Over the years when people have asked me one of the predictable musichead questions — “Beatles or the Stones?” — I have quickly replied “the Who.” Of course I acknowledge the first two bands as major groundbreakers and I like a ton of their tunes, but it was the Who that connected me with a part of myself that I didn’t understand, and helped give me some ground rules for life that I’m still trying to adhere to.
When I was six years old I distinctly remember seeing a mod on a scooter — the quintessential Who totem — and thinking, I want to do that one day. I actually never got a Vespa (I was smart enough to know that probably would’ve kill myself on it when I was 16), but watching the movie of the Quadrophenia album, my fave Who release, made me feel like an outsider to mainstream culture, but nonetheless a respected, or at least acknowledged, part of it.
Another fave of theirs is The Who Live At Leeds because it was recorded at my University concert hall. That was seven years before I got there, but its reputation bolstered our music community at the school, and I was lucky enough to see a ton of fantastic shows in that space.
Last night at Target Center I wanted the band to play some early tunes from that era too, songs that I never thought I would get a chance to hear again — but I hadn’t scoured the reviews of previous shows on this, their “Hits 50” tour, presumed to be their last ever. I wanted to be surprised.
Boy, was I surprised — actually, by many elements of the night. Roger Daltrey’s voice was very strong, belying the health issues that had cancelled this gig last year. Pete Townshend looked dapper in his white jacket, a bright red hanky in his breast pocket; he was smiling more than usual and talking to the crowd way more than I remembered from the three times I’d seen them before.
The Who have obviously decided to present this show as an incomplete chronological journey through their career, with poignant stories and anecdotes —pointedly referring to their on-again/off-again love affair with America. They are perhaps the only band of the British Invasion era who stuck to being resolutely British, rather than openly using America as a source of inspiration. Union Jack flags were everywhere; it’s their classic logo. (Yes, I brought the shirt that has the Royal Air Force target emblem on.)
The characters in their songs and stories stayed grounded in the experience of growing up in post-war England. For example, one of the longest stories Pete told was after they played “Pictures of Lily,” another early fave of mine. The Lily referred to is Lily Langtry, an Edwardian courtesan and actress, and the snaps were given to a young Pete by his father as “my first porn”! “I don’t know why we play that song, actually,” Pete sniggered. The only time that the screen behind the band remained static was during this song. It showed a picture — not of Lily, but of Keith Moon in drag.
Another surprise was the opening band. That there was one at all surprised us, and they were not Maximum R&B like the Who. It was only their second gig in America and they knew that none of us had ever heard of Slydigs, so they gave up talking to us after a few tentative attempts at jokes because they thought we couldn’t understand them!
Between bands, the screen behind the simple stage set had scrolled through some highlights of the Who’s astounding career — with many pictures of Keith Moon, their legendary drummer who died in 1978, and bass man John Entwhistle, who died in 2002. That set the stage nicely for the current touring band, who support the two remaining founders.
Simon Townsend is Pete’s brother and has been playing second guitar with the Who for a while. Pino Palladino is a very well-respected bassist who’s played with Beck, Nine Inch Nails and many others, ever since laying down the distinctive opening lines for Paul Young’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat,” a big hit in ’83. Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son, has played drums with them since the mid-1990s, and as Pete put it, Starkey “grew up being mentored by Keith Moon, so it’s a perfect fit.”
Keyboards, backing vocals, and assorted other instruments are provided by John Corey, Loren Gold, and music director Frank Simes, who Pete credited with making then sound so good.
After opening with “Who Are You,” they jumped right into one of my faves, “The Seeker,” and the vocal acrobatics on that one proved that Roger was having a good night. Then came “The Kids Are Alright” with wonderful pictures of those beloved scooters riding along the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. That shot could actually be pointed at as to why the Who weren’t an immediate success over here. Some of their musical motifs and visual symbols simply don’t translate, or at least are not as universally as the Stones and the Beatles did.
Then Pete told another story, about how “I Can See For Miles” became a surprise hit in 1967 Flint, Mich. — from where they went to the Monterey Pop Festival as their first real big gig stateside. Then surprisingly, considering all the big hit singles they’ve had, Roger explained that over the years Pete had written a lot of great pieces of instrumental music, “overtures and undertures” — mostly, of course, to link the themes within their rock opera works. Roger left the stage after saying “I think this is the best he ever did.”
“The Rock,” the penultimate track on Quadophenia, seemed to meander, surge and fall, seeming improvised in places until it gently led into “Love Reign O’er Me,” which ends the album. It’s perhaps their saddest song, and another one treated excellently by Roger’s voice.
After the band built to a wonderful musical climax with “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the lights came up, they all put their instruments down, and Pete went through a pretty long introduction of all the members with various asides. They obviously wanted the last notes of the night to be their voices saying thank you to a joyous crowd who had supported them in a lifetime of work — and when they left the stage, that was it. No encore, lights up, it’s over, we’ll never see the Who play again.
I still can’t quite get my head around that. They’ve been there to rely on for my entire life. As an intro the screen behind the stage said, “Keep Calm Here Comes Pete.” I haven’t calmed down yet from a magical night in my community celebrating some of my heroes. Thanks, Who!