The Who—
Going Down

Released 1971 on none
The Seth Man, December 2018ce
At the tail end of three shows during the tail end of their second American tour of 1971 (which would turn out to be the tail end of nothing less than their apex as a peerless Rock band) The Who pushed their “Live At Leeds”-styled power assault into a train wreck, dog-pile, and ultimate odds-n-sods deconstruction of Rock that was “Going Down” into a place from which it would never recover. As it imploded outwards and exploded inwards, it unraveled every time it was played...or, more to the point: every time it was attempted to be played. Whether it was the rhythm section continually caught unawares as Townshend launched into it (and perhaps that was Townshend’s intent -- in order to keep it as pure and unrefined as a spirited kamikaze run finale) or to take the song’s meaning literally and drive the entire performance down…DOWN...DOWN...DOWN...Either way, literally and/or figuratively, “Going Down” rang down the curtain on The Who’s period of sturm und drang that straddled the sixties and the seventies -- one they smeared across with unlimited energy, power to burn, and haphazard abandon.

“Going Down” would tread the backward path for several years before Townshend ignited and thrust it all suddenly upon his bandmates in front of equally unassuming live audiences. Like most fundamental rock’n’roll, “Going Down” is, on the surface, very basic. Half the lyrics are just a repetition of the title, alongside further reiterations of that continual positional assignment. In time, most cover versions of it would see the rest of the lyrics abandoned altogether -- a reduction that resulted into something approaching a demonstrative chant. But when it first emerged in 1969 on the self-titled debut album by Moloch, an obscure group from Memphis, it was nowhere near as reckless a proposition. Under the production of fellow Memphisian Don Nix, it was cut as a simple and upbeat Memphis Soul exercise with a lunchtime chaser of Hard Rock and laced with overwhelming blues intent hung at every edge with organ punctuations like Spanish moss waving over the interspersion of slow, stinging guitar lines at molasses-dripping tempo (up until a small fray of sustain and speed during the coda.) Nix not only produced but contributed (or co-wrote) all the material that comprised the album, but it was his one track, “Going Down” that would continue to endure for years.1

Although Nix didn’t follow up with his own version of “Going Down” on either of his first two solo albums (both issued in 1971), by the following year he’d perform a version in concert that would surface on the double live “Road Show” album by a Mad Dogs & Englishmen-styled touring group with the unwieldy moniker of The Alabama State Troupers Featuring Don Nix, Jeanie Greene, Furry Lewis And The Mt. Zion Band & Choir. It’s more than feasible that Nix performed it due to renewed interest by way of Freddie King’s brand new rendition which appeared on King’s 1971 album, “Getting Ready...,” the first of a trilogy for Shelter Records which was co-produced by Shelter peoples Leon Russell and Nix himself. King vastly improved on Moloch’s version of “Going Down” by trimming away the extraneous Santana geegaws, jacking up the tempo while exponentially increasing the guitar soloing in not only quantity but magnitude as well. This would be the version that would put “Going Down” on the map, with additional versions quickly following in 1972 on albums from The Jeff Beck Group and Chicken Shack. But the continuous position of “Going Down” as a live encore ever since “Road Show” that continued throughout the seventies -- especially by Deep Purple and The Pink Fairies -- would first be perpetrated by...The Who.

Yes, The Who got in there first, got there live, and gave it hell. In their hands, this one-time moderate, mid-tempo Memphis meditation became a shambolic, assaultive, horrible fucking din which in retrospect would all but signal the ultimate conclusion of their 1969-1971 SG Special period. Rightly renowned as their greatest and heaviest, it was all too appropriate it should’ve ended with a bang and not a whimper and “Going Down” is such an event. It’s a cataclysm, rendered in undoing-ness. It’s in a constant state of falling apart, like a descending stairstep to abandon that continually decays as it grows. Flanked by “My Generation” and “Naked Eye” as the penultimate encore, the earliest known version of “Going Down” was attempted at the Phoenix Veteran's Memorial in Phoenix, Arizona on December 7, 1971. Existing only as a muddy audience recording made in proximity of Entwistle’s stacks, it’s difficult to discern if Daltrey is even singing or not. Two nights later, someone at the Los Angeles Forum show captured the next rendition and both are fairly rambling as the rhythm section is left grasping for a foundation amidst Townshend’s blaring exchanges between the main riff and feedback laced improvisations with Entwistle resigned to laying a low fog of rumbling thunder while Moon fares worse, drowned out by the spirited clapping of the audience surrounding the person recording the show. At both shows, Moon cuts out drumming altogether for extended periods, but there's a build at the end when people resume clapping at double time that he barges back in. Townshend continues a meandering bridge of sighs after the silence, occasionally plagued by feedback, and then the tape cuts off. Despite the breakdowns, both versions are insistent burn ups with high levels of urgency and are light years ahead of most Rock, even for 1971. (And that’s no mean feat.)

Of the three known 1971 performances, only one made it to legitimate release: the “Two’s Missing” album from 1987 of compiled rarities. Erroneously re-titled as the short form “Goin’ Down,” the title also held the equally erroneous parenthetical, “(Live 1972).” Big deal, except for decades I thought it was from 1972 and during that crucial point in time in The Who’s career, even a couple months made all the difference in terms of demarcating entire shifts in Townshend’s songwriting and the band’s direction as The Who agitated in a spin cycle set to a constant state of furious activity and high creativity that resulted in the abandonment of entire projects, involvement in side projects, punishing live schedules, and -- in all probability -- fluctuating degrees of mental health. Pete Townshend remarked as much in footage from 1971 used in “The Kids Are Alright”: “We'd realised the end of our tether...we'd reached it. We'd come upon the point when...the... (Breaks out with wild flailing gestures and swooping noises) ...nosebleeds and all that, are no good. We can't go on doing that. It’s no good...uh... It's beyond the beyond.” 2

Luckily, the version on “Two’s Missing,” captured at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on December 13, 1971, is the most fully-formed, best sounding, and most coherent of the trio...Relatively speaking. This was the same performance that yielded another astonishing cover, “Baby Don’t You Do It,” which would appear the following year as the B-side of their single, “Join Together” and the version of “Going Down” here is cut from the very same Rock. John Entwistle commented in the liner notes for “Two’s Missing” that “it was obviously something that Roger and Pete had heard and I hadn’t. Hence the fumbling bass at the beginning.” (Entwistle’s post-mortem applies doubly so for the other two versions as well, with even the redoubtable Keith Moon flailing away or holding back in segments that might’ve called for the exact opposite.) Despite Entwistle’s professional analysis, he rightly assumes when to reign it all in tightly -- right before the whole thing blows up during the crescendo peak with Moon smashing gongs as Townshend’s amplified heat fries his stack of Hiwatts via Super Fuzz and his own questing mind...DOWN... DOWN... DOWN... DOWN... DOWN...

By early 1973, Townshend had switched to wearing a cheesecloth top and earring, cut his hair, grew his beard and wound up strapped to a Polaris White Gibson SG Special or a Barney Kessel-styled Gibson hollowbody backing Eric Clapton at the Rainbow Theatre. Either the same or a very similar model was used by Townshend on “Top Of The Pops” ten months later which, during a particularly spirited mimed appearance of “5:15,” wound up smashed to smithereens and and as a result: capsized the musical syncing as much as it created something far more spontaneous. Then again, The Who were at their best as a spontaneous generation of energy, a group that not only grew into their inabilities but turned them into something collectively larger: larger than art, and possibly even life itself.

Dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Ann Napier.

  1. Don Nix had been a veteran of the Memphis music scene since his involvement in the late 1950’s with the very first house band for Stax Records, The Mar-Keys. This band soon lost two key members -- Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn -- to Stax’s second major studio group, the prodigious and prolific Booker T. & The M.G.’s. Nix’s life in rock’n’roll is detailed in the vaguely edited though highly entertaining 2015 autobiography, “Memphis Man: Living High, Laying Low.” With nary a mention of “Going Down” except on the back cover blurb, his firsthand accounts of Stax Records, Elvis Presley, LaVerne Baker, Duck Dunn, Furry Lewis, Leon Russell, George Harrison and many more are so damn engaging, down to earth, and with such a rare perspective that it’s a page turner deluxe.
  2. There was a point in the middle of 1972 when five long months separated “Join Together” / “Baby, Don’t You Do It” and their following single, “Relay” / “Waspman.” Another gap was where twelve months separated the abortive “Lifehouse” project and the shelved “Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock” album, so it’s apparent to see how a year in the life of The Who during this time span entirely separate shifts in direction and procedures.