This is supposed to be The Who’s farewell tour. According to Roger Daltrey, the band’s vocalist, it is “the beginning of a long goodbye.” Officially, it is their fiftieth anniversary tour – The Who Hits 50, and the band is only too aware of its age. Daltrey, 71, embarked on a recent solo tour called Use It or Lose It, a reference to his aging vocal chords. Meanwhile, the band’s guitarist and songwriter, Pete Townshend, 69, endured a prolonged battle with tinnitus, a hearing problem caused by standing in front of 100-Watt amps that nearly left him completely deaf. Despite all this, the band’s two remaining members continue to tour. There is demand, and they are certainly still able. It is fifty years since The Detours changed their name to become The Who and drummer Keith Moon joined the band. They got a new manager and changed their image to the now iconic mod look – sharp suits and cropped hair. By the start of 1965, they had released their first single, I Can’t Explain, a unique blend of ‘60s rock guitar riffs that come straight from the Kinks, and Beach Boy drenched vocals.
The Who run on stage. Townshend has always wanted to show the crowd his eagerness to perform. Then that familiar guitar riff echoes round the o2 Arena. The huge guitar sound is fitting for this 20,000-seat amphitheatre. The drums and bass kick in. Daltrey sings, “Got a feeling inside.” I Can’t Explain. It is fitting that the band opens with their first hit. Like much of their material, it takes on a renewed 21st century rocked-up tone that is far from the clean ‘60s sound of the record. Rather than detracting from the familiarity of the record, this rejuvenated sound energises the songs.
The touring band also plays their part in this rejuvenated sound: three keyboardists, drummer and bassist. The drummer is given the unenviable task sitting in Keith Moon’s chair – the band’s original drummer whose technique was unconventional, inimitable and unmistakable. Zak Starkey (son of Ringo) has proved his natural successor with a combination of power and flare that he demonstrates on the drum solo of Won’t Get Fooled Again. Pino Palladino now plays bass, and his Motown inspired sound has created a new flavour for the band since the death of original bassist John Entwistle in 2002. During Who Are You, the original band’s faces appear on-screen one by one, and there is a poignant moment as Townshend gives a nod to Entwistle, his childhood friend, as he fades from the screen.
There are, however, a couple of dull moments. Slip Kid, a song from the band’s back catalogue that has rarely been performed live before this tour, was rough at the edges. “That sounded better in sound check,” admitted Townshend. Equally, the mini-rock opera A Quick One While He’s Away dragged, feeling more like a parody than a serious performance of old work. The band made a couple of errors, with Daltrey forgetting the words on Join Together and Townshend playing an extra verse on Listening To You. But these did not detract from the show, giving the band an exciting improvisatory rawness.
The energy of these aging rockers serves as living proof that age need not be measured in years. The line from My Generation, “I hope I die before I get old” did not even feel tinged with irony. Townshend and Daltrey perform with a youthful energy that has long been typical of The Who shows. Several of the songs on the set list deal with youth (My Generation, I’m One, Slip Kid, The Kids Are Alright, Pictures of Lily) but at no point does this feel uncomfortable. Townshend jokes with the audience that “without you we’d be broke,” and touches on the theme that so often brings aging rock stars out of retirement. This is no more than a joke, as he balances it with heartfelt thanks to the fans that having postponed this show they only received twenty to thirty returns.
The Who have said farewell before in 1982. It only lasted seven years. Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle were too restless and creative to take early retirement. Something tells me that this farewell tour will not be last we will see of The Who. Townshend’s trademark arm-swinging and Daltrey’s ability to hit the high notes on Love, Reign O’er Me tell a different story to the farewell branding of this tour. This farewell might turn out to be longer than The Who let on. But if this really is goodbye, then The Who will stay true to their word: the band will die before its members get old.