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The Who: Last Time Around

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To attain the next rung on the ladder, a band needs a hit record. The Who's first single, "I'm the Face," released in 1964 during a period when they were briefly known as the High Numbers, was not a smash. But "I Can't Explain," released in January 1965 and credited to the Who, put them on a roll, and they had strong followups that same year with "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and the epochal "My Generation." Hitmakers of such consistency become pop stars, and whole new worlds of indulgence open up: drugs (pills in the Who's case; pot, too, in Pete's), money, cars, girls. The Who rode their ever-cresting fame through the Sixties (Happy Jack, The Who Sell Out, Tommy) and into the Seventies (Live at Leeds, Who's Next, Quadrophenia).

Today, of course – despite the spottiness of such albums as Who Are You, their last with the doomed Moon, and the muddled 1981 LP Face Dances, which even the band didn't much like – the Who occupy a level of charismatic renown that's shared only by such survivors as the Rolling Stones. They've come out on the other end of the pipeline. Vulgar display is no longer necessary, but touring is still an enormously complex undertaking. In their early days, the Who would go on tour with two road managers and a light man; today, their traveling crew – swollen by ShowCo sound technicians and Tasco Light – numbers about ninety people. Ten trucks are required to cart their gear from gig to gig. And on the opening dates of their current tour, a 100-seat Boeing 707 was requisitioned–generally available at an estimated cost of about $5000 per hour – to fly the band and about a score of associates from city to city. When ninety people are eating and sleeping off a band's profits, some sort of compensation becomes essential. As the Rolling Stones did last year with Jovan fragrances, the Who have signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Schlitz beer. In return for appearing in two thirty-second Schlitz commercials, allowing their music to be used in other Schlitz ads and permitting the Schlitz name to be used on concert tickets, the Who will receive a pot of money (described by a Schlitz spokesman as a seven-figure amount and "the biggest corporate-sponsored rock-music entertainment ever undertaken"). Then, there is merchandising – the sale of tour T-shirts and jerseys (ten to eighteen dollars apiece this year), tour programs (five dollars each) and, in an innovative move, an authorized biography called The Who: Maximum R & B, a four-color trade paperback that is being sold for fourteen dollars a copy. Every little bit helps.

So this is a big-money tour, but it is being carried off with a certain style. Townshend, a friend of the gentry back home in Twickenham, may take the stage in protopunk garb – black leather jacket and jeans – but when he steps off that chartered plane in the next city, he's likely as not to be wearing a tailored suit, silk tie and expensive two-toned wing tips. Meet the new boss.

Business smarts don't necessarily come with the bagfuls of money that accure to arriviste rockers, however. One day not too long ago, Townshend went to draw some funds from a group of Who-related companies clustered under the name EelPie – and discovered not only that the coffers were bare, but that he was in debt to the tune of some $1 million. He's since sold off some of the companies – the Magic Bus Bookshop and a P.A.-equipment rental company that kept the Who's stage equipment profitable when the group wasn't using it – and he doesn't sound particularly worried.

"It's not like it's my money," he says. "It's company money, money that I invested. Personally, I have got financial security. I've got a home, a car – I've got everything that I need."

But as the Who say their long goodbye to the big-time concert grind, there's another fly in the ointment – a real threat to the master plan of turning the Who into essentially a studio-only band. His name is John Entwistle.

Entwistle seems to be a stoic type. Although he's in the final stages of a divorce, he and his longtime American girlfriend, a striking brunette named Max, are demonstratively happy, and he says he loves his life at home in England, where he collects vintage guitars, stuffed fish, antique armor and purebred chickens. But this "last tour" business with the Who, well, it really honks him off. Of all the times for Roger and Pete to discover something they can agree on.

"You know," Entwistle says one night in his hotel room as a TV set drones soothingly in the background, "I don't intend to get off the road. At the moment, Roger and Pete are both agreein' – about this bein' the final tour and about the whole way they want to structure the Who's career. But I completely disagree. I think the way it's gonna be structured, we're gonna be still playing, but playing extremely badly, and rustily. I mean, to do one concert, you still need to do four week's rehearsal. And I don't think it's worth rehearsin' four weeks for one concert."

He lights a cigarette. "There's not much I can do about it except hope they change their minds. They frequently do, but in this case, I don't think they will."

So if the Who stop touring, he doesn't want to be involved in just making records with them? "Um, no," Entwistle says. "I mean, from my point of view, I'm not prepared to just carry on doing albums. If the touring isn't there, then I'd rather get my own thing together, which involves touring as well."

Interesting.

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