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After a barnstorming intro – “I Can’t Explain”, “The Seeker”, “Who Are You?” – Pete Townshend paused at the microphone with a rueful smile: “We used to come here when it was dirty.” He pointed upwards at the beautifully restored interior of north London’s Roundhouse. “Now it’s clean. And I’m dirty.”
It was a shamelessly nostalgic evening. Although The Who, closing an excellent inaugural BBC Electric Proms season, were primarily here to play parts of Townshend’s new rock opera Wire and Glass, video screens told the story of a different epoch: Lambrettas and parkas at the start, swirling psychedelic patterns at the conclusion. Any delicate ironies – just whose generation is “My Generation” about now? – were trampled over by the vigour and tightness of the band, replacing their two lost members with more than capable substitutes.
The most complimentary thing to say about the new numbers is that they fitted in seamlessly with the band’s favourites. It’s always dangerous to interrupt a high-octane evening with unfamiliar material, but sheer stagecraft pulled them through. The acoustic “A Man in a Purple Dress”, was delivered with poise by Townshend and a fully charged Roger Daltrey.
The finale was assembled from another rock opera, widely mocked at the time for its bombast and pomposity. It can now be appreciated for its prescient analysis of celebrity culture. “Pinball Wizard” and “Amazing Journey” were delivered with a fierce sense of commitment, and Daltrey’s “See Me, Feel Me” still manages to be improbably touching.
Townshend, in a programme note, maintains his belief that music and congregation “can solve all of our deep-seated emotional and spiritual problems”. That belief is rare in rock music these days, but it is fundamental to the success of this remarkable group. Anyone can put a few power chords together and play them very loudly. But, 40 years on, they still sound as if they mean something, which is no mean achievement.
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