How Super Bowl will bring The Who to new listeners
The band that wrote those catchy CSI theme songs wants you to know there's a lot more where that came from. In a melding of the quintessential British band and the most American of events, The Who will deliver about 12 minutes of glory today at the halftime show for Super Bowl XLIV on CBS.
The band is the latest in a line of mostly boomer-oriented A-list rock stars to play the spectacle, among them Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Prince, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.
But those acts had something to promote – be it a new album or an upcoming tour. Outside of a December greatest-hits album and at least one upcoming high-profile performance, The Who doesn't have much to announce at the moment.
"Totally original, as usual," Roger Daltrey says with a laugh. "We've got an event (planned) for a charity that I'm a patron of, but that's about it. I know Pete (Townshend is) working on material. It's not that we're never going to work again – it's just at the moment there's nothing in the pipeline."
Nothing, of course, except the chance to perform in front of an American TV audience of 100 million people with quick access to The Who's catalogue of albums to purchase. History shows that artists who perform at the Super Bowl receive a noticeable bump in sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Last year's performer, Springsteen, sold 102,000 copies of his just-released Working on a Dream the week after he played; sales of his Greatest Hits album with the E Street Band rose by 66 per cent. After performing in 2008, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits album sales rose by 196 per cent the week after the game; in 2007, Prince's The Very Best of Prince jumped 147 per cent.
Townshend says it just "seems like the right time" to play this biggest of stages. "It would be great to be in full touring harness," he says. "But it stands alone. We've often been on the road when the Super Bowl has been on, and I've felt a bit peeved that everybody's talking about the Super Bowl and not talking about The Who's next show. So for once we get the benefit of both."
Odd as it may sound to music fans, The Who manager Bill Curbishley says for many viewers, the Super Bowl could be the first time they see The Who perform. "There is a part of The Who audience that don't really know who they are," a circumstance largely due to the omnipresence of CBS' globally popular CSI franchise, which uses a trio of Who classics – Who Are You, Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O'Riley – for its theme songs. (In recent years, according to the Hollywood Reporter, CSI: Miami – which opens with Won't Get Fooled Again – was the most-watched US TV series around the world.)
The magnitude of the halftime audience, both in person and via TV, is more than apparent to Townshend. "When we go out and tour, we don't play stadiums like the Rolling Stones or U2; we play arenas, and we don't always absolutely fill them to the brim. We do pretty well, because we're quite good at what we do," he says.
There wasn't a strict blueprint for who would play in front of the packed house at Dolphin Stadium in Miami and a TV audience of more than one billion people, but Charles Coplin, Vice-President of programming for the National Football League and one of the producers of the show, says there are certain criteria.
"We stay away from overexposed acts. When was the last time you saw The Who on TV" he asks. "We like acts whose songs are very familiar to people of all ages, all demographics."
Curbishley draws a parallel between The Who at the Super Bowl and the band's memorable set at the Concert for New York City in 2001 at Madison Square Garden.
"I was a little unsure about that when we went into it. New York is our second home and nobody had more empathy for the people who lost loved ones in 9/11 than the band did," Curbishley says.
"But The Who don't do short sets; they do two-hour shows, and you gradually move with the band through those shows. But the 9/11 show was phenomenal and the reaction was brilliant. And I'm hoping that the same thing will happen at the Super Bowl."
So is Coplin. "There are other acts who do wonderful things and their music is tremendous, but it's not always as anthemic and explosive, and when you're doing something like the Super Bowl, those two words are really vital parts of making a show come to life."
The challenge of showcasing a band like the Who is distilling decades of classic material down to minutes. Speculation about the set – which was conceived by Daltrey along with Simon Townshend, Pete's son and a longtime musical associate of the band; executive producer Ricky Kirschner; and new director Hamish Hamilton – is always of huge interest to fans, and the NFL guards the information like a state secret. So Coplin and company probably won't be thrilled that Townshend discussed it freely.
"We're doing kind of a compact medley, like a mash-up of stuff," he says. "A bit of Baba O'Riley, a bit of Pinball Wizard, a bit of the close of Tommy, a bit of Who Are You and a bit of Won't Get Fooled Again. It works – it's quite a saga. A lot of the stuff that we do has that kind of celebratory vibe about it – we've always tried to make music that allows the audience to go a bit wild if they want to. Hopefully it will hit the spot." Largely because of Townshend's licensing efforts, The Who music crops up all over the place. "It is absolutely astonishing and also strangely rewarding in a way," Daltrey says.
"I always knew the way Townshend wrote was special. There was an energy within the music. The songs were written from a very private place from Pete, but it's the private place that we've all got." The power and continued relevance of Townshend's writing are obvious, but few could argue that Daltrey's supercharged vocals don't play a key role in the longevity of the songs.
Daltrey says he always knows "instantly" if he can deliver on the lyrics Townshend produces. "There are things that he brings to the table, I'll say, 'I can't sing this, you would do a better job on this, or this is not one that we should be doing,' he says. It's not because I can't sing the notes, it's just about where the song sits and where I come from."
Daltrey toured solo as a headliner last year and will tour as support for Eric Clapton in a brief spring tour. Townshend is in full-blown writing mode, and despite his prowess as a guitarist and performer, writing has proved to be his most celebrated gift. "Almost everything about my life as a writer and a performer is about four or five songs that I wrote in 1971," Townshend says.
The performance at the Super Bowl will help Daltrey and Townshend "stand together and decide what we are going to do next, what shape that will take and whether we should just try and put out another record or whether we should do one of the fancy things I do on the side," Townshend says. (Reuters)
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