This concert didn’t quite feel real to me until it happened, but then it did and so it was. A friend of my daughter was offered corporate tickets to see The Who. Her own family weren’t interested, and so she asked my daughter, who she knew would be, and I was roped in to be the designated adult.
But this conversation happened months ago, and because I didn’t buy the tickets, see the tickets, or really think about it very much, I was almost completely unprepared. Call it denial: the last time I was at the O2 (Fleetwood Mac), I swore it would be the last time, and I vowed that my gig going would be restricted to the more intimate venues and the more intimate acts. It would take something very, very special to persuade me to drop another £300 or so for the family to see someone big in a big venue. Taylor Swift: no. It was a school night, and I couldn’t face the idea of all those screams. Little Big Town: almost… but no. Another school night, and we’ve already seen them. The last two Country2Country gigs: no. Line-ups not compelling enough, and the people I did want to see would be relegated to support status, and largely ignored by the O2 crowd, which is something I hate (no atmosphere).
Now, if Bruce Springsteen were to play any time in the next couple of years, I have at least one daughter who would never speak to me again if I didn’t at least try for tickets, but I wouldn’t on my own account. I’ve seen Springsteen (outdoors) on three occasions, and have no memory of enjoying it. The last time, at Milton Keynes Bowl, in the era during which he’d dumped the E Street Band, was very disappointing. I don’t like this go there to be there, to say you were there, business. I want to be moved. I love music and I want to feel something.
What about Sunday? It was a school night, but the tickets were free, and it’s only the bloody ‘Oo. I saw them once before, in August 1979 at Wembley, shortly after Moonie died. Kenney Jones was on the drum stool, but this was in many respects the classic Who line-up, with four on the stage (and a sneaky keyboardist somewhere in the wings). It was a great, great concert, although history hasn’t been kind in its opinion of Kenney Jones in the band. It was a cloudy, cold, August Saturday, but at around three o’clock, when the first act hit the stage, the sun came out. And there was Nils Lofgren with his little trampoline, followed by AC/DC (who they?), the Stranglers, and then the ‘Oo, in fine form. Townshend was still on the Gibson Les Pauls then, with Helvetica number stickers on them. I was 16.
Back then, following my first BIG outdoor gig, we encountered the after-gig nightmare of how to get home. It finished reasonably early, just after 10, so it should have been fine, but there just weren’t enough tube trains and buses for 80,000 people (minus those who arrived by car). The tube station was completely blocked, we had no idea where to go or how to get there. Somehow, we ended up at Watford Junction, where we waited till the early hours for someone’s dad, in his pyjamas, to come pick us up. I don’t know how we all fitted into the car. Different times, as they like to say on the Simon Mayo Confessions podcast.
Getting home after these big gigs gives me the hives. My next time at Wembley, for the Stones in ’82 (terrible), we got on a random bus – just to get away, and ended up walking for miles and miles and miles and miles. By the time Springsteen played there in ’85, I had a car, and so we drove, and I cleverly parked in the perfect spot. All I had to do was start the engine and bump down a kerb, and I was away.
Leaving the O2, you always encounter the difficulty of getting into North Greenwich station, onto a train and somehow to Euston in time for a train. This time, I booked the River Bus Express and we were among a select few who travelled back on the Thames. A lot of people choose to arrive by water, but very few leave that way. It was slow, but it didn’t involve an anxious wait outside a closed tube station and a crush to get on a train. We got off at London Bridge and onto the Northern Line to Euston. It shouldn’t even have been so bad: the gig was over by 10:15, there were no encores, so we could, in theory, have made it to Euston well before 11 o’clock. But the Thames boat thing is slow, so we ended up on the Sunday night 11:34 with some semi-inebriated, sweary young people, who embarrassed my daughter and her friend by being so stupid and annoying they were ashamed for their generation.
But it had been a sweary night, so what can you do?
We got home around half-past one in the morning, leaving just four hours until I had to get up for work. Oh, the humanity.
The support act were Slydigs, a forgettable guitar rock band. They came on stage quite early and were ignored by most of the O2 crowd, who stayed, as they always do, in the bar. Some of the audience stayed in the bar until well into The Who’s set. The tickets cost £75. Just saying.
Anyway, the wait wasn’t too bad. The Who hit the stage and charged into a 23-song setlist that included all of the numbers you’d expect on a Greatest Hits, with a few off piste songs. They were great. There was no interval and no boring acoustic set in the middle, no costume changes and no sense that the people we’d come to see were around 70 years old. The line-up now includes an extra guitar player (Townshend’s brother Simon, who also supplies backing vocals), and three keyboard/percussion/backing vocalists) as well as Entwhistle’s replacement Pino Palladino and the Moon-trained Zak Starkey on drums. This fills out the band quite well and allows them to play more subtle versions of their songs. Modern audiences seem to expect things to be more like the record, don’t they? If you listen to Live at Leeds you’ll hear stuff that’s nothing like the record.
Townshend made some sly comments about this sort of thing, teasing the crowd by threatening a thinner guitar sound on the intro to ‘My Generation’, saying it was more like the original, but then resorting to the louder style. They crashed through a load of the singles. “Can’t Explain”, “Substitute,” “The Seeker,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Pictures of Lily…” I could go on. They did. Townshend commented that a lot of the older ones were really short. It wasn’t until the later 60s that things got longer, and then they hit the motherlode of synth based extended anthems such as “Baba O’Reilly,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the Tommy stuff, the Quadrophenia stuff.
So it was standard. They played the same Tommy medley they played at Woodstock, more or less; they played two from Quadrophenia, including “Love, Reign O’er Me” that hit an emotional high.
Was there a sense they were going through the motions? I’ve always felt that The Who have the best 2-hour set in the history of rock music. Springsteen can do a better three plus hours, but almost nobody can match The Who for a no-filler set of hit followed by hit. Even dropping in lesser-known songs like “Slip Kid” and “Join Together” didn’t derail things. They played the whole of “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” which you could argue was strictly for the fans, but when you can play “Who Are You?,” “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me Feel Me,” “Listening to You,” “Baba O’Reilly,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and still have “Magic Bus” to pull out of the hat? Only, maybe, could Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers get close to The Who for a 2-hour set, and they don’t have the song recognition that transcends generations.
Don’t even bother talking about the Stones. Another thing I’ve always said about The Who is that history is made by those who show up. So they were at Monterey in 1967; they were at Woodstock; they were at Live Aid in ’85. They played the 9/11 memorial concert, they ticked the Glastonbury box, and the Superbowl box, they did Wembley 1979, which was one of the first big Wembley gigs, if not the first. It was a proof-of-concept, if nothing else.
And they’re so British. As much as they were influenced by American soul music and the blues, all that, they do everything with a British accent and a sense of healthy irreverence. It’s “Baba O’Reilly,” after all, a deliberate puncturing of the overblown portentousness of gurus and mantras. It was between songs, early in the set that Townshend approached the mic and said, in response to something Daltrey asked, ‘Who gives a fuck?’ It was then, said my daughter, that she knew the concert wasn’t going to be some po-faced, soulless run-through by some old and out of touch geezers. There’s a connection between The Who and their audience that is unique. They’re bruisers, troublemakers, used to adversity. Their trials are like our trials. Roger Daltrey grew frustrated as the gig progressed because he kept having issues with his harmonicas. It was like the sound person had forgotten to patch them in. He managed to get one working (just) for “Baba O’Reilly,” but initially picked one up in the wrong key. Being who he is, it got to him. You could tell by the end when he’d tried to play harmonica during “Magic Bus” and got feedback and eventually gave up that he was really uptight about it. As the band stepped forward, arms around each other, taking the well-deserved applause, Daltrey was still pacing the stage, still upset. Eventually he came in, put his arm round Pete, thanked the crowd, mentioned the technical issues, and said,
‘Anyway, who gives a shit?’