Keith, Bobby & CC, New York, 1971
It has been brought to my attention that Bobby Pridden, The Who’s long lasting, loyal and oh-so dependable soundman is to retire from roadwork on doctor’s orders. It’s a bit of a cliché to describe roadies as the ‘fifth (or sixth) member of the group’, as Neil Aspinall was so described with The Beatles and Ian Stewart with The Rolling Stones, but no one deserves this title more than Bobby as far as The Who are concerned. Like Nell and Stu, Bobby was no mere roadie, of course, and I understand he'll still be on call if needed in the studio.
Bobby’s first gig with The Who was on December 15, 1966, at the Locarno Ballroom at Streatham in South London, and since that night he has mixed the sound from the side of the stage at every Who concert everywhere, year after year, thousands of them. Barring the band, who can’t see themselves anyway, no one in the world has watched The Who perform more often than Bobby Pridden.
Uniquely amongst bands of their stature, The Who insisted that their mixing desk be placed not in the centre of the audience but at the side of the stage, on Pete’s side, so that their athletic guitarist could convey such instructions as he felt necessary to redeem any shortcomings in the quality of the sound; in other words, so that Pete might scream at Bobby if he couldn’t hear himself or his guitar didn’t sound right. No man alive has suffered more abuse from Pete than Bobby and then come back for more, and more, and more. Why? Because Bobby loves The Who more than any of us, probably more than Pete and John, but maybe not as much as Roger and Keith; Roger because he always felt (and still does) that they are his band and Keith because, well, The Who was all he had really.
In The Who Concert File, a book I was pleased to edit and to which I contributed, Bobby describes how his arrival in the Who camp was the result of his friendship with John ‘Wiggy’ Wolfe, another old school Who stalwart who worked for them as tour manager and then lighting designer. “I was going to get a job with The Easybeats and I met John ‘Wiggy’ Wolfe at the station,” he says. “He lived near me. He asked me what I was up to and I told him that I was looking for a gig. He just said, ‘Well, I’m going to the office. Are you interested in a job with The Who?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ I arrived there and was introduced to several people and then Pete turned up. He said, ‘Ah, so I hear you’re going to be our new roadie’, and he started to poke his finger into my forehead. It was extraordinary.
“Then one night I went out for a drink with John and Keith, and, according to John, I signed and sealed my employment with them because I bought them all a drink. They thought that was marvellous. They had just finished their second album, A Quick One. We rehearsed for the afternoon and that night they went on stage and I couldn’t believe it; I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I’d always been into music but I’d never seen anything with such energy as this before. Pete came onstage looking very hip. John was well dressed too but didn’t move a muscle all evening. Roger whirled microphones around and Keith’s sticks were going everywhere. At the end they just smashed everything to pieces. I was standing on the side of the stage and couldn’t believe what was going on. There was this pile of broken equipment all over the stage and I thought ‘Oh, my God’. I was in a state of shock. They walked off stage and Roger turned to me and said ‘Bobby, get it fixed for tomorrow!’”
This baptism of fire was further established a couple of weeks later when, on December 30 at the Baths Hall in Cheam, Bobby had to pay for a new guitar out of his own pocket when Pete’s was stolen backstage. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Occasionally asked to sing backing vocals on stage in the early days as well as mend amps and guitars with a tool kit, glue and soldering iron, Bobby’s true value to The Who came when he was entrusted with ensuring that their amplification and on-stage sound was the best in the business. Elevated from mere roadie to sound engineer in 1969, he became a world expert on stage amplification, always at the cutting edge, and much sought after for his expertise.
As it says in the Concert File, “Unlike a whole legion of heavy metal bands who took their cue from their pioneering ‘bigger-louder-wall-of-Marshalls’ approach, The Who’s sound always had depth, clarity and musical muscle within the decibel output. The skills of sound-engineer Bob Pridden and a commitment to developing and investing in new technology meant The Who always sounded better than all other groups. Significantly, when most established groups were using Marshall amplifiers – which The Who had helped to develop – the band switched to a different system involving Hi-Watt, Sunn and WEM equipment.”
To this end Bobby – nicknamed Ben Pump by Ronnie Lane – designed and maintained a series of state-of-the-art PA systems for The Who, among them the one used at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival which happened to be the biggest available in the UK at that time. It was always a matter of pride for Bobby that The Who sounded better than any other band on the circuit. To him, they were the best and therefore deserved the best equipment. This much was apparent when The Who followed The Faces at London's Oval Cricket Ground in September 1971. “The Faces played a good set,” Billy Nicholls told Faces biographer and Who archivist Andy Neill, “and I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be interesting’. Then the Who came on with their new sound system and it was like someone had notched it up. I remember Rod looking very stone faced because he could tell the difference. The sound, lights, everything was so much clearer and better.”
Nevertheless, to be the best and remain the best is not an easy berth. At Newcastle on November 5, 1973, five days into the UK Quadrophenia tour, Pete famously ran amok when the backing tapes of pre-recorded synthesiser music that enabled them to reproduce the new album as it sounded on record went out of sync. Pete exploded, dragging Bobby out from his mixing desk, smashing his guitar onto the stage and tearing down the backing tapes and equipment. As if this humiliation wasn’t enough, Bobby was also called upon to buy a replacement Gibson Les Paul out of his own pocket the following day. What a relief it must have been when The Who's bank balance enabled them to simply buy new gear instead of having to repair old.
I wasn’t at that Newcastle concert but I was at Madison Square Garden in New York on June 10, 1974, another less than satisfactory show. Again, I chronicled my thoughts in the Concert File book: “The crowd of 20,000 stamped and cheered for 15 minutes but the band did not return for an encore, largely because they were arguing with each other backstage about the concert’s shortcomings. Unjustly, the ever loyal Bob Pridden was the focus of their anger.
“There was a terrible atmosphere backstage… The Who were screaming at each other behind a locked dressing room door. Kit Lambert, who wasn’t often seen at Who concerts by 1974, had turned up unexpectedly, drunk as a lord and demanding to mix the on-stage PA in future, a ludicrous suggestion, and that didn’t help matters at all. Bobby ran out of the dressing room shouting that he was through with The Who, and I ran after him, taking him into another room and spending ages telling him not to quit, and of course he didn’t. He would never quit because he loved them so much. Poor Bob really caught it in the neck so many times. He was the real fifth member of The Who. They couldn’t do without him.”
After that series of Who concerts in New York, the next time I saw Bobbby was on Eric Clapton’s ‘comeback’ tour in 1974. He told me that doing the sound for Clapton was like a holiday compared with working for The Who. At other times when The Who weren’t working Bobby managed John’s studio at Stowe-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, staying for a while in a cottage on John’s estate. Closer to the bass player than the others, he was distraught at John’s death, numb with grief at his funeral.
I’ve bumped into Bobby many times over the years since those days, and we’ve always exchanged memories and laughs. He’s diplomatic too, never one to utter an indiscretion about his employers, no matter how harshly he may have been treated at one time or another. The fact is, the vast majority of Who shows went off without a hitch soundwise thanks to his presence, dancing at the desk as he adjusted the faders, a bopping elf as recognisable to fans as the opening blast of ‘I Can’t Explain’. His departure from the role he’s created will leave an enormous gap, not just at Pete’s side of the stage, but in the psyche of the band, especially that fellow who yelled at him so much. It really is the end of an era in the same way that the loss of Keith and John was. Bobby Pridden deserves the gratitude of every Who fan everywhere. The best you ever had.