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The Who: Losing The Spark After A G-G-Generation?

The Who still have the energy, but their tour opener left some wondering whether they still had the desire

January 1, 1976

The Who/Toots and the Maytals
The Summit

Houston, Texas
November 20th, 1975

Onstage, the Who has always been rock & roll at its purest. But in recent years the group has begun to raise fundamental questions about rock's viability for people in their 30s. Everything about them, from Peter Townshend's lyrical preoccupation with aging to Roger Daltrey's fringed costume (a real Woodstock-era relic), begs for an answer to that question.

It was fitting then that the Who's 1975 tour of America should open at the Summit, whose regular inhabitants are the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros – led by Gordie Howe, at 47 one of the oldest professional athletes on the continent. Howe represents the kind of fierce greatness in sports that the Who do in music. But on the evidence of their opening night, the Who remain uncertain that they haven't outgrown their medium. At their best, they might have been the 19-year-olds who furiously swore "Hope I die before I get old." But their best moments came so infrequently that even die-hard fans were given pause.

The Who Revitalize Themselves At Civic Hall

At the beginning the music was marvelous. "Substitute" and "I Can't Explain" are still the kind of rock you want to take home with you. Only the Who, with their peculiar sense of history, could have gotten away with opening a concert – much less a tour – with two of their oldest songs.

Although the Who had just finished an English tour, opening night jitters showed up occasionally: Drummer Keith Moon must have dropped a dozen drumsticks and Townshend bobbled a tambourine during "Squeeze Box," the group's new single.

The problems with the Who's set seemed to be much more fundamental than tied to this particular show. While Moon has regained much of the power he seemed to misplace on the 1974 Quadrophenia tour, he is still without his old subtlety. Moon never played conventional time, but there was an internal logic to his off-center beats which propelled the music perfectly; on the original "I Can't Explain," his drum shots took the place of lead guitar. Now, however, he can't even follow the Bo Diddley pattern of "Road Runner," a surprising encore number which began with Townshend ravaging his guitar strings. When Moon's on he can still be one of the great powerhouse rock drummers. When he's not, he distracts attention from more important parts of the show.

Roger Daltrey has bigger problems. His forte has always been the scream, and he got off some good ones in Houston. But when something more restrained is called for – especially on the material from Quadrophenia – Daltrey falters again and again. This isn't entirely his fault, of course – Townshend is not a terribly inventive melodist, and Quadrophenia and Tommy are particularly slim in that respect.

Townshend and Entwistle, perhaps to make up, are playing more closely together than ever before. In a band with only three instrumentalists, particularly one with such an erratic drummer, guitar and bass have a lot of ground to cover, and Entwistle adds as much substance to Townshend's explosive leads as Townshend adds weight to his inexorable bottom. Entwistle became almost animated near the end of the show and Townshend's power kicks and stumbling dancing were moving and far less self-parodying than they have been made out to be.

The Who's biggest problem, though, and what lent the show an air of aimlessness, is that, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and any number of other hard-rock acts, they simply play too damn long. The selections from Tommy comprise a full third of the show, with overlong restatements of the theme connecting too many disparate numbers ("I'm Free," "Pinball Wizard," "We're Not Gonna Take It" and the "See me, feel me" bit). The most interesting songs in the show are the least predictable: the slow "My Generation" encore which became almost a blues; "Naked Eye," a song they haven't done in years; "Road Runner" and "Join Together."

Townshend's Mixed Blessing

The Who still have the energy, Townshend's recent complaints to the contrary, but one wonders whether they have the passion. In a set which seemed frustratingly out of focus, in fact, two of the best numbers came from the newest album, particularly Townshend's vocal on "However Much I Booze." One wonders whether the Who have enough desire left to do a long tour.

The Who's opening act for the first part of their tour is Toots and the Maytals, which says more about the group's dedication to good music than their commercial sense. At a New York concert a couple of weeks before the tour started, lead singer Toots Hibbert was so close in style and voice to Otis Redding that he held an aware audience in thrall, particularly when he slammed the point home with Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember." In Houston, however, while Hibbert and his band played and sang just as well, they left a less knowledgeable audience confused by their mixture of reggae and R&B. Some sort of preparation for this greatest of all reggae singers is in order. Lacking that, maybe Toots should try his version of "Louie, Louie."

This story is from the January 1st, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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