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Who's on tour?

The kids are alright

Al Gore didn't invent the Internet; Pete Townshend did — in a way, anyway — 30 years ago when he first conceived of "the Grid," a nebulous idea involving the Who and their scattered audience members "suiting up and plugging in" all over the world, simultaneously, to allow the band to transmit music directly to their listeners. This was one of the notions behind the infamous and ill-fated Lifehouse project, which has finally been exhumed in all of its confused glory and made available as a 6-CD box-set to those keen enough to want to buy it from Townshend's website (www.petetownshend.com). It's also available for purchase (minus the hefty shipping charges) at the shows on the current Who tour. The band is also airing a healthy sampling of Lifehouse's songs on stage this time around.
The Who on tour? Another bloated once-every-five-years parade of formerly great has-beens and a half-dozen auxiliary musicians on stage, "Windmill" Pete playing only acoustic guitar from within a sound-proofed box (to protect what's left of the ears he ruined on tour in the '70s) as a jaded Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle go through the motions of reviving some Who classics? Luckily not. This tour has the three original members joined only by Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey on drums (he got some early lessons from the band's fourth founding member, drumming genius and all-around madman Keith Moon, who died in the late '70s), and John "Rabbit" Bundrick (a long time associate) on keyboards. Now almost two months into the tour, all reports are that this is one lean machine that really delivers the goods, fully plugged in and imbued with an energy and passion that helps erase the memory of the undistinguished '80s and '90s tours.
Free from the record company pressures of promoting a new studio album (there hasn't been one since 1981), as well as the restrictions of the last shows that concentrated on complete performances of the band's rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia, the band is able to take a broader view as it examines its own considerable legacy from the vantage point of late middle age.
It was 35 years ago that they first sang that they hoped they'd die before they got old, long before Neil Young expressed similar sentiments, but like Neil on a good day, the current Who tour shows that there is life in the old beast yet. Their old chestnut "The Kids Are Alright" even sports new lyrics:
"Never leave me. I can't live without you. I don't want you to go. I brought you here with my love, and my lust. And now as I grow old and lean towards the dust and flowers of death, I need to know you'll be all right. With me and without me."
That may sound morbid, but at least you can't accuse the band of merely standing still.
Townshend's just released Lifehouse box-set consists of two CDs of home demos, largely recorded in 1970-1, two more of variations, re-recordings and orchestrations, and two covering the radio play its author has long dreamed of (it was completed to Townshend's satisfaction in the '90s, and broadcast in the UK by the BBC last year). All of the CDs are worthy of attention, some of the orchestrations in particular are fascinating, but clearly most fans will be interested in the so-called demos.
Many of the songs are actually Who staples, which were rescued from the aborted Lifehouse project and re-recorded by the band for Who's Next in 1971 under the watchful eye of producer Glyn Johns. The good news is that many of these familiar songs sound better here than they do on that hugely popular album. They are as carefully constructed and fully realized as most bands' finished products, with Townshend singing (very well in most cases) and apparently playing all instruments. More importantly, they have a unity of sound and purpose that is missing from Who's Next.
Lifehouse came in the middle of the extraordinary five-year period that produced Tommy and Quadrophenia. Whereas the former had brilliant music and playing, if a somewhat odd storyline, and went on to form the centerpiece of the Who's highly regarded live shows for several years, the Quadrophenia album was saddled with muddy production (which was finally addressed in part by the remix on the late '90s CD reissue), had a very English subject matter, and was so hard to reproduce on stage that the band gave up trying midway through their first tour to promote it.
Legend has it that in all three cases Townshend presented his bandmates with completely worked-out and sequenced demos, and merely invited them to interpret his ideas using their considerable talents while remaining pretty close to his vision. As luck would have it, nobody in the world other than Pete Townshend had any idea just what Lifehouse was supposed to be all about, and so on this occasion the band was slow to embrace the concept.
They did like the songs, however. In the summer of 1970, as Live at Leeds marked the band's transition to a very tight and muscular unit with few live peers, the Who started performing this material on stage, and announced that it formed part of their next album, which they were halfway through recording. Ironically, these songs (including "Water," "I Don't Even Know Myself" and "Naked Eye") were relegated to the back burner by the time they ditched the idea of a double Lifehouse LP the next spring and recorded Who's Next in its place.
While it is true that the eight Lifehouse songs that are on Who's Next are very strong, some of the performances leave a lot to be desired, their classic rock status notwithstanding. On many of these tracks — even the band's signature song "Won't Get Fooled Again" — there is something too slick about the production, or too over-the-top about Roger Daltrey, or too lackluster in general. It's hard to match the band on "Bargain" and "Behind Blue Eyes" for sheer raw power, but something about the album's opener "Baba O'Riley" drains all the energy from what should be a killer number (is it the ARP synthesizer Pete was overly obsessed with during this period? Or the violin overdub?). The half-hearted "Getting in Tune" and "Going Mobile" seem like throwaways here, but really rock as demos on Lifehouse. Townshend's acoustic demo of "Behind Blue Eyes" is also a real revelation.
Just as "The Song is Over" on the 1971 release ended with a hint of an entirely different song — the sublime "Pure and Easy" (which was inexplicably omitted from the album, but resurfaced a few years later) — "Baba O'Riley" has a pointer to a great heretofore unheard song called "Teenage Wasteland." Other Lifehouse rejects that the band eventually turned into failed singles ("Let's See Action," "Relay" and even "Join Together") sound much better as demos. Like many another ace guitarists of his generation (Hendrix, Clapton, Richard Thompson), once he got over his reluctance to step up to the microphone, Pete Townshend turned out to be quite an effective lead singer.
Townshend tinkered with the project on and off over the years, later adding songs that turned up on Who Are You in 1978: "Disco Sister," "Music Must Change" and that album's title song, whose admirable structure is almost sunk by its unredeemable chorus. When all is said and done, Townshend seemed resigned to having the songs exist separately from the "opera," which eventually became a radio play.
On each night of the current Who tour, back in his hotel room after the show, Townshend uses his Palm Pilot to update his website with his own concert reviews and articulate analysis of aging, the meaning of rock and the meaning of life. This may be as close to the Grid as we get for now. He also posts live video and song clips for the grabbing (such as a recent John Entwistle bass solo in "5.15").
So is the current tour bringing the Who's music back to life? Townshend had an answer to that one two weeks ago: "I have not brought the Who's music back to life. I have brought it back to death, especially with reworked songs like 'The Kids Are Alright.' We face it, we embrace it, and it is our central subject matter. I mean both physical death, and metaphorical death (war, poverty, street violence etc). But I also mean the death of ego, that spiritual death that we long for — to be reunited with ... who ...?"
The Who play Philips Arena Thursday, Sept 28.
For music archives, visit John C. Falstaff's website at www.pd.org/~jcf.