It would be hard to think of another band where even the most hardcore fans could reasonably claim that two live albums recorded within months of each other would each deserve consideration as one of the greatest live albums of all time (Maybe Grateful Dead fans would argue with this; hopefully Pearl Jam fans wouldn’t).
For a very long time, the traditional debate of “greatest live album ever” tended to center around Live at Leeds and The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, but the moment this performance was unearthed from the archives in 1996, this jumped into the thick of the discussion. For me, despite the fact that it’s an archive release, this is the best Who that money can buy and the greatest live album ever, just a tick above Leeds.
That doesn’t mean fans of Leeds will necessarily love this one, though. While the two concerts were recorded only about six months apart, Leeds depicted a very different kind of concert from this one. Leeds was performed at an indoors theater for a bunch of college students, and it showed the band as a well-oiled machine, firing on all cylinders; it’s a great live album for anyone who likes the combination of noise and precision that the band could produce, and it’s an album that rewards a great set of speakers. It also showed them playing a little more conservatively than might have been desired, which isn’t shocking given that they’d just gotten back from the US and were a little tired. Aside from the band members, Roger wasn’t at his very best, and might have even been a little under the weather.
In contrast, The Isle of Wight festival was a gathering of a few hundred thousand totally stoned teenagers and young adults who just wanted loud music and a lot of pot (and who spent much of their time complaining that it wasn’t free), and the band adjusts its playing accordingly. One major improvement comes from Roger, whose singing here, in contrast to whatever issues may be on Leeds, is probably his greatest recorded work. I wouldn’t go as far as I used to in saying that this is my favorite (over a whole album) rock vocal performance from anybody, but it’s still way up there.
As for the other members, the playing is a little less clean and crisp than at Leeds (Moon, for instance, seems to be noticably off in a handful of spots), but it’s compensated on the whole by the way it seems like Pete is trying to execute the audience with his guitar playing. Yes, he goofs on a couple of the more intricate guitar parts, and misses some chords here and there, but his rhythm playing on this album is spectacular, and besides, the guitar tone is awesome. Wait, no, that won’t do, let’s try that again. The guitar tone is awesome. It’s the greatest guitar tone I’ve ever heard. For some, this trade (relatively speaking) of conservative precision for energetic sloppiness won’t be a worthwhile one, but it’s one I’m willing to make just fine.
The concert can be divided neatly into three parts, and all three are fantastic. The pre-Tommy portion opens with three tracks that were on Leeds, and overall they sound surprisingly different from there. Heaven and Hell suffers a little bit from Keith losing the beat a bit with his drumming (one of the few times I’ve ever heard that from him) in the beginning, and from Pete making the mid-song guitar solo section much less like the (effective) Jimmy Page aping on Leeds and more like a caveman crushing a tiger with a rock, but it ends up working fine.
I Can’t Explain immediately shows that Roger’s voice is in top form, and then there’s Young Man Blues. There are a couple of moments of sloppiness in the start-stops in the first part, but they’re minor, and they’re more than made up for by the mid-section. Pete goes absolutely insane in here, bashing and thrashing and squeezing all sorts of heavenly feedback noises out of his guitar, and basically blows away the Leeds version of this section.
The band then takes the opportunity to introduce the audience to two Lifehouse tracks, which ended up condemned to rarity status but which are quite great. I Don’t Know Myself features a fun riff and some great lyrics along the lines of the title, and Water gets extended from its standard 4 -minute length to a monstrous 9-minute epic, featuring some terrific soloing and some of Roger’s best singing on the album (the way he sings those opening lines is just glorious). Of course, if you’re feedback averse at all, you should probably stay away from Water here, but if that’s the case, why are you listening to this album in the first place?
And then we have the main attraction: Tommy. If you have never heard a great live version of Tommy (and no, the Leeds rendition was not great, only good), you haven’t lived. As on Leeds, the acoustic guitars are gone, leaving in their wake a furious assault as only The Who could provide. The star of the show is, as you might expect, Pete; I know it might seem monotonous to keep bringing up his riffing, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough here.
Also, it becomes completely obvious at times how much passion he has for this, his brainchild, even after performing it over and over and over again (which he alludes to in the introduction); listen to his triumphant playing in the extended coda of Overture or his singing in It’s a Boy or the absolutely 100% perfect riffing in See Me Feel Me (my favorite part on the whole album by the way) and you’ll know what I mean. There are guitar lines in See Me Feel Me, in particular, that make me absolutely weak in the knees. Roger is awesome in this part as well.
The post-Tommy sequence is fantastic as well, featuring a non-stop Summertime Blues/Shakin’ All Over/Spoonful/Twist and Shout/Substitute/My Generation/Naked Eye (another Lifehouse song, one of my very favorites)/Magic Bus medley. All of the songs sound different from any version I’ve heard before, even for somebody like me who knows Leeds basically by heart. Summertime Blues is sloppier than the perfect Leeds version, but Shakin’ All Over/Spoonful/Twist and Shout obliterates the Leeds version (“LIIIIIIIIIIIIES about you”), so that competition largely ends up a push. Plus, there’s the additional bonus of when you hear Pete’s gutiar start to give out near the end of Magic Bus. Rarely have I ever heard anything cooler than what are essentially the guitar’s deathbed moans. The one and only drawback is that it stopped him from playing more (reports say that he was furious when his guitar broke because he wanted to play even more, but whatever).
For what it’s worth, Pete himself always said that this was one of their best nights, and I’d have to assume this is true. Somebody who already has Leeds may not see the worth in shelling out money for this as well, but as somebody who loves Leeds, there was nonetheless a long time where I probably listened to this twice as much as any other Who CD. It’s not just the way this album displays the eternal genius of The Who, their ability to bring cacaophony and beauty together and fuse them into one overwhelmingly moving and powerful force, better than any other album by them. No, it’s more than that; this live album, more than any other I know, is the perfect symbol of where rock music stood at the crossroads between the 60’s and the 70’s. That is, a decade or so into its life, with one foot still firmly in the past, and one foot moving tentatively into unknown, “artsier” territory. It is a celebration of rock’s past, and a show of optimism for its future, and that vibe can’t help but make it even better to me.
Amazingly, despite having prime live stuff in the vaults, the band instead decided to release the dreary post-Moon live albums Who’s Last, which documented their first “farewell” tour in 1982, and Join Together, which documented their later “farewell” tour in 1989.
The numerous other rip-off compilations and their decidedly weaker later studio albums caused The Who’s reputation to suffer in recent years, with many seeming to come to the conclusion that the band is overrated. Nonsense! Any artist should primarily be judged by their prime work, and The Who at their best were among the best bands ever.
Also, in recent years the band (or MCA – I fault both) has thankfully begun to rectify past mistakes by releasing prime material previously locked up in the vaults, and Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970, one such item released 26 years after the fact, joins Live At Leeds as the prime Who live document.
For those who don’t know, the huge 1970 festival was the most famous Wight (an island off the south coast of England) concert, largely because it was one of Jimi Hendrix’s final live performances. The Doors, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, The Move, T. Rex, and Jethro Tull also played that year, but as per usual back then The Who’s performance eclipsed them all. In short, this is a tremendous live album, with an agreeably rough and heavy sound, and a whopping 30 songs, including almost the entirety of Tommy.
In truth, I tend to skip most of the more straightforward songs that are duplicates from Leeds – that excludes the “Shakin’ All Over” medley that also includes “Spoonful” and “Twist and Shout,” and another fine romp through “My Generation” – since these versions are generally inferior, and as such I consider this album a perfect companion piece to the ’95 Leeds reissue; by contrast, this makes the Deluxe Reissue version of Leeds expendable since this version of Tommy clearly eclipses it.
In addition to more Tommy, another difference is that Leeds (’95 version) has old songs like “A Quick One” and “Tattoo,” whereas this one has later Lifehouse-era songs like “Naked Eye” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself,” as well as a 9+ minute version of “Water” (the best version I’ve heard, though it’s still not a great composition per se). As for a Tommy comparison with the original, it depends on what you’re in the mood for; the original studio version offers a more melodic, multi-colored palette, this one cuts out some of the excess fat (the only song I really miss is “Sensation,” and the band wisely cut the “Underture”) and wins hands down in the raw power department, culminating in a definitive, truly towering version of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Some may fault the band’s performance as “sloppy,” with Pete in particular missing notes or sounding out of tune at times (likely while jumping around stage like a lunatic – again, get the DVD – or windmilling like a lunatic), but this album isn’t about hitting the right notes. What it is about is pure primal power and a rare band chemistry, both of which are on ample display throughout.
Perhaps the album is overly generous, and as such is for the serious rather than the casual Who fan, but said serious fan should love this.
This is actually an archive release: certainly, it would be quite stupid to release this stuff as soon as it was recorded, what with Live At Leeds having just come out and all. Recently, though, there’s been a lot of uproar concerning the lack of officially released early Who-candy, so some tweaky record company hastily reconstructed this totally embarrassing piece of shitty sounding old crap and….
No, no! What am I talking about? The Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl? This is a great archive document! Believe me, even if you have already emptied your purse on the Leeds hotcake, you won’t regret indulging yourself once more. Pete Townshend himself said that this was one of their best nights, and there may be a grain of truth in this saying. What distinguishes this album from Leeds is primarily the fact that it’s longer (more expensive, too, though), and particularly impressive is the inclusion of the entire Tommy chestnut (except for ‘Welcome’, which was practically never played live, and ‘Sally Simpson’, ‘Sensation’, and ‘Cousin Kevin’, which were probably not played on that particular gig), instead of the short ‘Amazing Journey/Sparks’ bit on Leeds. Besides that, we have an interesting cover selection (an unedited version of the ‘Shakin’ All Over’ medley, including a magnificent ‘Spoonful’ and – believe it or not – a ‘Twist And Shout’!!), and two cuts from the already beginning to develop Lifehouse project.
Oh, yeah. The sound. The sound is completely different from the Leeds sound. Leeds was somewhat, err, ‘restrained’, if the word ‘restrained’ is appliable to The Who. This is perfectly understandable: the hall was small, the audience was intelligent and polite, and moreover, they were recording it for the official release, and Pete was feeling slightly depressed, which is always a serious influence on his playing. The Isle of Wight gathering, if you’re not too familiar with the environment, was a gang of bloodthirsty, stone-heavy, braindead motherfuckers inherited directly from Woodstock and numbering in hundreds of thousands. And good old Pete always felt somewhat enraged about such massive swarms of idiots, which results in his using the guitar more like a machine-gun than a musical instrument. In fact, if I might be permitted to use this metaphor, he practically executes the audience with his playing. Which, by the way, is often sloppy and out of tune. But hey, play a couple of windmills on your guitar and I’ll be damned if it don’t go out of tune forever…
Seriously, now, this sloppiness and Pete’s frequent abandon of diligent melody in favour of making more noise is what turns a lot of people away from this album. I know this because I originally shared the same feeling: there was a bit too much noise even for me, who’s a rabid Who freak. But put yourself in the background, picture the excitement generated by this kind of sound, the romanticism and sincerity of the performance, turn up the volume and you’re bound to be carried away with the very first notes of ‘Heaven And Hell’. And on ‘Young Man Blues’ Pete practically goes out of control totally, crashing and bashing around with ten times more zest than Jagger could ever muster on stage. (He had to change guitar after the song, as pictured in the video). Hey, did you know Pete has got more than a hundred seams on his right hand? I didn’t! You might think a windmill is something easy and stupid – it’s not, I assure you. Just go ahead and try.
So I just suppose you forgive Pete his multiple mistakes on this album (I’m the first to admit there are many of these), because his peak energy more than makes up for it. The best way is to listen to this album in headphones with the volume turned up as loud as possible – you’ll know what I mean.
But there’s not just Pete’s frustration on this album. Keith is in great form as usual, and John – well, John is always good. You can’t go wrong with John. What surprises me most of all, though, is Roger’s voice – I have never heard him sing better than on here. Tommy goes off like a hydrogen bomb, and not in the least due to his humble efforts; however, the cover versions are what distinguish him most of all (oh, that ‘LIIIES ABOUT IT!’ line on ‘Spoonful’), plus Pete’s ‘Water’ on which Robert Plant is put to shame. Shame on you, Robert Plant! Go sulk in the corner.
So I’m really not at all bothered with the overlaps with Leeds. Who cares? Good old Pete always had enough improvisation power in him to make a single song sound in several entirely different ways. ‘Summertime Blues’ is probably inferior to the Leeds version, since the solo is a bit shabby (it almost sounds as if Pete was caught off-guard when he started throwing out the lead lines), and he misses that tremendous power chord that ends the song and segues immediately into ‘Shakin’ All Over’. But that one is far more impressive than the Leeds version, on the other hand – Roger yells like a demon, and the energy is tremendous.
As for the ‘newer’ cuts, ‘Water’ is an incredible song. At about nine minutes long, it slowly unfurls itself into a bombastic, unprecedented epic where ‘water’ stands as a metaphor for life energy and artistic inspiration, and Roger’s screams of ‘WE NEED WATER!’ coming from the very depths of the band’s collective soul. Along the way, Pete creates a couple more thunderstorms, cleverly alternating passages of utter chaos with crystal clear lead lines and catchy riffs created simply out of nowhere, before bringing it down with a bang on the hilarious accapella ending. And ‘I Don’t Know Myself’ is a beautiful, confessional song featuring Keith happily tapping away on his favourite little wooden block (you should have watched his face on the accompanying video). Oh yeah, the band also does a short excerpt of ‘Naked Eye’ in the medley section… which is excellent.
Buy this album, now. And try to get the accompanying video, too: it has its flaws (see my review at the bottom of the page), but it’s an absolutely essential purchase for all Who fans, young and old. This is a ten, a damn solid ten, and a solid fifteen on the overall rating scale. Thanks Goodness the band isn’t planning on any more official releases of live shows from that era – I probably wouldn’t have any other choice but to award tens to all of them. Whew. Judging by their form on Woodstock and at the London Coliseum in 1969, for instance, these two potential albums would also be worthy candidates for tens.