By 1985, Pete Townshend’s solo career was in full swing after the Who disbanded a few years prior. With two commercial solo albums already under his belt (Empty Glass and All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, the former more well-received than the latter), Townshend ventured into even more ambitious territory with his concept album White City: A Novel, released in November 1985.
Influenced by Prince’s tour de force, Purple Rain, Townshend tells the semi-autobiographical story of the pains and strife between cultures, races, social classes, and lovers in the West London neighborhood of White City.
A 60-minute movie adaptation in VHS format was also released alongside the record, which includes sporadic performances throughout the film by Townshend and his backing band, aptly named Deep End, which included seasoned musicians like John “Rabbit” Bundrick (keyboards), Simon Phillips (drums), and Pino Palladino (bass).
A few months after Townshend, Deep End, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour — who contributed his iconic guitar riffs, ala The Wall, to White City — performed two sold-out charity shows at the Brixton Academy in London in early November 1985*, the supergroup put on one last performance in Cannes, France, for the long-standing German television show, Rockpalast.
Backed by drummer Simon Phillips, bassist Chucho Merchan, and the UK horn section appropriately named the Kick Horns, Townshend jumps right into a punchy rendition of the classic Who anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again” before tearing into “Secondhand Love,” showcasing Peter Hope-Evans’ exemplary harmonica work, and White City’s opener, “Give Blood,” which lets Gilmour’s fast-paced, echo-laden guitar skills shine.
Like the Brixton Academy shows a few months before, Townshend spins his own take on “After the Fire,” a track he penned for Roger Daltrey’s 1985 record, Under a Raging Moon. It’s a heartfelt tribute to getting older, if not necessarily wiser. Yet, in true Townshend form, despite these sentiments, he somehow manages to rhyme “memories” with “Dom DeLuise.”
David Gilmour’s track “Blue Light,” off of his 1984 album, About Face, also makes an appearance on the Rockpalast performance — a drawn-out, Latin-inspired, percussion-heavy number which renders Townshend into a literal helpless dancer. For a guitarist known for his rhythmic style of playing, his lack of dancing skills likens him to a newly walking baby. Given his typical grumpy disposition, however, it’s refreshing to see him not only genuinely enjoy himself but the presence of his backing band as well.
Townshend’s bluesy, soulful interpretation of Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s “I Put a Spell on You” (which sadly doesn’t make it on the CD) is a much-needed respite, interspersed with cries and wails throughout the song, before shifting into the more upbeat “Hiding Out” off of White City.
“The Sea Refuses No River,” off of 1982’s Chinese Eyes, is also a dazzling testament to Deep End’s synergy; despite the supergroup’s short-lived existence, together they’re a well-oiled machine, beautifully executing Townshend’s pseudo-orchestral arrangements.
After a brief introduction of Deep End and the graceful backup singers, Townshend is back on his feet for his then-single “Face the Face,” a big band-inspired number with a more contemporary (for 1985, mind you) twist. The frustration in his face is quite apparent from the very beginning of the song after he continuously flubs and mixes up lines and verses throughout the song, trying his best not to read off of the lyric book placed below him onstage. Nevertheless, Townshend redeems himself after he staunchly proclaims, “Boogie down!” by relentlessly cavorting about whilst pantomiming the stand-up bass.
As the Rockpalast show draws to a close, Townshend busts out the acoustic guitar once again for a blazing rendition of the Who classic, and ultimate crowd-pleaser, “Pinball Wizard,” which is met with thunderous roars and cheers, proving that he’s a force to be reckon with — not just with the Who, but as a solo performer as well.
After two back-to-back songs off of 1980’s Empty Glass — the synth-heavy pop tune “A Little is Enough” and the raucous album opener “Rough Boys” — Townshend closes the show by paying tribute to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, with an electrifying performance of “Night Train” (though the song sounds more akin to Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames’ cover from 1964).
Sans guitar, Townshend is yet again left to his own devices by contorting his body around onstage, while Gilmour and Deep End pour their blood, sweat, and tears into the final number of the night. Despite the palpable teamwork seen onstage, Pete Townshend and Deep End were never to perform together again after Rockpalast, though drummer Simon Phillips and other members went on to form the Who’s backing band on their 1989 reunion tour.
Having only seen clips from the highly-acclaimed Brixton Academy shows years ago, watching this Rockpalast performance in its entirety is the next best thing and is an absolute must-watch for die-hard Who fans and solo Townshend enthusiasts.
After a tumultuous first half of the ’80s (if Empty Glass and Chinese Eyes weren’t already an indication), these series of performances were a true resurgence of Pete Townshend’s career. It’s a delightful sight to see him in his element (silly dancing and all) — backed by a group of masterful musicians — with nary a care in the world.
David Gilmour’s contributions to White City and the Brixton Academy/Rockpalast shows added a much-needed textural dimension to Townshend’s body of work, while Deep End’s cohesive sound enveloped and captivated the audience. Afterward, Townshend did continue to use backing bands for projects with and without the Who, but why the potential for future collaborations with Deep End never came to fruition will forever remain a mystery.
Pete Townshend’s Deep End – Face the Face is available now via Eagle Rock Entertainment.
*An abridged version of the two Brixton Academy shows can be heard on Townshend’s Deep End Live! record from 1986, and the full concert was released as the highly coveted Live: Brixton Academy ’85 through Eel Pie Records in 2004.