On December 22 and 23, 1999, The Who played two shows at the Shepherds Bush Empire which I reviewed for Record Collector. My pal Ed Hanel was at the show on the 22nd and gave me the lowdown, while I was there on the 23rd.
Barring visits to the BBC TV Studios in Wood Lane, this was the first time since December 3, 1965, that The Who had played in Shepherd’s Bush, the area of London eternally synonymous with the group. That was the night of their last gig at the Goldhawk Social Club, their acknowledged power base for more than two years, and in the audience was Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni who offered The Who a key scene in his forthcoming film Blow-Up but was disappointed when Kit Lambert evidently asked for too high a fee. Antonioni finally settled on The Yardbirds (then featuring their short-lived Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page line-up), with whom he filmed the scene on a set made to resemble Windsor’s Ricky Tick Club. Some genuine Who ambience was still demanded by Antonioni, who had Jeff Beck smash his guitar. Thus was The Who's anarchic early trademark immortalised by another group in this superb cinematic snapshot of sixties-style swinging London.
Back in 1999, 34 years down the line, Townshend, Entwistle and Daltrey seemed to have lost little of the passion that drove The Who onwards and upwards until, at their peak, they truly were the greatest live act on the planet. Nostalgic it may have been but comfortable it wasn't. “My ears have gone,” Daltrey complained towards the end. “You don't need to hear anything these days,” Townshend quipped. “There's nothing worth listening to these days. It was different when I was a lad!”
An incident-packed evening climaxed with Townshend trashing a gold Stratocaster in a genuine rage. He looked rather sheepish as faithful roadies, including old retainers Alan Rogan and Bob Pridden, swept up the pieces.
The venue was packed by the time they took the stage shortly after 8.20, and the roar that greeted them sounded like Charlton, 1976. The opening salvo – ‘I Can't Explain', 'Substitute' and 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' – was almost perfect, the only flaw being a slight mix-up before the instrumental bars that lead to the climax of 'Substitute'. Pete windmilled his way through the solo on 'Explain' and brought 'Anyhow' to a close by drawing piercing feedback, the kind he pioneered on stage and record long before his peers.
'Pinball Wizard', the only Tommy song of the night, followed, again loud, raw and flawless, before John took the mic for 'My Wife'. Unusually, Roger sang backup throughout, an indication that the world's greatest bass player can no longer sing as well as he once could, even if his fingers are still the quickest anywhere. Barely missing a beat, the familiar synthesiser loop heralded 'Baba O'Riley' and, after Roger's stirring opening verse, it became clear for the first time that Pete, too, was having problems with his vocals. Since the audience sang along at maximum volume, it didn't seem to matter too much but as the evening wore on it became clear that Pete's singing voice was shot too.
On the previous night the seldom played but potentially epic 'Pure And Easy' had gone horribly wrong, Pete having opened the song in a different key to Entwistle. Evidently they'd had words in the meantime for the band now turned in a rousing, noble performance of a song much requested by fans but which hadn't been played live since a few isolated shows in the summer of 1971. Unfortunately the vocals were again lacking, with Roger the main culprit as he strove for a top note that was neither pure nor easy.
'You Better You Bet', the only post-Moon song in the set, suited Daltrey’s voice better, and was followed by vintage performances of 'Happy Jack' and 'I'm A Boy'. On 'Jack', Zak Starkey rumbled through the spring-laden dynamics just as Moonie once did and at the close there was a crowd pleasing shout of 'I saw yer'! 'Getting In Tune' from Who's Next followed and featured a fine guitar solo from Pete though again his vocals were croaky and 'The Real Me' from Quadrophenia served more as a showcase for John's extraordinary bass playing than anything else.
Introduced by Pete as The Who's only ballad, 'Behind Blue Eyes' would have been a show stopper but for the nagging vocal problems. It lacked the shimmering harmonies on the second verse that were once such a highlight of live performances, but the crowd of 1,800 sang along wholeheartedly, urging the band on. 'Magic Bus', brought in by some fine blues playing by Pete, was safer ground and came to a raucous climax, Roger throwing numerous mouth organs into the crowd, before John zipped good naturedly through 'Boris The Spider', his voice again a croak.
'Who Are You' had been an outstanding highlight the night before, largely because Pete took an extended, jazz influenced solo but tonight Pete was having none of it and, after a few seconds noodling, he crashed back into the melody and brought things to a head by windmilling furiously. '5.15' followed, much extended, featuring John's superb solo. Then it was into a full tilt 'Won't Get Fooled Again', more windmilling, a glorious scream from Roger and a fine climax to the show… or so we thought.
In their prime The Who rarely played encores and instead of going through the laboured formality of leaving the stage, only to return a few minutes later, Roger acknowledged the tremendous ovation by strapping on an acoustic Gibson J200, paying tribute to the support they had always received from their West London fan base and leading the millennium Who through 'The Kids Are Alright' and a Johnny Cash medley of 'I Walk The Line' and 'Ring Of Fire', then a gloriously nostalgic 'Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand', a valiant, shattering stab at 'Naked Eye' and, as a crowd pleaser extraordinaire, 'My Generation' which descended into a blues work-out, and climaxed with a violent chord attack that left no one in any doubt that these men cannot and will never grow old gracefully.