Deja Who?

To date, there have been one official Who Farewell Tour in 1982, a Live Aid reunion in 1985 and a 25th-anniversary reunion in 1989 that basically was a rerun of the first farewell tour.

Just as it takes the elderly longer to get out of bed in the morning, it takes the Who three times the going rate to reunite.

For the latest American trek, the Who has pulled Pete Townshend's second rock opera, Quadrophenia, out of the mothballs. Barring the 1979 film adaptation, this constitutes the only time the Who has revived this moody mod meisterwork since the troublesome 1973 tour in which it was introduced and performed in its entirety.

Quadrophenia proved to be a watershed moment in the Who's celebrated history. Prior to its release, the Who was the epitome of the mods--progressive, dynamic, innovative and bloody violent when pissed. But with Quadrophenia, the group suddenly shifted perspective. Now it was trying to explain mods, which is like reading a Nintendo manual for its inherent entertainment value instead of just playing the game. From that moment on, the Who began defining itself almost exclusively by its adolescent past.

The pre-Quad Who was revolutionary, introducing audiences to the joys of autodestruction and raising rock 'n' roll to the level of violent aggression it still enjoys today. At the same time, Peter Townshend was busily translating abstract pop art ideals into concrete pop music and, perhaps regrettably, creating the rock-opera genre for lesser talents to plunder and poop all over themselves with for decades.

After Quad, the Who began to be eaten alive by its own history. Check out the Who section of any CD store. There are only ten regularly issued Who studio albums, but nearly a dozen live sets, outtake collections and repackage jobs all blurring into one another--Who's Greatest, Who's Better, Who's Best, Who's Missing, Who's Left, Who Doesn't Have All These Songs Yet?. "Pinball Wizard" is one of the great rock singles of all time, but it doesn't get appreciably better if you own nine copies.

No other group in rock, with the exception of the Beach Boys, has spent as much time looking back. Premature stagnation has been the price of such nostalgia. If ideas man Townshend was the Who's Brian Wilson, then Roger Daltrey was its Mike Love, the man who put the brakes on every proposed new direction. At the height of the Beach Boys' avant-garde period, Mike Love pushed Wilson not to disturb the BB hits formula. Similarly, Daltrey, by stubbornly conforming to what people expected of the Who, fashioned the greatest rock band into what it should never have become--a tradition, an institution, a car crash you could set your watch to.

Earlier, the Daltrey-Townshend face-off, perversely, had resulted in the Who's most potent and lasting music. Daltrey's conservatism and numbing lack of forward vision, then, had helped make the band the toughest foursome around and endeared it to the mods. Even after Townshend hit his writing potential by penning the Who's first smash, "Can't Explain," dareless Daltrey motioned that the next single should be a James Brown cover so as not to alienate the group's mod maximum-R&B fan base.

Daltrey was the undisputed leader of the Who in those days, and anyone who thought otherwise was reminded into unconsciousness with a swift jab in the mouth. It usually fell upon Townshend to feast on just such a knuckle sandwich. "If Roger hit you, it fucking hurt," Pete has admitted on numerous occasions.

Unlike Beatle-emulating groups that boasted unified fronts, the members of the Who hated one another passionately and squealed to the music weeklies about each other's lack of talent. Live shows heightened the tension--the sense persisted that Daltrey, Townshend or the equally volatile Keith Moon might not wait until the end of the set to settle their differences. Sometimes they didn't.

Spite was the glue that had held the Who together. Daltrey infuriated the Who's resident Jan and Dean freak Keith Moon by barring surf music from the band's live set. What better way was there for Moon to get even than by playing "Wipe Out" over every R&B tune Daltrey forced on the band? How else could John Entwistle get even with Daltrey's bossy strong-arm tactics than to get the loudest, most gigantic Marshall bass cabinet he could find, leaving Daltrey little choice but to scream like a banshee just to be heard?

Townshend fashioned the sweetest revenge by becoming the group's chief songwriter. His creations forced the macho, swaggering Daltrey to adopt a gallery of unflattering personae, from a lad forced by his mum to cross-dress ("I'm a Boy") to a chronic masturbator ("Pictures of Lily") to a stutterer ("My Generation") and, of course, he deaf, dumb and blind pinball nerd, Tommy. For that album, even bassist John Entwistle contributed tunes that got Tommy/Daltrey molested by a perverted Uncle Ernie and bullied by a sadistic Cousin Kevin. Touche!

The only Who member not digesting uppers and downers like they were coming out of a Pez dispenser, Daltrey ran afoul of the group in November of 1965 when he flushed Keith's uppers down the toilet. When Moon the Loon voiced his objections, Daltrey put his lights out. The other three quickly called a meeting and voted Daltrey out of the Who, just as "My Generation" was zooming up the British charts.

Humbled, Daltrey was only allowed back into the fold after he promised to control his raging fists. Henceforth, Daltrey's focus shifted from leading the band with an iron fist to just keeping the Who together so he wouldn't have to go back to being a sheet-metal worker. If that meant sitting in a tub of frigid Heinz baked beans on the cover of The Who Sell Out and catching pneumonia, or worse, letting Moon sing "Barbara Ann," so be it. Long live the Who.

His patience soon paid off. In 1969, Tommy provided the first opportunity for hordes of new Who fans to see, feel and hear Daltrey on record. It is his portrayal of Tommy that catapulted the Who to stardom even if the band was getting second-billed as "Tommy and the Who" in some American cities. Soon everything the group worked so hard and smashed so many instruments for was getting eclipsed by that deaf, dumb and blind kid himself.

It was imperative that Townshend come up with a new musical masterpiece that would be the center of the Who's future live shows, redefine rock shows for all future g-g-g-generations, and send Tommy packing for good. His solution was the never-completed and never-comprehended Lifehouse album and film.

Townshend hoped his film's sci-fi script (in which both the performer and concert audience become unified by the Universal Lost Chord and disappear--poof! No more Whos down in Whoville!) could somehow be achieved in real life as a viable alternative to touring. In the winter of 1970-71, the Who holed up in London's Young Vice theatre with a small core audience for four months to see what emerged. Outside of a bunch of skinheads calling out drunken requests for "Substitute," nothing much did.

After Lifehouse imploded, Townshend suffered a nervous breakdown, which severely weakened his ability to lead the Who to a bright new tomorrow. Quadrophenia marked the last high concept Townshend ever tried enforcing on the Who, and the last time he tried to reinvent what would soon be a predictable, ritualistic live show. The tour which preceded it was hopelessly stymied by Daltrey's objection to adding extra musicians onstage because he thought it would ruin everyone's image of the Who as an autonomous four-man unit.

Since three instrumentalists could not faithfully reproduce all the synthesizers, pianos, horn charts and splashy ocean sound effects from the double album, Who members were stuck dicking around with taped synthesizers that never managed to stay in synch. Some nights the tapes would malfunction, forcing the befuddled band to abandon Quadrophenia altogether and sweat to the oldies.

Entwistle, the man they call The Ox, once defended the Who's bovine decision to drop Quadrophenia songs from the band's 1975 tour because they were too difficult to play: "We had to play it perfectly to make it work each time, whereas our normal act is set up [so] that if we play badly, we'll still sound good. So we can have a bad night and get away with it." Translation: If you can't play it in your sleep, it doesn't make the final cut.

The Quadrophenia-induced formula endured until 1984's Who's Last, the audio souvenir of the Who's faux farewell gig. Just listen to the Who windmill and mike-twirl through its tried-and-true set like four Rip Van Winkles fighting narcolepsy. If any album should've been called The Who by Numbers, it's this one.

Although Townshend remained the Who's chief songwriter, now he hoarded his more ambitious material for his solo albums, and let the more cautious faction of the Who have its day. The superior Townshend solo music on Rough Mix, Empty Glass and All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes dwarfed anything on the last three lackluster Who albums. It is free of the compromises imposed by the former mod, now just plain moderate, Roger and John. It's indicative of this serious dip in the quality of Who music that the last disc of 1994's chronologically compiled boxed set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B had to be padded out with comedic Keith Moon vignettes to compensate for the lack of entertaining material (two cuts!) from the Kenney Jones era.

Townshend became the toast of Broadway after finding yet another avenue on which to recycle Tommy, which left the other two waiting impatiently in the wings for another reunion. When Townshend nixed the idea of going on the road with his mates in 1994, Daltrey announced plans for his first-ever solo tour of the U.S., billed as an evening of--what else--"Daltrey Sings Townshend," with Entwistle on hand. That's novel, both men playing the same set list the Who's been chained to for the past three decades! And if Daltrey couldn't have Pete Townshend in the flesh, he could at least have his name in the billing with Pete's brother Simon on the floorboards pulling active windmill-chord duty. Alas, the Roger-plays-while-Pete's-away tour was canceled at the 11th hour when Entwistle reportedly broke a finger.

That brings us up to date for the Who's 1996 Quadrophenia extravaganza. If you're a new fan who never got to see the band live, or an old fan who wants to relive already relived memories, you probably have tickets in hand for this latest go-around. Daltrey is still recovering slowly from the shattered eye socket he suffered in London when one of the show's guest vocalists, Gary Glitter, accidentally jabbed Rog with a misplaced mike stand. Perhaps this is why Daltrey was so adamantly against putting extra musicians onstage all these years. On the plus side, Townshend is back on electric guitar after several years of acoustic-only duty in what will probably be the only revival of Quadrophenia this century. Because there are only two other characters in the opera besides the protagonist, Jimmy, and both are minor roles (Billy Idol reprises the ex-face-turned-bellboy role), it's unlikely this work will get a Broadway face-lift in its present form.

If all three Who members are now on a similar conservative keel, at least they're not taxing and spending people's patience with substandard new material like the Stones and the Kinks. MCA Records has just issued yet another hit package, Classic Who, just to remind us all that the Who invented the classic-rock genre way before most current radio programmers were even born. If the band is now the museum piece Townshend once rallied against becoming, be reminded that it's a museum piece worth seeing and treasuring no matter how many times it's had to be restored.

The Who is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, October 23, at America West Arena, with Billy Idol, and Gary Glitter. Showtime is 8 p.m.


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