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Never Too Old to Rock : The Who, Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney once thought 25 was too old to rock. So what changed their thinking and will audiences accept them as they approach 50?

June 25, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

LONDON — Pete Townshend remembers vividly the incident 24 years ago that inspired him to write "My Generation," the song that contained the line, "Hope I die before I get old"--a phrase that became the battle cry for a generation of disenfranchised youth.

His band, the Who, still hadn't released an album, but the group did have a recording contract and Townshend, just 20, had enough money to make his first big buy--a sparkling Lincoln Continental convertible.

He was living in a modest flat in an exclusive area of London, a neighborhood of bankers and diplomats. He was often hassled by the landlord because he didn't have a proper bed and his clothes didn't fit in with the neighborhood and he played music l-o-u-d.

"I was so tired of all that attitude, that God-awful snobbery that it just seemed to explode in me one day when I was driving (near the flat)," he said, during a break in a Who video taping recently at a sound stage just outside of London.

"A woman in a car opposite me stopped in traffic and looked over at me, real condescendingly, and said, 'Hmmm, driving mummy's car, eh?' And I felt this rage, like 'No, this isn't (expletive) mummy's car. This is my (expletive) car and I'm going to get a bigger one some day and drive it right through your (expletive) head.'

"If I had been more careful, I would have spoken about attitude in the song rather than age, but all we could see at the time was that it was older people who had the power and we had to get it. I was speaking for all of us.

"We were in a sense revolutionaries--our generation, trying to change things and I was just writing about it . . . like a journalist. Now, I guess, I have to deal with some of the questionable hypocrisies of my own youth . . . the sexism of it, the age-ism of it."

Townshend thought time was against him in 1965. He, like most of his contemporaries, believed that a rock 'n' roller couldn't maintain credibility much beyond 25 because rock music belonged to young people. Paul McCartney recalls that time: "It was all one: being young and loving rock."

But, something changed their minds during the last quarter century.

For a whole crowd of "gray beard rockers" are now asking rock audiences, including the teen-agers that comprise the bulk of the concert-going market, to accept them as they approach 50.

Yes, 25 years after the Beatles first visited America, the Stones, the Who and McCartney will launch what amounts to a second a British rock invasion.

It's not just a test of box office appeal, but of artistry. Will the music that has been hailed for more than two decades connect emotionally and intellectually with today's young audience? Or will the shows simply be an exercise in nostalgia?

McCartney sees the irony in what's happening.

During a break in rehearsals for his fall American tour, the 47-year-old ex-Beatle smiles and asks, "I wonder what Pete (Townshend) thinks now about that line: 'Hope I die before I get old'?"

Even McCartney, however, remembers thinking in the days after the Beatles became regulars at the Cavern Club in Liverpool the early '60s that 25 was the outside age for being in a rock 'n' roll band. "The reason 25 stood out for me was that Frank Ifield (a British pop star of the time) was 25 and he seemed too old to ever be in a rock band," McCartney said. "But by the time we were 25, we were at the height of our Beatlemania powers, so it seemed like we could go another five years or so.

"Then 30 arrived and we all felt pretty good still . . . looked all right . . . so 35 started to be the marker. By 35, I was into Wings and 40 seemed to be the end. Now, I'm not sure. Maybe 50?"

Rock's original bad boys, the Rolling Stones, are old too, and going on an ambitious stadium tour this fall.

Keith Richards is the only member of the band who never thought of rock 'n' roll in terms of a limited timetable.

"My heroes were the great American blues artists . . . people who were in their 40s and beyond, people who seemed absolutely ancient . . . until you heard their music and then they seemed so fresh and alive," said Richards who, like Mick Jagger, will be 46 in December.

"They made me think it was possible to play music as long as you were physically able. That's why I have never felt self-conscious about being on stage at 30 or 40 . . . the way, I believe, Pete Townshend, and, I know, Mick (Jagger) have. . . . No one told Muddy Waters that it was time to get out. He rocked until the he died."

The Who arrive first. The band--including original members Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey, 45, and bassist John Entwistle, 44, will play more than three dozen stadium shows on a tour that began this weekend in Toronto.

The tour--which includes Aug. 26 and Aug. 22 stops respectively at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium--will also include benefit performances of the Who's rock opera "Tommy" on Tuesday at the Radio City Music Hall in New York and Aug. 24 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.

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