Among the other bits and pieces I found in my old folder of Who stuff was this silver programme from The Who’s ‘recital’ of Tommy at the New York Metropolitan Opera House on June 7, 1970, perhaps the most prestigious show they ever did. I wasn’t there, of course, having joined Melody Maker a month earlier, but I picked this up at Bleecker Bob’s record store in the Village for a few dollars when I landed in NY in 1973. The cover was designed by David Byrd and the image of the bloke with his wedding tackle on show is the same as used on the screens during the Who Hits 50 tour currently taking a break between US legs.
For those fans who never grabbed a copy of The Who Concert File, published by Omnibus is 1997, edited by yours truly and designed by Richard Evans, here’s what authors Joe McMichael and ‘Irish’ Jack Lyons had to say about the show:
“The Who kicked off their 1970 American Tour with two performances of Tommy in this prestigious 3,788–seat venue. Gross was $55,000.
“1st Set: ‘Heaven And Hell’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Young Man Blues’, ‘The Seeker’, ‘Water’, Tommy (21 songs), ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘My Generation’, ‘See Me, Feel Me’, ‘So Very Long’, ‘Naked Eye’, ‘Sparks’, improvisation, (encore) ‘Shakin’ All Over/Spoonful’, improvisation.
“2nd Set: ‘Heaven And Hell’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Water’, ‘The Seeker’, ‘Young Man Blues’, Tommy (21 songs), ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘Shakin’ All Over’, ‘My Generation’, ‘See Me, Feel Me’, ‘So Very Long’, improvisations, ‘Naked Eye’, improvisations, ‘Sparks’, improvisation.
“A Bill Graham/Nat Weiss co-promotion and the last and most famous of the opera house shows, with the tickets being sold at the Fillmore East. Rudolph Bing, director of the Met Opera Company, initially wouldn’t book The Who – he didn’t much like the idea of a loud, rowdy rock’n’roll group at his prestigious Lincoln Center concert hall – but he was invited to listen to the Tommy LP and this changed his mind and the booking was accepted for the loudest and rowdiest rock group of all. The concerts were promoted as being the last ever performances of Tommy. The audience and the Met didn’t mix too well, however, and Bill Graham himself was on hand to quell any potential disruptiveness. Both concerts received standing ovations of over ten minutes and VIP’s present included Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
“At the first show, every line of ‘Young Man Blues’ was cheered by the audience, as if in vocal agreement with the sentiment of the song. The new song ‘Water’ received its first airing in concert (at least in the States – it might have already been played in the UK). As Townshend commented: ‘In a way we feel that we have to play something new because it’s a special occasion. We haven’t really altered our act radically since the last time we played. This is one that’s appearing on our new album...’ Daltrey sang ‘Water’ with great power and commitment, it being a perfect vehicle for The Who’s onstage style. The highlights of Tommy during this performance (and others) were ‘Overture’, ‘Sparks’, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and the moving ‘See Me, Feel Me’. With the ‘opera’ dispensed with, the band ploughed straight into the frenzied rock’n’roll of ‘Summertime Blues’ and the ‘My Generation’ medley, which included the second new song ‘Naked Eye’. This was still rather rough in its structure, and although Pete Townshend sang the second verse (as on the final recording), the third verse was omitted and it moved into further improvisations.
“As he returned to the stage for a rare encore, Pete joked with an ecstatic Kit Lambert, ‘You really book us on some bum gigs, man!’ ‘Shakin’ All Over’ moved into a bludgeoning riff that became the basis for a wild, improvised instrumental, featuring a drum solo and some impromptu slide guitar playing (with the mike stand) from Townshend, forming one of the most unusual and exciting improvisations that The Who ever played. Pete finally threw his guitar about the stage, before casting it into the audience. It was caught by long-term Who fanatic – and later rock musician – Binky Phillips.
“Phillips later recalled the show vividly: ‘It was the best show I had ever seen. Pete came out there and showed everyone he didn’t give a damn about the opera. They were so violent and vicious. They sounded like the old Who. That was the night I caught Townshend’s guitar, which was the culmination of everything for me... Townshend walked to the tip of the stage with his busted guitar and looked at me as if to say ‘Are you ready?’ I stood up and all my friends stood back. They all wanted the guitar as badly as I did but they stepped back. It was like a Joe Namath pass over the 30–foot orchestra pit. It just fell right into me.’ (from The Who by John Swenson, 1979.)
“The second set was witnessed by many who had been present during the first show and had doubled up on tickets. Prior to Tommy, Townshend explained that the show was hopefully to be the last performance of the work, although he must have had doubts that the act could survive its loss so abruptly. ‘My Generation’ moved from ‘So Very Long’ into a few lines and guitar figures from ‘Water’ before moving into ‘Naked Eye’, and an improvisation which had been released already on Live At Leeds. The band didn’t return for an encore this time, and the discontented crowd wouldn’t disperse until Townshend reappeared alone, to face booing: ‘After two fucking hours, boo to you too...’ and he threw his mike stand into the crowd.
“Reviews were ecstatic. Albert Goldman said in Life (July 10): ‘Rock music may have reached its all-time peak with the recent performance at the Metropolitan Opera of Tommy... From the moment the boys walked on stage, it was obvious they were determined to give their greatest performance. Flashing their tawdry show tricks, they worked the Met as if it were a grind house in Yorkshire... Having outclassed the competition by miles and miles, The Who ought to be honoured at this point with a splendid award. I propose an architectural competition. The theme? The world’s largest opera house for the world’s smallest opera company.’
Fred Kirby wrote in Billboard (June 20) that The Who were as ‘dynamic as ever... While the two hours stretch may have been too much for many in the audience, The Who continue in a class by themselves when it comes to hard work.’
“Twenty years later, Roger Daltrey rated these two concerts as the finest The Who ever played, though at the time Rolling Stone thought that a rock act playing at the Met was merely a gimmick. Ever the non-conformist, Pete Townshend considered the Met shows ‘dire’.”