“As for the future of rock… Who gives a fuck?” asked Pete Townsend as The Who began their encore at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles last night. The crowd – made up of video game journalists and the folks behind the game Rock Band – erupted in cheers.
They’d been cheering for over an hour and a half already. By yesterday morning the worst kept secret at the E3 gaming convention was the fact that The Who were the ‘Special Guest’ at the Rock Band Bash. I don’t know what the mood was like at the convention center where most of E3 was happening, but at my house it was all palpable excitement. I think some people didn’t expect much from the show; while waiting for fellow CHUD geniuses Russ Fischer and Alex Riviello at their hotel, I overheard a guy in the lobby say that he hadn’t bothered to pick up his ticket. Maybe people thought that The Who would come out on stage, give a perfunctory forty minute show and go home. Instead they came out and played for almost two hours, blazing through immortal classics and going to town on tracks that no one in the audience knew (there’s a song in their set list I still haven’t been able to identify!).
We got to The Orpheum a little after 7, when doors opened. There were a number of Rock Band 2 kits set up in the theater (not the full build of the game, though, so not all songs were available), but the lounge area had a mini stage and a full Ion drum kit, so that was where we wanted to be. Roping in a friend of Russ’, we signed up our band (called CHUD, of course) and got ready to rock in front of the crowd. It was a cool experience, and I played guitar on Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue (it seemed like every other band opted to play Any Way You Want It, a phenomenon I am sure will be repeated at Rock Band parties across the nation this fall). The fact that Tangled Up In Blue is in the game is the sort of thing that makes me love Harmonix – it’s not what you’d expect from a music game bearing the MTV logo and ostensibly aimed at a demo that thinks Jimi Hendrix wrote All Along the Watchtower (which is about the only Dylan song I would ever imagine seeing in a Guitar Hero game).
After a couple of hours of hanging out (and boozing. Oh and boozing), the doors to the theater opened. Alex and I got in as close as we could, but the first ten or fifteen rows of the Orpheum were closed off for VIPs. Picture our surprise when we saw Russ sitting in the last row of the VIP section, two rows ahead of us. Knowing people is key! But there were no bad seats in the house – the Orpheum seats about 2000, and in the opening banter Pete Townsend explained that Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald used to play the theater in the days before electrical amplification. Ie, without mics. So this was a fairly intimate venue (I could see every wrinkle on Roger Daltrey’s face) as well as a place built to be acoustically incredible. And it was.
The Who today consists of Daltrey and Townsend as the only remaining original members (“We’re a Who cover band,” Townsend said. “And not one of the better ones.”). Session bassist Pino Palladino, a tall thin guy who looks like Doug Jones or John Waters, plays for the late John Entwhistle, while Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son, sits in for Keith Moon. There is no replacing Keith Moon – and I don’t know that rock has ever again seen a drummer quite like him – but Starkey, who looks like Frodo perched behind his kit, did a pretty stellar job.
Daltrey and Townsend look old. Both clad in black t-shirts and black jeans, they appeared every day of their age. The former golden boy of rock has his locks shorn close to his head, and his posture is becoming hunchback-like, while Townsend is bald, his face dominated by a seemingly still-growing schnozz and huge black old people prescription sunglasses, the kind you get after the eye doctor dilates your pupils. They don’t make up am obviously dynamic duo of rock music, but there’s fire hidden in those aging bodies, and they let it all loose last night.
They were rusty at first (and throughout – there were line flubs a couple of times, which I found adorable), but The Who at their best were never about precision but about power. And they had the power. It was at the third song – Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, a single the band released in 1965 between I Can’t Explain and My Generation – that Alex turned to me and said ‘They’re playing songs people here don’t know. This is going to be a real set!’
And it was. And they played it like it was. Townsend was electric, first mugging to the crowd with windmills and then really warming up, attacking his guitar up and down the neck as he tore into solo after solo. A number of the songs became long, pounding jams, and again and again Townsend would make his guitar squeal, shout, cry, stutter and explode. Jumping around, hunching over, leaning back, his face contorting, the years didn’t matter on that stage. The line ‘I hope I die before I get old’ took on a new context – it’s not about age as a number but age as a concept, and Pete Townsend is not old.
Daltrey did his best to keep up. I was reminded of the Scorsese Stones documentary, Shine A Light – the lead singers of these old man bands were able to bring what they have brought for decades, but the real love, the real fire, came from the guitarists. But I don’t want to slight Daltrey – at the end of the night, as they did the final encore, an acoustic number called Tea & Theater, his voice was ragged, blown out. The Who have a tour of America (stadiums, of course) this fall, and if Daltrey gives it at every show like he gave it last night, they’ll have to cancel the tour after three shows.
There I was, a hundred feet back from The Who demolishing on stage, rocking my ass off (my neck sort of hurts this morning from banging and whipping it around), but what was in my head most of the night was those first couple of rows. The good people from Harmonix were up there, seeing their hard work bear this amazing fruit. After the show I ran into Sean, one of the key Harmonix guys (regulars of their choatic message board know him as HMXSean), and he said that four years ago they would have assumed that if they had a show it would be Candlebox. And yet there they were, with The Who playing their company party. Pete Townsend talked about how his kids had gotten Rock Band for Christmas, and how he was terrible at it. He made fun of the choice of colors for the guitar frets. He told Daltrey that Billy Corgan had explained to him that the singing wasn’t the easiest part, that you lost points for bum notes (“Well I’d be useles at it, then,” Daltrey said). He even poked fun at the Guitar Hero Aerosmith bundle! “It comes with a pair of Steven Tyler’s underwear,” he said. “Your kids can put it on their head.” The crowd went nuts.
But for these guys, what a night. It’s hard to imagine the guys at Neversoft or the folks from Activision not only getting The Who to play but digging on having The Who playing. I would expect AFI or All-American Rejects playing a Guitar Hero event. The Harmonix folks were easy to pick out in the crowd of game journalists because they looked like rock people – tattoos, band shirts, interesting facial hair – these people write code and make video games, but they live music. When I cornered Helen, a Harmonix producer, and gave her my fanboy DLC request (Cortez the Killer by Neil Young and Crazy Horse!), she gave me her card only because she thought my suggestion was cool. I wouldn’t have bothered talking about that song to a former Tony Hawk coder at Neversoft.
There are a lot of things that define the differences between Guitar Hero (post-Harmonix) and Rock Band: Guitar Hero is a game, and you feel like you’re playing a game, while with Rock Band you have fun. Harmonix keeps on innovating with Rock Band, while Guitar Hero constantly plays catch-up. There’s a sense of love and community you get with Harmonix. But last night the defining thing for me was watching those Harmonix people, glowing with excitement, as they mingled through the crowd, basking in the fact that they had just had their balls rocked off by The Who, The Who playing like it was the 1970s all over again. All the other stuff, the E3 announcements and the new DLC and Rock Band 2, seemed a distant thing as these guys just loved the fucking music. And that’s what you want from your music game developers. You want them to love the fucking music.
On stage Roger Daltrey said he was happy that there was a game like this, that there was something bringing music to people in any form. And he agreed with Townsend about who gives a fuck about the future of rock, saying rock only has a past and a present. These music games have a future, though, and it’s one that will be blazed by Rock Band and Harmonix. I’m excited to be along for the ride.
For those of you curious, here’s the as complete as I can make it setlist from last night’s incredible show:
I Can’t Explain
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
Who Are You
Behind Blue Eyes
A song from 1971 that I didn’t know. A Lifehouse song?
Cry If You Want
Won’t Get Fooled Again
The Kids Are Alright
See Me, Feel Me
Tea & Theater