Classic rock flashback: The Who invade the Super Bowl XLIV halftime show
In response to the FCC’s strict fines following Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s controversial “Nipplegate” incident in 2004, veteran rock artists were recruited by the NFL, including Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, and the Who.
Ironically, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey’s record-breaking appearance at Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 terminated the classic rock streak. Millennial pop radio leaning acts — the Black Eyed Peas, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake — have since littered the twenty-tens.
While the Who’s halftime show was derided by a majority of critics — boo for the band’s corporate advertisement of the CSI franchise — and even by lead singer Roger Daltrey himself during an impromptu interview immediately after the event — fans were much more supportive.
The group was musically solid at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, delivering a 12-minute mini suite packed with their greatest hits to a capacity crowd of approximately 72,000 in addition to 106.5 million viewers at home. The setlist was devised by Daltrey and Pete’s younger brother, rhythm guitarist Simon Townshend, and was the band’s first concert since a Perth, Australia, gig some 10 months prior.
It would definitely have been a ballsy move to hear a new track during the Who’s halftime set. Case in point — Floss is a Townshend rock opera exploring advancing maturity announced prior to the Super Bowl appearance in August 2009. Inexplicably, the proposed follow-up to 2006’s Endless Wire was canned. At the close of the twenty-tens Dave Sardy collaborated with the duo on the self-titled Who and produced glowing results.
Daltrey, then 65, was in surprisingly excellent vocal form. Apparently, his first U.S. solo tour in approximately 15 years that ended the previous November must have greased his vocal cords, as there were no signs of hoarseness or wrong notes to be found. Wearing a striped black and white jacket with a sky blue scarf and black T-shirt, Daltrey was in his element as the quintessential front man of rock. He didn’t speak until the finale, uttering a terse “Thank you” twice to the excited crowd.
In an intriguing twist compared to past Super Bowl performers, there was no audience surrounding the oval stage. But plenty of pyrotechnics were on display as the band’s red, white, blue, and black insignia revolved in a circular motion.
Renowned guitarist Pete Townshend opened with some frantic acoustic strumming on his signature blond J-200 Gibson acoustic. The song in question was “Pinball Wizard”, one of two hits pulled from the seminal 1969 concept long-player, Tommy. Townshend, sporting a sleek, black coat rolled up to his elbows encasing a white shirt, wore shaded reading glasses. A black top-hat with a red bandana under it rounded out his rock star persona.
The minute Daltrey opened his mouth to sing “Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball, from Soho down to Brighton, I must have played ’em all,” the past 40 years were a fleeting memory.
At only a scant 90 seconds, “Pinball Wizard” gave way to “Baba O’Riley,” aka “Teenage Wasteland”, taken from 1971’s Who’s Next. Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey was powerful behind the drums in a stylish red Union Jack long-sleeve shirt, recalling his childhood “Uncle Keith” Moon, the Who’s grenade-launching drummer who suddenly passed away at age 32 in 1978 while battling alcohol withdrawal.
Fourth original member and bassist John Entwistle ingested too much cocaine compounded by a bad heart the night before the Who’s three-month trek of the United States, and Pino Palladino tastefully filled his role for the subsequent 14 years. Most notable for being a member of the John Mayer Trio, Palladino was only seen fleetingly at the Super Bowl, with Starkey’s drumming getting the most attention from the various camera angles.
For the instrumental break in “Baba O’Riley” — a theme song for nine lucrative seasons on the Gary Sinise-led CSI: NY — Daltrey let loose on harmonica, performing in tandem with John “Rabbit” Bundrick’s synthesizer and Starkey’s galloping drums.
After the “Baba O’Riley” interlude, “Who Are You” jump started. The 1978 anthem and second CSI theme song was the most recent jewel in the band’s catalog. While singing the repetitive, hook-laden chorus, it sounded as if Townshend was about to burst into laughter, though he quickly gained his composure.
The chorus of “See Me, Feel Me,” the follow-up Tommy hit single, was delivered in about 30 seconds, segueing into a complete version of Who’s Next closer “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the third and final CSI theme song. Hearing Townshend let loose on his classic riffs during “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was sublime. Starkey’s drumming anchored the performance, proving why he has been pivotal to the Who’s gigs since 1996. Listening to Daltrey belt out a thunderous “Yeah!” after Starkey’s solo was icing on the cake.
The Who left the crowd screaming for more as Daltrey exhorted, “Don’t you get fooled, fooled, fooled, again!,” with Townshend playing one final sublime riff on his Torino Red Fender Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster guitar. As evidence of the gig’s gigantic proportion, the Who’s official website crashed shortly after the performance.
Later that night while speaking with ESPN, Daltrey seemed perplexed at the notion of singing a medley of classic rock songs in 12 minutes at halftime of a sporting event. “It didn’t even feel like a concert,” Daltrey admitted. “It’s a television show. And what can you do in 12 minutes?…I thought it went OK. I understand. It’s a TV show. Cameras were everywhere. I was so blinded that I couldn’t see. And I really wished the crowd would have gotten into singing the songs with us more. That’s how it is in Europe for our soccer matches. I wanted more banter.” Townshend was more enthusiastic — “We were trying to put on a great show. We had as much fun as we could have.”
The day after beating the 27-year record of Most Watched Television Broadcast in the U.S. established by M*A*S*H’s finale episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” [105.9 versus 106.5 million viewers] Townshend chatted with Rolling Stone and revealed how much he wanted to play the Super Bowl. “I felt that doing this would be a great thing to do because it would let people know that we’re alive and kicking and that Roger and I still do stuff together and intend to do whatever we can in the future together,” said Townshend. “You feel part of something that’s bigger than you and you feel part of a huge team. It’s a monster gig.” Playing in front of such a vast audience surprisingly did not bother Townshend. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in a great big football stadium or a little club somewhere,” revealed the Quadrophenia architect. “As soon as I get close to a stage, I feel very at home and very safe and secure. It feels completely normal.”
Fans were hopeful that the Who would build on their Super Bowl gig by mounting a full U.S. tour as most Super Bowl performers have done. Elder rock statesmen like Springsteen and the late Tom Petty hit the road and ultimately landed in annual Top 10 most successful North American treks. However, it was not to be, as the British rockers only scheduled one gig for the remainder of 2010 — a rare performance of the complete Quadrophenia album for their Teenage Cancer Trust benefit at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Townshend instead set his sights on completing autobiography Who I Am, which debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. The Who would not tackle another full concert until November 2012, when, due to the positive buzz surrounding Who I Am, they revisited Quadrophenia plus a selection of their greatest hits for an extended 38-city North American tour. So if they visit your neck of the woods, make plans to see the Who in action. You won’t regret it.
The Who Setlist, February 7, 2010, Super Bowl XLIV, Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
- “Pinball Wizard” [first verse and chorus only]
- “Baba O’Riley”
- “Who Are You”
- “See Me, Feel Me” [chorus only]
- “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
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