Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pop Rocks #2: Rock 'n' Roll Ambition: The Final Days?

As I write this, I'm watching the documentary Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, and a few minutes ago I heard someone note that 1968 was the first year that album sales overtook sales of singles.

Forty years later, with the popularity of digital downloads, singles are probably back on top (sorry, don't feel like researching this at the moment).

Is that progress?

Pete Townshend and his bandmates were among the first of their breed to understand rock 'n' roll's potential for becoming something larger than short blasts of youthful energy and angst - these guys, Pete in particular, were up to creating ambitious pop art.

BTW, Amazing Journey is probably my favorite rock documentary since the 1979 Who doc The Kids Are Alright. The new doc includes all kinds of rediscovered vintage clips, including a fascinating sequence featuring The High Numbers playing a hotel gig in 1964.

Amazing Journey also features recent interviews with Townshend and Roger Daltrey, as well as Sting, The Edge (U2), Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and others. It's included in a package with a 12-page booklet and a second disc featuring even more historic footage.

The other side of that pop ambition, fulfilled via the intensity of such performances as the concert captured on 1970's Live at Leeds and such album projects as the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia, was the path of destruction taken by irrepressible drummer Keith Moon. Sept. 7, marked the 30th anniversary of his death (at age 32), attributed to an overdose of the drug Herminevrin, prescribed to help relieve the symptoms of alcoholism.

John Entwistle, arguably the most accomplished and most creative bassist in rock history, died of a heart attack at age 57 in 2002, in a Las Vegas hotel room; cocaine was involved.

Footage in the new documentary of the band's first show, post-Entwistle (with Pino Palladino filling in), is heartbreaking. "It's hard," Townshend tells the crowd.

Sadly, I never caught the original lineup, although I did see the latter-day Who -- with horns and background singers and God knows what else -- on their 25th anniversary tour in 1989 at Tampa Stadium. Pete, Roger and John were still powerful together, but the frills detracted from the music. Simon Phillips played drums.

I caught the Who again, in 1997 at the Ice Palace, for the "Quadrophenia" tour, with Zak Starkey on drums and 10 extra musicians. And then again at the same venue in 2000, for a show I reviewed for the St. Petersburg Times.

Here's what I had to say, in part: "The band's latest jaunt, though, may actually be about the joy of playing meaningful music, to judge from the Who's show Tuesday night at the Ice Palace. Daltrey, 56, Townshend, 55, and bassist extraordinaire John Entwistle, 55, attacked vintage material with more vigor, and in a more creative manner than the three have demonstrated in a long time. The 2 1/2-hour show, far more inspired than their 1997 Quadrophenia show at the same venue, nearly made us wish that the group would follow up on promises of a long overdue return to the studio.

About 12,000 fans were treated to sturdy, often even exciting performances of familiar favorites during a concert that began and ended with two songs dating back 35 years. I Can't Explain, the opener, all British Invasion bounce, had Townshend offering four ceremonial bowling-ball strikes on his guitar, and Daltrey executing the first of many microphone-twirling moves. The final My Generation, once a counterculture anthem, turned into a sprawling, feel-good jam, bolstered by Townshend's incisive guitar solo, tasty organ work by keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick, and Zak Starkey's typically propulsive, swaggering drumming.

Seldom a disappointing note was sounded in between, thanks in part to the real cohesion of these players, as opposed to the oversized ensembles that have turned previous Who shows into virtual revues. The mid-'60s charge continued with Substitute and Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere before swerving in another direction with the funk-edged punch of the seldom performed Relay."

Speaking of ambitious rock, I'm glad to see Radiohead's show at the Ford Amphitheater recognized by the Weekly Planet (Tampa) as one of the best concerts of the year.

"Radiohead mesmerized a nearly sold-out crowd of 17,000 on May 6, at Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa, with an edgy sonic and visual presentation unlike anything being offered on the current concert circuit," Wade Tatangelo wrote in his blurb on the show, in WP's "Best of the Bay" section.

That's dead on - IMO, that show was hands-down one of the best big-hall rock shows I've seen in a long while. Radiohead, with their recent performances and on In Rainbows, offers state-of-the-art rock that, you know, rocks hard and isn't instantly disposable.

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