When we first contemplated this tour," says Pete Townshend, "I knew it was gonna be especially hard. We're that much older, we haven't toured for a long time, and I've got a hearing problem which will prevent me from playing lead guitar, so we're gonna need to go out with a big band in order to get the same kind of harmonic richness. That's gonna be expensive to do, which means we're gonna have to tour longer, and we're gonna have to play a longer set to squeeze in all the stuff. That's why I procrastinated for such a long time, I think."
But now procrastination is over and rehearsals are underway. At the moment the members of the Who have slightly more than a month until the tour begins in Toronto on June 23rd. Then they move to New York City on June 27th, when they'll perform the rock opera Tommy in its entirety (minus the song "Welcome," which they simply can't stomach anymore – although, for that matter, none of them is too fond of the rest of Tommy, either). Then they'll hit stadiums for two months, pausing only for another Tommy performance in Los Angeles (an all-star performance featuring Robert Plant, Elton John and Billy Idol that will be telecast on pay-perview cable television). They'll come home with about $30 million, maybe more, considering explosive ticket sales that have shocked everyone, including the Who.
The Who will also be giving out about $6 million to charity. Most of the money will come from the two Tommy performances, which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is presenting largely for the benefit of the Nordoff Robbins Foundation, a charity for autistic children. Another $1 million from two shows in Texas to be sponsored by Miller Lite will go to the Texas Special Olympics. Townshend knows corporate sponsorship is a minefield for a band trying to retain integrity, but he has no qualms about using the Who to funnel corporate money into charities. Says Townshend, "It seems that charity in the music business has come to consist of the same half a dozen people – me and Peter Gabriel and Sting and Phil Collins and a few others – calling each other on the phone and saying, 'You owe me a favor.' And I've had enough of that bullshit. This way we're taking money from these corporations and making sure it goes somewhere where it can help."
So as the members of the band gather in the London rehearsal studio, the first order of the day is figuring out what they'll play. Roger Daltrey is trying out one possibility at the moment, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing "Love Hurts." The mournful Boudleaux Bryant ballad has been recorded by everyone from the Everly Brothers to Nazareth. But it's Roy Orbison's version that's most on Daltrey's mind as he sings the song and the horn section works out a quick arrangement – that is, until the final bars, when the song suddenly becomes more syncopated and Daltrey changes his phrasing.
When it ends, Townshend leans toward the microphone in his booth. "I thought we weren't gonna do that part," he says.
"No, let's leave it," says Daltrey quickly. "I'll do it Staxy. Like Otis would do it." Townshend shrugs and turns away as Daltrey leads the band back into the song; a minute later, he puts down his guitar and leaves the room. "Roger did a vocal on that song the other day in rehearsal, and it was spine chilling," Townshend says a few minutes later, again settling into an upstairs office. "He did it completely on his own, just played a coupla chords on the guitar and sang it. He had us all spellbound, and then he kind of laughed and said, 'Okay, let's go on to something serious.' And everybody said, 'Listen, that was the most serious thing we've done in four weeks.' So we persuaded him to try and do the song again."
He leans back in his chair and shakes his head. "But when I walked out just now," he says, "it was starting to sound like it was gonna go somewhere else."
Still, Townshend wants the song in the set – because, he says, "I'm anxious that the traditional Who set doesn't sound or look or feel like a traditional Who set."
Partly that means he wants other people's songs alongside the expected Who classics, like "Won't Get Fooled Again" "My Generation" and "Magic Bus."
"I'm sounding a bit like a cracked record on the subject," Townshend says with a frown, "but I just feel that the audience needs a little bit of perspective. I want people who listen to Prince to know why he is there. I want the Who to lead irrevocably to Cream and to Jimi Hendrix. I want people to understand the fucking context. 'Cause, you know, if you're just presented with Prince out of context, he's not so much a genius as a weirdo."
His voice suddenly gets louder. "What I don't want to do, with the Who, and I think it would be fatal if we did it, is feed radio and reinforce what radio has done to music," he says. "Radio is unbelievably important, but it has become too much of a slave to ratings and demographics, and we tend to become too much of a slave to that response. You go out and play a song like 'Behind Blue Eyes,' 'Won't Get Fooled Again,' 'Pinball Wizard,' any of the tracks that get a lot of FM airplay, and the crowd immediately responds."
But can the Who really avoid feeding radio? After all, it's unlikely that the band will omit "Won't Get Fooled Again" just because it's an overplayed "classic rock" staple.
"Well, we certainly can't not play it," says Townshend. "In fact, in the set list we've got at the moment, we play it twice. I suppose that basically what we're dealing with is an unbelievably low bottom line in our stadium shows. We're really just trying to use the crude tools that we've got to give people some enjoyment and raise them up and try to give them a good day out in the sun. And if we want to do anything on a purer level, I don't know if we can actually do it as the Who."
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