Technical difficulties can't stop a blazing set from the Who
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Editor’s note: This is another installment in a series intended to shine a light on some loved recordings that are readily available, if not necessarily for sale.
The last stage of ridiculous music fandom, is, of course, strapping on a pair of headphones to listen to a distorted audience tape of a 40-year-old concert.
Seeking out and listening to bootleg audience recordings is an act reserved for the insane anyway, especially where older bands are concerned. Getting tape recorders into concerts was tricky enough, and finding microphones and rigs that could be stealthily employed was harder still.
It takes further dedication when the show in question sounds muddy or distant, keeping whatever rocked buried under the distortion of cheap microphones and denim jackets. But sometimes, digging through all those obstacles is worth it, and the Who’s performance at London’s Edmonton Sundown on Dec. 23, 1973, captures an era of the Who’s live history that is not fantastically documented, and is worth the work that’s obviously required.
This recording bears all of the hiccups of 1970s audience recordings, with muffled microphones and booming rooms masking much of the sound, especially in the first few songs before the then-new Quadrophenia material. “I Can’t Explain” and “Summertime Blues” suffers from distant sound, while “My Wife” cuts off prematurely. But that rawness comes into focus by the time “The Real Me” kicks off, and it becomes an accurate representation of the original staging of Quadrophenia.
The initial runs through Quadrophenia were plagued with issues; the backing tapes rarely worked the way they were supposed to, and gradually, songs were dropped from the setlist. By the time the band got to Edmonton Sundown for this final 1973 show, most of the album’s second side was gone, along with “Quadrophenia,” “Cut My Hair” and “The Rock.”
But what was left was a primal display of rock and roll dexterity. Townshend was working overtime trying to recreate everything on guitar, with slashing chords intermingling with complex leads in order to fill out the album’s lush sound. Where John Entwistle’s playing on the album is inventive and complicated, here it’s just jaw-dropping. As the sound quality improves, so does the clarity in Entwistle’s runs up and down his extended fretboard.
As on the album, “The Punk and the Godfather” stands as one of the standouts on this bootleg’s first disc. The song’s intro is a searing blast of pre-punk anger, and Roger Daltrey’s voice finds a way to jump out above the musical chaos that the rest of the Who are creating behind him. “The Punk and the Godfather” is a song that, in retrospect, nearly serves as The Who 101, a combination of all their talents that also relays the story, message and mission of a band that often found itself on top and still at conflict with their audience. On this night, as on the rest of their tour, they defiantly blasted this song at the crowd, at once criticizing both their listeners and themselves in the process.
They weren’t above working with the crowd, though. Intermittently through Quadrophenia, Townshend and Daltrey take turns explaining the album’s plot and where they are in the story. It provides a unique context to the album and Townshend’s vision, and also shows which songs they felt absolutely essential to the arc. Not long after this, the band would give up on trying to play the entire album and pared things down to just “Bell Boy,” “Drowned” and “Doctor Jimmy,” as in their famous Charlton Football Ground performance the following year. Here, presenting the album was still a priority, and these were the selections they felt were essential.
The version of “Drowned” is extended in a way that much of the material, played so precisely to the background noises covered in the click-track tapes, could never be. Daltrey’s scream of “WATER!” before the music crashes down around him forshadows his epic climax in “Love, Reign O’er Me” later.
The second half of the show sees the band lose all inhibitions as they run through older material, from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” through jam-heavy versions of “Naked Eye,” “Let’s See Action” and “Magic Bus.” In between is a scorching take on “See Me, Feel Me” with Daltrey screaming over guitars that must have deafened the crowd (and the folks on stage). It’s a pure, sonic blast of a band that was shaking loose and stretching out after the tight concentration that Quadrophenia demanded,
Again, the sound quality, which jumps and dives, likely renders this as one purely for the hardcore crazies. But for said crazy listeners, what’s captured is the Who at its peak, soldiering through technical frustrations and unfamiliar material to create a blistering soundscape. What’s left today is a shadow of that performance, of course. But even as a shadow, it burns bright enough to set those headphones ablaze.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org