Pete Townshend once said of The Who, "We take our nostalgia seriously." It was 1973 and he was talking about their new album, Quadrophenia, the story of a '60s Mod called Jimmy. But Townshend's statement is more pertinent on the album's 40th anniversary than it ever was in '73. The centrepiece of tonight's two-and-a-quarter hour show is a performance of Quadrophenia that positively revels in nostalgia.
Inside the O2, the anticipation before the show is almost tangible: beer is slopped as forty and fiftysomething men grab their wives, and dash to get to their seats. But their enthusiasm is matched by that of their teenage offspring in high-street parkas and target T-shirts. All human life, it seems, is here - plus Phil Daniels, the "Jimmy" of director Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia movie, and Spandau Ballet songwriter Gary Kemp, whose pre-gig tweet "Get In!" perfectly sums up the mood in the room.
On past form, an expanded Who line-up means a dilution of power (see: 1989's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Tommy tour). Tonight's line-up is more expanded then ever. Townshend, Roger Daltrey and regulars, bassist Pino Palladino and guitarist Simon Townshend, are joined by drummer Scott Devours (deputising for an injured Zak Starkey) plus a horn section and three keyboard players. But, tonight, the extra manpower needed to 'do' Quadrophenia never dilutes the Who's brutish power.
Nor does it detract from The Who's last men standing. This is very much the Daltrey and Townshend show. The guitarist, cutting a dash in spectacles and black hat and with a dandyish red hankie sprouting from his shirt pocket, suggests an odd combination of art teacher and street hooligan. He gurns, he grins, he grimaces and he windmills his right arm through 360 degrees every time he thinks the audience might be flagging.
Daltrey, with his toffee-coloured tan and shirt half-unbuttoned, exudes the air of an old Shepherd's Bush villain back from Marbella for one last job (very Sexy Beast). But he commands the stage, foghorn-loud on The Real Me and The Punk And The Godfather, subtle and heartfelt on Sea And Sand.
Meanwhile, Jimmy the Mod's quest for spiritual salvation is illustrated by a montage of images on the overhead screens: The Who at the Railway Hotel, Mods on Brighton Beach, Radio Caroline and World War Two bomb shelters right through to Nixon, Vietnam, Thatcher and 9/11. What could have been a clunky attempt to shoehorn some social and historic context into a bunch of '70s rock songs ends up refocusing Quadrophenia's hazy plotline and packing a weighty emotional punch.
When the late John Entwistle and Keith Moon materialise onscreen for 5:15 and Bell Boy, you can hear the audience's collective intake of breath followed by laughter and applause. By rights, it shouldn't work, but it does. In Quadrophenia, Jimmy has four distinct sides to his personality based on the four Who members. What Townshend called the "violent and determined" one and the "insecure and spiritually desperate" one are alive on stage. It makes sense then to have the "quiet romantic" Entwistle and "the insane, devil-may-care" Moon there as well.
Quadrophenia's final song Love Reign O'er Me is delivered by Daltrey with such gobsmacking conviction you wonder whether he'll have anything left for the rest of the show. But, with barely a pause, they pitch straight into Who Are You (cue audience chorus of "Ooo da fuckin' hell are you?") and a surprise outing for You Better You Bet. After Won't Get Fooled Again, Daltrey and Townshend perform the Endless Wire album's Tea And Theatre alone. It's a thoughtful ballad that perfectly sums up what's gone before: "The story is done... a thousand songs... We're older now."
Older indeed, and perhaps wiser too. But, thankfully, not too much...