When Pete Townshend said the din of his amplifiers in 1964 was emulating that of a WWII bomber plane, he wasn’t kidding. Anyone can play the guitar like a buzz saw. Not everyone can shower you in shrapnel or cause puncture wounds with the sound of searing steel.
It’s 2013. Townshend is nearly 68 years old. But this was his original manifesto: to reflect in music and words the new-found freedoms and challenges of post-war England; to reflect back at The Who’s followers their own struggles and desires.
1973’s Quadrophenia may have been written specific to time and place but you needn’t have been a Mod in London in the early ‘60s for its depictions of teen angst to resonate. Issues with family or drugs or love are universal, and the accompanying anger or confusion is still relevant.
What’s notable is how The Who’s two remaining members are – on the album’s 40th anniversary tour – still so easily able to slip into character. This act has long been Roger Daltrey’s defining strength. Pete Townshend – the work’s sole author – recently re-mastered Quadrophenia, compiling his demos and notes for a box set. Ensconced as he has been in its story and soundscape, it follows that he could take the stage at Los Angeles’ Staples Center embodying and portraying the album’s essence with such clarity and precision. Though Townshend has been known to be a fussy performer (often forgivably, due to hearing trouble), his enjoyment and the pride in what he rightfully calls his masterpiece came shining through.
Weaving the rock opera together are four leitmotifs that represent each of Jimmy’s personalities (traits of The Who’s members that he recognizes in himself). They are first heard in the instrumental title track, its soaring quality setting the tone for the evening: intense and energy-driven, multi-layered with emotion. This carried throughout – Is It In My Head was tender and dejected, I’ve Had Enough virile and bitter.
For someone who has spent the better part of the past 50 years screaming, Daltrey still packs a punch. His voice managed to fill the arena from the bottom up. He isn’t afraid to miss a note here or there, placing the focus of his performance on delivery. He opened his arms to the crowd, pouring intent into each word and searching faces for connection.
He and Townshend traded vocals, conjuring through attitude 1960s Britain, melding it with the present. When Pete stepped to the mike for Cut My Hair, though his once thin tenor has become a deep growl, he was still that misplaced teenager, his face scrunched, his eyes crazed. “Why should I care if I got to cut my hair?” he spat, though not without perspective and a tinge of irony. On other delicate numbers like I’m One and Drowned, the bite of his words was infused with an appropriate sense of desperation. In Drowned he begged the tide to return him to an all-encompassing love, sprinkling references to Hurricane Sandy with defiance and fury. “Bring on the storm!”
The Who’s touring band, as it’s been for the past 10 years since John Entwistle’s death, consists of Pino Palladino on bass, Zak Starkey on drums, and [Pete’s younger brother] Simon Townshend on guitars and backing vocals. It has further filled out this tour, including horns and multiple keyboards. The brass section was a particularly wonderful addition, as the original recording is rife with Entwistle’s arrangements.
Behind the frontmen, Starkey was a monument of dynamic solidity. As evidenced by the audience reaction to the late Keith Moon’s piped vocal and appearance on screen for Bell Boy, the zany drummer’s extraordinary talent will always be missed. Yet Zak is respected not only for conjuring Moon’s gusto but for adding twists of his own flair and creativity. Impressively, when the likewise beloved Entwistle made his on-screen cameo – a thunderous and exquisitely fast bass solo for 5:15 — Zak played, along to tape, each rhythmic nuance with the perfect touch.
In counterpoint to The Ox’s mind-bending solo, Pete stepped to the front of the stage and pummeled his guitar strings with inhuman ferocity. With a trademark curse at the crowd he pressed his fingers hard into his chest. “I’M ALIVE,” he yelled, his voice inaudible but his point unquestionable.
As they led the Staples Center through Quadrophenia, Simon’s voice soaring on Dirty Jobs, the rollicking brass kicking 5:15 up to 11, two things were made clear:
#1 The Who are rulers of their craft; #2 Their statement as an entity has far surpassed their identity as English. 20,000 Californians knew every lyric. Townshend’s fixation on writing music to reflect the listener has proven both its worth and the test of time.
Without a doubt the musical highlight of the night was the record’s penultimate track, The Rock. At this point in the tale all tension has come to a head, the conflict of the local gangs, the contradiction of Jimmy’s identities – he has stranded himself on a rock in the middle of the sea. The instrumental features the recurrence of the four leitmotifs, its intricacies like layers of rolling water, its movement that of crashing waves.
The Townshend brothers’ guitars sang as harmonic rain over the pounding of the drums’ insistent ocean spray. The screen above ran a moving timeline of the past 40 years: Elvis’ death, Keith Moon’s death, John Lennon’s death. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, The Bushes. Tony Blair and Princess Diana. In a particularly gutting moment, a sudden shot of a smoke-shrouded World Trade Center coincided with Pete Townshend’s loudest and most explosive aircraft imitation.
A raft of elegant piano playing by John Corey transitioned into Love Reign O’er Me. This is where Daltrey rose above all that had come before, his vocal masterful, undeniable. He emitted a howl that could act as a simple summation of The Who’s history, proof he remains the ultimate vessel for Townshend’s vision. For the audience to be swept by emotion, the singer must convey. His transmitted plea for redemption was received: upon his final roar those seated leapt to their feet. “Thank you, Los Angeles, for filling it up to the f—king rafters!” Townshend shouted.
The band followed the rock opera with hits and favorites, including Who Are You, Behind Blue Eyes, Pinball Wizard, and Baba O’Riley, letting loose in pure celebration of all that has led them to this point in time. Referencing the thread that has run through his work, Townshend acknowledged with gratitude, “We wouldn’t be here without you.” But we wouldn’t either, without them. “YOU ARE HERE,” flashed the screens during a cathartic Won’t Get Fooled Again. At the last jarring chord, Roger whipped his head toward Pete, shaking it in surprise, as if shards of metal had rattled his skull.
The Who’s remaining two closed the show with 2006’s Tea and Theatre. Daltrey delivered Townshend’s words magnificently, a near-whisper to a bellow. “A thousand songs still smolder now. We played them as one – we’re older now.” Older, yes, but not old, an idea Pete famously rejected in My Generation.
He has written this destiny against all odds – the excess of rock ‘n roll, the battle of addiction, the pull of the abyss that took his closest friends – but at 67 Pete Townshend remains youthful and and very much alive. He is still scissor-kicking, windmilling, and producing unearthly noises from his amplifiers. He is in the storm, he and Daltrey both, performing with a vibrancy for which their successors merely strive, the timeless aspects of The Who’s manifesto running strong amongst the currents.
All photos copyright Brian Michaels and used by permission. To see Brian’s entire series of photographs from the Who concert at Staples, click here.