Beside The Rolling Stones, The Who are just about the last of the iconic Olympian English rock groups still performing in stadiums - and recording. Their new album, simply entitled The Who, was released on November 22nd. The thunder (drummer Keith Moon) and the earthquake (bassist John “The Ox” Entwistle) have passed on. However, the composer (guitarist Peter Townshend) and the voice (Roger Daltrey) are, despite their celebrated differences, still side by side conjuring their magic.
With Loren Gold on keyboards, brother Simon Townshend on guitar and Zak Starkey (yes, Ringo’s gifted progeny) mashing the drums, The Who is vital and thriving. In a two-hour classic show, with a conductor and symphony orchestra, the London lads served a sonic smorgasbord of over a half-century of snarling, melodic, philosophical hits from their sensational catalogue.
Once infamous in their youth for trashing hotel rooms, bashing musical equipment and gnashing and lashing out at each other, they were some of the original headbangers, channeling their fury into some of the most incendiary live performances ever. At the same time, the uber-literate Townshend wrote two monumental rock operas, Tommy and Quadrophenia, which endure as some of the most magnificent opuses in the entire history of rock ‘n roll. Both are feature length narrative films, worthy of your attention, if for nothing else than the music.
So, on a late-summer, mid-September night in sold out Fenway Park, Townshend, in a resplendent red jumpsuit, and Daltrey, in trademark jeans, now both in their mid-70’s, presented their best, including the Smokey Robinson-inspired Substitute from 1966. Daltrey, praising Townsend, crowed that one of its lines (a proud reminder of their working-class roots), I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, is one of the greatest in rock history. It’s hard to disagree with that. I Can See For Miles, their 1967 first No.1 hit, sounded as fresh as the day it was recorded. Tens of thousands joined in on the chorus. As a tribute to their appeal, there were legions of younger music lovers in attendance, who probably listened to their parents’ or grandparents’ record collections once upon a time.
For all their bluster and swagger, The Who are capable of delivering poignant nuggets, most notably the irresistible Behind Blue Eyes from their best-selling early-70’s album, Who’s Next, whose cover features the original quartet urinating on a wall. It sounded heavenly on this cool evening, as did an acoustic version performed by just Daltrey and Townshend of their anthemic Won’t Get Fooled Again.
As for The Who collaborating with a symphony orchestra, it is and has been a successful and satisfying venture for decades. The brute force of their rock ‘n roll with the mellifluous brass and strings of the orchestra is a winner. Townshend shared the story of one show when he was presenting Tommy at the classical music mecca, Tanglewood, where a galvanized Leonard Bernstein burst backstage to exclaim to the astounded Townshend, “You Gotta Write More Of This Stuff!”
As for Daltrey, nine years ago, he thought his career was over. His voice was toast. However, Dr. Steven Zeitels, a surgeon practicing in Boston and in the audience on this night, performed a career-saving operation. We all owe the good doctor a pat on the back.
To close the spectacle, Daltrey soared spiritually on Love Reign O’er Me and the closer Baba O’Reilly, which Rolling Stone magazine has cited as one of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
Daltrey doesn’t fling the microphone thirty feet high in the air anymore. Nor does Townshend jump nearly as high as he used to. But if you closed your eyes on Friday night in Fenway, you were back 50 years or more in the time machine with a raw rocking English punk band, a force of nature.
Long Live The Who.