Mention Live Aid and it’s highly likely that the next word you’ll hear is ‘Queen’. Whilst Freddie and the boys undoubtedly won the public vote on that historic day, it’s what happened around an hour or so after they exited that made the event for me. At 8pm, a hastily reformed The Who walked onto the revolving Wembley stage.
About a minute into My Generation the satellite went AWOL and TV screens around the world went dark. The feed came back just in time for the start of Won’t Get Fooled Again and mercifully it prevailed for the whole song. The nine minutes which followed have remained permanently lodged in my brain.
By then, Roger Daltrey was glowing with sweat. Shirt open and with a chiselled, bronzed, hairless torso, he resembled a giant Oscar statue. For long periods he looked straight ahead with a fixed, malevolent stare. When he wasn’t doing that, he was swinging the microphone so fast that had it become disconnected from its cord it was in danger of attaining earth orbit.
Stage right, John Entwistle, ‘The Ox’ stood as he always did, entirely motionless save for the fingers of both hands, all eight of which were a constant blur. Session keyboard player John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick looked skyward whilst Kenney Jones battered the drums. Jones was wearing an industrial sized pair of headphones (in-ear monitoring wasn’t very sophisticated in 1985), though I suspect the main purpose was to protect his hearing because I suspect the performance was exceptionally loud.
And then there was Pete Townshend. Every time the arms windmilled (and they windmilled quite a lot), there was a huge roar from the crowd. At one point, Townshend attempted to kick his mic stand over, missed it, and ended up on his backside. Coincidentally, Daltrey leapt off the drum riser and for a short period, the two of them were sprawling on the floor. It was without doubt one of the most chaotic and yet exciting live music performances I’ve ever witnessed. If you’re not lucky enough to have seen it first hand, feel free to get acquainted with it here.
Now, thirty-four years later, The Who are back in north west London. The venue has the same name and it might have three tiers plus a flash arch, but sadly the new Wembley is an antiseptic wet-wipe compared to the stadium it replaced. Live Aid wedged 72,000 into the old building. The 90,000-seat new Wembley Stadium has a woeful 60,000 capacity for pitch seated events.
There are breaks in the seating you could drive a bus through and the number of high-vis wearing stewards checking for bad behaviour practically outnumber the audience. Today’s performers (Essex guitarist Connor Selby, Irish singer-songwriter Imelda May, naughties power-pop-post-punk icons Kaiser Chiefs, Pearl Jam frontman and all-round rock god Eddie Vedder, and (need no introduction) The Who have not managed to sell the venue out. Sadly, in the age of streaming music, the only way to make money is to tour and that means tickets are expensive – and in the case of Wembley, very expensive.
As The Who come out, I can still see plenty of red seats in the stands. The band are going to have to go some to emulate the excitement of Live Aid and a lot has changed in thirty-four years.
They are aided on this ‘Moving On!’ tour by a full orchestra and it’s apparent from the outset that this is going to go some way towards achieving the goal. The sound is full and rich as the band open the show with a six-song homage to Tommy. The Tommy material is well suited to the orchestral treatment. Who Are You follows and it blasts around the stadium – it’s enough to get those seated in the stands on their feet.
The performance by definition is a retrospective but there is new material on show from a forthcoming record (the first new Who album in thirteen years) in the shape of Hero Ground Zero and Townshend rolls out his 2015 solo song Guantanamo, played live here for the first time.
The opening section with the orchestra comes to an end appropriately enough with a rousing rendition of Join Together (‘with the band’) and the additional musicians exit to the wings. This left the core of The Who; Daltrey and Townshend plus Zac Starkey, son of Ringo Starr on drums, Townshend’s son, Simon Townshend on additional guitars, Loren Gold on keys and Jon Button on bass filling the not inconsiderable shoes of Entwistle who sadly passed away in 2002.
The core band play Substitute, but not before Townshend Snr pays tribute to his long-term guitar technician Alan Rogan who succumbed to cancer two days previously: “When you’re in a family and people say you’ve only got days or months to live, it’s so weird. You take life for granted. It really does mean a lot to be alive and it’s great that you’re all here tonight.”
Things then became a little more stripped back still with a sensational acoustic version of Won’t Get Fooled Again played in isolation by Daltrey and Townshend. It was as unlike the previous Wembley version as you can get – and it was just as good.
The orchestra came back out and just as the collective had paid tribute to Tommy, so they did with Quadrophenia, with seven consecutive songs that also contained some surprises. On The Real Me, Starkey let rip with some drum antics upon which Keith Moon could have looked down with approval, whilst Eddie Vedder reappeared to take the lead vocal on The Punk And The Godfather. Drowned was played as a solo acoustic song by Pete Townshend and both Townshend generations contributed lead guitars on The Rock.
The show closed with a stunning Baba O’ Riley. By now it had started to rain. It rained during The Who’s set at Live Aid. The crowd went wild at Live Aid. The crowd went wild at the new Wembley. The main protagonists might be in their mid-seventies and the stadium might be shiny and new(ish) but perhaps not so much has changed in thirty-four years after all.
Review by Simon Reed with additional material from Andy Sampson. Photographs by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk