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The Who live at The O2: rock icons roll back the clock

Here's what went down when Daltrey, Townshend and co headed to The O2...

By Sophie Porter

Roger Daltrey (L) and Pete Townshend of The Who perform at The O2 Arena on July 12, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Baker/Getty Images)

“Wake the fuck up, come on!,” comes the greeting from Pete Townshend to The O2 with a blast of youthful irreverence, before settling back into his age and offering thanks to those who’d had a tough time finding their seats in the cavernous arena.

Last night, the British rock legends took the crowd on a sonic odyssey, with the Heart of London Philharmonic orchestra joining Daltrey, Townshend and co. to perform excerpts from the 1969 and 1973 rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia, alongside a selection of band-only odds & sods (get it?) from their expansive back catalogue. 

The band kicked proceedings off with ‘Overture’, before rattling through a selection of Tommy tracks, including ‘The Acid Queen’ and ‘Pinball Wizard’ – songs portrayed in the 1975 film by the late, irreplaceable talent of Tina Turner, and Elton John respectively. The latter of whom recently opened his headline Glastonbury set – and last UK performance ever – with the track, a song he hadn’t performed live in 10 years. 

The band concluded this section of the evening with ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, before posing the question of ‘Who Are You?’ to the audience and breaking into the 1978 hit of the same name. At this point Townsend paused for a moment of reflection: “I’ve been watching my very, very good friend Elton John doing his…” mimicking John’s dancing, “and he talks about the love he gets from performing…as I’m getting older, I really appreciate the fact that we’re not just receiving your ticket money” he quipped, “but your love and appreciation, and let me tell you it’s coming back at you. We love you”.  

Following ‘Eminence Front’, the orchestra left the stage to allow the band to hurtle through a selection of early chops and crowd-pleasers, including ‘The Kids Are Alright’ and ‘Substitute’. There was a moment of sweet on stage banter between the two old pals, with Townshend stating that “you have to be pretty old to remember this stuff” and inviting Daltrey to impart some wisdom on the crowd with a simple response of “don’t look at me. I don’t bloody know.” To this, Pete dedicated “I Can’t Explain” to the crowd. This light-hearted recognition of their age segued nicely into the delightful irony of “My Generation,” with rousing effect on the primarily older crowd.

Daltrey also proved that even rock’s greatest are fallible on the more unguarded 1971 track, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, requesting a start over due to in-ear monitor issues and a missed soundcheck. Ever the professionals, the band turned the error into a moment of joy with Townshend joking that the crowd were “lucky I came to the right venue’” having noticed before coming on stage that he’d had his boots on the wrong feet. The beautiful arrangement included string accompaniment from violinist, Katie Jacoby, and celloist, Audrey Q. Snyder, ruined in part by the fans behind me leering over the talented force of nature that was the string section (quit it with your misogyny against women in music – and everywhere else for that matter – please). 

Welcoming the return of the full orchestra, Townshend reminisced about battling with the producer on ‘Tommy’ about any orchestral additions, stating that “John Entwistle can play the French Horn, that’ll do it” but with Quadrophenia “the orchestra really, really adds so much.” This was proven after ‘The Real Me’, ‘I’m One’ and ‘5:15’, when Daltrey left the stage for the instrumental powerhouse that is ‘The Rock’. With the 1979 Quadrophenia film presenting a gritty slice of life spanning themes of teenage angst and mental health, identity and belonging, ‘The Rock’ is an excellent vehicle for mounting frustration and collective anxiety.

At this point in the set, the stage screens took the viewer on a journey with a video montage of global despair, fear and change, with clips from the Vietnam war, the Berlin wall and Thatcher, through to more current affairs, including scenes from the climate crisis, Trump and Brexit, and the Ukraine war. Woven into the montage are moments from the band’s own history, showing how their decades-spanning career has been informed and set against 60 years of global unrest. 

Following ‘The Rock’, Daltrey proved he can still belt it at 79 with spectacular vocal performances on ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’ and ‘Baba O’Riley’, complete with some trademark mic spinning and some windmilled downstrokes from Townshend.

As they concluded the evening alone with ‘Tea & Theatre’, it felt vulnerable and intimate having followed a 2 hour set of momentous orchestral arrangement, and saw the lifelong friends share a hug before Daltrey left the audience with some well-wishes: ‘be healthy, be happy. Be Lucky’. 

They might not be the young Whippersnappers of the Mod era anymore, but suffice to say the power of their generation remains.
Check out the setlist from last night’s show below: 
With Orchestra: 
‘Amazing Journey ‘
‘The Acid Queen’
‘Pinball Wizard’
‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’
‘Who Are You’ 
‘Eminence Front’ 

Band only: 
‘The Kids Are Alright’
‘You Better You Bet’ 
‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’
‘I Can’t Explain’ 
‘My Generation’
‘Cry If You Want’
‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ 
‘Behind Blue Eyes’
With Orchestra
‘The Real Me’ 
‘I’m One’
‘The Rock’ 
‘Love, Reign O’er Me’ 
‘Baba O’Riley’ 

‘Tea & Theatre’