The Who? The What?

In the touring days of their reckless youth, the band the Who were often referred to as the Horrible Who. The sobriquet had nothing to do with the quality of their music; far from it. It was bestowed on them because of their manic behavior, both onstage and off. Their shows were nothing short of full frontal assaults on the senses, invariably ending in smashed guitars, bloodied fingers, and in the case of guitarist Pete Townsend, profound hearing loss. Keith Moon, the manic drummer who served as the model for the Muppets' Animal, is the archetypical self-destructive musician who “died before he got old”.

It was a different horrible Who at the Superbowl last night. Truncated into anemic medley format, their songs were stripped of the peaks and valleys that gave them their anthemic resonance. It was a bit sad to see Roger Daltrey omit the “F word” from Who Are You. No doubt the network was mindful of Janet Jackson's notorious wardrobe malfunction from a few years back.

I realize asking musicians to maintain authenticity at the Superbowl is the equivalent of asking Rod Blagojevich to have a sense of personal dignity. It's a halftime show, full of schtick and fireworks, more akin to a Vegas spectacle than a full blown concert. However, there's something about the Superbowl halftime show that sucks the life and energy out of the best of bands (Prince being the rare and notable exception). Regardless, watching the Who perform was a bit like seeing your favorite uncle drink too much at a family reunion and get sick on the gardenias. You still love the guy; you just don't want to ever see him like that again.

The greater underlying issue here is one of authenticity. When does a band of note cease to be that band? Keith Moon died in 1978, bassist John Entwistle in 2002. Do two surviving members, albeit the primary creative forces, still constitute the authentic band? Could Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr credibly perform as the Beatles? What about the idea of reuniting Nirvana sans Kurt Cobain for next year's performance?

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, indeed.