How the Who Said Farewell (Sorta) With ‘Who’s Last’
The Who have toured so much in the past couple decades years that it’s amusing to think of the rock titans staging a “Farewell Tour” way back in 1982.
Not that Pete Townshend was joking at the time. His band had tried to soldier on following the 1978 death of drummer Keith Moon, hiring former Faces skinsman Kenney Jones to take his place. The Who recorded two more albums (1981’s Face Dances and 1982’s It’s Hard) which mostly served to illustrate that the band was not the same without Moon and that Townshend was more creatively invested in his solo work.
While the Who’s North American tour in the fall of 1982 was organized to promote ‘It’s Hard’ (released that September), the band members later decided that the 40 dates would constitute the group’s final trek. The lineup included founding members Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle, along with Jones and keyboardist Tim Gorman, who had contributed to the It’s Hard sessions.
Many of what were thought to be the Who’s last concerts were documented for posterity. The band’s final performance – on Dec. 17, 1982 in Toronto – became a pay-per-view event, and was later issued on video and compact. Meanwhile, recordings of the last Who show in the U.S. – on Dec. 14 in Richfield, Ohio – made up the bulk of Who’s Last. The two-LP live set (amazingly, only the band’s second concert release, following the epic Live at Leeds) was released nearly two years later, in November 1984 in the U.S. and then in December 1984 in the U.K.
Though the title Who’s Last is a play on the band’s 1971 classic Who’s Next, it might have been more appropriate to reference The Who by Numbers. That’s how this live greatest-hits package often feels: the band filling a contractual obligation with lesser (though far from awful) versions of fantastic material. It’s worth mentioning that the track list contains only one song from post-1973 ("Who Are You"), even though the Who played a fair amount of It’s Hard selections on the tour.
One listen to Who’s Last will convince any rock fan that Jones was the wrong fit for the Who (his drumming sounds stilted in the face of the free-roaming Townshend and Entwistle), and yet, he’s not the only one to blame for these uninspired renditions. The other three so often sound listless, rushing through performances of "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Boris the Spider," sounding both more polished and less exacting than their Live at Leeds-era selves. (Though comparing almost any live album with Live at Leeds is like comparing A View to a Kill to Goldfinger.) Regardless, it’s easy to understand why the Who were ready to retire.
Critics and fans were quick to dismiss Who’s Last, even though the set did graze the charts, partially because of the perceived finality of the recording. With three decades of hindsight, this idea is pretty funny. Since the Farewell Tour, the Who have embarked on at least nine major concert tours, recorded new material (including a full album) and made scores of “reunion” appearances (including one at Live Aid, only eight months after Who’s Last hit stores).
In terms of concert albums, this wasn’t Who’s Last but only the beginning. Townshend, Daltrey and band have since released many, many more live albums. As Townshend once wrote, “Long live rock, be it dead or alive.”