I somehow miscalculated the number of Who shows I’d attended when I wrote that Sunday’s show in Birmingham was my 36th. Having consulted my Who Concert File, I now realise it was my 37th, or 38th if you include my sneaking into the Young Vic early in 1971 to watch them rehearsing for the aborted Lifehouse project. I’m sure there’s loads of fans who’ve seen them many more times than this but it began for me on August 9, 1969, at the Plumpton Racecourse in Sussex where they blew me sideways at what was known as the National Jazz & Blues Festival. A friend of mine had got a gig working on one of the bars and he sneaked me in somehow.
Come to think of it, if my timing had been better I might even have been able to catch them at Leeds University in February of the following year – the famous Live At Leeds gig – as I had a friend who was studying there and, with me wearing a borrowed University scarf and NUS card, he’d got me into a few shows in ’68 & ’69 but I’d left Yorkshire by that point in my life and wasn’t around for it.
Plumpton was followed by two shows at the Dunstable Civic Hall, north of London, the first in April ’70 and the second in July the same year, my first Who assignment for Melody Maker. I saw them again at Dunstable Civic in July of the following year but by that time I’d made contact with them, as it were, and also seen them at the Isle of Wight Festival, the Hammersmith Palais, the Roundhouse and that Young Vic show. I caught them in Watford in July – a few days after that third Dunstable show – so by this time I was seeing them as often as I possibly could. Next up was the Oval, the cricket ground just south of the Thames in Kennington, a memorable night indeed, and then the students-only show in Guildford that I write about elsewhere on Just Backdated. Then there was a gig in Southampton when I went with Keith and on the way back we called in at Ten Years After drummer Ric Lee’s house to relieve him of the contents of his booze cupboard. Back in the MM office I wrote of the Southampton show: “They used the best combination of songs to whip up the excitement to an awe-inspiring climax as huge searchlights beamed down on delirious fans drunk with ecstasy at the group’s new finale... There isn’t a band in the land that couldn’t take a lesson or two from The Who...”
By now I was getting seriously greedy so I gorged myself on three consecutive nights at the newly-opened Rainbow in north London whose manager John Morris had given me a pass that said ‘Admit to all parts of theatre at all times’ – a passport to paradise really as I used it regularly for at least a year and saw a load of other bands there too.
In November ’71 I saw The Who in the US for the first time, travelling down with them from New York to Charlotte, SC, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was on one of the plane flights on this trip, a regular commercial flight, that I was sat next to Pete when he developed a nose bleed and I found myself cradling his head in my lap and administering to him with a damp towel. It was also on this trip that I remember a box of Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy albums arrived from MCA in LA, and we all sat around in Pete Rudge’s room admiring it.
The following year, 1972, was quiet by Who standards but they did a short European tour in the spring and I caught them in Amsterdam and Rome. In the Dutch capital I remember Roger being frustrated by the sound system and making a gesture towards Bobby Pridden that looked like he was, er, satisfying himself manually, if you get my gist. The Rome show wasn’t sold out, as I recall, and afterwards Keith, Dougal and myself roamed around Rome looking for non-existent club action. Back in the office I wrote in MM: “It’s as good as it always is, a combination of violent excitement, near perfect sound and those power-packed Who songs... Townshend smashed his guitar into fragments – the first break of the tour – at the end and the Italian fans didn’t know what had hit them. He swung it wildly at Moon’s kit, and took three heavy blows against the stage floor before the instrument succumbed... The Who are so good they could probably put their shows over with their eyes shut. The inevitable problem arises – what next for The Who?”
By the autumn of 1973 I was living in California, and I caught two consecutive Quadrophenia shows at the LA Forum on November 22 & 23. I remember being frustrated that the momentum of the shows was interrupted by the apparent need to explain the storyline of Quad. Nevertheless my MM report ended as follows: “Some 19,500 fans had stomped and cheered for over 15 minutes in the Forum, refusing to leave even though the house lights had been raised and probably well aware that The Who rarely do encores. But tonight their enthusiasm was rewarded with just that. The group came back and did an encore – actually ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ – only the second time I’ve seen this happen in watching The Who around 20 times now... they blasted through the song, climaxing with Townshend unstrapping the Gibson and, gripping the fretboard as if it were an axe, bringing it down on to the stage with a resounding crash time and time again until it cracked around the 12th fret.”
The following year I was in New York, of course, for the four June shows at Madison Square Garden which I cover extensively in other posts here. Then I was back in the UK in October ’75 for the two shows at Stafford, again covered in some detail here, before I found myself back on the East coast of the US again for another show at the Garden and one in Philadelphia. I think that Garden show followed one in Boston where Keith collapsed and the show was aborted as a result. I remember that afterwards, at the Navarro bar, he was nowhere to be seen, which was most unusual. Then someone told me he’s been confined to his room by Bill Curbishley, with a guard on the door.
The following year, in August, I saw them with Keith for the last time, at Jacksonville, on August 7. This was the show that wasn’t anywhere near sold out but they played an absolute blinder, and Pete, exhausted and still trance-like, told me afterwards that they were playing for the people who weren’t there.
So now we’re into the post-Keith era, during which all the shows I’ve seen have been in the UK, at Birmingham NEC, Wembley Arena, Shepherds Bush Empire, Watford Coliseum, London’s Earls Court, the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town in 2004 (my first without John), and – after my longest ‘Who break’ ever – finally Birmingham again earlier this week.
I wrote in my report of the Birmingham show that I’d felt disconnected from The Who after Keith died and I realise now that the same thing happened after John’s death. Both tragedies somehow took away my hunger for The Who, albeit temporarily, but I also refer to my ‘love affair’ with them and I think that like all love affairs that last for decades, albeit those that are a bit on and off, the tug is still there, won’t ever really go away completely. So Pete, Roger, John and Keith (and the rest)… thanks again for all these magnificent shows. No one does it better.