Image beats substance every time just as much in rock as pop, and the very fact that 35 years after their first hit The Who are still revered and adored proves the point. Their long history reads like a set text of rock'n'roll extremes, from their early, wired years, always searching for something they could never put their finger on, through the country house millionaires period, until achieving their present day position as figureheads for an entire genre, a genre they've hardly added to at all in two decades.
The Who's effective creative years came to a halt in the early Eighties, yet anyone who saw last year's incendiary performances before Christmas could be in no doubt that they can still symbolise everything great about live music. They open with the mod era triple whammy of an awesome "I Can't Explain", "Substitute" and "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere", the latter remaining the template for every experiment in controlled chaos that followed, before mainstream rock rejected innovation for easy to follow blues structures.
Seventies stompers such as "Relay" and "My Wife" can't claim the same sort of place in the collective folk memory, though they're performed with surprising grace. Thousands of fortysomethings yelling "It's only teenage wasteland" at a handful of fiftysomethings during "Baba O'Riley" is a curiously touching sight.
And those fiftysomethings retain tremendous ability. As ever the unbelievably dextrous John Entwistle looks like the lord of the manor overseeing his gardeners and Roger Daltrey resembles a keen gym instructor, but Pete Townshend is the one you're compelled to watch.
Grumpily complaining about an American reviewer's description of the show as "hollow", windmilling at will, and rummaging through the list of rock poses he invented, the guitarist is absolutely his own man. You're watching the Three Ages Of Pete Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the early songs of pent-up youthful frustration, the proudly proffered chunks of Quadrophenia, his attempt at self-analysis, and the present day man not entirely comfortable with his own nostalgia. Intelligence can be a curse. Of course, you'd still pay just to watch him change his strings.
Tellingly, during an extended "The Kids Are Alright", Townshend assured the crowd that, yes, their kids were growing up fine. Of course the tragedy is that those kids are the ones likely to form horrible bands like, say, Toploader. It's probably a price worth paying.