As the title of a 1994 box set declared, the Who proved themselves as masters of “maximum R&B.” That phrase accurately describes Pete Townshend’s Deep End: Face the Face, a CD/DVD that captures a 1986 TV performance of selections from Townshend’s 1985 album White City: A Novel as well as solo and Who tracks. Featuring an unusually giddy Townshend leading a band that includes Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, it demonstrates the singer/songwriter’s charisma as a solo artist.
Filmed for the German TV series Rockpalast at MIDEM in Cannes on January 29, 1986, the performance includes tracks from White City as well as other Townshend albums such as Empty Glass and All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. Knowing his audience wanted to hear Who classics as well as his solo work, Townshend begins the show with a fiery rendition of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Gilmour turns in solid guitar work, while Peter Hope-Evans lends the song a distinctly blues slant with his harmonica. The track leads directly into the White City track “Secondhand Love,” which features a fierce, growling vocal from Townshend. “I don’t want your secondhand love!” he cries, the defiance continuing with “Give Blood.” Gilmour shines on this live version, his eerie, reverb-filled solo recalling his iconic work on Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell.”
In addition to promoting his then-current album, Townshend throws in lesser-known tracks such as “After the Fire.” While he originally wrote the song for Roger Daltrey—it was the lead single off his 1985 album Under a Raging Moon—Townshend transforms the song into a more thoughtful meditation on aging and learning from painful experience. “The heart grows older but never ever learns / The memories smolder and the soul always yearns,” he croons. He may not possess Daltrey’s vocal range, but his straightforward delivery adds deeper meaning to the words. Another surprise inclusion is “Blue Light,” a track from Gilmour’s 1984 solo album About Face. In addition to Gilmour’s lead vocals, this Iive rendition also boasts blasting horns and rapid guitar work. An extended Latin-tinged percussion break somehow inspires Townshend to engage in some very silly dancing.
Backed by a top-notch band including drummer Simon Phillips (Toto) and the UK horn section the Kick Horns, Townshend passionately performs songs that clearly retain great personal meaning. As he sings “I was just 34 years old, and I was still wandering in a daze” during “Slit Skirts,” one wonders if he is describing his personal and professional journey. He turns in sincere renditions of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You” as well as “The Sea Refuses No River,” a Chinese Eyes number thematically reminiscent of Quadrophenia. In the latter track, Townshend explores water as death, life, purification, and rebirth (aided by Hope-Evans’ gritty harmonica). Just when the mood darkens, he accelerates the pace with a roaring version of the White City single “Face the Face.” Townshend ditches his guitar for this performance, relying on his powerful voice and goofy footwork. Unlike on the studio recording, the backing singers handle the half-rapped verses. Another important contributor is Chucho Merchan, who amps up the soul with some incredibly funky bass.
As the show concludes, Townshend captivates the audience through his deft acoustic guitar work on “Pinball Wizard,” proving how he holds his own without the benefit of the Who. When he pays tribute to James Brown on the final number “Night Train,” he demonstrates how much he owes to the rhythm and blues tradition in his songwriting. This remastered, energetic performance showcases Townshend’s power to capture an audience with his voice and guitar; in the case of “Pinball Wizard,” that is all he really needs. Backed by the supergroup Deep End, Townshend proves his emotional power as a songwriter and performer. Available as a DVD/CD set, Pete Townshend’s Deep End: Face the Face should encourage viewers to delve into his impressive (if underrated) solo catalogue. Face the Face successfully argues that Townshend is more than just the creative force behind the Who.