One of the most telling moments of this 40th anniversary revisit to The Who’s best-known album Quadrophenia came in one of the least likely locations, amidst the video montage which accompanied martial instrumental “The Rock” on the three circular screens hanging behind the band.
A reel of political snippets flashed by - Vietnam, Reagan, Princess Diana, Thatcher, Blair, 9/11, Baghdad falling and Occupy Wall Street – and it felt as though this was part of an attempt to recast The Who as an immortal soundtrack to the times, whatever times those are.
In the event it was impossible to evade a certain sense of nostalgia for youths lost while the album was played in order by singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend and their eight-piece band (including Townshend’s brother Simon), although much of this was built in to the show. The group’s departed members made unlikely guest appearances through the medium of archive footage, first John Entwistle playing a bass riff on the ever-dynamic “5:15”, then drummer Keith Moon vocally ‘duetting’ with Daltrey on “Bell Boy”. Townshend would also offer up a later dedication to the departed Scots novelist Iain Banks before “Behind Blue Eyes”, earning a heartily respectful cheer.
It’s to The Who’s credit that much of the songs they have written – especially those on Quadrophenia itself, a piece which literally and metaphorical leads a young man to the very precipice of adulthood – work both as flashback and an urgent commemoration of the moment. Perhaps not the proggy “The Rock” itself, but certainly the fevered demand for identity that is “The Real Me”, the exceptional “Drowned”, which saw Townshend escalate hostilities to an angry roar with the line “bring on that storm / bring on that fuckin' hurricane” as Daltrey wailed on his harmonica and a Union Jack sank beneath the waves on the screen behind, and a hypnotic “Love Reign O’er Me”.
It was a show which could have buckled under both the limitations of age and the commercial nature of its staging. Daltrey, shirt half unbuttoned and doused in sweat, seemed finally almost wilted by the heat, while Townshend found himself in the odd position of thanking their musical director for impressive arrangements with which he had nothing to do. Yet instead the magic happened, and something about the timeless crux of rebellion and uncertainty in these songs – "Pinball Wizard", "Baba O’Riley" and "Won’t Get Fooled Again" finding their way into a mountainously epic encore – translated into something truly special.