Guitar & Lens: The Narrowing Memories of an Era

Watching Pete Townshend’s wailing finale to The Who’s set at Woodstock 1969, it dawned on me that by the time the next generation rolls around, film reels and video will be our only memories of rock’s most explosive era.

But what memories…

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The beautiful thing about rock n’ roll during our parents’ generation was the simplicity. And I don’t mean that as a bullshit pretentious nod to the music itself and its reflection of ‘simpler times’, because that would be wrong – rock n’ roll was reaching a near zenith of bloated, but still highly original psychedelic-fuelled complexity as the 1960s became the 1970s. What I’m referring to is the footage captured and the subsequent films produced, the manner in which the music was recorded and depicted visually, and how such images are now our eyes when it comes to both witnessing and remembering physical musical history – history one feels as though they can touch, despite not having even been born at the time.

Pete Towshend’s closing solo (if you can call it that) at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is one of my favourite examples of the everlasting effects of such simplistic, linear footage. At around 6.00am on Sunday 17 August 1969, likely coming down from the LSD The Who claimed they were spiked with and facing unknown hundreds of thousands of people as dawn broke over the horizon, Townshend wails out the finale of the band’s rapid, incredibly powerful set. There’s nothing highly technical of note to speak of with regards to what he’s actually playing, but what is important – what makes it memorable – is the juxtaposition between the single camera recording and the larger-than-life image of Townshend within this epic environment, an environment subsequently narrowed due to the position of the camera. Unlike in modern footage, we don’t see a concert, we see Townshend. Smashing his guitar, throwing it in the crowd – such organic acts would later become a fallacy of recycled showmanship on stage, but here they’re part of an organic performance to everyone and no one. A personal performance.

 

What holds together the visual aura of this white boiler-suited Townshend, shrouded in darkness, and the single-angle view of his beautifully intense crescendo, aided only by basic panning and zoom, is of course the extended experience of the music itself – the reason why any such footage came to exist in the first place. With the history and sound of The Who, particularly in the UK (our cousins in the US thankfully keep a more deserved vigil), relegated mostly to “Baba O’Riley”-based sports montages and mid-1960s-themed BBC news stories featuring “My Generation” as the soundtrack, it’s easy to forget just how fucking BIG the band sounded during their live peak, a fact brought to life here by a mere grainy reel of film.

Rescued from the Warner Bros.’ Woodstock archive and preserved by debut director Jeff Stein in his 1979 rockumentary film, The Kids Are Alright, this short clip is a reminder of what, in the not-too-distant future, will one day be the final collected and catalogued memories of an era. Like war, sport, disasters, and other major events of the time, the mainstream rock n’ roll music of the mid-20th century is limited in one sense by the infant nature of rock concert recordings and the lack of proper archiving of live television performances and broadcasts. At the same time however, the footage that does exist is truly huge considering its groundbreaking, highly influential status and global appeal, both past and present. The key is the raw, natural, almost tangible reality that such simple production methods (by today’s standards) were able to convey.

Townshend, a swaggering monster of a musician in his day, personifies this perfectly on the biggest stage of them all, where the eerie, spine-tingling final notes of his Gibson are brought to life on another level by a direct visual connection with the man himself, allowing us to witness his controlled but violent anger and destruction, mixed with the justified arrogance of a man off his head and riding a crest of the wave that, at that moment in time, must have felt like riding the entire world. This is the true golden age of the music video. Without it, there would be only noise.

Peace.

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