The Who dazzle Staples Center with ‘Quadrophenia’ and More

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Photo courtesy of Matthew Sater
Photo courtesy of Matthew Sater

Max Stahl, staff writer

Young Man Blues 

In 1973 the Who went on a world tour following the release of their 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia.” Fraught with troubles from the outset, the tour attained little success and marked one of the band’s most infamous periods.

Many Who fans (myself included) consider “Quadrophenia” the band’s magnum opus. In a melange of soaring, classically inspired compositions, thrashing power chords and soothing ocean sound effects, the album tells the story of Jimmy, a member of the 1960’s British youth gang “the Mods,” who struggles to reconcile his four divergent personalities and come to terms with the end of his youth. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend designed the four personalities and their corresponding musical themes to reflect the personalities of himself and his bandmates — singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. The album was by far the most musically complex endeavor the band had undertaken (at least since the failure of the “Lifehouse” project).

The album’s complexity rendered it a nightmare to perform onstage. Failing to sync pre-recorded piano and synthesizer backing tracks with their own instruments, the Who often stumbled over their songs and ultimately failed to cultivate the drive and energy that had characterized their earlier shows.

Frequent mistakes took their toll on the band. One night, Townshend became so frustrated with the mistimed tapes that he dragged sound engineer Bobby Pridden onto the stage and beat him in front of the audience.

Further complications arose on the first night of the American leg of the tour, in San Francisco’s Cow Palace. That night Moon’s drunken, drug-addled, sex-crazed lifestyle caught up with him, and he passed out in the middle of the band’s set. Then the Who made rock ’n’ roll history. Townshend, rather than cutting short the show, asked the audience if anyone knew how to drum his songs. Nineteen-year-old Scot Halpin did, and the show went on.

Time Is Passing

Far from a fiasco, the Who’s 1996-1997 “Quadrophenia” reunion tour (minus the late Keith Moon) was, if anything, anticlimactic. Enlisting special guests to play the rock opera’s major characters, the band for the first time performed the album in its entirety, to less-than-stunning results. The biggest problem: it didn’t sound like the Who. Townshend’s decision to play only acoustic guitar left a gap in the band’s historically electric sound that it tried — and failed — to fill with elaborate showmanship and more subdued renditions of its songs. In short, the shows failed to live up to the album.

Then came 2012. As Daltrey went on tour performing the Who’s 1969 rock opera “Tommy,” Townshend set to work remastering his favorite Who album, “Quadrophenia.” The rock ’n’ roll world was abuzz with rumors that the band would embark on yet another “Quadrophenia” tour.

In July the Who announced a 2012-2013 world tour, in which they would perform the album in its entirety.

Pure and Easy

I was fortunate enough to attend the Who’s Jan. 30 “Quadrophenia” and More show at the Staples Center.

The concert was, in a word, perfect. In a grueling two-hour set, the Who powered through “Quadrophenia” without speaking a word to the audience, after which the band played a selection of hits: “Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Tea and Theatre.”

The band took the stage as the opening track of “Quadrophenia,” “I Am the Sea,” composed mainly of a piano playing over the sound of waves crashing against the beach, stirred the arena to frenzied applause. Who logos rippled above the band on the three circular video screens at the top of the stage. Interspersed within the song were clips from some of the band’s early hits, including “My Generation,” “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere.” After the four musical themes representing Jimmy’s personalities sounded over the speakers, Townshend thundered into the opening chords of “The Real Me.”

The band struck the perfect balance between faithfulness to and divergence from the album. Songs like “The Real Me,” “Quadrophenia” and “The Punk and the Godfather” sounded more or less like louder versions of the original recordings, with a sprinkling of guitar embellishments, courtesy of Pete Townshend. Others, such as “Cut My Hair” and “Drowned” sounded familiar, but incredibly different, due partially to the fact that Townshend, rather than Daltrey, sang those numbers. At the root of these much-needed and well-executed variations, which gave something new to the fans who had already listened to “Quadrophenia” countless times, was a new, more mature perspective on the album.

Townshend and Daltrey, aged 67 and 68, respectively, exuded the youth and aggression of men far younger than they. Townshend, throwing in sets of his trademark windmills every now and then, filled the venue with chords so mellifluous, so powerful, so pure, that at times during the show I struggled to hold back tears.

Daltrey’s vocals were no less stunning. Though his voice has weakened somewhat over the years, he managed nonetheless to deliver a moving performance of “Love, Reign O’er Me,” even hitting the high-pitched scream toward the end of the song. His scream after the drum solo in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (which you may recognize from the “CSI: Miami” theme song) was equally impressive and jarring.

Pino Palladino, who replaced the late John Entwistle on bass, and Simon Townshend (Pete’s brother), who played second guitar, each gave solid, but not exceptional, performances. Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr), who filled in for the late Keith Moon on drums, however, played far beyond expectation.

The Who opened the second half of the show with perhaps their greatest ever performance of “5:15,” a roughly ten-minute odyssey into the band’s past by way of Jimmy’s story. What made this particular performance so epic was not Pete’s uncanny guitar solos, or Roger’s impeccable singing, or the chorus’s cathartic burst of power; what made this performance epic was the four-minute John Entwistle bass solo, originally recorded from a Who show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2000, that played over the video monitors about five and a half minutes into the song.  Starkey drummed to the solo while the rest of the band fell silent until the four minutes had passed, after which they jumped back in to play another chorus. Death, it seems, has served as no impediment to Entwistle’s awesomeness.

The Who paid homage to their other fallen bandmate in “Bell Boy,” a song that had been unplayable after Keith Moon’s death. In the original recording of the song, Moon, playing the character of the Mods’ leader, sang (if you can even call it that) roughly half the song — in a gruff cockney accent that was uniquely Keith’s and in essence irreproducible. “Bell Boy,” as the Who have now proven, is playable once more. Filling in for Moon’s vocals during the concert was, well, Keith Moon. As with Entwistle’s bass solo in “5:15,” a recording of Moon singing (again, I use the word liberally) the two verses in a 1974 show in Charlton, England played on the video monitors while the flesh-and-blood band fell silent. Pictures of Moon flashed across the screens during the rest of the song.

“5:15” and “Bell Boy” were among several of the numbers that tied together the show’s theme of reconciliation of past and present. Unlike Jimmy, who refuses to accept that the past has passed, the Who communicated that they have come to terms with the present. The show was in many ways a celebration of their 50 years as a band, but it managed to avoid conveying a longing to return to their glamorous past. Clips and photos of the Who’s early days as a Mod band accompanied some of the show’s earlier numbers — “I Am the Sea,” “The Real Me” and “The Punk and the Godfather.” As the show progressed, footage from the band’s later years played on the screens. Particularly fun to watch was the series of clips of Townshend smashing guitars during “Helpless Dancer,” one of the album’s angrier songs.

After their beautiful performance of “Love, Reign O’er Me” finished and the “Quadrophenia” set had ended, the Who made their final salute to their past, powering through five of their greatest hits from 1969 to 1978. Then the band members left, and the only men left on stage were Townshend and Daltrey. Ending the show in typical fashion, the two remaining founding members of the Who played their 2006 song “Tea and Theatre,” which gained increasing significance at the end of a show that so glorified the Who’s past. With lines like “We did it all, didn’t we?” and “We played them as one; we’re older now,” “Tea and Theatre” just about sums up Townshend’s and Datrey’s new perspective: there’s not much more for us to do, but we’re happy with what we’ve done. No denial. No fits of anger. Acceptance.

Daltrey, though, seems to have held on to one remnant of the past. Rog, the days of exposing your chest to the audience are over.

Long Live Rock

As with Roger Waters, who is currently touring Pink Floyd’s 1979 concept album “The Wall,” the Who met with the challenge of keeping their material relevant decades after its original release. And as with Waters, they succeeded tremendously.

It began with the instrumental number “Quadrophenia,” during which historical video clips and photos from the mid-20th century appeared on the screens above the band. “The Rock,” the album’s penultimate song and another instrumental, picked up right where “Quadrophenia” left off and carried the audience from the 1960s into the 21st century. The Who, applying their 1973 rock opera’s themes to world history, imbued “Quadrophenia” with greater relevance to the modern age.

The Who benefitted from the fact that “Quadrophenia,” despite bearing outdated references to Mod culture, channels universal themes of love, frustration, rebellion, isolation and disillusionment that apply especially well to teenage boys. I was not surprised, therefore, when I noticed in the sold-out venue pockets of teenagers and young adults among the throng of grey-haired, nostalgic Who fans from the band’s heyday.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the Who’s relevance was simply the level at which Townshend and Daltrey played their music after all these years. That these men, these nearly 70-year-old men, were still capable of transporting me to rock ’n’ roll nirvana is beyond remarkable. Moon and Entwistle may be gone, but behind Pete’s blue eyes stir the same drive and intensity and sheer brilliance that have kept him going for the past 50 years.

And that gives me hope for the future of classic rock. It may seem paradoxical to include “future” and “classic rock” in the same sentence, but as the Who and Roger Waters have recently shown, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps as the generation of kids whose parents listened to classic rock when it wasn’t called “classic” moves into adolescence and adulthood, rock ’n’ roll will take on a new significance, a new relevance to its new audience. Perhaps it already has.

The 1970’s prog band Yes is set to perform a series of shows in March and April, and the Rolling Stones seem on the cusp of yet another world tour. One can, at the moment, only wonder if they will be able to attain the success, the relevance, the perfection that the Who have attained on their “Quadrophenia” tour.

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