Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 17, 2016)
Back in 1982, the Who embarked on their ”Farewell Tour”. On the day I write this in October 2016, the Who will perform at a massive festival called “Desert Trip”, just one of scores of performances on a “50th anniversary” tour that started almost two years earlier.
In other words, the Who’s 1982 “farewell” didn’t stick, but I won’t beat that dead horse much. I bring up their intended-upon dissolution to set up a discussion of lead Who songwriter/guitarist Pete Townshend’s solo career, the subject of a 1986 concert found in Face the Face – Deep End Live.
Townshend toyed with solo work while still part of the Who – indeed, he put out four albums under his own name before the Who “split” in 1982. The first two – 1972’s Who Came First and 1977’s Rough Mix - made only a minor dent in the charts, but 1980’s Empty Glass turned into a real hit. Buoyed by the top 10 single “Let My Love Open the Door”, Empty Glass peaked at number 5 in the US and earned considerable critical praise as well.
1982’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes fared less well but still did okay – at least commercially. The album received weak reviews but managed to chart at number 26 in the US, which seems decent. That feels especially correct given that it came out less than three months before the Who’s It’s Hard, and one assumes the hype about the Who’s “farewell” took away attention from Townshend’s solo work.
With the Who officially defunct – we won’t hold a July 1985 appearance at Live Aid against them – Townshend formally embraced his life as a solo artist with November 1985's White City. A concept album in the vein of Tommy and Quadrophenia, it followed in the footsteps of Cowboys, which meant a chart peak at 26 in the US – probably a disappointment given expectations for Townshend to prosper on his own after the Who.
Townshend never really embraced live performances as a solo artist, so Face the Face offers a rare opportunity to see him on stage without the Who. Shot in early 1986 for the German Rockpalast TV series, Face covers various aspects of Townshend’s career.
As expected, we get a fair amount of material from White City: “Secondhand Love”, “Give Blood”, “Hiding Out” and “Face the Face”. Another 1985 song, “After the Fire” was written by Townshend for use on Roger Daltrey’s solo release Under a Raging Moon. “Slit Skirts” and “The Sea Refuses No River” come from Cowboys, while “Rough Boys” and “A Little Is Enough” stem from Empty Glass.
The show includes three Who tunes: “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Pinball Wizard”. Pink Floyd singer/guitarist David Gilmour plays with Townshend for this show, and the concert presents his 1984 track “Blue Light”. Finally, we locate covers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” and Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train”.
As a setlist, this becomes a good mix of tracks. While I suspect Who fans probably would’ve liked more of that band’s songs, I understand Townshend’s desire to emphasize his burgeoning solo career.
And Townshend delivers a pretty solid setlist in any case. Obviously a more Who-heavy show would boast stronger songs, but Townshend cherrypicks his solo work to a satisfying degree. Sure, we find a few clunkers – “Hiding Out” flops, and “Face the Face” feels like a self-conscious, failed attempt to launch a rock/big band hybrid – but most of the songs work pretty well.
It helps that Townshend’s band add life to the tracks. Dubbed “The Deep End”, the musicians prove able across the board, and they help accomplish some interesting new spins on songs. For instance, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” uses horns in a surprisingly exciting manner, and other tunes hold up well on stage.
As for Pete himself, he acts as a competent front man and no more. With the Who, Townshend provided a stellar, forceful stage personality, but he never needed to serve as the band’s focal point.
Stuck in the solo spotlight, Townshend seems somewhat unsure of himself. Pete doesn’t flop in this role, but he doesn’t grab the audience’s attention like he should. It’s no coincidence that Pete looks loosest and most engaged during “Blue Light” – when he cedes the lead to Gilmour.
Despite Townshend’s minor lack of frontman presence, Face the Face works pretty well. I went into the show with some skepticism – I never took to Townshend’s solo career and wasn’t wild about a show with so much of that material. Even with some sags, though, this becomes a good little concert.