BRITISH SUMMER TIME, Hyde Park, London
They might not be in our g-g-generation anymore, but they’re certainly still talking to it. One song in, and the frustrated angst of Can’t Explain awakens all our hearts with its disenfranchised vehemence. This is music and sentiment that is timeless, delivered by a voice that hasn’t diminished the slightest in his latter years. Roger Daltrey, in fact, seems rejuvenated, a man reborn and almost youthful as he prowls the stage in his customary fashion, hurling out every note from a rasping larynx with still-apparent virulent gusto.
Beside him, Pete Townshend is bashing out his power chords with pinwheeling arms that still swing like a limb carousel.
Following a support set from so-called “mod-father” Paul Weller, what we’re seeing now is the true fathers of a mod movement that changed the complexion of rock music and thrust it into the modern world.
Operatics and generation-defining lyrical perspectives are brought back out for another scream and wail at a world overrun with conservatism – in these dark times, the capital ‘C’ can be applied – it’s probably more relevant today than it was before.
It speaks volumes that the crowd, which I expected to be a smattering of ageing Jimmy-the-mod facsimilies in faded parkas and even more faded memories (and there are plenty of them shambling about), the majority is made up of a new generation, who seem to be aligned with the perennial classic rock sound and riding on the coattails of ancestral angst. This is music that transgresses time, and something that is passed down as a lesson to those that follow.
The Kids Are Alright, with its Beatles copyist melody in its opening verses, segues into Townshend’s theatrical monologue, and vividly illustrates the transition from old to new, its closing wig-out with Daltrey screaming the song’s mantra, it’s like watching chapters in history melding into one another – from the Beatles to the Who to where we now stand, in the shadow of a monolith for future rock dramatics.
Case in point, I Can See For Miles (kilometres on the European tour) exudes that indomitable spirit and prescient vision that typifies this band’s career – though Daltrey, now bespectacled, makes for a comical context (he can’t even see the wall chart) – but the visionary rock posturings and wailing, insistent vocals (which paved the way for the likes of Led Zep’s Robert Plant) show that their raw vision is still undimmed, and untainted by time.
Speaking of which…
“PEOPLE TRY TO PUT US DOWN!”
The first line of this seminal track is met by about three generations in the audience, who all scream back “Talkin’ ‘bout my generation!” It’s a sight to behold – so many different ages all congregated in an almost religious accord – age barriers dissolved as young and old flail around in one amorphous generational mosh.
Daltrey and Townshend are conducting the melee with consummate, almost dictatorial command, though the song’s crucial line “Hope I die before I get old” is now utterly redundant, delivered as it is by rock dinosaurs.
But for all that, they look as exuberant and virulent as disenfranchised youths up there, the sheer power of the music a lifeforce that defies everything in its wake. “Why don’t you all f-f-f…” indeed – the whole of Hyde Park providing their alternate lyrics to the euphemistic “fade away”. The f-word becomes a mass heirloom.
And from that belligerent euphoria, Behind Blue Eyes contrasts the mood with its mournful introspection and Pink Floyd-esque expansive blues-rock – its alienated vocal slant turning a togetherness into self-examination. The contrast is like a bucket of cold water: stark and sobering.
You Better You Bet remains a sort of kitsch novelty track but gets the mood back on party-vibe terms.
After which, the atmosphere is brought back down, but paradoxically uplifted, as a couplet from Quadrophenia is brought out.
The Who’s masterwork, in my opinion, two tracks from this seminal work just doesn’t seem enough (where’s The Real Me?; 5:15?; Doctor Jimmy?)
Thankfully, though, they do play the two best tracks from said album. I’m One, a disturbingly honest lament about the trials of existence and clinging on to identity for dear life. Daltrey’s voice is rasping and as heartfelt as ever, but tinged with a melancholy that lends even more weight to the song’s painfully human sentiment. Standing stock-still in the middle of what now seems an enormous, lonely stage, the words “I am one” reverberate with poignant defiance. It’s sad, sonorous, and beautiful.
And if that weren’t enough, The Who’s best track follows in its wake.
Love Reign O’er Me, the key refrain from Quadrophenia, starts with its ghostly piano intro – a lilting ebb and flow of melancholy that perfectly soundtracks the lonely abandon of the ocean. The ensuing rumbling storm of drums, courtesy of Ringo Starr’s son Zach Starkey, feeds into the sweeping operatics of the song’s signature theme, overlain with undulating strings like a musical tide that washes over you. Daltrey himself seems quite overwhelmed, his vocals heavy with sentiment on the song’s achingly romantic lyrics: “LOOOOOOVVE, REIGN O’ER ME” he implores, that haunted quality in his voice reverberating throughout the park like a lost ghost. Townshend’s windmill guitar strokes, meanwhile, sends the coruscating melody into the stratosphere. The moment is transcendent. Love reigns, supreme.
Following such introspection, the bombastic Broadway theatrics of Pinball Wizard brings more juxtaposition – from gloomy to the garish; the sombre to the celebratory – this seems to be the preeminent motif for The Who’s repertoire: the four walls that house their rambunctious emotional spectrum. Schizophrenic? They’re bloody quadrophenic.
Few bands can moodswing from elegiac to maniac with such effortless grace. To highlight this, Tommy’s signature tune segues into the poignant See Me, Feel Me, Daltrey shifting from bluster to balladry, and the contrast just emphasises the precariousness of the human condition.
Finishing up with quintessential Who wig-out fodder Won’t Get Fooled Again, with its space opera guitar grandiosity, with its belligerent assault of guitars – Pete Townshend’s brother Simon on one of them – it’s a dramatic and defiant ending that wails and screams to the world that they are not ever going to just f-f-fade away.
Now, why don’t you all… FUCK OFF!
*An edited version of this article is published in Record Collector in the UK and Filter magazine in the US.