Fifty Years of "Hits" With the Who

The Who performs at Pepsi Center.
The Who performs at Pepsi Center.
Miles Chrisinger

When Pete Townshend, lead guitarist and songwriter of the Who, said earlier this year that the band won’t be touring again after this “Hits 50” jaunt, was anybody really surprised? The writing has been on the wall for some time, and the fact that Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey have kept the show on the road for as long as they have is mighty impressive. Many predicted that the death of John Entwistle in 2002 would bring the Who to its aging knees, but that didn’t prove to be the case.

Now, though, they’re feeling it. Townshend told the Detroit Free Press a month ago that the band wasn’t splitting up: The Who will continue to play occasional shows here and there, but the days of hitting the road for weeks at a time are in the past. After all, these guys deserve a retirement of sorts.

The Who of 2016 is not the same set of kids who wrote “My Generation” and, in the process, inspired a generation in 1965. Of course it isn’t. Over half a century has passed — hence the name of the tour and another accompanying compilation album. Nowadays, it’s more “An Evening With The Who” rather than a wild night of crazy antics and sexually charged rock and roll.

Keith Moon is long gone but still missed, despite the valiant efforts of Zak Starkey (who, amazingly, has been playing with the Who for twenty years now). Ringo’s son doesn’t miss a beat, and he can hit hard, but where Moon was untamed and unpredictable, Starkey is, well, very professional. Similarly, Pino Palladino, a respected bassist to be sure, doesn’t put a foot wrong and you’d barely notice a difference...until that bass break in “My Generation.”

It would be harsh to suggest that those two guys spoiled anything, though. They’ve been touring members of the band for long enough, and this was a perfectly adequate Who show. They’ve played a lot better, possibly on this very tour, but still, they play the “hits” (constantly pointing out with a laugh that they didn’t actually have many genuine hits in the States), and they play them well.

Daltrey quite cleverly saves his voice for the important big notes, notably soaring during a beautiful “Love Reign O’er Me.” Townshend takes every available opportunity to do the arm windmill, and the crowd loves every spin. We get an opening “Who Are You,” followed by “The Seeker,” followed by “The Kids Are Alright.” Daltrey introduces the latter by explaining that it was written around the time that he got a young lady pregnant and felt obliged to marry her, but then ran for his life as soon as he could. Hey, he was nineteen.

Pete Townshend of the Who has said the band will stop touring.
Pete Townshend of the Who has said the band will stop touring.
Miles Chrisinger

Those inter-song anecdotes were fairly typical, and carried on that “Evening With…” vibe. “Pictures of Lily,” Townshend explains, is about jerking off to Victorian saucy postcards. The guitarist also said that “Bargain” is his favorite song from the classic Who’s Next album, which is bizarre to this writer, who always considered it dull.

“Join Together” is arguably the most “peace and love” this decidedly un-Woodstocky band ever got; the primal energy of “The Real Me” seems more in keeping with their overall ruffian feel. But both songs sounded great at the Pepsi Center.

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It’s too much to expect the Who to drive us insane with that potent mixture of desire and aggression now. The fact is striking that very few people even wanted to stand up. From where we were, the fans who did get on their feet were yelled down by folks seated behind them. The Who have picked up new fans in every decade, but there are also many who have grown old with them, and the chance to sit back and enjoy a nostalgia-fueled evening of the songs they love is to be embraced.

Those of us who missed them in their prime – tough luck. Meanwhile, only half of the Who died; the other two did get old. 

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