"The Kids Are Alright" (MCA2-11005) is the two-record soundtrack from Jeff Stein's exuberant documentary of the Who.The film has been criticized for not being serious enough and for failure to "explain" the Who sufficiently, but Stein's intentions seem clear; to let the British group's performances speak for themselves, intercutting musical segments with lighthearted interview footage.
The results are delightful. The Who has, of course, existed for a remarkable 15 years of guitarist/leader/songwriter Pete Townshend's continuously evolving compositional innovations. The movie alternates between past and present indiscriminately, but the soundtrack is an attempt to arrange songs chronologically. And if the records cannot help but be too reduced, less interesting and vital than the film, nonetheless "The Kids Are Alright" is worth owning, both for the heretofore-unavailable material and for the group's impeccably rehearsed hard rock, played with superb precision.
The album opens with some mid '60s period pieces from TV performances. The first is "My Generation," filmed for the Smothers Brothers TV show in 1967. (This brash, defiant composition traditionally ended with the destruction of Townshend's guitar and any other equipment the group felt like smashing.) All of the television selections-taken from the "My Generation" and "Magic Bus" albums-possess the retrospectively tinny, feeble sound of the time, and all dutifully replicate electronic Townshend's relentless electronic experimentation and unique windmill armed guitar playing as well.
"Long Live Rock" intercedes at the end of side one rather arbitarily, since it's a comparatively recent studio trace which appears on "Odds And Sods," a compilation of assorted Who trivia. It's Townshend's tribute to his profession; his devotion is unfeigned but the song verges on the pallid without visual supplementation.
There are two excellent tracks on the second side, one atypically written by someone other than Townshend. Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues" seems to suit the group, enabling them to articulate deliberately the arrogance and rebellion of such pieces as "My Generation" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere." The Who's version is rawly energetic, highlighting Townshend's biting guitar and Roger Daltrey's menacing vocals.
And Townshend's "Baba O' Riley," a clear, sharp-edged compostion is taken from a recent (1978) English concert; the maturity of the group merely serves to deepen the song's impact. Although the 1972 "Who's Next" original is crisper, the band is more palpable here; Townshend burns with urgency as he barks out a verse.
Side three returns to 1968 with and excerpt from a much-heralded but unreleased TV special. "The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus." This program must have been exceptional indeed, because the Who's performance of "A Quick One While He's Away" is much more arresting than the studio version on "Sell Out." Four selections from "Tommy" are inevitably but necessarily included; most of this segment is borrowed from the "Woodstock" movie. Townshend's ambitious morality play has been painfully overexposed, but "See Me, Feel Me," aspiring to ecstatic transcendence, is a beautiful selection, though played a bit wearily here.
Side four features some 1975 U.S. concert tapes and concludes assertively with "Won't Get Fooled Again," taken from the same English performance as "Baba O' Riley," shortly before Keith Moon's death last year. These two compositions (and performances) are the most incisive of "The Kids Are Alright." "Won't Get Fooled Again" is Townshend's jaded, sardonic political commentary; the band comes fully to life during the last third of the track as the guitarist's unleashed rage and Daltrey's famous yell slice through and define the song.
There are a few discrepancies between the film and the soundtrack besides the varying song sequences, and there is no material from "Quadraphenia," the 1973 double-record project which is far more complex and satisfying than "Tommy." Possibly this is because a film version of Townshend's successor to "rock opera" is scheduled for October release.
After listening to "The Kids Are Alright," one realizes that although the group has progressed thematically and spiritually, there's been little change in their fundamental technique. The Who still approaches rock with a pristine directness and honesty, not concealing their doubts in the medium but retaining a stubborn dedication. It's refreshing to be able to consider the Who without resorting to categories -- in 1979 they're simply a great rock band.