I am flying high over the Coachella Valley, California, with The Who, and we’re all about to die. Or at least that’s how it seems to me, after the tiny private jet takes off at a vertiginous angle from Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles and wobbles its way through the sky towards a landing strip outside Palm Springs.
For the other 15 people encased within the plane’s cream leather upholstery, this is just another day in the life of the best rock band in the world.
All I can think of is the scene in Cameron Crowe’s rock-journo classic, Almost Famous, in which a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone magazine is on a plane with the fictional Seventies band Stillwater, when fear of imminent death makes them spill out their darkest secrets.
It’s not happening with The Who, because after five decades on the front line of rock they’re just too used to this kind of thing.
The band's classic line-up consisted of lead singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist and singer Pete Townshend, bass guitarist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon (Image: Facebook / The Who)
Roger Daltrey, 72, and Pete Townshend, 71, are sitting in silence at the front. The rest of the band – alongside Eighties rocker Billy Idol, a guest of The Who’s genial but steely manager Bill Curbishley – are making jokes around two tables in the middle.
Managers, assistants and I are at the back, and the mood is not so much panicked as eerily calm. Nobody is drinking anything beyond mineral water. A bowl of cashew nuts is the only substance getting passed around.
Perhaps that calmness is a product of trepidation. The Who are on their way to Desert Trip, a vast three-day affair in the Coachella Valley desert that looks set to be the festival to end all festivals, the last hurrah of the Sixties generation, and they need to prove themselves.
The Who have played all the historic gatherings of the rock era, from Monterey Pop in 1967 to Woodstock in 1969 to Live Aid in 1985 to this, where they will be appearing alongside Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Roger Waters. There must, surely, be a touch of competitiveness, of wanting to be the band of the festival.
The Who singing their hit single 'My Generation' live at Woodstock
“Journalists always go on about this,” harrumphs Daltrey, the thatch of curls still in place. “It’s like comparing chalk with cheese. The Who is not the best rock’n’roll band in the world. The Rolling Stones are. We’re the best rock band in the world. Rock’n’roll is the outstroke of a shag. Rock is solid, bang, knocking down a wall.”
“Who’s missing at Desert Trip?” asks Pete Townshend. “It’s the Beatles, and that’s why Paul McCartney is the odd one out here. Paul wasn’t the one who broke up the Beatles. If John Lennon hadn’t met Yoko Ono and become an art student, they would probably still be doing gigs. It meant that Paul had to become the quintessential trouper, but he does have a sense of humour and he takes risks and he’s willing to look like a c*** in the process.”
Each act at Desert Trip is receiving upwards of £5 million to play before a 75,000-strong audience made up of well-heeled baby-boomers, fortysomething rock fans and interested millennials, all of them coughing up between £320 and £1285 for the privilege of seeing the idols of the Sixties in one place. It is, surely, the ultimate triumph of capitalism over counterculture.
“I can’t stand all this rubbish about how much people are going to earn,” Daltrey retorts.
“The promoters are laying 100 million on the line to sort this thing out. When we started all we had was the band, the amps and the roadies. Now everyone expects giant screens and the rest of it, and it costs a fortune. But this has been a great earner, I can’t deny that. If Desert Trip works, it will be fabulous. If not, it’s Help the Aged.”
“Desert Trip is an economic event,” says Townshend. “It’s about making money. It’s about getting people who can sell out arenas.”
Somehow, the terrifyingly small plane lands safely on what looks like a barren stretch of sand. Rex King, The Who’s indomitable tour manager, directs everyone into a fleet of waiting cars that pass through empty roads framed by mountains on the horizon until ushers appear to guide us through discreet traffic channels cut into the festival grounds.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend rocking it out at Desert Trip (Image: Facebook / The Who)
Then we’re in The Who’s inner sanctum, an encampment of trailers surrounding an outdoor space filled with black sofas, white chairs and an awning to lessen the blistering heat of the afternoon sun. It’s three hours until show time.
“People think rock’n’roll is exciting,” says Robert Rosenberg, The Who’s quietly spoken business manager. “But there’s so much hanging around.”
Then The Who are on stage and knocking them dead. “You’ve come to watch a bunch of old people dance,” says Townshend, before they rip into ‘I Can’t Explain’, their debut single from December 1964. And for all the set’s celebratory moments, from the sight of 75,000 Americans punching the air to ‘Pinball Wizard’ to Daltrey’s orgasmic scream on ‘Love, Reign o’er Me’ to Townshend attacking his guitar in a way that turns fury into the most exciting music imaginable, it’s not quite the warm bath of nostalgia the audience signed up for.
During ‘The Rock’, an instrumental from Quadrophenia, there is footage of everything from napalm victims in Vietnam to Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral to the Paris attacks. It’s a sombre reflection on what, if any, difference the ideals of the Sixties generation made, and a reminder that even a festival as expensive as this won’t buy escape from reality.
The Who playing live at Desert Trip in October 2016
There’s no hanging around afterwards, not even to check out the competition. “When we leave, we leave fast,” says Rex King. Everyone is hustled into cars, we’re in the jet 10 minutes later, and by the time we’re up in the air everyone is relaxed enough to deem the concert a success.
“Pete and Roger do drive me mad,” says Bill Curbishley from the back of the plane. “But when they get up on that stage, I forgive them for everything. I always say with those two, it’s not love and hate. It’s love and anger.”
Like just about all of the artists at Desert Trip, Daltrey and Townshend are in their seventies, and 50 years of life in a rock band can take its toll. When Keith Moon died in 1978, nobody was particularly surprised. “He wasn’t the kind of person you could imagine growing old,” says Curbishley.
The Who's last public gig with Moon was at their 1976 performance in Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Ontario (Image: CC Jean-Luc Ourlin)
When John Entwistle died in 2002 of what Townshend calls “complicated sexual and drug problems”, it was more of a shock. Perhaps the greatest shock of all is that the two surviving members kept the band alive.
“We’re both as deaf as posts,” confirms Daltrey. “But The Who is all about passion and that keeps you going. The connection you make with the audience is infectious.”
Daltrey never got into the drugs and drinking the other three members of The Who embraced with gusto.
“You can be a party boy or you can do your job as a singer,” he says of his straight-living ways. He also had a reputation, in the early days at least, of exploiting the strength his old job as a sheet metal worker gave him and settling disputes with his fists.
“That’s why we’re a boy band,” says Daltrey. “Boys like to fight. There’s still a danger about The Who, but then rock music is a safety valve and it has probably prevented a Third World War: it releases the tension of youth and let’s face it, youth is aggressive by nature. The sadness for me is that rock has reached a dead end. The only people saying things that matter are the rappers, and most pop is meaningless and forgettable. You watch these people and you can’t remember a bloody thing.”
When I see Townshend an hour later, I tell him about Daltrey’s concerns for his voice. “Roger is a bit of a drama queen,” says Townshend, opening the fridge to hand me a ginger ale. “Singers are like that. They think they’re the centre of the universe.”
Townshend claims he’s had to be cajoled into playing every festival The Who have ever been booked at.
“I didn’t want to be at Woodstock,” he says “We [Townshend and his then-wife, Karen] had just had a baby, and I was bullied into it. I was locked in an apartment in New York by my agent, and he threw the key out of the window and said, ‘You’re not leaving until you agree to do it.’ Now, looking back, I’m very glad we did, but I didn’t enjoy one second of it.”
The band's appearances at Monterey and Woodstock helped give them a reputation as one of the greatest live rock acts (Image: CC Jim Summaria)
How about Desert Trip? Almost 50 years on from Woodstock, it must surely have felt good to still have so many people cheering at a band nobody thought would last this long.
“I’m such a boring f***er,” says Townshend, rubbing his head. “It means nothing to me. I would be a liar if I said, ‘It was really fun, man. It was great!’ It wasn’t great. It was a gig. I did it and I got paid. The fact is, I don’t really like performing. But I’m good at it. I’m lucky to be good at something. I could have worked in an abattoir.”
Townshend’s great gift has been to write material that is not about him, but about the people who listen to it.
“The Who looked after our gang, as it were,” he says. “Our audience wanted to identify with something, to belong, to lose themselves in order to find themselves, and that’s continued throughout our entire career.”
The Who have announced their retirement several times yet still they keep going, as do all the acts at Desert Trip. The Rolling Stones have an album of blues cover versions due out later this year. Neil Young is gigging with Promise of the Real, a band of twentysomethings led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas. Bob Dylan, 75, shows no sign of letting up on his never-ending tour.
“I asked Bob Dylan why he does so many gigs,” says Townshend. “He told me, ‘I’m a folk singer. A folk singer is only as good as his memory, and my memory is going.’ He’s doing it to keep his memory alive.”
Townshend says he still wants his own music to matter, but concedes that if The Who released a new album today, nobody would be particularly interested.
“I’m tempted to conclude that it’s all over by the time you’re 24. If someone asks me how to become famous, I’ll reply, ‘It’s probably too late. If you started at 12 and haven’t had a hit by 30, go work in an abattoir.’”
The My Generation box set will be released on November 18.
What are your memories of listening to The Who and their generation? Let us know in the comments below.
(Feature image: Anthony Mooney / Shutterstock.com)