Tuesday, February 9, 2010

'I try to find the key to fifty million fables..'

I was never lucky enough to see The Who live. I'm nearly 50 years old and it's probably the one real regret of my musical life. The closest I came was the night I first saw Bruce Springsteen, at the Birmingham NEC on 7 June 1981, when, as if life couldn't get any better at that moment, Pete Townshend showed up to jam.

(I also walked past John Entwistle as he was waiting for his car outside a hotel in New York, the day after the band had played at the Javits Center in the summer of 2000, but I don't think that counts, since I was too speechless to actually say anything to him.)

But the whole band - the real band - sadly no.

When I was about 12, I heard "Tommy" and, along with The Beatles' "Abbey Road" around the same time, it changed how I thought about music. This wasn't "pop", this was literature. They're still two of my favorite albums and are as clever and magnificent today as they were then.

So, Pete and Roger got some tough press over their SuperBowl show the other night. Not all of it completely undeserved - the sound mixing at the start of the set wasn't great, but the staging was as impressive as is possible in such an impersonal performance - but to a certain extent the reaction the next day seemed to reflect a generational understanding of what the band means and their place in history.

"Live At Leeds" is possibly one of the best live albums ever made. My friends who were at The Valley in '74 or '76 will always argue that those shows - dysfunctional and acrimonious as they were - may have embodied the height of the band's powers as a live act. That may be and certainly after Keith Moon's death, things were never the same.

That's why I found myself sadly nodding in agreement at pretty much everything Caryn Rose wrote over at Jukebox Graduate.

I think what resonated with me the most was the realization of what's been lost and what we're in the process of losing.

When she mentioned that U2 are the only band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that still has its original members, the value of what I'd missed out on with The Who was crystallized.

Every live performance is special because it is, by its very nature, unique. Some will be good and some will be bad. That's how it is with live performances; you know that's the gamble when you buy a ticket, and you know it when you've seen a band a few times that some days they're on, some days they're off.

But when part of them isn't there, by definition, they're always "off". Even when they're "on", it's someone else, it's something different.

I said earlier that the closest I came to seeing The Who live was when Pete Townshend jammed with Bruce. Strictly that's true, but in my heart, it's a different story.

On the evening of October 20, 2001, I was working the overnight shift at my paper's office in midtown Manhattan. I was alone in the office while ten blocks away at Madison Square Garden, the Concert For New York City was being broadcast live, and The Who were doing this:

With "Baba O'Riley" I was up and dancing around the desks. As "Won't Get Fooled Again" blasted into the empty office with the volume up as high as it would go, I was windmilling frantically in front of a glass window looking onto The Avenue Of The Americas. And I didn't care who saw. For me, still a relative stranger in this city in the wake of September 11, this was my old country talking to my new one; it was our musical history putting an arm round everyone here and saying: "we're the same," at the same time as we're singing: "I don't need to fight to prove I'm right."

To all intents and purposes, I "saw" The Who that night, because I got The Who that night.

So before you judge anything by those twelve corporate minutes on Sunday night, just think of what you've missed. God knows, I do.

And if you've any lingering doubts that this band has an enduring relevance beyond just the CSI crowd that hears the band as some kind of FM ambient noise, then just take a look at the recent VH1 tribute. Yes, there were cheesy parts, but it was real, and it was sincere. And this was just one part of it, a part that made me feel young again:

This is music. This is our life. This is Who we are. From my generation to the next.


Thanks to the brilliant Rock and Roll Today we learn that today, 49 years ago - and a whole month and a half before I was born - The Beatles made their first appearance at Liverpool's Cavern Club.

Then, exactly three years later, Beatlemania came to America with the band's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and subsequent appearances at Shea Stadium.

Who'd have ever thought we'd end up writing something like this?


And rounding off this 'British Invasion' edition, this is just great...

I love The Kinks. Go get 'em, Geoff!


  1. I had a great time watching the Who perform at the Super Bowl. They were different than I expected or remembered, but then that could be said of me as well.

    Judging a legend from our youth cause they perform differently at 64 than they did at 20 doesn't quite seem the best way to enjoy life. But I have to say the clips you found were a hoot to watch. Thanks.

  2. i 'missed' the Who, in terms of generation, Steve. But the catalog is brilliant. And one only has to glance at this image of Pete as a youth to see the timeless face of rock. http://tpduderman.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/petetownsend1.jpeg

  3. I'd say you're just a tad too melodramatic here. "This is WHO we are"?? Really, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  4. Fred - Good to hear from you again. I agree, growing with any band or performer, whether that's for five years or thirty-five years, is about embracing what they create at every stage of their career, not just perpetually celebrating what it was that made you like them in the first place. It's inevitable though, that at some point you'll get a sense that you're witnessing a last hurrah.

    John - Thanks, great shot! Hope all's well. Let's have a beer soon.

    Anon - Yep, you're absolutely right. Point taken.

  5. Good read again - loved the Flaming Lips clip - not seen that before.
    I always have similar feelings about seeing "reformed" bands, as it is never what it was first time round - one of the reasons I have never gone to see the Stones.
    Saying that though, The Specials last year on their 30th was one of the best gigs I have ever been to - which was echoed by everyone walking out at the end, but 6 months later at the end of the tour when we saw them again, I just felt cheated out of my memory of the earlier gig.

    Funny old business live music isn't it.