At 2:00 a.m. on Aug. 30, 1970, The Who took the stage in front of 600,000 revelers at the Isle of Wight Festival off the southern coast of England. The three hours of ensuing nocturnal brilliance and mayhem were partially captured for posterity by filmmaker Murray Lerner, whose documentary Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 has just been re-issued in glorious Surround Sound with a new 40-minute reminiscence from guitarist Pete Townshend.
The “partially captured” caveat is the key. The Who played for three hours, but the concert footage captures less than an hour and a half of the performance. Needless to say, plenty of film was relegated to the cutting room floor, and this fact becomes most apparent in the long medley from Tommy, which features only half the songs actually played. Even more problematic, the songs that are here have been truncated and spliced to bits, and fans of the first (and arguably best) rock opera will surely notice the ham-fisted editing and jarring transitions.
Otherwise, this is what you’d expect: an absolutely essential document of what may have been the era’s best rock ’n’ roll band performing at the peak of its powers. The band reprises several of the early Mod classics (“I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation,” “Magic Bus”), tosses in a few mostly forgettable songs from an aborted project that failed to see release between Tommy and Who’s Next, blazes through a couple live favorites (“Summertime Blues,” “Young Man Blues”) and offers the truncated Tom version of Tommy. Roger Daltrey, bare-chested and sporting a buckskin jacket, does an exemplary job of playing the strutting, swaggering frontman. Townshend breaks into his patented windmill power-chord strums, gyrates wildly and is the main contributor to the smashing (literally) finale. Keith Moon pummels his drum kit into oblivion. And John Entwistle stands stock still and plays his bass, but at least he’s wearing a cool skeleton shirt. It’s all marvelous rock ’n’ roll theatre.
The re-mastered sound is a delight, and Townshend is at his typically articulate, prickly, opinionated best in the interview. It’s unfortunate that the concert itself was put through the musical equivalent of a Cuisinart.