The first time I saw The Who in America was at Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina on November 20, 1971, on my first visit to the US. The ostensible purpose of my trip was to attend, on behalf of Melody Maker, a party in New York thrown by RCA Records to celebrate their signing The Kinks, an eye-opening indication of the way that record companies threw their money around in 1971. Catching a Who concert as well came about as a result of circumstances I hadn’t envisaged when I boarded the plane at Heathrow.
I was in a group of four, staying at the swanky Plaza Hotel where The Beatles stayed on their first visit to NY; in charge was Rodney Burbeck, RCA’s press officer, and as well as myself there were writers from NME and the London Evening Standard.
I was deliriously excited to be visiting the US for the first time, and can remember queueing for my visa at the Embassy in Grosvenor Square. I had to hand over a letter from MM’s editor which explained the purpose of my visit, and fill in a form declaring I had never been a member of the Communist Party and would not seek to overthrow the Government of the United States during my stay. We flew on an early jumbo jet, a plane that had only come into service the previous year, and so great was the novelty of watching a film as I flew over the Atlantic that I can still remember its name: The Anderson Tapes, in which Sean Connery starred as a the leader of a gang of thieves who rob every apartment in a tall building in Manhattan – which just happened to be my destination.
We were met at JFK by the driver of a long black limousine, the first I’d ever seen, and driven ever so smoothly into Manhattan. I was star-struck at the sights, sound and smell of America. The roads were called expressways or parkways or boulevards. There were green highway signs, toll booths, flashing neon lights, big American cars, yellow cabs, steam rising from the streets and buildings taller than any I’d ever seen before, row on row of enormous skyscrapers.
On my first night in New York our hosts took us to dinner and a Broadway musical. When my head hit the pillow my wristwatch, still in UK time, said it was 4.30am, and the following morning I awoke early in my Plaza bed with my first dose of jet lag. I ordered coffee and breakfast on room service, switched on the TV and discovered something about America I didn’t like – the endless crass adverts. When the food arrived the bellboy hung around waiting for his tip, but all I had were five $20 bills. I told him to come back later. I liked his crispy bacon and scrambled eggs though, and the coffee was the best I’d ever tasted.
That day RCA had laid on touristy things. We all went to the top of the Empire State Building and there was a boat trip around Manhattan, but I opted out and went off on my own, hailing my first yellow cab. ‘Bleecker Street,’ I told the driver, not knowing where it was, only that I wanted to walk in the freewheelin’ footsteps of Bob Dylan. I went into a coffee shop in the Village and for the first time in my life ate a sandwich with multiple ingredients. If you ordered a ham and cheese sandwich in the UK you’d have been asked which, ham or cheese. Here you could have both ham and cheese between two fat slices of bread pinned together with a cocktail stick to stop everything from falling out. What a stunning idea.
In the evening we went to The Kinks’ party which was held at the Playboy Club on East 59th Street. I guess no one worried too much in those days about waitresses with fluffy tails wearing corsets, bunny ears and a fixed smile. Ray, Dave, Mick and the rest were there, of course, and so – to my delight and surprise – were two new pals of mine, John and Keith from The Who, shepherded by tour boss John ‘Wiggy’ Wolff. Turned out they had stopped off for a night or two in New York on their way to Charlotte in North Carolina, the first date on an upcoming Who tour of the US.
I can’t remember much about the party itself, only that there were rivers of free booze served by bunny girls, one of whom might have been Debbie Harry, and that Ray and some bigwig from RCA made short speeches. What I remember as clear as day, however, is that when it wound down John, Keith and Wiggy invited me to share a cab downtown to visit Nobodys, the rock’n’roll bar on Bleecker Street. I’d heard that Nobodys was the NY equivalent of the Speakeasy in London, very debauched and teeming with groupies, but I wasn’t impressed. It was just one big room with a bar in the corner.
I was dog-tired and drunk by now, of course, but in the dim light over more brandies John and Keith told me about the imminent Who tour and suggested I join them. It sounded like a great idea but I was conflicted because this might not sit well with RCA and The Kinks, who’d paid for my trip to NY. Diplomacy was required.
During the course of my time in New York I repeatedly asked if I could interview Ray and Dave Davies but my requests were stalled. ‘We’ll get back to you on it,’ I was told, but I heard nothing. I learned that on the last night of our stay The Kinks, whose music I loved, were playing a gig somewhere in upstate New York but no one from RCA or The Kinks’ management seemed willing to take me there or even arrange transport. I thought this was absurd. I’d come all this way and was staying three nights in the Plaza at great expense, and all I could write about was a knees-up in the bloody Playboy Club. MM’s circulation was 200,000 a week in those days, and here was a fantastic opportunity for me to do a big piece on The Kinks, maybe focusing on their uneasy relationship with America, but the general indolence surrounding them made this impossible. No one could be bothered.
So I decided to hell with it – I’d write about The Who instead. In those days their American affairs were handled by Pete Rudge whom I’d befriended when he worked for Track in the UK. Pete now had an office in NY on 57th Street that he shared with Vicki Wickham, and the morning after the party, indecently hungover and still jetlagged, I walked there from the Plaza, past the Russian Tea Room and Carnegie Hall. Two days into my visit I was beginning to like walking the streets of New York, just observing everything and everyone around me. I decided I could learn to like this town. Six years later I would bump into Ray Davies on 57th Street and together we would mourn Elvis who had died the week before.
Pete Rudge wasn’t around when I reached his offices but Vicki was and she told me he would be at some lunchtime record company bash in a restaurant on the Upper East Side. Vicki and I went together and when I cornered Pete I explained my situation to him. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t hesitate for a moment to arrange travel for me so I could report on the opening night of The Who’s tour in Charlotte. When I got back to the Plaza I re-booked my flight to London and told Rodney Burbeck I wouldn’t be returning to the UK with everybody else the following day. He wasn’t best pleased, but there was nothing he could do. I wasn’t the most popular guest at an RCA dinner on that final night in NY but all the while I couldn’t help but contrast and compare the decisiveness of The Who’s management with the lethargy of The Kinks’.
The next 24 hours were memorable to say the least. I met up with The Who at La Guardia and on the plane down the East Coast sat next to Pete [Townshend]. He told me about an impending visit to Myrtle Beach, the location of the world’s biggest Meher Baba centre, and how on a recent visit to a wealthy friend’s home Florida a stunning girl in a bikini had propositioned him as he relaxed by a pool. This led to a discussion on the temptations faced by married rock stars but we were interrupted when the plane hit turbulence, and as we were tossed about in the sky Pete suddenly developed a nose bleed. It was a regular commercial flight, with two seats in each row. I was sat by the window with Pete in the aisle, so he twisted sideways in his seat and leant over backwards with his head in my lap looking up at me. I asked the stewardess for a damp cloth and applied it to his nose, well aware that I had unexpectedly become responsible for the most famous nose in rock. This was not part of the MM job description.
Charlotte was very different from New York but also very different from English provincial cities. The streets were wider and there was so much more space everywhere, lots more green and huge free parking lots. Everything just seemed bigger, the stores, the gas stations, the fast food restaurants. Back home everything seemed cramped in comparison, and messier too. I shared a limo with The Who from the airport to their hotel, a modest Holiday Inn, and waiting for them was a package freighted from MCA in Los Angeles containing advance copies of Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy. We all sat around in Pete Rudge’s room admiring it. I still have the copy I was given that day.
When The Who arrived at the Charlotte Coliseum around 7pm it was packed with 13,000 expectant fans for what was their début in North Carolina. Graham Bell and his band Arc supported, and I think Tony Stratton-Smith, the head of Bell’s label Charisma, was there too, but his lot were staying in a different hotel.
Pete Rudge gave me a backstage button, which I retained as a keepsake (and is pictured above), and I was hanging around in the dressing room chatting with Keith before The Who went on stage. Ever inquisitive, he proposed we go on a voyage of discovery and in a storage room along a winding corridor we discovered a perfect instrument of mischief, a man-sized hollow wooden egg on a four-wheeled cart used in parades. Keith concealed himself inside the egg and I towed him back towards the dressing room where he intended to leap out and surprise everyone. Indeed, he was hatching a plot to be wheeled on stage in this contraption. Unfortunately, en route to the dressing room there was a steeply sloping downhill curve, and I lost control, causing it to crash, the egg to topple over and Keith to come tumbling out head first. The noise alerted a security guard who arrived on the scene in a very bad temper. He failed to recognise The Who’s drummer, and only our English accents saved us from being chucked out into the car park.
I watched the show from the side of the stage, a few rows up on Pete’s side. This was the sixth time I’d seen them since the Oval in September, my most concentrated period of Who observance ever, so I was pretty familiar with their set, but you could never take things for granted with The Who. I knew by now that anything could happen and I was never disappointed. After all, I’d seen Keith bash his drums with a cricket bat at the Oval, John Sebastian join them at Guildford, and Keith run up the aisle through the audience to the stage at the Rainbow where the show started late because Roger couldn’t be found. Turned out he was attending to the needs of a female admirer on the roof of the building.
They ran on stage at Charlotte and opened with ‘I Can’t Explain’, reaching the familiar riff after a ragged jam, and then played ‘Summertime Blues’, a loosener before the more complex songs, five in all, from Who’s Next. The stage wasn’t too high off the ground and there were concerns the audience might rush to the front and try to climb up, but they calmed down once The Who got into their stride. If, as seems likely, the Charlotte fans were seeing them for the first time they were not disappointed. That casual panache, that extraordinary blend of rashness and fluency, humour and sincerity, vigour and ease, that awe-inspiring experience of seeing The Who at the height of their powers that I’ve written about so much before, won over another town in another American state right before my eyes.
The concert took on an added momentum during a reduced Tommy medley of five songs which, judging by the reaction, was what the crowd had come to hear. After its ‘See Me, Feel Me’ climax, they launched into ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’, which became an extended jam, and they closed with ‘My Generation’ morphing into ‘Naked Eye’, all delivered by what I believed was the best rock band in the world in full flight. The only logical way to draw the proceedings to a close was for its guitarist to inflict damage to the speaker stacks behind him.
In Melody Maker (November 27 issue) I would write: “The Tommy medley was the highlight and the vast sea of faces illuminated when the arc lights shone down on the crowd was an indescribable sight... Townshend knocked his speakers over at the end as the group rushed from the stage.”
In the calm of the dressing room the four young men slurped drinks. As ever, they took it for granted what they’d just done. There was no preening, no back-slapping. There never was. I was hoping, however, there might be some fun and games back at the hotel.
While Pete Rudge stayed behind with the promoter to count the proceeds, I left the Charlotte venue in the back of a limousine with the four members of The Who and Wiggy sat in the front seat next to the driver. Trapped in traffic leaving the car park, John said: “You know you’ve made it when you get stuck in your own traffic jam.” Pete laughed and said you’d only made it when you’d figured out how to avoid getting stuck in your own traffic jam.
Back at the hotel we all headed for the bar. Roger soon left, accompanied by a girl who smiled like she’d won the lottery, and before long Pete and John left too, alone I think. When the bar shut I wound up in Keith’s room with some Who crew, a local fan or two who’d discovered our whereabouts, maybe the odd intrepid girl, two bottles of champagne, some vodka and a mini-bar that was soon exhausted. Some of Keith’s guests were watching a movie on a TV mounted on a bracket on the wall, but not Keith who was telling jokes and laughing at them himself. “Did you hear the one about the two nuns and the goat?”
Keith was talking too loud for those watching TV. Someone asked him to make less noise. “We’re trying to watch a movie.”
This was a catastrophic mistake. As calm as you like, our host strode over to the TV set and, without even bothering to unplug it, wrenched it from its mounting, carried it to the window and lobbed it through the glass. We were about eight floors up. There was a tremendous crash. “As I was saying…,” continued Keith to his now speechless audience. “There were these two nuns and a goat…”
It took about three minutes for the night porter to arrive. Keith was ready for him, and before the hapless man could even open his mouth Keith hit his stride. “I don’t know how I can possibly apologise for that terrible accident,” he began in exaggerated Queen’s English. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am, dear boy. I was trying to move the television closer to the window so that more of my guests could watch it from the bed when it slipped from my grasp and, heaven forbid, fell through the window… just the most awful thing to happen, a really dreadful accident... I just hope no-one was beneath it. Where did it fall? In the car park? Oh dear, what a terrible thing to have happened. How much will it cost? I can pay you now…”
And it so it went on, with Keith never allowing the porter to get a word in edgeways until, finally, compensation having been agreed, the porter was about to leave and return with some material with which to effect a temporary repair on the window, which Keith had requested. Meanwhile, all of us had somehow managed to suppress our laughter. Finally, as a crowning gesture, Keith delivered the killer blow: “Er... if you’re coming back would you be so kind as to bring two more bottles of chilled champagne and…” Keith hesitated for just the right number of seconds, “… another TV?”
The following morning I went down for breakfast in the dining room, arriving just as Roger was polishing off the American equivalent of a full English. I was surprised to see him there. “Bit of trouble with Keith last night,” he said as I took a seat at his table. I nodded, wondering how he knew. “Bloody typical. Bloody idiot.”
I told Roger I hadn’t expected to see him in the dining room. “Bird was still asleep,” he said by way of an explanation. “A bit tired. Didn’t ’ave the ’eart to wake her, so came down ’ere.” He polished off his cup of coffee and stood up. “I will now though. Nothing beats a blow job after eggs and bacon.”
And that was the last I saw of The Who, collectively at least, until August 17 the following year in Amsterdam. Aside from Roger, I didn’t see any of them before I left their hotel. Pete was headed to Myrtle Beach on a day off and I don’t know whether the other three hung out in Charlotte for the day or left immediately for the next show 48 hours later in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I checked out of the hotel, got a cab to the airport, then flew back to NY and on to London after an unforgettable introduction to America.