Like mountaineers tottering on the drink of some huge ravine, The Who crashed into their first tour in over two years at the weekend and, in the insanely mad tradition of this extraordinary little band from Shepherds Bush, they survived one night of relative chaos before another night of absolute triumph.The two concerts were at Bingley Hall on the Stafford County Showground, a few miles east of the county town. The huge hall (by British standards) played host to almost 16,000 fans from the Midlands who turned out to see the band's first British performances since their concert at the Charlton F.C. football ground in London last year.
They were not disappointed.
A certain amount of unpredictable spontaneity has always followed The Who and been an essential hallmark of their crusading style. The margin between success and disaster is dangerously small, explosive temperaments bubble and boil, but the resulting combustion often produces the necessary spark to ignite The Who into a state of unparalleled creativity and violent excitement.
But any machine that has lain idle for more than a year requires a little oil before it will crank with its regular precision. Such was the case on Friday evening when the band made a few blaring mistakes but laughed them off with uncanny good nature. Few other bands could stop a number halfway through, have a hurried exchange of comments, and begin the tune again without arousing discord in the audience, but The Who managed it on Friday. Keith Moon, whose error caused the lapse, might not have been too happy, though.
John Entwistle arrived late on Friday, but there was an atmosphere of calm backstage as the band prepared for the opening night. Pete Townshend, looking even thinner than usual, slumped angularly in an uncomfortable chair, draped in a long white raincoat, while Roger Daltrey, ever talkative, was dismissing rumours that his acting career would soon take over from his singing role in The Who. "Never read such bollocks in my life," he muttered, apparently refuting suggestions that had been proffered in some music magazine.
"The 'Oo' come first and they always will. We might have a few rows between ourselves but so what? Everybody does."
While Roger retired to dress for the show, Keith Moon chose an Esso Petrol white boiler suit for the evening, hardly an item of sartorial elegance, but eminently practical for playing the drums. He chatted amiably for several minutes with the Chief Constable of Stafford, a sturdy and erect pillar of local society who had arrived backstage with the higher echelon of the local police. Autographs – "actually it's for my daughter, you know" – were exchanged.
Townshend alone seemed reluctant to talk at any length, even on the subject of the Who's new album. I commented that it was unusual: Pete nodded. "Yes... it was... er a bit strange, wasn't it?" He disappeared to tune guitars.
It was just before 9.30 when the house lights dimmed and the band appeared on stage. A full throated roar welcomed them back into the public eye as they kicked into 'Substitute' with a surge of energy that immediately snapped the tension in the hall that had been building up over three hours.
Little changes with institutions like The Who, but Entwistle no longer stands by with apparent indifference. Instead, he actually moves back and forth and spends more time at the microphone either singing, or drinking from a plastic bottle affixed to the stand through a straw. Such self-confidence must have been learned on his solo outings with Ox.
There was only one new song in the whole set, which was curious as the band's new album, The Who By Numbers, was released on the day of the tour's opening.
There was a great chunk of Tommy and a small piece of Quadrophenia: 26 songs all told, though several changes occurred for the Saturday night show – changes for the better, as the climax to the concert seemed rather limp on the opening evening.
From 'Substitute' the band moved into 'Can't Explain' (which usually opens Who concerts) and then they played 'Squeeze Box' from the new album, a track that will probably be taken off as a single. It's an OK stage number with its extended "in and out and in and out" phrases, but so are at least four other new tracks which, so far, have been ignored and which would make ideal stage numbers, a fact that can't have pleased the many reps from Polydor Records who travelled up by (magic) bus to watch Friday's show.
Entwistle gave us 'Heaven And Hell' – announcing that 'My Wife' had been "played out" – before Daltrey stepped forward to sing 'Tattoo', which sounds as good today as it did when it was first recorded. 'Baba O'Riley' and 'Behind Blue Eyes', two stage favourites from Who's Next, followed, both delivered with effortless Who-style panache.
And so it was into Tommy. "We've spent most of this year on a film and we thought it would be nice to play some of the music again," announced Daltrey as Townshend felt for the opening chords of 'Amazing Journey' to open a 45-minute excerpt from what is universally regarded as his major work, albeit the cross he has had to bear for some seven years now.
'Journey' moved into the instrumental 'Sparks', which featured some stunning exchanges between Pete's chord work and Entwistle's rippling bass runs. The thundering reached such a peak that Moon actually stood up to play drums, crashing across his many tom-toms like an African on a war dance.
Then came 'Eyesight To The Blind', which was a trifle jerky, but with 'Acid Queen' they regained control, Daltrey singing exceptionally well. Moon stumbled through 'Fiddle About' before a crescendo of applause greeted Townshend's intro to 'Pinball Wizard'. Again Moon tumbled forth for 'Uncle Ernie's Holiday Camp' as Townshend girded up for the Tommy climax of 'I'm Free', 'We're Gonna Take It' and the climatic 'See Me, Feel Me'.
Few of Townshend's compositions rival the sheer majesty of 'See Me, Feel Me' which builds to an explosive level as each verse spirals forth. The atmosphere created both by the music and the by now standard white lighting shone on the audience, was the highlight of the night.
From this point, Friday's show sagged. 'Drowned' seemed an anti-climax after the Tommy climax, and Moon and Daltrey hesitated on the vocal exchanges on 'Bell Boy'. Then things came very unstuck during 'The Punk And The Godfather' when Moon continued drumming during Townshend's supposedly unaccompanied vocal solo which, for my money, includes the most moving lines from Quadrophenia.
An angry Townshend stopped playing, turned to Moon and told him, in no uncertain terms, to belt up. Then he recommenced the song at the beginning of the solo. There was a short discussion after the song and Townshend apologised to the audience, who didn't seem to mind at all.
The incident was forgotten after Moon walked across the stage, embraced Townshend, and apparently made-up for the blunder.
'My Generation' brought a stamp of authority back into the performance and this segued into a rather delicate rendering of 'Join Together'.
'Won't Get Fooled Again', another classic pounder for the Townshend block chord technique, hummed along with power and drama, with Townshend adopting his classic legs-apart stance and spiralling his right arm roughly across the strings of the Les Paul. Daltrey, however, forgot the words to the second verse, which spurred Townshend on to play even more violently than usual.
For the closing number they chose '5.15' which seemed yet another anti-climax, petering out on Townshend's "Why should I care" vocal line. It was a disappointing ending, and there was no encore, even though the audience would have welcomed one.