and live LPs, Townshend’s arena rock ambitions tear up the confines which Fillmore East or West embodied. These symbols of an intimate counterculture audience seemed by 1968 a less amenable setting for harder, louder, more flamboyant music. This theatrical bluster and boldness suited the ambiance of new hockey and basketball venues being built. The NHL and NBA suddenly expanded. The demand for more seats to fill on off-nights from games, and the opportunity of more revenue for promoters such as Graham, fueled a lucrative enterprise waiting in the United States for English pop singers and rock groups rich enough and bold enough for inventive staging.
“Rael” on Sell Out along with “A Quick One” anticipated Tommy. But the chance to study the Who working out the possibilities of the longer song cycle and its interlinked construction in this 1968 timeframe proves instructive. Bits of what became “Overture” and “Sparks” already could be glimpsed within “Rael.” Within the capacious half-hour of “My Generation” which finishes the Fillmore East appearance, one hears the impending transition to stadiums. Townshend’s testing out how his guitar can bridge instrumental gaps, and knit together themes and melodies. The band and singer prove their stamina. Their next appearances in America will abandon crowded concert halls and occupy echoing circles of concrete. Arenas await; the Who readies.
At first glance, this tracklist may seem to document some of the same old concert standards and cherished covers that the later live LPs repeat. Yet keeping separate their pre-Tommy style in 1968 from their 1970 alteration demonstrates how diligent and talented the four members of the Who were. They improved their command of incisive lyrics, intricate instrumentation and swaggering or sympathetic voices. An increasingly mature Daltrey became able to communicate the complex levels of Townshend’s musical and personal guises, atop the greatest rhythm section of the era, booming Entwistle and manic Moon.
Live at Fillmore East 1968 equals the trio of later official live albums. This is no small feat and no empty claim, when it comes to what may be the best band onstage in the annals of arena rock. They also triumphed in the small hall and cozy club, if one last time as they prepared to fly home from America.