It had all started off so thrillingly well, with a smiling Roger Daltrey yelling “Live At Leeds!” to a capacity crowd only too well aware of the importance of the town in The Who’s history, followed by a string of peerless power pop – I Can’t Explain, Substitute, The Seeker and The Kids Are Alright. Then it started to fall apart.
Early pop-operetta A Quick One While He’s Away could have been an interesting, if slightly perverse, choice, even though I’ve never been that keen on the recorded version. It certainly wasn’t helped here, though, by bickering between Daltrey and Townshend about which key they should be singing it in. Not that it mattered much as Daltrey’s voice was already sounding suspect, which he rather charmlessly blamed on a dodgy monitor mix.
Subsequently, their set-list looked as if it had been picked at random from their magnificent back catalogue – Eminence Front instead of Pure And Easy? Long Live Rock (the ho-hum title surely says it all) instead of My Generation? Really?
For every moment of brilliance – Love Reign O’er Me, for instance, with Daltrey delivering a surprisingly decent facsimile of that genre-defining vocal roar – there were another one or two which left long-time fans like me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Did Pete Townshend really have to preface Squeeze Box, admittedly never a great song, with a snarled “that piece of rubbish”?
And flying in Entwistle’s bass solo for 5.15 and Moon’s vocals for Bell Boy felt less like a mark of respect for fallen fellow-warriors than a cheap trick and, moreover, a bit of a slap in the face for the current band.
You’ll notice that I referred to myself as a long-time fan earlier on and perhaps I need to expand on that to put my disappointment in context. There was a time, throughout my teens and early days as a student in Manchester, when I fervently believed that The Who were very possibly the best rock band on Earth. I’d never miss a chance to see them live and stuck by them even as the albums got patchier and the inter-band tensions more embarrassing than energizing.
As far as I was concerned, they were four brilliant soloists who somehow managed to create a colossal sound out of that ongoing conflict. So when Keith Moon and then John Entwistle died, that was surely the end and I actively avoided going to see them during the many and various reformations. But so many trustworthy people had told me that the current incarnation of the band were great and I was denying myself a treat. I thought “well, maybe then”. And what better re-introduction than a (possibly) final tour when they were playing just a mile or so from where they’d recorded one of the greatest live rock albums ever?
It wasn’t even as heart-breaking as I’d feared, just depressing enough that I wasn’t too upset at having to miss the last 30 minutes or so in order to catch my last train home. Believe me, that’s something that would never have happened back in the day. That’s nothing to do with anyone not having died before they got old, more to do with the dispiriting commodification of so much of ye olde rock.
Just a few weeks ago in the very same venue, the splendidly wayward Jack White had emphatically proved that it doesn’t have to be that way. Even more tellingly, just a few blocks away, so had the sensationally shape-shifting Robert Plant.
“Long Live Rock“? Pah!
By Kevin Bourke