Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Who - What's Next

Last night’s Who concert might be the last Who concert. Ever.

The Who performed Quadrophenia on the final night of this years’ Teenage Cancer Trust series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Guests included well-known Who fanatic Eddie Vedder and Kasabian’s Tom Meighan; both joined the band at various times separately, and together on “I’ve Had Enough.”

It’s a little shaky, but here’s some fan shot footage of “I’ve Had Enough.”

The Who - Quadrophenia - I've Had Enough The Who - Quadrophenia - I've Had Enough

The Who – I’ve Had Enough
With Eddie Vedder and Tom Meighan
Royal Albert Hall – March 30, 2010

Set List

“I Am the Sea”
“The Real Me”
“Cut My Hair”
“The Punk and the Godfather” (with Eddie Vedder)
“I’m One”
“The Dirty Jobs”
“Helpless Dancer”
“Is It in My Head?”
“I’ve Had Enough” (with Eddie Vedder and Tom Meighan)
“Sea and Sand” (with Eddie Vedder and Tom Meighan)
“Drowned” (Townshend solo)
“Bell Boy” (with Tom Meighan)
“Doctor Jimmy”
“The Rock”
“Love, Reign O’er Me”
Following the band’s appearance at this year’s Super Bowl in Miami, Pete Townshend talked about the March 30 show as being the only gig on the group’s schedule because of his hearing issues. At the time, Townshend said he’d been testing a new in-ear monitoring system that doctors hoped would allow him to hear the band over the ringing in his ears and that, if it failed to be of significant help, he would shut The Who down before risking any further hearing damage. Apparently, it was Neil Young who hooked Pete up with an audiologist that recommended the new system as a potentially viable way to address the issue; beyond the monitors, Pete has revealed that he wears a hearing aid.

Townshend’s hearing has been affected by playing music so loud for so long that he developed tinnitus years ago.

In simple terms, tinnitus is basically an ongoing high-pitched ringing or buzzing in the ears, even when no external sound is happening – ie. you’re sitting alone in a quiet room and all you can hear is ringing in your ears. Tinnitus is not to be confused with Temporary Hearing Loss (THL), which is caused by many things – including exposure to loud sounds. If you’re like me, you’ve come home to quiet surroundings after a concert and occasionally noticed either a high-pitch ringing sound or muffled hearing due to exposure to high volume and/or being too close to the sound system; you may have some lingering effects the day after the show, but it does disappear, usually within 24 hours or so, depending on the severity.

In terms of the decibel scale, normal conversation levels between people are in the 60-70 dB range; sustained exposure to volumes in the 90-95 dB range can cause hearing loss; sandblasting is measured around 115dB and pain from volume happens at the 125dB level. Jet engines and gun blasts are in the 140 dB range, which is extreme by any measure. If I understand it correctly, an increase of 10 dB level is considered about twice as loud, while a 20 dB increase is four times as loud.

For years, as sound systems developed in the music industry, bands prided themselves on volume and even promoted it, sometimes with claims that they were the loudest band in the world. It’s hard to say who the loudest band actually is/was, because you’d need to establish a standard measurement distance from the sound system to have everyone measured on the same playing field, so to speak.

In the 60s, Blue Cheer heavily promoted themselves as the loudest: the band claimed to be so loud that they had to record their albums outside. BC’s second album, “Outsideinside,” was recorded at Pier 57 in San Francisco, and legend has it that people on boats up to 9 miles (14 km) away complained of hearing the sound. In 69, Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” was measured at 130 dB. In 1976, The Who were considered the loudest band by the Guinness Book Of World Records, when the group’s volume at a UK show was measured at 126 decibels. The folks at the Guinness Book reportedly shut down their “loudest band” category at some point in the late 70s/early 80s for fear of encouraging hearing damage as bands kept pushing the limits.

In addition to the prolonged exposure to playing at huge volume levels, Pete has stated that the start of his tinnitus can be traced back to a Who performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. Near the end of playing “My Generation,” The Who had smoke bombs and blasts going off at the rear of the stage behind the amplifiers, but drummer Keith Moon had techies load up far too much explosives in his bass drums, and the resulting blast damaged Townshend’s ears – apparently for life.

While watching the Smothers Brothers performance, keep an eye out for where Pete is standing when the explosion goes off: it looks like Townshend is less than 10 feet directly in front of Moon’s kit when the force of the blast heads directly at him, compounding things as his head is at bass drum level because he’s leaning over while smashing his guitar.

The explosion happens at 4:36 in the following clip:

The Who - The Who Sings My Generation - My Generation The Who - The Who Sings My Generation - My Generation

The Who – My Generation
The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour – September 15, 1967

2010 isn’t the first time Townshend’s hearing has been an issue for the band, by any means. I can remember seeing The Who on their 25th Anniversary Tour in 1989 and Pete was playing acoustic guitar for most of the show. I have to say it was strange to watch The Who with Pete on acoustic while someone else played his solos on electric; I mean, here was one of the biggest legends in rock unable to execute his material in the usual way because of his hearing issues. Depending on its severity, tinnitus can come and go, like a lot of health challenges, and it seems that Pete’s may have been in some sort of remission for years before returning recently while he worked on his musical, Floss.

Performers have used stage/floor monitors for years to process the ‘mix’ and volume of audio that suits their needs as a player. Monitor mixes can be tweaked to each player’s needs; for example, the guitarist wants more drums and less bass in his monitors because he/she follows the drums more closely for song cues, etc. Eventually, in-ear monitors were developed to perform the same function as stage/floor monitors, which could then be removed from the staging, giving artists more room to roam freely while providing fans down front with a less obstructed view.

We’ll await further news from Townshend on last night’s RAH gig to see if the new in-ear system worked for him, as well as news on the status of The Who.

The Who - Who's Next - Behind Blue Eyes The Who - Who's Next - Behind Blue Eyes

The Who - Tommy - Pinball Wizard The Who - Tommy - Pinball Wizard

The Who – acoustic performance
Super Bowl press conference - February 5, 2010