The Who Live at Shea Stadium 1982

The Who Release an Anemic Mix of a 1982 Historic Show

The third live album of the Who’s 1982 farewell tour improves little on the others. It’s hard to imagine that modern recording technology couldn’t have helped.

Live at Shea Stadium 1982
The Who
Mercury Studios
1 March 2024

Historically speaking, Shea Stadium wasn’t commissioned as a concert site nearly as often as other famous New York City-area venues. Strangely, though, the now-demolished ballpark occupies a hallowed place in the annals of music — arguably even more so than it does for the many mythic baseball and football moments that took place there. While certainly a household name in the pantheon of pro sports facilities, both of its one-time home teams — the New York Mets and (until 1983) the New York Jets — most often played second-fiddle to the more prestigious hometown rivals in their respective sports. 

That leaves Shea Stadium, which hosted its last game in 2008, in an odd limbo as far as its position in sports lore: legendary yet secondary. Of course, when the Beatles played there in 1965 and again in 1966 — just four dates prior to their final live appearance as a touring act — Shea Stadium’s pop-culture immortality was set in stone. Later, when the Police touched down at Shea at the peak of their commercial powers in 1983, they too were on their way to the finish line. As frontman Sting describes in the 2010 Billy Joel concert documentary Last Play at Shea, it was onstage during that very concert that Sting decided to pull the plug on the Police. 

Such was Sting’s esteem for what Shea Stadium represented as a musical accomplishment that he compared it to climbing Mt. Everest. “I realized,” he says in the film, “that you can’t climb a mountain higher than this.” Unsurprisingly, the members of the Who were far less awe-struck when they rolled through the venue ten months earlier for a two-night stand in October of 1982. On tour in support of their album, It’s Hard, in what was billed as their farewell tour, the Who arrived at Shea to much fanfare, selling out all 140,000 tickets in under two hours. Yet the mood within the band was, shall we say, typically ambivalent and prickly.  

Interviewed separately just before the shows for a British TV segment, guitarist/bandleader Pete Townshend and frontman Roger Daltrey were both unequivocal on where they stood. “I’ve had a gutful,” said Daltrey, when asked about touring. Meanwhile, Townshend — captured in the limo ride to the show with Shea Stadium looming literally out the window — sounded like an artist who wished he could kill his own myth but had resigned himself to the fact that the myth was indestructible in spite of him. “To some extent,” Townshend offered bluntly, “We’ve achieved everything we set out to do, [most of which] we achieved in the first eight years of our career.”

He added: “We’re going out and playing to audiences that are coming to see us for what we’ve done in the past and for what we represent in rock and roll, not for what we’re effectively achieving today. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, part of rock concerts is the celebration thing and the general everybody-patting-one-another-on-the-back mood that you get. But I don’t think anything creative is happening at these Who concerts. They’re bloody good concerts — we’ve done some fantastic shows — but there’s no new ground being struck. And I need to strike new ground.” 

“I want,” Townshend concluded, “to get as far away from rock and roll as possible.” Townshend’s tone contrasts starkly with the jubilation of the concertgoers, their excitement visible on their faces as they testify on camera. But his comments should come as no shock. As far back as 1978, on the Who Are You deep cut “Music Must Change”, Townshend was already expressing an unambiguous feeling that it was time for the band to step aside and pass the torch to a younger vanguard of artists. So, by 1982, Townshend had effectively become the older person he’d envisioned on the Who’s signature song “My Generation”. 

All of this is crucial to bear in mind when listening to the new album Live at Shea Stadium 1982, which documents the Who’s entire second night there (minus one song). Available in standalone audio-only formats for the first time, the two-CD/three-LP set consists of the same mix as the audio track from the 2015 Blu-Ray/DVD concert video of the same name. The band, of course, were keenly aware that they were now a million miles from their origins in British mod youth culture. That said, It’s Hard is replete with moments that showcase a maturing act holding its own against the burgeoning new wave/MTV uprising. 

Truth be told, the Shea Stadium renditions of early-career staples like “Can’t Explain” and “Substitute” don’t come anywhere close to matching the ferocious roar the band summoned on releases like Live at Leeds and Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. Of course, how can we forget the Who’s era-defining appearance at Woodstock, which was largely fueled in its volatility and sheer unbridled aggression by Townshend’s disdain for the hippie peace-and-love ethos. (Townshend purported that he forced late 1960s activist-icon Abbie Hoffman off the stage by hitting him with his guitar; Hoffman always denied that Townshend actually hit him.)  

With the Who’s glory days as a live act behind them, Townshend’s disdain was now clearly pointed inward, his attitude dripping with undisguised doubts as to whether the Who even merited a place on the early 1980s musical landscape. Yet they came to Shea with a crop of galvanizing new songs frothing with adult-contemporary power in the truest sense: “Dangerous”, “Athena”, “Eminence Front”, and “Cry If You Want” — arguably one of rock’s all-time most valiant and rousing songs of surrender to the aging process. If the Who knew they were going down, they still had enough fight to go down swinging.  

Unfortunately, the new Live at Shea suffers from a flat mastering job that makes it nearly impossible to gauge what the concert’s energy was actually like in real time. (You can compare to the Blu-Ray/DVD audio here.) As a result, much of the latter-day material is robbed of its luster. In spots such as “It’s Hard”, one gets the sense that the Who’s enthusiasm was flagging. For most of the set, though, that doesn’t appear to be the case. We know this because, though the audio from the Blu-Ray/DVD isn’t exactly vibrant, the footage paints a picture of a band with more than enough bluster and swagger to rock a stadium crowd sufficiently. 

Townshend’s guitar and John Entwistle’s bass appear to mumble their way through several songs that clearly sparked with more energy than what comes through your speakers when listening to the recording on its own. Likewise, the mix hardly flatters drummer Kenney Jones. Jones, most well known as the timekeeper in both the Small Faces and the Faces, has long been maligned by Daltrey for his inability to capture the thundering chaos of original Who sticksman Keith Moon. Fair enough, but it’s hard to assess Jones’ performance because Live at Shea Stadium doesn’t adequately convey the timbre of his drums. 

Regardless of what Townshend was telling us at the time about his lack of investment, his whirling-dervish athleticism onstage was still a marvel to behold, to say nothing of the acuity of his playing. On video, the Live at Shea rendition of “Naked Eye” showcases the grace, fluidity, and depth Townshend could wring from his instrument — even as he could barely stand still. A classic-era deep cut that blends rock with flourishes of honky-tonk piano, “Naked Eye” gives live keyboardist Tim Gorman room to shine. The song’s mournful tone also perfectly matches the emotion that much of the crowd must have been feeling that night. 

Watching a band sail off into the sunset as they give you one last chance to share in their past glory can be an intensely moving experience. Sure, the Who’s farewell didn’t last very long, but at the time, there was a finality to it that charged the shows with a sense of history in the making. In the aforementioned TV clip, a woman in attendance talks about seeing the Who in 1967, three days before the birth of her son, who stands beside her at Shea Stadium 15 years later. The video version of “Naked Eye” somehow bridges those two periods in a way that the album version just can’t on its own. 

On record, Live at Shea often falls short of communicating whatever resonance was in the air that night. But it’s impossible to believe that any professional front-of-house engineer — particularly for an act of such stature as the Who — would allow a band to sound so anemic in a stadium setting. Oddly, two previous live albums from this same stretch of farewell shows are hampered in much the same way (1984’s Who’s Last and 2006’s Live from Toronto, better known as the concert video The Who: Rocks America 1982 Tour). As a result, we’re left with a distorted impression of what shape the Who were in when they bowed-out. 

With David Johansen and the Clash also on the bill, the Who’s Shea Stadium appearance was a truly historic event. For this release to properly honor the magnitude of the moment it presents — and attempts to sell us — it would have required a considerably more dedicated effort to improve on the audio. It’s hard to imagine that modern recording technology couldn’t have helped here, at least somewhat. Completists and diehards will no doubt find things to favor in this live package above Who’s Last and Toronto, but Live at Shea improves little on those albums’ shortcomings. 

RATING 5 / 10