Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: London, 12 July 2023

The Who Live in London, sounds appropriate!

Let’s back up a bit, just two days. Monday we’d come down from Edinburgh: most on planes, some on trains, some in private cars. We have this “travel day” and another off in London. Monday evening was a special gathering, several years in the making. Our own Alan Rogan, longtime Pete Townshend guitar roadie and road-crew chief, and general man-about-town had passed away back in 2019, just a couple of days before our huge Wembley Arena concert. His daughter Kerri had planned a memorial service during our next tour – which was the tour canceled from Coronavirus. And since then, we’ve not been back with this orchestral run. So, here we are. With Alan being such a well-known and accomplished musical accomplice, we didn’t know who might be there, but it was indeed a Who’s who’s-who of musical people that came to honor the man who made us laugh (and more.)

Ronnie Wood and Kenney Jones (besides the Rolling Stones and The Who; these are two of the original Faces together hanging and talking), Brian Johnson (AC/DC), Nick Lowe, most of the Townshend clan, (more than I’ve ever seen in a room together), Zak Starkey family, John Porter (Roxy Music, producer), Jody Linscott (Who/Daltrey/Townshend percussionist), Andy Fairweather-Low (Roger Waters, Clapton). Plus The Who’s main team (crew and family and office), including about a hundred of Alan’s closest friends, some who had flown in from the USA just for the event. Alan was indeed an influential person – the precise person who chose certain people (like myself and others) to join The Who world. Thanks, mate, that favor cannot ever be repaid! Pete and Rog were still traveling to town so unable to attend, but there were sweet videos sent by Pete, Irish Jack, Graham Nash and Chuck Leavell of The Rolling Stones. You may be surprised to know that Alan’s ashes have traveled the world and now (secretly) reside in some of the world’s great music venues where Alan worked. Very apropos.

Then, after a full-day-off in this busy and legendary city, we are in the O2 Arena, the premiere indoor venue in London. Greenwich is to the south side, just below the River Thames that winds through the city (we are on the less-busy, less-crowded side of that river). You’ve heard of Greenwich Mean Time?  Yes, all time worldwide is set relative to this place, and the old Naval facility and vintage buildings all around lend an air of grace and upscale feeling to the area. They took a relatively unused space and created the O2 complex; a huge dome with towering things poking out of the top. It’s really a massive entertainment complex and tourist hub. Tons of food and shopping options and multiple venues in this place. It’s right next to a large London Underground station, so very few would drive here, but instead take the trains or some bus system and get dropped off. By the thousands. It’s intense.

The guest list queue snaking out from the main entrance

Which brings us to the notable part of the day: guests. It’s London, it’s The Who, it’s industry and friends and families – so we have an issue. Or rather 450+ of them tonight. The legendary “guest list” – those people who are allowed in for free, usually with a ticketed seat for the show, and maybe some kind of backstage pass or access of some kind. In most cities, we have maybe 20 to 40 guests. But not London (or NYC or LA). To be honest, we are given seats by the promoter – seats they would otherwise love to $ell for lots and lots of money. Especially in a place like London where we can normally $ell seats for most of Wembley Stadium (maybe six-times bigger than this arena). Initially, we were given a set of tickets to give away: just 100. Nice, but not nearly enough! Negotiations were done about three weeks ago, when we started the European leg of the tour. From there, we received another 200 tickets, 300 total. And remember, those tickets could be VERY expensive seats that the promoter cannot now sell, so they are essentially handing us back quite a bit of value, but it’s a game that must be played on both sides. And it’s reasonable to know that this band and this venue have obligations to their families and business contacts, that original 100 was just too low.

Our man in the hot seat today is Joe Garlipp: Joe’s been with us for about a decade or so, and he handles various duties. Sometimes we call him “the band handler” – he gets them in and out of hotels and airports and concert venues. It’s a serious job, and the guest list is mainly a daily slice of that job. However, this list started weeks ago, when he warned everyone that the guest request was already insane – and if you don’t request at the very least a week in advance, you’re not getting anyone in. (Most of us tried to avoid the nonsense and simply offered our friends better tickets and a better experience if our guests came to any show besides London!) Still, some “important” people didn’t know and showed up this week with requests to the band or management that they must get it. And some made it – our final roll call was over 450 people allowed in – some without seats; they were given passes to stand anywhere they could find. Many people with seats didn’t get the backstage access, but most were given a room and a space to “be backstage” but not given access to our dressing room area or work spaces.

Take a selfie on the original Vespa used on the 1996 Quadrophenia tour. Cost you a fiver and the money goes to Teenage Cancer Trust

All day long, Joe was processing names and tickets and passes, each different to the rest in priority and access. Checking, double-checking. Others, including me, were drafted in to help. It took so much time that the line outside (see photo) of the Who guest list snaked around forever, with nearly 500 people waiting for their precious access to be handed to them. I was out there during the opening act – and most of them were still outside. I even saw and talked to Paul Townshend, Pete’s brother, who was one of the many waiting, hoping to be inside in time for The Who bit. So; here’s an example of the situation inside. Pete has many guests – including his own family, siblings, his children, grandchildren. Close friends, business friends, etc. So they assign him a room just for those guests – I hear about 45 people. Pete is clever and aware. Several days ago, he ordered a small PA system to be delivered and set up in the room. With everyone gathered, he walked in and said basically “I’m so thankful you’re here and would love to talk to every one of you, but just to say ‘hello and goodbye’ briefly would take over an hour, and I’m saving my voice for the show.” Smart move, and no one could argue the logic. I’ve never heard of such a thing before, but it’s a smart boundary to set, and gets the job done. We’re here for the big show and those people can all be in contact another time.

Inside the building, we are doing pretty well. It’s a change for us, to be back in a proper arena, with real dressing rooms and loading area, air conditioning, toilets, and local workers who know what they’re doing. In fact, we are quite relaxed and relieved after the dirt and dust and rain of Hull, and the tight spaces of Edinburgh Castle – this is a piece of cake for us, which bodes well for the show. Soundcheck – sorta, we have everyone here, but Roger’s car is stuck in London rush-hour and doesn’t make it in time. Pete’s leaving the stage and the band and orchestra are all gone when Rog rushes in. There’s a little negotiation and Pete takes the break and the backing band comes back to run a little song bit or two for Roger. Ah well, c’est la vie.

Isabella Coulstock is our opening act today, hand-picked by Who co-manager Robert Rosenberg. She has a stunning voice, and played along on her acoustic guitar. It’s a bit more quiet and moody than most of our openers, but this audience is not like the impatient rowdy crowds of most other bands; they like songwriting and craft, and they appreciate her talent so she’s listened-to politely and applauded well after each number. But it’s a slower start than we’re used to. Easy for the crew, though, as we don’t have to move so much equipment before The Who come onstage.

Despite the efforts, we still have a ton of people backstage, most deservedly so, so Rog and Pete do have a lot more contact to say “hey” to them as they head to the stage. And then coming onstage, Pete yells hello to the audience “WAKE THE FUCK UP!!!” Everyone laughs, but they are a bit more quiet than usual, but maybe (a) difficult to get here and get in (b) not as drunk as some crowds. Then he gets more serious and thanks them for the effort to travel out to the distant O2, which is so hard to access. “But it’s great to be here in London . . .” Tommy rolls out as usual, the same excerpts, but today, we hear it in the city where it was born.

‘1921’; I’m always struck by this one, certainly this and ‘Eminence Front’ are the two pieces that may be better than ever with the orchestra. ‘1921’ is such beautiful writing – not a bombast or hit, but if you analyse the melodic movement and harmonic/rhythmic parts, it’s a stunning piece of writing. Maybe not as hooky as hearing ‘Who are you’ or ‘Teenage wasteland’ yelled out – but listen again to it closely; it’s one of Tommy‘s great pieces. It’s the era of strong songwriting, before power and production ideas were really captured well in the studio, so the melodies and chord changes were the power – and old Tommy remains a monster of exceptional songwriting. ‘Sensation’, ‘It’s A Boy’, ‘Amazing Journey’, ‘1921’. ‘Go To The Mirror ‘, ‘Sally Simpson’; probably all better writing than the most-famous ‘Pinball Wizard’, really. But many of these we don’t get to hear during our shows presently. I should go listen elsewhere.

Video courtesy of KrisLW 

Speaking of ‘Pinball Wizard’ – it’s usually the moment where the crowd comes alive; and they don’t. Maybe a good sign, that these are not likely the casual Who fan who come to some shows. These are likely longtime fans of all ages, they know the whole catalogue and are interested in all of it equally, as you or I likely would be. After Tommy, Pete introduces our Heart of England Orchestra. And then points out “you probably noticed our three percussionists were a little bit out of control!” he jokes. Indeed, their control is not one of playing – they are great, perfect, really. But they like to show off and throw their arms out when playing, twirl sticks in the air, etc. It’s very showy and fun, nobody minds in the least. We’ll probably get more details form the orchestra for the blog, because I can write about the same things over and over – plus we’re living on the road with them for this tour, something that really makes our lives better.

‘Eminence Front’ has a very different, angular and cool guitar solo in front, I really liked it. Pete is, as always, unafraid to step into unknown territory each night. Speaking of age and touring, Pete then mentions that he’s been talking a lot to his very good friend Elton John daily, and Elton calls Pete’s wife in his bathrobe nearly every day. Elton is about to retire from the road himself soon.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas 

Pete admits that he grew up “a bit weird” in a show-biz family, living backstage since he was young; it’s in his blood. But in recent years he’s been able to appreciate the gifts that live performance brings them. He says they’re about to play some pieces with the less-disciplined band members (non-orchestra) and play some of the songs from the earlier days (to big cheers from the crowd.) Among these was a surprise for London; ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’! The Mod anthem itself. It’s pretty rough, honestly, because we were supposed to have a rehearsal of it (or two) today when the traffic situation happened. And, being The Who, they don’t care if it’s perfect – whereas other bands would have never played it without proper testing first. Regardless of the details, it sounds good, and is a welcome addition. And ‘Substitute’, another ’60s singles classic.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas 

Pete mentions “So in actuality, you have to be pretty old to remember these songs.” (Some cheers and boos from those who disagree.) “It’s not a bad thing to be the oldest person in the building. (lots of laughs) Is it, Roger?” (Rog is slightly older, and everyone laughs at this realisation that it wasn’t Pete thinking of ‘imself.) Pete continues, “So, being the oldest, can you impart some wisdom to the good people here?” “Don’t bloody look at me!” Roger replies. Pete answers him “Then I dedicate this next song to you – ‘I Can’t Explain’!” Very cool to have it in the set tonight as well. It feels a bit weird, only in that it was the starting-gun for so many hundreds of shows. It possibly reminds me of that, so being placed in the middle is no issue – just unusual. Pete used to hit the solo and his first windmills of the day during that – and the moment always lit the crowd up unanimously there. ‘My Generation’ – so good that it’s back. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – probably (with ‘Baba O’Riley’) always the most-popular piece of every show. It has a big ending this time, strong and healthy.


Video courtesy of the Gazzas

They finish the band set with ‘Behind Blue Eyes’. Twice. Yes, most of the way through the first time, Rog stops everyone and says “Start again!!” There is a brief pause and he says “I need to have a word with my soundman” as he’s having troubles. Pete jokes “NO” and Roger says back “I told ‘im” – and they restart. Pete sort of covers up the difficult spot by joking around “You know, back before I came out tonight, I’m looking down at my feet – I have these very nice Prada boots – and I had them on the wrong feet! You’re so lucky I even found the right venue tonight” They are indeed nice boots, like the up-market version of the old Doc Martens he used to stomp on every show.

Heading into Quadrophenia, Pete mentions a memory; in 1968 he’d battled with Kit Lambert (manager and producer) about adding an orchestra to the original Tommy album. Pete felt it was wrong, that they were a “rock band” and that John Entwistle’s French horn would be enough of that on the record. But in 1973, he’d “spent so much time on souped-up organ and synthesiser tracks trying to sound like an orchestra” that it’s really the appropriate music to add an orchestra on top for these shows.

Video courtesy of KrisLW 

Tonight’s ‘5:15’ has some real energy, and you can tell Pete is pleased it’s actually taking off a bit. As usual, the Quadrophenia set relies on precision and execution – so it really does work well when it matches the record everyone knows. During the band introductions, everything’s going well, until Zak leans over too far backward when applauding for another band member, and his chair goes end-over, dumping him onto the stage behind. Not many saw it (even though he live-streamed it on his phone) and suddenly Rog and Pete are looking for him “Where did you go, Zak!?” when he pops up, evidently unharmed, just in time for a rocking rendition of ‘Baba O’Riley’ to close out the show. Roger closes out the show with a great sentiment – “Thanks SO much; we really appreciate it, more than you can ever know!” True, they do love this, and without the fans, it would not be what it is. The band then left the stage and the lights dimmed leaving just Pete and Roger in a single spotlight who then gave us ‘Tea & Theatre’, Pete on acoustic guitar, Rog on vocals.

This felt like a really strong show. Each person in the room has a different impression. I felt it was musically pretty damn good, although not magical status, yet the audience was sitting quietly for most of this – unlike rowdy and drunk Edinburgh, which didn’t have the musical level but had the attitude. So, without question a really good show with the hometown audience. Still many told me it was exceptional – and I’ll believe them, as they probably hear a clearer, more-balanced version of the show there out-front where it counts most.

With London done and gone, we have six more to go on this run (I think.) Every tour has a “stumble start” (Hull) and then a “getting into it” phase (Edinburgh and London) and then it all becomes normal; no more remembering parts or dealing with issues – and usually some real magic happens. If you’re thinking of it, I encourage anyone in the UK to choose and see one of these coming shows. They are kind of small venues, not sold out yet, and that encourages the spark of wildness we appreciate. We never know when the big end of it all will actually happen, but I do know that it’s likely we’re going to feel The Who magic hit hard some night when it all lines up; no one is worried or caring too much, and the stars align for the moment, musical greatness exceeds the normal.

Onward . . .

Tonight’s Set List

With Orchestra
Amazing Journey
The Acid Queen
Pinball Wizard
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Eminence Front

Band Only
The Kids Are Alright
You Better You Bet
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
I Can’t Explain
My Generation
Cry If You Want
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Behind Blue Eyes

With Orchestra
The Real Me
I’m One
The Rock
Love, Reign O’er Me
Baba O’Riley
Tea & Theatre