The Who, on stage post-Moon and Entwistle in 2008.


The Who are touring again, but what does 'The Who' mean?




This week, the Who announced their first tour in four years, a fall/winter jaunt that will see them perform their Quadrophenia album in full, in hockey areas across North America. The announcement was met with a great deal of press and reaction, from excitement to bored resignation.

And at the center of it wasn’t that Quadrophenia will be played, but rather a simpler question — with John Entwistle and Keith Moon long dead, is it right to call this band, “the Who?”
It begs greater questions, of course. What does it mean to be a band? What does it mean when the Who, comprised of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend and accompanied by Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino, continue to call themselves the Who?
It means increased venues and tickets, for one thing. A tour of “Daltrey and Townshend” might not pack the same punch at the box office as the Who would, much like the “Page & Plant” tours didn’t carry the emotional wallop of Led Zeppelin, despite the presence of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

There is an argument to be made, however, that whatever Pete Townshend wants to call the Who should be considered as such. Townshend has been the band’s heart, engine and primary composer since their start in Shepherd’s Bush all those decades ago. He’s drawn the line between solo and Who performances in the past, what lives up to the band’s name and what doesn’t. And sometimes, it could also be argued, he’s been wrong. Certainly, their 1989 big-band tour seems to have been a mistake, while their 2000s-decade jaunts through North America can be considered a success.

But does calling it the Who turn off more than it attracts? Are those who pay the ticket prices fools? Are those who look the other way at this tour missing out?

It’s not nearly as black-and-white as that. Like most issues, there’s plenty of grey area, there’s plenty of room for debate, and no fan is really wrong. 

When it comes to bands who have moved on from their classic lineup, for one reason or another, everyone has their hang-ups. I won’t see Alice in Chains in concert; that band and that name died with Layne Staley, and anything else beyond some sort of memorial tribute seems indecent. I feel passionately about this. The same applies to the Doors without Jim Morrison. The Dead Kennedys touring without Jello Biafra feels wrong, along with whatever collection of stylized professionals Axl Rose assembles to drone on behind him as Guns N’ Roses.
With this, it’s all cherry picking, a study in what each fan can rationalize. Are the Who the same band that existed from 1964 to 1978? Of course not, and any version of the band thereafter will always be inferior to that eight-armed powerhouse.
But the Who since John Entwistle’s death in 2002 has been a different animal, older and more precise in their delivery. While brute strength led them to be, perhaps, the greatest live band rock and roll has seen in the 1970s, now the show is built on experience and the sheer will displayed by Daltrey and Townshend each night. The Who, today, is both a celebration of the past and a pillar of determination, two friends, flanked by trusted confidants, armed to deliver music chock with respect and power. And, from this fan’s point of view, the chance to see Townshend on stage is one not to be missed, no matter the banner or venue.
There are fans who will not be interested in this version of the Who, and that’s understandable. Any band that attempts to carry on despite the loss of a major member, or two, will face this.
So, there will be plenty who cast an eye of skepticism towards this tour, this project and simply the idea of calling this group of musicians, “the Who.” And they are within their right, as they would doubting any band who has carried on under the same banner despite losing members to death or other circumstances.

For those who are comfortable with the idea of seeing the Daltrey and Townshend, specifically, it’s hard to imagine this tour disappointing. Those two have been ferocious performers, and armed with the task of bringing their band’s greatest work back to life, it has the potential to being a tremendous experience.

Whichever way you will fall personally, it’s cool. It’s music, it’s a show and it’s a narrative. Those who hang on and those who decide they’ve had enough all become a part of that story.

July 19, 2012

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