After last week's Rainbow triumph the Who continued their return in France at the weekend with an open-air concert and the premieres of their two movies. CHRIS WELCH wiped the tears from his notebook.
ON screen, Keith Moon picks up his drum kit and hurls it across the floor amidst a cloud of smoke and a glamour of feedback. On stage, Kenny Jones propels the Who towards a new maturity.
Among a dazzling array of Who images projected in France last weekend, perhaps these two served most to contrast the Who then and now. In a unique rock seminar, it was possible to trace on film and in live action the story of a band, from its conception to the most recent hours of its life. As we celebrated its past so we watched the band literally in the act of making more history.
Keith would have loved every minute this media feast. Topless bathers on the beach st St. Tropez, film premieres in Cannes, a concert in a Roman Amphitheatre, parties and a press conference. He would have played all his roles there, from Mine Host to Long John Silver, with manic fervour.
There's no doubt that Moon is the star of The Kids Are Alright, the most successful and complete documentary of a band thus far devised. Wonderfully funny, poignant and nostalgic, it makes all previous attempts to put rock bands on film seem redundant. The camera likes the Who; it always has, from earliest jerky black-and-white beginnings into the age of full-colour video.
While Saturday night's Who concert in the amphitheatre at Frejus outside Nice was a milestone that will pass into legend, The Kids and Quadrophenia -- screened in Cannes the following nights -- threatened to upstage the living prototype.
But, for 10.000 French teenagers and a strong British contingent who packed into the ancient amptitheatre on two successive nights, the flesh-and-blood Who gave most satisfaction. The film premiere was strictly for press and industry; for the fans, what mattered was the spontaneous act of making rock music.
The human need for sacrifice and spectacle goes back a long way, as the setting served to remind us. At one point during Saturday's concert, when the band had stopped playing and the sound of human cheering rebounded from the ruined walls, there was a mystical feeling this was how it must have been during the chariot races and gladiatorial combats. The Romans would have approved of the Who, although they might have been alarmed by the laser beams cutting through the air.
Indeed, I cried out in alarm and uttered several appalling oaths at the conclusion of the concert. From my perch high on the walls, I looked down on the milling crowd struggling for the exits, and concluded that there could be a nasty accident in such conditions. Seconds later I stumbled and fell down the wooden benches in tiers above the arena, taking five or six equally alarmed spectators with me towards the abyss. We survived the fall with only minor bruising.
THERE is often a feeling of vertigo about a Who concert as they throw themselves towards a yawning pit of uncertainty. Will they make contact with the hellfires of creativity, or simply teeter on the brink?
At Frejus, the band reached a series of climaxes quite unlike any thing I'd heard from them before. But they also ended their show on a curiously anti-climatic note, Pete saying simply »Goodnight« as the band operated a strategic withdrawal. It's a characteristic of the Who that ecstasy and despair are never long absent from their affairs.
The internationalism of rock music is still a cause for wonder. I couldn't imagine 10.000 Frenchmen cheering any of our British politicians or footballers, or any other representative of Anglo-Saxon culture and society. Only our rock musicians have transcended the customs-barriers of the mind.
It was five years since the Who last played in France, when apparently they drove the local promoter to distraction by demanding Chinese tea and real ale in Paris on a Sunday. This time the band were on best behaviour, arriving on stage five minutes early and launching without ceremony into »Substitute.«
Down in the crush around the front of the stage I was hemmed in by blousons noirs and English fans waving flags, hurling plastic beer-bottles and letting off rockets. It was an emotional moment as we saw the heroic triumvirate, Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle, take up their accustomed battle positions, augmented by their new cohorts, Kenny Jones behind his drums and John »Rabbit« Bundrick at the keyboards.
It was instantly apparent that the Who had lost none of their power. They have, if anything, developed a new locomotive energy, much of it stemming from Jones' zealous accuracy and relentless drive. The finest compliment we could pay Kenny was that his presence seemed completely natural and unremarkable.
As soon as Roger spun hia microphone it seemed like a signal to let action commence. From this opening broadside - and »I Can't Explain«, which foolwed - it was clear that the Who are still very much a potent concern. I had never heard Townshend's guitar work so clearly defined, the tempos so rock-solid, and, with the addition of keyboards, the band's tonal textsures so expanded.
Roger Daltrey has stripped away his old buckskins and flowing hair and, in black jacket and blue jeans, looks younger now than he does in some of the clips in The Kids Are Alright.
»Here are a couple of old numbers,« Roger shouted. »In fact, they're all old numbers.« This cued in one of the best versions I've heard of »Baba O'Reilly,« and indeed much of the Who's Seventies material seemed to gain in stature. Roger marched as if on top of an escalator and switched to harmonica for a double-tempo section which incited Pete to his highland-fling dance routine.
Pete introduced »The Punk And The Godfather« by saying: »You know which is which.« Everybody turned to each other. »Do you know which is which?« we muttered urgently. »Non,« said a passing French fan, shrugging and gesticulating wildly.
»We're gonna do one of my songs now,« said John Entwistle firmly.
»Bugler off!« shouted the editor of a respected British music journal.
»It's all right, he's only joking,« I hastily informed shocked Frenchmen.
John went through his famed creepy-crawly routine on »Boris The Spider,« and it was around this time that the PA volume was turned up to distortion level, which caused the snare drum sound, hitherto beautifully crisp, to break up. But, as they blasted into »Sister Disco,« I realised it's no use fighting the Who when they're out to slay us. I placed a notebook over my left ear to obtain some measure of protection, and allowed the body to vibrate in sympathy with the shock waves.
Pete cut some of the bluesiest guitar of his career before Mr Bundrick ushered in a superb performance of »Music Must Change,« and they began to swing as Rabbit and Pete soloed over Jones' unswerving drums.
Roger's big moment came on the ballad section of »Behind Blue Eyes,« which developed into a powerhouse mood: Pete did his first drop-kick of the night and clouds of dust arose in the arena from the wildly pogoing hordes. »Feeling From The Waist« and »Pinball Wizard« drew a fanatical response, and green lasers beamed onto a glitter-ball suspended high above us from a post which was swiftly scaled by one fearless youth risking life and limb.
»Long Live Rock!« roared the, Who.
»Long live rock!« yelled the masses.
If there was one number they could have safely ditched it was »My Generation« -- the band have so many good new numbers now, the old warhorse could be put out to graze without too much protest. Although they played it with due respect and feeling, and although John Entwistle played his famous bass break with finger-busting attack, its metamorphosis into a slow R&B vehicle was not entirely successful.
»Magic Bus,« on the other hand, has improved with age, and »Won't Get Fooled Again« exploded with new violence.
I escaped the increasingly claustrophobic conditions in front of the stage and clambered up to my vantage point. From here one could see a memorable vista of humanity jammed together, waving their arms in a cloud of dust and smoke, lit by glittering lasers and bathed in searchlights speckled by the glow of lighted matches.
The band disappeared to await recall, but »Summertime Blues« and »I Can See The Real Me« seemed oddly superfluous. They played a second concert the following night; by all accounts, it was even better.