50 years is an eternity in rock and roll. Time enough to migrate from unassailable genius to tabloid punchline and back again: hell most bands could top the charts, disappear into obscurity, reform and call it quits twice over in the time its taken Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend to reach this quite incredible milestone.
The Who’s sheer bloody minded commitment to keep on headlining shows into their 70s invites parody. The band who sputtered “I hope I die before I get old” in a rush of youthful oblivion, have not so much redefined what it is to get old, as wholeheartedly embraced it. The song and the show might remain the same, but Roger and Pete refuse to pull the wool over their audience’s eyes.
On the last night of their 50th anniversary (and possibly final) tour of the UK, the duo bicker like lovable curmudgeons in the corner of their local pub; occupying the same stalls (mic stands) they’ve laid claim to for half a century and rehashing old arguments with warming ritualistic glee.
The bitterness has long since dissipated: Roger and Pete are happy to be the nation’s priciest Punch and Judy act. When the frontman is labelled a “fucking tit” by his erstwhile songwriter, there is no ill will, these legend’s positively enjoy their fractious legacy and are happy to poke fun at their age (“they don’t ask Chelsea to play two nights in a row” Daltrey complains on the second night of a double header).
By simultaneously embracing and defying their age (rather than simply denying the obvious like so many of their peers), The Who have managed to reframe themselves as foul mouthed national treasures: aware, but still irresistible, when the stars align. And yet the question remains, what do we make of The Who’s legacy and their considerable achievements 50 years on?
Few would question the quality of The Who’s first two decades of output; the London fourpiece embodied mod fashion, youthful exuberance, the burgeoning thrill of booming amps and crushing chords, the instinctive power of a live show and then the grandest pretentions and capabilities of pop music as a medium. All the while, through the (mostly) highs and (occasional) lows, Pete Townshend continued to write hit singles for bandmates who seemed hell bent on defining the rock and roll aesthetic. The Who crystalized the image of the Teflon voiced free spirit of a frontman, the technically ferocious bassist and the unkempt madman behind the drum kit.
The subsequent 33 years (the vast majority of the 50 Pete and Roger are celebrating) have been barren. Even after their 1996 reunion The Who have managed just one new studio album compared to a staggering 20 live or compilation records. The duo have become more famous for teasing breakups to flog £70 tickets than they have for working together to create something new.
To paint The Who as craven cash grabbers would do the band a disservice. They may have opted to play classic albums in full, but when those said albums are full blown rock operas designed specifically to be experienced as one giant performance piece (similar to Roger Waters lauded live performances of The Wall) who could blame them? Indeed, while Daltrey and Townshend might not be able to equal the highs of Live At Leeds (the consensus choice for the greatest live album ever recorded), during the mid-2000s The Who did re-establish themselves as a vital live behemoth.
When the band were asked to headline Glastonbury in 2007, following a stellar performance at the Isle Of Wight in 2004, Daltrey and Townshend were not treated as a novelty scraping by on four decade’s old cultural kudos, but a bulldozing live act every bit the rival of The Killers and Arctic Monkeys.
Unfortunately, The Who that belatedly take the stage at London O2’s Arena, three months later than they were originally scheduled to appear, are not quite so potent. Pete is audibly saddened that the band had to forgo headlining in their hometown exactly 50 years to the day that “I Can’t Explain” crashed into charts. This grand send off and celebration of a half century of rock remains special, but isn’t the singular moment he dreamed of.
The delay occurred when Daltrey had to cut short a performance at Cardiff’s Motorpoint arena and, while he can still tear up the tarmac on a spittle spewing rendition of “Love Reign O’ver Me”, he strangely struggles to enunciate on the band’s jauntier 60s material. At times his voice feels clogged with unwanted glottal stops, spluttering lines just short of perfection and failing to puncture the fearsome din Townshend and co effortlessly create. Daltrey can still run rings around many of his 60s peers both in terms of energy and ease, but it is striking how visibly the band have lost a mere half step from their mid-2000s pomp.
Whether Roger and Pete decide to call it a day or not, hardly matters, the time to catch The Who live and in person is now. The setlist is tightly stacked with generation spanning hits, fiendishly ambitious suites and plenty of stadium shaking power. The videos accompanying the performance are suitably nostalgic: inspiring real warmth and offering a sense of perspective on sweeping societal change without appearing mawkish or distracting.
The Who are “just a band” in the best possible way and their set’s truly triumphant moments come in viscerally simplistic forms: the cheeky coyness of “Pictures Of Lily”, “See Me, Feel Me’s” inclusive wide-eyed-awe, the un-showy tenderness of “Behind Blue Eyes” and the sheer rampaging magnitude of set closers “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Roger and Pete overawe rather than overegg.
The past and the present are being succinctly reconciled as The Who knowingly veer between self-parody and superstardom. Daltrey and Townshend possess venom enough to thrill on merit alone, but prove equally self-aware, winking and nodding when necessary, both refusing to live in denial of their age and refusing to allow a number (even one as big as 50 or 71) define them down. The Who Hits 50 might yet be a master class in how to go out on top, for those who refuse to die before they get old.
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