[15 December 2005]
Even into their near-dotage, the Who have maintained a reputation for incredible live shows. They’ve got a handful of great live albums that capture their energy (most notably Live at Leeds), and have put out a series of videos and DVDs covering everything from their earliest days to their 1982 farewell tour to their 2000 stand at the Royal Albert Hall to their 2002 US tour (after bassist John Entwistle’s death). All those videos skip two moments in Who history—the 1989 reunion shows and the 1996-97 Quadrophenia tour. The release of the DVD The Who: Tommy and Quadrophenia Live fills in the gap, but, given the neglect of the two tours until now, it’s easy to wonder if the shows would be better left on the shelf.
As Pete Townshend says on the bonus commentary, the 1989 reunion happened, at least in part, because the band members needed some extra money. Watching them play, though, it’s hard to believe that’s the only reason they got back together. The primary material from this tour is a version of Tommy with celebrity guests recorded in Los Angeles, and the band sounds nearly aggressive as ever (even with no Abbie Hoffman to knock of the stage and no sunrise for “We’re Not Gonna Take It”).
Maybe surprisingly, the special guests add to the fun. Phil Collins surpasses creepy and goes into camp with his Keith-Moon-inspired portrayal of Uncle Ernie, who molests Tommy. Patti LaBelle, despite blowing the lyrics, adds some flair to “Acid Queen”, and Elton John reprises his 1975 portrayal of the Pinball Wizard. Dressed in a red suit, he inspires Townshend to change the words to “What makes that suit so good?” John remained unfazed.
Unfortunately, the group seems tired on the second set of tracks included on disc three. Perhaps the years off the road left them without the conditioning for such a long show, or perhaps the non-Townshend members simply had trouble getting themselves up for so many of his solo numbers (almost a quarter of the songs from the Los Angeles second set and the encore from Giants Stadium are from Townshend’s solo albums). In any case, these numbers, often negatively affected by the horn section, are a bit of a let down after the energetic rock of Tommy.
The Quadrophenia backstory, even in brief, is more interesting. The Who always had trouble performing it live (and in fact gave up doing it in its entirety rather quickly). Come 1996 and the band’s ready to give it another shot, this time with a horn section, guest stars, the intense Zak Starkey on drums, and—most important—a video screen that helps tell the story as the concert moves along. With everything in place, the Who turned in some of their most stunning performances on that tour. The group combined an artistic presentation with a return to aggressive and emotional rock, and got fitting performances from PJ Proby and crowd-pleaser Billy Idol. (For most of that stretch, Gary Glitter played the Proby role of the Godfather, but he’s not mentioned here. He managed to force Daltrey into wearing an eyepatch after a mic stand incident, but that’s nothing compared to his international underage activities. Putting that aside, he did a better job than Proby).
The packaging is imprecise about when this performance happened (or if the video even comes from a single show), but the various producers, including Roger Daltrey, didn’t pull together all the single best performances from the year. Still, it’s an extremely tight and engrossing show, and the filmmakers can be forgiven if they didn’t track down that bass solo from Toledo or that guitar freakout from Philadelphia the way Who addicts might have.
The encore set included on disc three far outstrips the 1989 bonus songs. In a particularly memorable moment, Daltrey has trouble with his guitar starting off “Who Are You?” and pretends he’s going to smash it. Townshend joins him for some imaginary destruction, and the duo have a fun exchange with the fans. The whole of the ‘96-‘97 material shows a band at its second peak, and having fun in its success.
Nearly all the bonus material is worth a viewing, at least for fans. While the liner notes contain too much detail on the rock operas’ histories and not enough on these concerts (an odd choice, given that the three-disc set will most likely appeal to fans somewhat familiar with the original albums), the bonus video commentaries by Daltrey and Townshend discuss both the original albums and the concert versions recorded here. In a particularly useful series, especially for non-UK fans, Daltrey and Townshend comment on the violence between and within groups of mods and rockers. Daltrey confesses to never having truly been a mod, but only a rocker in mod’s clothing (for commercial purposes).
A final, surprisingly enjoyable bonus contains an interview with Billy Idol, who performed in both shows in this set, was a Who fan, and, as a member of Generation X, won Townshend’s approval. Idol talks about his fandom, his invitations to perform, and his experiences with the Who. Idol’s always been enjoyable in his sneering way (maybe even “likable”, but not in the usual sense), but here he comes across as someone you’d definitely want to have over for a few drinks while spinning old albums and talking about whatever random topics come up.
Over the course of three discs and two tours, Tommy and Quadrophenia Live finally archives two of the Who’s often overlooked eras. Considering how much Who material is out there, it’s nice to see something new and valuable come along. The 1989 show’s an interesting artifact, enjoyable, but not a replacement for ‘69/‘70 era shows. The 1996 footage provides good film of the band performing its masterpiece at a high level. The set’s imperfect, but for once even non-Who-fans shouldn’t be complaining about the release of “new” material.