Pete Townshend’s Deep End – Face the Face

By the mid 1980s The Who were in limbo. Actually, they’d officially (if temporarily) broken up. And nearly everyone by that point acknowledged that they should’ve hung it up the morning after Moon croaked instead of plodding away uninspiringly for five more years. In theory, Kenney Jones (ex-Faces/Small Faces) may’ve seemed like an ideal choice to take over behind the drumkit, but nobody could’ve stepped into Moon’s shoes, and Jones’ style didn’t gel whatsoever with The Who’s four-ring daredevil act anyhow. Besides, by this point, Pete Townshend was putting all of his strong material on his solo albums, and Empty Glass and All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes are infinitely more durable and rewarding than The Who’s tepid Face Dances and It’s Hard. But what can ya do? I only managed to see The Who because they chose to carry on (numerous times) when saner minds would’ve advised them against it, and some of those shows were pretty amazing, as all-out nostalgic celebrations go. Townshend and Daltrey may be decrepit and spent at this point (and if last year’s mess of a show at Gwinnett Arena is any indication, they certainly are), but they were the first band I really latched onto, as a teenager – the first one that dug its claws into my turbulent, tender being and awakened me to the cathartic, redemptive power of rock ‘n’ roll. For that alone, they will always place high on my personal totem pole of all-time favorites.

Recorded in France in January 1986 for the German TV concert show Rockpalast, Face the Face is a shorter version of a handful of similar concerts Townshend, post-Who, had staged with his short-lived Deep End big band at Brixton Academy in 1985. Taken from those shows, the single LP Deep End Live came out in 1986, and was expanded to a full 27 songs in 2004 as Live: Brixton Academy ’85. (A coinciding VHS home video edited a few tracks out.) Now if you have that, be aware that much of this Rockpalast set consists of songs also performed on Brixton, in the exact same arrangements, but there are a handful of notable exceptions (solo standouts “Slit Skirts” and “Rough Boys,” namely). This is also a two-disc set, one audio and one DVD, so you can enjoy it on the 60” flat screen. (But be aware that it was shot in ’80s European television ratio, so it’s almost a square screen. And the quality is ’80s video recorder level.)

If you’re jonesin’ for the violently slashing power chords and angst-driven adrenaline that fueled The Who’s most transcendent moments, look elsewhere. Sure, Pete comes out swinging, kicking off boldly with the anthem that still ends most Who sets, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” He begins the song on amplified acoustic guitar, accompanied only by a harmonica honker (Pete Hope-Evans [ex-Machine Head], showcased extensively throughout the show), but by the end of the first chorus the full ensemble dives in and the warhorse gets a brassy new makeover. It’s a brave intro that grabs everyone’s attention and raises expectations for what’s to follow – about half of which rises to the occasion, and half falls flat.

Complete with a five-piece horn section and a quintet of oddly creepy looking backup singers (and try to not even glance at the bass guitarist – you’re welcome), Pete sounds great and looks great. (This was back when he still had a sense of fashion – more so than his band! – and didn’t dress like he resorted to digging through last week’s unwashed laundry basket.) His delivery is powerful, impassioned. He’s smiling, jumping around the stage, clearly having a ball, and the unfiltered joy he displays being free from the practiced, expected routine of The Who is plainly detectible, and infectious. One thing that’s notably missing is Townshend’s trademark onstage pontificating, presumably curtailed due to the limited running time of the TV show, or edited out later.

The Who are a band for diehard rock geeks. One certainty I’ve come to accept after decades of observation, not to mention failure at making successful mixtapes hoping to woo potential mates, is that most women don’t get The Who. They have zilch interest whatsoever. The Who were never a “girl’s” band. Oh, a few might’ve thought shirtless Daltrey was a dreamy hunk at one point many decades ago, but grumpy ol’ raconteur Townshend? Fuggedaboutit. Nothing sexy about that pale, lanky bloke at all. The Who were a dude’s band, and only nerdy, antisocial, awkward dudes at that. In the occasional audience shots for this TV concert, notice that it’s a sea of dudes, a perpetual pimply-to-balding sausage party to give Rush or fuckin’ Dream Theater a run for their money.

The ensemble – 17 people total – is a rollicking, high-NRG powerhouse that leads one to ponder what could’ve been, had Townshend continued in this manner. Shaggy-haired David Gilmour stands out on electric guitar, still firmly planted in his rhythmic, pulsating delay pedal period (think the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell”), which he uses heavily on a couple of these tracks including his own “Blue Light,” a searing highlight of the concert. Both of them free, albeit fleetingly, from their respective behemoth bands, Gilmour and Townshend developed a close bond during the mid-80s, collaborating on songwriting, hiring some of the same session players and appearing on each other’s albums. Drummer Simon Phillips – who played on Townshend’s solo albums of the era and would eventually tour with The Who in 1989 – is also amazing here. Had he been brought on board post-Moon instead of Jones, those later Who efforts may’ve packed some balls.

Unfortunately these shows coincided with Townshend’s White City, a half-assed concept album so mired in its convoluted pretensions it’s actually subtitled “A Novel.” Supposedly a story about cultural and racial tensions in 1960s London, Quadrophenia II it ain’t. Its contents take up four of this show’s setlist spaces, only two of which – the giddy, hepcat soul jiver “Face the Face” and “Give Blood” – don’t conjure winces. Well, the keyboards on the latter conjure winces, but the keyboards date this entire show terribly, as they often do on ’80s recordings. It’s just the way it is. Whenever I hear this song – which, granted, until the release of Face the Face, wasn’t very often since 1986 – I like to think it’s some sort of fed-up anti-altruism rant, with lines like “Give blood/ But there are some who’ll say it’s not enough/ You can give it all, but still you’re asked for more.” But who am I kidding? The chorus scolds us that we just need to, like, “give love.” Still, it rocks in a stupid way.

I could do without about a third of this show, actually. “After the Fire”? Sure, Pete, you wrote it, but couldn’t you have left that Dom DeLuise-dropping drip-drool with Rog? “Hiding Out” is putrid WOMAD we-care wankery, complete with shout-outs for all the trendy political martyrs of the day. Phillips’ obligatory tribal drum circle jerkoff elsewhere in the set feels…obligatory. And “A Little is Enough” sounds like Asia, but I still sorta like it despite my better judgment. (Did I mention how one of my specialties is horribly inept romantic mixtapes?) So yeah, it’s excessive, it’s bombastic, it’s occasionally preachy. It’s the fucking ’80s. But I don’t think I’ve seen or heard Pete Townshend so enthusiastic during any of his performances since, with or without The Who. For an antisocial, awkward fan such as myself, for that reason alone it’s a delight.

Pete Townshend’s Deep End
Face the Face
[Eagle Vision/Universal Music Group]