THE Mod Count was disconcertingly low. Half-a-dozen fish-tailed parkas, one union jacket, a couple of dog-hair whistles (one a tantalising irridescent mauve job that Paul Weller would've loved) and a lone Lambretta Li150 with nary a spotlamp in sight. If the Who's hastily arranged Rainbow bash was expected to entice an army of ageing skeds out of their semi-detached lairs, in Shepherds Bush and Richmond, then most of them were in disguise.
(On the other hand, does one really preserve a pair of orange hipsters and a polka-dot shirt for nostalgia's sake? Nah, they got ripped up for polishing the Cortina years ago.)
Still, I had expected a more vivid display of Sixties chic than this, It was an historic occasion, after all; the first public airing of a new line-up in a band that had remained unchanged for some 14 years. And not just any band. This is the Who..... a group with a timeless reputation as brash hedonists which successfully transcends the all-purpose artiness of rock operas and concept media binges.
More than that, the Who were a seminal influence on the new wave, a sociological full-circle that came close to dispatching their leader on a one-way trip to the funny farm in his frustrated attempts to rationalise his suddenly antique role.
Indeed, a fair proportion of Wednesday's audience were dressed fit for some Clash or Banshees gig, and the rest were ,in odd assemblage of nondescript rock fans and the sort of people who go to a concert to note which Gibson Pete Townshend comes onstage with and whether or not it's the same one he junks his amps with after the final encore. The academic element, you might say.
Irrespective of motive or mode of dress, we all contributed to a sense of occasion that hung heavy in the air. Would Kenny Jornes cut it as a surrogate Keith Moon? Could a Rabbit add anything to the ultimate in power trios? And, to ensure that the music press paid for any cynical answers to these questions before a single note was struck, the common denominator was a five-quid ticket ... ten times as much for the slothful, who had to huddle in the gloomy corridors of Finsbury Park tube station and take their chances with the scalping fraternity.
Not until we'd run a gamut of security cheeks that rivalled those of visiting day at Sing-Sing, and sat through a loudly amplified short-list of the Jackson Browne songbook, did we get any of those answers, and by that time Tiny Tim could've come onstage, recited a soup-can label, and got an ovation. Fortunately five shadowy figures loped onstage about 8.35 and cut into a wilful, almost irreverent execution of »Substitute« that had the entire audience on its feet from the first bar.
No one sat down for the next two hours.
That the band were going to deliver a killer set was evident from half-way through the following number, "I Can't Explain", and had nothing to do with the highly affectionate expectations worn so blatantly on the communal audience sleeve. Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle were playing on top form; Bundrick and Jones aspired to that undoubtedly daunting status with an uneven mixture of confidence and determination.
It should be noted that Kenny Jones is not Keith Moon, didn't try to ape Keith Moon's unique style and wisely chose to drive things along in a manner which fell somewhere in between Carmen Appice and Prairie Prince. Which is to say he threw in all the appropriate embellishments without shirking the essential task of providing a powerbase for bass and lead guitars. He rarely utilised the full capabilities of his massive 15-piece kit, but he created a solid and fairly resourceful bottom line.
Sometimes the cracking pace of a lengthy Who programme threatened to become too arduous for a man who often reflects the demeanour of a golfing pro, but, generally speaking, he had it buttoned down on his own terms. Tricky but tight.
Jones started out visibly apprehensive, nervous even, and it wasn't until Daltrey successfully attempted to allay the doubts of the True Believers by introducing Townshend and Entwistle as the »two new members of the band« that some of the tension disappeared from his face.
John Bundrick was another matter altogether. Despite the power and clarity of the PA - unmatched by anything else I've contracted earache from at the Rainbow - his organ and piano work were mixed way below the rest of the instruments, and only once or twice for example, during the instrumental passages of an epic »My Generation« were we aware of his existence. True, he must've fieshed out the overall sound to some extent, but it was so subtle as to be almost redundant.
On synthesizer though, it was a different jar of tadpoles, because it ensured that numbers like "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" approached the recognisable sound of their vinyl forebears. Rabbit also added an extra voice to harmonies and unison choruses that certainly enhanced their overall might.
Townshend was simply a gas, joking with the audience and the rest of the band, chaperoning Jones with an occasional nod or a smile, and delivering an exceptionally impressive display of what is expected of him. If anyone doubted his will to continue strutting the boards in the face of the punk onslaught, they'd have to reconsider after Wednesday night.
Sometimes Townshend would simply strum furiously into a middle-eight or an instrumental break, pushing the band into a relentless, pile-driving beat that got you in the gut, "Who Are You?" and "Bargain" being two prime examples. (On the latter song it was Townshend, not Jones, who got caught short, when he started singing too soon after a break).
How long and hard Townshend had been rehearsing the new Who will remain a mystery, but it was surprising how effectively they accomplished a "Tommy" medley and, to an even greater extent, an amalgam of "My Generation," "Join Together In The Band" and "Magic Bus," which involved some cute segues and nice harp playing from Daltrey - even if he got stuck into Bo Diddley's "Mona" for about an hour-and-a-half.
Very rarely did anyone screw up, although it should be said that Jones didn't take any chances and wore headphones linked direct to the onstage mixer during several numbers. On the other hand, when Townshend and Bundrick started running a bit too fast during the diminuendo passage on »Who Are You?« they were conducted back to the correct tempo by Jones' assertive right hand.
In the main, though, it was Daltrey who directed the pace, throwing himself and, of course, his microphone around the stage in a manner that might easily have been construed as complacent or haughty if this had been a heavymetal exposition, but in the event was the measure of a man who likes to face up to an audience.
Hair clipped short and wearing a black leather bomber during the early numbers, he looked and sang tougher than he's done for ages, giving new hope to any other 35-year-olds in the hall who might've been wondering if they could make it to 40 in some sort of style.
Incongruities and reservations flew quietly down the toilet as we got sucked into the whole joyous experience of rock'n' roll excellence. Confirming this, the audience declared their unanimous adulation for the whole band as they came together one by one, linked arms and took the Big Bow after the uplifting "Won't Get Fooled Again". There followed but one encore, "Doctor Doctor", after which Townshend demolished half the group's amplification with more than perfunctory gusto.
Relatively adventurous arrangements of material both obscure and well-worn, irresistibly urgent treatments of their simpler stuff, and a new-found enthusiasm for performance suggest that the new Who might prove to be even better than the old Who.
The incipient sleekness of an AOR mega-group would've been an easy option at this point in their career, btg the Who have not let finesse get the better of them. They've retained the sense of mischief that some feared would die with Keith Moon, and that was possibly the best news of Wednesday evening.