Rhino Records has just issued a triple-DVD set chronicling not only live performances of Tommy and Quadrophenia, but two very different configurations of the reunited Who touring band. Though the purpose of the set is to archive the live versions of the two famous rock operas, the DVDs inevitably show the right way for the Who to have reunited and toured, and the wrong way to have done it.
In 1989, the Who staged a full tour after a seven-year layoff. I was fortunate enough to catch them that year, and at the time, I was awestruck upon hearing them open the concert with a fully fleshed out overture from Tommy. Through the sheer joy of seeing the Who play during my lifetime, I was willing to overlook the excesses of that tour. And God were there excesses! Three background vocalists, a percussionist, a second guitarist, and a full horn section which strayed too often into Phil Collins territory, it was a lot to swallow for fans of a band who used to encapsulate the lean, mean, less-is-more theory of noisemaking.
The DVD has the Los Angeles “all-star” performance of Tommy, a Vegas-revue version of the Who that hasn?t aged well. The drummer at the time, Simon Phillips, was much more Neil Peart than Keith Moon; his over-drumming doesn?t serve the arrangements well. The guest stars for the most part turned in okay performances; they can?t be faulted for the bombast.
Tommy as an album was a more cohesive story, and easier to understand than Quadrophenia. This makes some of the songs taken individually hard to take out of the context of the story as a whole. Welcome to which camp? If you?re free, why the hell are you waiting for me to follow you? Quadrophenia, on the other hand, is a tougher story to follow without reading the liner notes, seeing the movie, having a rough working knowledge of the history of mid-60s youth subcultures, etc. The songs work well on their own even though most of the American audience won?t get the story. But considering the strength of the material, the story is almost irrelevant.
In 1996, the Who re-reunited to celebrate Quadrophenia. This time, the arrangements were kept as close as possible to the original album, and the performances rock harder than the 1989 versions of the same songs. In Zak Starkey (yes, Ringo?s boy) the Who have found as perfect a replacement for Keith Moon as they could ever hope for. Zak drums as hard and as passionately as Keith did, inserting fancy fills without calling attention to himself. There are still a lot of people on the stage, but they?re used judiciously. They also used video inserts between songs to more clearly explain the story and why the Mod movement was so important to British youth.
The third DVD, the ?hits? set, is composed mostly of the non-Tommy portion of the 1989 Los Angeles show. Again, it?s cool to see this footage preserved, but the excessive instrumentation leaches away some of the passion of the music. The encore from the Quadrophenia show, as short as it was, contains far stronger performances.
Sonically, the producers of this set created a 5.1 mix from original stereo source material, and the sound is respectable. However, the Who released a double DVD in 2000, Live At Royal Albert Hall, which was a stunningly wonderful sonic experience, and loud as fuck. Even the DVD of The Kids Are Alright was shown more care in its sound qualitu. By comparison, the sound on this Tommy/Quadrophenia live set is underwhelming.
For bonus features, there are interviews with some of the contributors, including Billy Idol, who starred in both productions. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey give chestnuts of information about the original operas, the live performances in question, and lots and lots of self-congratulatory puffery. Daltrey felt the need to declare: ?I?ve always been totally dedicated to making Pete?s music work. That?s been my whole life. I?m the best instrument he?s ever had.? Don?t you just love self-important rock stars?
The whole release seems to be a way to ultimately document these tours, and then bury them into a time capsule. In this respect, it?s successful. For a list price of $29.95, you get a lot of concert footage, while not much of it is essential. Casual fans should probably start out with The Kids Are Alright first, and only pick this up later if you still want more after Live At The Royal Albert Hall. Die-hard Who fans, on the other hand, will definitely get their money?s worth.