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Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend with drummer Kenney Jones on Dec. 16, 1982.THOMAS SZLUKOVENYI/The Globe and Mail

“This is it,” Pete Townshend said on stage at Maple Leaf Gardens, 40 years ago. “It really has to be.”

On Dec. 17, 1982, guitarist Townshend and the legendary British rock band the Who finished what was supposed to be their final tour with a farewell concert on the second night of two at the Toronto hockey arena. The band ultimately returned to the road in 1989, but in 1982 it really did seem like the end.

“Pete said he didn’t want to play live any more with the Who, so we billed it as the final tour,” Bill Curbishley, the Who’s manager since the 1970s, told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “The rest of the band and myself were mystified by Pete’s decision, but we accepted it. So, yes, that was it.”

In the years prior to the Maple Leaf Gardens finale, the Who (minus original drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978) had toured relentlessly. The story given out to the public was that the band was drained and long in the tooth. “We are getting too old to do kick-arse rock and roll every night and it will be a relief when it’s all over,” singer Roger Daltrey said then.

We know now that Daltrey was covering for Townshend. “For the us, it was all a bit unreal,” says Curbishley. “I mean, the band was playing better than ever.”

Still, Daltrey’s depiction of the band as being “too old” rang true at the time. After all, Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle were an ancient 38 years old; Townshend was a year younger. The group that as brash young adults sang “I hope I die before I get old” was simply making good on the declaration.

It would be an absurd notion today that middle-aged rock bands might be compelled to retire from the road. The Who will kick off a leg of its latest tour at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Sunday. Daltrey and Townshend will be accompanied by a full band with singers and, for some numbers, an orchestra.

Legacy acts dominate the concert calendar today. Though Puerto Rican rap-and-reggaeton star Bad Bunny sits high atop the list of highest-grossing touring acts so far this year with a haul of US$120-million, Genesis’s The Last Domino tour comes in second globally at US$72-million. Third place goes to Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, at US$44-million.

The road shows by the 75-year-old piano man and Genesis are billed as “final” tours. The quote marks are intentional – after the Who reneged on its farewell promise made in 1982, all so-called final tours are treated with suspicion.

Forty years ago, it was a different story. Led Zeppelin, for example, had called it quits in 1980. In the minds of fans and media, a high-profile act pulling the chute was perfectly reasonable.

“It didn’t seem out of the ordinary for someone like the Who to say they were doing their final show,” says Tragically Hip manager Jake Gold, who attended the Who’s send-off at Maple Leaf Gardens. Gold, 24 at the time, wasn’t going to miss what seemed to be a historic show. “We didn’t have the best seats, but that didn’t matter. It was all about being in the room.”

Merck Mercuriadis was also in the room. Today, the Canadian music executive heads up the England-based Hipgnosis Song Management, which owns the publishing catalogues of Blondie, Leonard Cohen, Chrissie Hynde, Neil Young and other top artists. In 1982, however, he was a teenager working at Sam the Record Man, stocking the shelves with albums such as the just-released It’s Hard by the Who.

“There was no doubt in my mind that the Who’s touring days were over,” says Mercuriadis, “If Pete Townshend said that was it, you could believe him.”

He was believed. The tour (officially The Who Rocks America) was hyped with multiple press conferences. The final concert was broadcast on Canadian television, simulcast on radio internationally and televised on pay-per-view systems by 20th Century-Fox Pay-Television.

The tour, which included two dates at New York’s Shea Stadium and one at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium, was no quiet ride into the sunset. The shows were ferocious. It’s hard to know if booking the Clash as its opening act for the tour was an act of succession by the Who or if it was a challenge to the new rock heroes to try and keep up with the geezers.

“The fact that they weren’t scared to take one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time as their support act was a sign of the Who’s spirit and energy,” says Mercuriadis. “It showed they weren’t scared.”

The who at Maple Leaf Gardens.THOMAS SZLUKOVENYI/The Globe and Mail

Mercuriadis was also at the Exhibition Stadium show on Oct. 9. “It is one of the highlights of my life,” he says. “It was complete punk-rock pandemonium, and the Who were everything you wanted them to be – great energy, in-your-face rock music.”

(Booked for a guest spot on Saturday Night Live, the Clash didn’t open the outdoor October show. Joe Jackson stepped in. The Clash did not appear at the Gardens concerts either. Joan Jett and the B-52′s – who were booed off the stage – were the preliminary acts.)

Watching the Gardens finale today (it’s available on DVD and YouTube), the Who looked to be in fighting spirit, starting the concert with a thrashing, defiant presentation of My Generation.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, the show was a 14,” says veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc, who attended the concert. “It was spectacular – the best I’d ever seen them.”

LeBlanc first saw the Who in 1967, when the group opened for the pop act Herman’s Hermits at the Gardens. After the Who’s typical incendiary performance, the dainty Hermits attempted to follow.

“When Peter Noone opened up his mouth and started singing ‘I’m Henry the Eighth, I am,’ the thousands of fans there to see the Who got up off their seats and left the building,” LeBlanc recalls.

At the Gardens in 1982, the band sang about the young man’s blues and said goodbye to a past fad with Sister Disco. They mixed new songs Dangerous, It’s Hard and Eminence Front – “it’s a put on” – with classics including Long Live Rock. Townshend stomped his feet, scissor-kicked his legs and windmilled his right arm. If rock was dead, the Who was going out on its shield.

The last song of the main set was Won’t Get Fooled Again, a giant lesson about flags flown in past wars and things that appear to change but don’t really. The Who tour of 1982 birthed a state of cynicism about fake rock and roll farewells. But, then, innocence isn’t for older generations.

“If you’re a 14-year-old kid going to see the Who today,” says Mercuriadis,”who cares how jaded you and I are?”

TEENAGE WASTELAND

Steven Page will open the Who concert at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday. Forty years ago, the former Barenaked Ladies singer-songwriter was a kid from the Toronto suburbs who couldn’t get a ticket for the Who’s farewell concert at Maple Leaf Gardens. Instead, he watched the show on television.

“Although I had fantasized about actually seeing the concert in person, the next best thing was to be able to watch it happen live on CityTV, with the sound off and the stereo cranked, tuned to the simulcast on CHUM-FM. CHUM/City simulcasts were a semi-regular event, and this felt like the pinnacle of the technology,” Page said.

He got to watch the concert on his cousin’s TV, which was much bigger than the one at Page’s house. “We got to hear the music, ever so slightly out of sync, in glorious stereo sound. It was the end of one era of music and television, ushering in a brand-new era, And the Who were there, on the edge of it all.”