Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival (1970)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

In 1970, 600,000 people came to the Isle of Wight to attend a music festival.

Director: Murray Lerner
Cast: Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon Pete Townshend
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English PCM Stereo; subtitles none; not closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 27 chapters; not rated; 85 min.; $24.99; street date 11/3/98.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C+/F

If we look at available videos of the Who live, we generally find a mishmash of snippets and newer materials. Programs like 30 Years of Maximum R&B Live mix clips from throughout much of the band’s history, at least through 1994, while the recent Albert Hall package includes most of a 2000 performance. What we rarely observe are full-length shows from the band’s heyday in the Seventies, back when Keith Moon was still alive and drumming.

However, unlike bands such as the Stones - whose peak period is represented only through the dribs and drabs of live material on the nonetheless exemplary Gimme Shelter - DVD fans can check out an extended performance from the classic incarnation of the Who. Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight concentrates exclusively on a 1970 show at a major rock festival, and it does so fairly well. Unfortunately, the package doesn’t include the entire show, as it omits a few songs, most from the Tommy portion of the set. Still, at 85 minutes, the DVD catches much of the event.

Since I was born in 1967, I never caught the Who live when Moon was still in the band. They last toured the US when I was nine, and I didn’t even know the band existed at that point in my life. I became a fan around the time when they played the US in 1979, but by that point, Moon was dead and Kenney Jones had replaced him behind the kit. I didn’t actually see the band until their subsequent 1982 “farewell” tour; I wanted to go to the 1979 show, but my Dad thought I was a bit young, especially given the tragic deaths at the Cincinnati concert that occurred only days before their DC appearances.

As many know, the Who didn’t keep their promise to bid farewell to the stage, and they toured again in 1989 for a 20th anniversary celebration of their landmark - though overrated - “rock opera” Tommy. They returned in 1996 for dates that highlighted 1973’s Quadrophenia; although that trek started as an extremely limited excursion, it soon extended and the band remained on the road through 1997. They came back for yet another tour in 2000, and I expect they’ll return in the not-too-distant future; they’re truly the band that wouldn’t die.

I caught the Who on the 1989 and 1996 tours. I wanted to see a 2000 show, but with a top ticket price of $130, it was too pricey for my blood, though I admit much of my reticence came from a mistaken review in Rolling Stone. They claimed the band only played for about 90 minutes, whereas the shows actually lasted well over two hours. Had I been aware that these were good-length performances, I’d have been much more interested, but when I thought I’d only get an hour and a half of music for my $130, I couldn’t see parting with that much cash.

In any case, my only connections with classic Who have come via video records. The best archive appears in the popular The Kids Are Alright film, a package unfortunately not currently available on DVD. It uses an anthology formula, but it includes some terrific performances, highlighted by definitive versions of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

Maximum seems interesting but less successful. Its Moon moments are good but rarely much better than that, and it concentrates far too much on the years after his death. These clips are compelling for archival value - I’d never seen extended footage from the 1979 tour, and some shots from rehearsals are also useful - but it doesn’t provide the band at their consistent best.

I’m not sure how high Wight ranks on that scale, but it’s a much stronger piece as a whole. Considering today’s multimedia live extravaganzas, it’s interesting to see just how simple and scaled-down this production was. Granted, the festival setting made it difficulty for any of the acts to display much personality, but it still seems startling to witness the starkness of the effort. Other than bassist John Entwistle’s goofy skeleton suit - that must have looked bitchin’ 30 years ago - the band didn’t feature too many nods to showbiz.

However, they did perform a pretty fiery little set. Starting with Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell” - a common set-opener from the era - they plowed through a string of Who classics. Of course, the vintage of the program means that you won’t find stalwarts such as “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Baba O’Riley”, “5.15”, or “Who Are You”. At the time, Tommy was their most recent album, and it featured prominently in this and other shows of the period. In addition, we got hits like “Substitute”, “My Generation” and “I Can’t Explain” as well as then-new tracks like “Water” and “I Don’t Even Know Myself”.

Intended for a 1970 EP, those last two songs never saw the light of day in that format. Instead, they and other tracks like “Naked Eye” - performed at the Wight show but not evident on this DVD - made it out in dribs and drabs as B-sides and other non-album releases. Neither tune distinguished itself, and since both also appear on Maximum, their archival value here seems questionable. Actually, the Maximum rendition of “Water” came from a different show, but that DVD offered the same 1970 Isle of Wight performance of “Myself”. That tune’s easily the better of the two, mainly because “Water” just poured on for days; it lasted far too long to be compelling.

Nonetheless, Wight found the band in good form. The Moon incarnation of the Who have been touted as one of - if not the - best live acts ever, but video releases like Maximum didn’t really let us know what all the fuss was about. Clearly, Wight doesn’t substitute for the actual experience, but at least it lets us get an idea why the Who were so revered in their heyday. Without question, this was a fiery and energetic performance that really kicked many of the tunes into high gear. Moon gave the band an energy that could never be equally by Jones or other replacement drummers.

Many feel that Moon was the greatest rock drummer ever, but I don’t agree. To be certain, Moon was the perfect performer for the Who. He fit the band like a tattered glove, and his style of wild rolls and fills suited the rambunctious and aggressive style of the group. However, he would have been a disaster in many other acts. Try to imagine Moon as the drummer for the Beatles or the Stones and contemplate how terrible they would have been with him.

Moon was an imaginative and creative player, but only a limited number of bands could work with his violent style. The Who happened to be the ideal match for him, but I don’t believe that one can easily categorize someone as the “best” drummer, for that designation depends far too much on the style of the band. If forced to choose, I’d pick Charlie Watts as the greatest drummer, simply because the success of the group depends so much on him. Folks may concentrate on Mick and Keith, but Charlie’s the heart and soul of the Stones. They could - and did - survive the departure of founding guitarist Brian Jones - and replacement Mick Taylor after him - as well as the later exit of original bassist Bill Wyman, but if Charlie split, that’d be it; they couldn’t - and shouldn’t - continue. I’ve seen the Stones live often enough to see what a difference he makes when he’s at his best, and that factor means I think he’s the top. (Big Country’s Mark Brzezicki also plays an extremely strong role in the band’s success; I’ve heard recordings without his fluid and engaging martial style, and the group simply can’t cut it when he’s not there.)

Editorial rant finished. Whether one feels Moon was the best or not, he definitely helped propel the Who into a powerful unit, and Wight adequately replicated the band’s performance. To be certain, the DVD offered a very basic show. The filmmakers utilized an extremely straightforward and simple manner of filming for the most part. As times we got some quick “in-out, in-out” camera zooms that probably looked cool in this drug-addled era - check out “Heaven and Hell” or “My Generation” for some examples - but otherwise the camerawork seemed restrained and accurate.

However, don’t expect a very balanced look at the band. The camera operators really seemed to dig singer Roger Daltrey, as he dominated the show. Guitarist Pete Townshend and Moon also received a fair amount of attention, but poor Entwistle largely got the shaft. Even during “Heaven and Hell” - for which he was the lead singer, for God’s sake - there wasn’t a single shot that concentrated on Entwistle! The bassist also featured in some of the program’s most amusing parts. At one point, we saw shots of Entwistle at the microphone intercut with images of him feet away by an amp.

Obviously the filmmakers inserted some generic band clips at moments that came from different songs, though they usually weren’t so obvious. They also replicated a few crowd images. Probably the worst aspect of Wight related to the excessive examples of audience shots. Those snippets are acceptable when used very sparingly, but above and beyond the occasional glimpse, they become tiresome and feel like a gimmick; it’s as if the filmmakers want to show us the rapture of the crowd to convince us that it’s a great show. We shouldn’t need the approval of others, as we can discern for ourselves whether or not the performance makes the grade.

Wight seemed additionally annoying because it clearly duplicated some of these clips. For example, we saw the same shot of a pregnant dancing chick on a few occasions, and others looked awfully familiar. If you’re going to focus so strongly on the crowd, you should at least feature unique scenes!

Despite the occasionally shoddy filmmaking, The Who at the Isle of Wight provided a generally compelling document. It helps that this is the only DVD of a fairly full-length show from the classic incarnation of the Who, and the cameras caught them on a good night. Despite some poor editorial choices, the disc captured a great band near their peak, and it definitely merits the attention of fans.

The DVD:

Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite a mix of concerns, for the most part I thought Wight offered a pretty solid visual experience that looked a bit better than I expected given its age and source.

Sharpness came across as acceptably distinct, though it never appeared exemplary. Wight’s picture existed in a kind of netherworld; I wouldn’t call it crisp and well defined, but I also wouldn’t refer to it as particularly soft or fuzzy. Overall, the image seemed to be acceptably clear, but it failed to deliver fine focus or delineation. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no significant concerns, and I also discerned no signs of edge enhancement.

Colors played a very small role in Wight, mainly due to the style of the production. Outside of Daltrey’s muted coat, the band wore nothing other than black and/or white clothes. The lighting added some moderate levels of color, but the show didn’t use the varied and vivid hues seen in modern concerts. Wight remained a fairly monochrome presentation for the most part, and the colors that we did see appeared fairly drab and lifeless. However, since they were such a minor element, this wasn’t much of a concern.

Black levels played a stronger role in the film, and they generally appeared fairly deep and dense. At times they could look somewhat inky, but as a whole I felt they seemed reasonably rich and strong. Shadow detail appeared a little more problematic, however. Low-light situations seemed somewhat heavy much of the time, and it could be hard to make out various elements. This was to be expected for this sort of presentation, however, as the nature of the project clearly didn’t allow for any lighting modifications to improve clarity.

As for print flaws, they contributed some moderate problems, but they still seemed reasonably non-invasive for the most part. Throughout much of the show, I saw occasional examples of grain, grit, speckles, a few nicks and marks as well as some general debris. The biggest concern, however, seemed related to one particular camera. At the start of “I Don’t Even Know Myself”, a big hair popped onto the screen, and it reappeared periodically throughout much of the show. Eventually I wrote this note to myself: “Damn that pesky hair!”

While it and the other defects could be distracting, the nature of the film made them less problematic than one might imagine. The program remained fairly dark for the most part, and this hid a lot of the concerns. I expect that I’d have found many more issues were this show brighter, but given the appropriately dim look of the concert, I think a lot of flaws became forgiven. Overall, Wight provided a moderately problematic but still watchable and generally decent visual experience.

My attitude toward the PCM stereo soundtrack of The Who at the Isle of Wight was similar. The separation started somewhat “hard”, as it forced the drums strictly to the left with the guitar strongly to the right and the vocals in the center. However, this inclination decreased as the show progressed, and the integration became more fluid and natural. The Who were an easy band to mix in that way; since we never heard more than six elements - three instruments and singers - they didn’t need to deal with a wide variety of pieces. Wight doesn’t provide stellar stereo imaging, but it seemed reasonably solid for the most part.

Audio quality displayed some problems but usually appeared acceptable. Early in the program, Daltrey’s vocals were plagued by a hum, and they also sounded a little edgy at times. However, this concern generally cleared up after a while; it presented many fewer problems during the show’s second half. Some additional hum could be heard on other occasions, and I also detected a bit of crackling, but this never reached a terribly distracting degree.

Despite the hum, Daltrey’s singing usually showed good presence and definition, but the mix seemed a little off for the most part. The lead vocals were too prominent, while the drums got left in the background to a certain degree. Perhaps the producers worried that Moon’s aggressiveness would seem too dominant and they overcompensated, but I found the drumming to appear somewhat dinky and boxy much of the time. Townshend’s guitars were reasonably clear but unexceptional, and bass seemed moderately deep but never terribly rich or distinct. Overall, the concert showed a somewhat flat sound, but it appeared to be reasonably listenable and clear for its age.

Wight includes absolutely no extras. There’s not even a discography or any form of background about the band or the festival. This doesn’t surprise me, but it still seems weak, especially since the disc lacks all of the songs played at the show; it omits “Naked Eye” as well as a few parts of the Tommy experience.

Nonetheless, Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight provided a pretty strong experience. At the start of the program, we saw a title card that told us that at Wight, the Who “gave one of the most memorable performances of their career”. One won’t find much evidence on this DVD to belie that assertion; for once, such a declaration wasn’t just marketing hyperbole. The disc provides decent but unexceptional picture and sound and delivers absolutely no extras. Still, the show itself is enough to merit the interest of Who fans and those curious to get a sense of why the Moon era raised such a ruckus; it’s not a great piece, but it’s the best representation of that period I’ve yet seen.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5714 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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