There can be few more chilling, lyrical openers in rock’s canon than those that instigate Cousin Kevin, from the Who’s Tommy. “We’re on our own, cousin/ All alone, cousin…” intones Roger Daltrey, as an innocent-sounding guitar fantasia gathers electric menace behind him.
The Royal Albert Hall audience have come expecting an acoustic strum through the Who’s landmark album to mark the Teenage Cancer Trust’s 100th gig (“Cancer’s shit,” confides one affected teen, to tumultuous applause). But it would have taken “weeks of rehearsals”, Daltrey explains. “So we thought, ‘fuck it’.”
It would have been illuminating to hear Tommy through the prism of classical guitars, castanets, and French horn, but few here would complain of another chance to see the splay-legged Pete Townshend windmilling his arm like a boss, or Daltrey flinging his mic around with lazy mastery. Banks of keyboards and backing vocals inflate what is already a swollen work to manic intensity: the Acid Queen’s crescendo, or Sally Simpson, laced with slinky honky-tonk piano.
What a gruelling tale Tommy tells: of a boy traumatised by an act of violence, losing vision, hearing and speech
Alternately a rock opera about a pinball wizard, a meditation on the illusory nature of reality inspired by an Indian guru, or the first time British popular culture came to grips with childhood abuse, Tommy – or “Thomas”, as warm-up act Noel Gallagher teasingly calls it – is an enduringly harrowing proposition. Having hidden in plain sight since its release in 1969, when it was an instant success, it is easy to forget what a gruelling tale Tommy tells: of a boy traumatised by an act of violence, losing vision, hearing and speech.
Tortured by relatives, prodded by quacks, and slipped some acid, he plays a mean game of pinball by vibes alone. Our hero, regaining his faculties with the breaking of a mirror, becomes the head of a cult that later turns on him. Good Vibrations, this was not. As the Who mull 1921 in the future tense (“Got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year”), you can’t help but reflect that 2021 is quite soon, and that pop’s past is a foreign country, where things were done differently. Youths born with “a plastic spoon” in their mouths can no longer get fabulously rich off music sales, for one. Pop storytelling is more streamlined these days, for the good.
Tonight’s rendition is truncated – no Underture – but to their credit, Townshend, Daltrey and band don’t coast through it on charitable vibes alone. A bespectacled Townshend scowls periodically at a music stand. Daltrey destroys one of his two tambourines and replenishes his fluids often. Sometimes declamatory, sometimes more rhythm’n’blues in his delivery, you feel certain that a painting of Daltrey’s muscular voice is gradually decomposing in some draughty attic, a sound picture of Dorian Gray.
There’s room, too, for a little amuse-bouche of mod-era hits such as I Can’t Explain and Substitute, and some well-chosen afters. Vibrationally, the standout is Baba O’Riley, where anthemics meets experiment. Paying tribute to Terry Riley (arpeggiating electronics) and Meher Baba (Townshend’s 60s guru), this sweet spot really would not have been hit without the ultimate vibe that is amplification, so central to the myth of the Who.