Townshend, Daltrey take The Who into its 50th year
Who are they?
It's a question worth pondering when Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend bring The Who Hits 50! tour to Consol Energy Center, Uptown, on March 16.
The music certainly ranks with the best in rock history, but half of the original members of the legendary British band are deceased: drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, and original bassist John Entwistle in 2002.
Is it fair to call this show — which was postponed last year because of Daltrey's throat ailment — a Who concert?
“It's a tough call,” says Joe Marini, a drummer and vocalist from Turtle Creek who performs with many regional bands, including Jim Donovan's Sun King Warriors. “I actually don't think it's The Who, as much as I love Daltrey and Townshend. ... You get Zak Starkey to play drums and Pino Palladino to play bass, you still have a great band. I just don't think it's The Who.”
“Most bands … I kind of don't care who tours live, (like) The Temptations, since many of their classic recordings featured totally different singers, arrangers, musicians,” says Josh Verbanets, the lead singer and guitarist for the Pittsburgh-based band Meeting of Important People. “But The Who seems to me to be a band in the strictest sense of the word, with the exact inputs mattering more than in most cases.”
When Entwistle died 14 years ago, Townshend thought about quitting the band. In his autobiography, “Who Am I?,” he wrote, “I know I had the best possible reason to turn my back on The Who forever.” But Townshend decided to continue because fans had bought tickets and made travel arrangements for a scheduled tour.
When Daltrey later asked whether he was happy with that tour, Townshend expressed mixed feelings.
“(Daltrey) knew then that I was not going to continue,” Townshend wrote.
But they did continue, and 14 years later the touring band — with Palladino, Starkey, Townshend's brother Simon Townshend on guitar and backing vocals, multi-instrumentalist Frank Simes, and keyboard players John Corey and Loren Gold — is garnering positive reviews. If some think the band is diminished by the absence of Entwistle and Moon, the music itself is not in question.
When The Who emerged in 1964, it didn't take long for the band to set itself apart from other groups associated with the British Invasion. Jason Kendall, a Pittsburgh-based musician who has taught music history at local colleges, thinks Townshend had a singular approach to songwriting.
“Townshend was as much a composer as he was a songwriter,” Kendall says. “When I listen to the songs, they're very intricate. There are sections that really blow my mind, like in ‘Who Are You' … that little counter-melody, that timpani. That's such a beautiful composition.”
“Townshend does such a great job of taking very specific, at times weirdly imaginative concepts and making them rock 'n' roll songs that anyone can enjoy,” Verbanets says. “The perfect mix of intellect and pure brute force, probably the magic formula that makes rock 'n' roll itself endure for decades.”
What also set The Who apart from many of its peers — including the Beatles — was its live performances. Perhaps only the Rolling Stones, of all the British bands to emerge from '60s, rivals the band onstage.
“They pioneered the art of the live show,” says Nick Zeigler, a drummer from Monaca, Beaver County, who now lives in Los Angeles and plays in the band The Forty Nineteens. “Every other band followed them. They were always taking risks.”
The Who had a unique set of talents. Entwistle had a rare dexterity and sense of melody for a rock bassist. Moon was a ferocious but skillful drummer, and Daltrey a commanding and charismatic frontman. But Townshend, arguably, was the engine that fueled The Who.
“(Townshend) said he was influenced by flamenco guitarists,” Kendall says, “and always cites the negative space in his playing. He'll have a really strong chord, and then there will be silence. It's not just banging away all the time. … He was one of the first guys to work with Jim Marshall (the founder of Marshall Amplification) to develop amplifiers that had that big, sustained sound.”
“They had the power of the Stones and the experimentation of the Beatles,” says Mike Sauter, director of content and programming at WYEP-FM. “That was the hallmark of their work.”
That penchant for experimentation might have driven away casual listeners. The rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” were viewed as visionary by many critics and embraced by diehard fans. But those weaned on “My Generation” or “Baba O'Riley” may have been challenged by a suite of conceptual songs.
“That strongly differentiated them from the Stones and the Beatles, but it also put a little bit of distance between them and the audience,” Sauter says. “It made it a little bit esoteric in the way you have prog-rock concept albums. Fans loved it, but it might have been a little too esoteric for some people. That may have hurt them a little bit.”
“Some fans don't want to sit through an opera,” Marini says. “But to me, a band is really getting truly creative when a record company lets them do something like ‘Quadrophenia.' Thankfully, back then, once a band got established and had a contract and did an album or two, they could do whatever they wanted artistically.”
And they can pretty much do whatever they want now. Even at their advanced ages — Daltrey is 72, Townshend, 70 — they are still formidable performers, whether one feels it's The Who or not.
“I really encourage younger musicians to go see these guys just to see how they do things,” Zeigler says. “To see how a guitar player like Townshend or a vocalist like Daltrey approaches their craft. I do feel it's still The Who.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
The Who's history in Pittsburgh
Sept. 3, 1967, Civic Arena: As opening band for Herman's Hermits.
Oct. 26, 1969, Syria Mosque: The band played from its recently released “Tommy” rock opera.
Aug. 10, 1971, Civic Arena: The last show in Pittsburgh with drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978.
Dec. 2, 1979, Civic Arena: Notable for being the concert the day before 11 fans were killed trying to get into an arena in Cincinnati for a Who concert. It also was one of the rowdiest shows ever at the Civic Arena. At one point during the show, lead guitarist Pete Townshend cursed fans who were tossing firecrackers in an upper section of the venue.
Sept. 9, 1982, Civic Arena: In addition to its popular songs, The Who performed “Athena” for the first time live. The song was subsequently played 10 times that year, and the band has not played it live since.
July 16, 1989, Three Rivers Stadium: The Who played more than three hours at its only stadium show in Pittsburgh. The set list featured rarities including “Fiddle About” and “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand.”
Nov. 11, 1996, Civic Arena: “Quadrophenia” was performed. Guest vocalists included Gary Glitter as the Godfather and Billy Idol as the Bell Boy.
July 29, 2000, Star Lake Amphitheatre: The Who played “Bargain” for the first time since a concert in St. Austell, Cornwall, England, in 1981. (Townshend and bassist John Entwhistle did perform “Bargain” at solo shows in the interim).
Nov. 11, 2012, Consol Energy Center: The album “Quadrophenia” was again performed, but this time without guest singers. The concert featured archival taped performances of Entwhistle, who died in 2002, on “5:15” and Moon on “Bell Boy.”