The Day the Who Kicked Off an Overstuffed, Widely Criticized Tour
There were plenty of reasons for the Who to remain retired. For one, they'd already said goodbye, during a series of dates specifically dubbed a farewell tour. Pete Townshend had also developed an issue with his hearing. They had barely spoken in the ensuing years. And Keith Moon, of course, remained dead.
But the band's 25th anniversary loomed, as did the 20th anniversary of their seminal rock opera Tommy. So, there they were, playing a warm-up date on June 21, 1989 at the 5,000-seat Glens Falls (N.Y.) Civic Center. The Who then officially kicked off the nine-week, 25-city Kids Are Alright Tour: 1964-1989 reunion on June 23 in Toronto – where they'd staged the last show on that 1982 farewell tour.
Townshend was aware of the pitfalls, even as the Who seemed to be falling into every one of them.
"I'd spent an immense amount of time thinking about the negative aspects: the trouble that I might have with my hearing, the fact that the Who are a spent force creatively and so couldn't ever go into the studio and produce a decent record," he told Rolling Stone in 1989. "And we're too old, and this group kills people, and music does not belong in stadiums."
In fact, questions about their advanced age became a kind of theme. The St. Louis Dispatch, like so many others, pointedly noted that each of the core three was over 40. Townshend was unmoved. "I might feel a bit embarrassed because I'm not as young as I once was," he told the Today show in 1989. "Or I need a little bit more makeup. Or I need to do my hair down a bit more carefully. But who gives a shit?"
More seriously, Townshend was moved to address their decision to come back over and over again, during a series of typically introspective interviews. He said the timing was right.
"We did our farewell tour, and we said goodbye," Townshend said to knowing laughs during a news conference at Radio City Music Hall announcing Kids Are Alright Tour: 1964-1989. "We haven't been on the road, and we haven't worked together for almost seven years. We're not a group, as such, anymore. We've actually come together especially for a 25th birthday party. That's what this tour represents."
They were inevitably accused of getting back together purely as a money grab. After all, there would be no new album – another reason, at least back then, to stay off the road. Townshend had been keeping his thoughts (and his songs) to himself, while Roger Daltrey got comfortable with a new life away from the Who. He found particular joy in spending time with his children.
"It's wonderful to be with them in these last seven years apart from the Who," Daltrey told Robin Milling in 1989. "Back then, there wasn't that much time to really enjoy them. It was always kind of a barrier. I loved the band but I didn't particularly like the touring because I used to get homesick being on the road. John [Entwistle] was the one who liked touring a lot."
And there may have been a reason for that, beyond the opportunity to lay down thunderous bass licks for the Who. Things had not gone as well for Entwistle, who once said his role in the Who was like "winning the lottery but not cashing in the ticket." If rumors were to be believed, he had become badly cash strapped after continuing to live a lavish lifestyle despite their long hiatus.
At one point, he auctioned off some 100 of his 266 basses. "Cash flow is always difficult to maintain because whenever I earned any money, I spent it on something I could look at," Entwistle told Rolling Stone in 1989. "So, yeah, I need the money from this tour very much. Everybody needs more money."
The Who had attempted to soldier on without Moon, inserting Faces alum Kenney Jones for two studio albums, related tours and an appearance at Live Aid in 1985. But Jones wouldn't be a part of these new dates. ("He just lost patience, and is now working somewhere else," Townshend said at the tour's introductory news conference. "We're not unhappy about that.") They were now working with Simon Phillips, who brought his own style to the proceedings.
Meanwhile, the Who dealt with Townshend's auditory issues as best they could.
"The real reason that I haven't performed live, even on my own, for a long time is that I have very severe hearing damage," Townshend admitted at Radio City Music Hall. "It's manifested itself as what they called tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. I'm still very nervous about how it's going to work, and how I can make sure I can perform on the stage without creating further damage to my hearing. I think we'll manage somehow."
He began practicing for these shows in a protective glass booth, then switched to an acoustic guitar for the first sets. By June, Townshend was wearing ear plugs. All of it made syncing up with Daltrey again just that much more difficult.
"The confidence isn't there yet," Daltrey mused during a pre-tour interview with Rolling Stone. "And with Pete by himself, that's making it very difficult. Although he's in the same room, it feels like he's not there. I bet if you took the wall away, the music would improve 100 percent."
Then there was the crowd of people surrounding them. Phillips wasn't the only new face. In fact, there were a bunch of them. The Who's touring ensemble ballooned to 15 members for the 1989 dates, including John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards, Steve "Boltz" Bolton on guitar, various backup singers, even a five-piece horn section.
"That's really for one purpose only," Townshend said on Good Morning America in 1989. "The more musicians you have, the quieter you can play. It's a bit difficult to make a big sound with an electric guitar unless it's quite loud. I'm paying the price now for playing too much loud guitar."
The marathon three-hour shows opened with a selection of songs from 1969's Tommy, paired with a mixture of hits, deep cuts, unexpected covers (including Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born on the Bayou" and Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe") and even solo cuts. The idea was for Kids Are Alright Tour: 1964-1989 to present something of a career overview, while connecting a few inspirational dots. Full-scale presentations of Tommy were also mounted in New York and Los Angeles.
"The reason for the Tommy performances is really because, you look back on the Who's career and you try to find something which sticks in the memory," Townshend said during the news conference. "There's a lot of airplay tracks – 'Won't Get Fooled Again,' 'Baba O'Reilly,' 'Behind Blue Eyes,' stuff that kids have grown up listening to on the radio – but it's Tommy which people really remember the Who for."
As the tour progressed, however, the critics pounced. The Los Angeles Times said they "conjured up visions of a veteran prizefighter who, driven by either ego or money, just can't call it quits." The Daily Record in Morristown, N.J., described the horns as "superfluous" on their best-known early songs, while arguing that Bolton "added little."
The New York Times accused the Kids Are Alright Tour: 1964-1989 lineup of nothing more than "'80s professionalism," adding that the large group was "sometimes unwieldy and over-arranged." Goldmine simply blasted them as "Rock's Recycling Kings."
Then Daltrey had his own health struggles, enduring severe stomach problems through most of the the dates. Eventually, he had to have surgery.
"Physically, I was in bad shape for that tour – very bad shape. I had something wrong with me from birth on the inside that all of a sudden had come to life," Daltrey told Goldmine in 1994. "I'm okay now; I had it all cut out. On that tour, when I started singing and all the blood would go down because you start pumping your diaphragm, the thing would blow up like a balloon. It stopped me eating. I lost so much weight. God, I was ill on that tour."
Any hope that this would coalesce into a coherent tour, much less a full-fledged reunion, seemed to evaporate.
In the end, Townshend basically capitulated, echoing the group's harshest detractors. "The band has done nothing in years. There is no band," he told Rolling Stone. "It's wrong, really, to call it the Who, because it isn't the Who. It's a bunch of session musicians brought together to play Who material. It's kind of authenticated because of our presence, but that's all, really."
At first, he even insisted that there would be no windmilling. But then Townshend did it, anyway – with disastrous results. He was forced to leave the stage in August at the Tacomadome after impaling himself on a whammy bar during "Won't Get Fooled Again." That led to perhaps this tour's most telling moment: Since there were still more than a dozen others on stage, they simply continued the show without Townshend.
The North American reunion tour lasted into September 1989; the Who then traveled to the U.K. that October, but unfortunately Daltrey continued to struggle with his voice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they returned again to retirement – at least through 1996.
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