Eight days after I first saw The Who in person on August 9, 1969, at the Plumpton Racecourse near Lewis in East Sussex, they appeared at Woodstock, an epic performance played out in the most dreadful of circumstances that in many ways sealed their reputation as the greatest live band of their or any other era.
For reasons related to the 50-year copyright lapse, it is now possible to buy The Who’s full Woodstock set on a CD of questionable legitimacy advertised freely on the internet, as I did last week. Universal Music, which recently acquired The Who’s entire back catalogue in a deal worth a reputed $50 million, would be justified in taking legal steps to curtail such releases but seem disinclined to do so, probably because no sooner had they stamped on one pirate copy than another would crop up elsewhere.
In my book Tommy At 50, published in 2019, I was asked by the publishers to write a small feature on the Woodstock performance that was separate from the main text. “Most estimates suggest that as many as four hundred thousand were in attendance,” I wrote, “but disorganisation meant the band’s appearance occurred eight hours later than planned, and, in the meantime, they had inadvertently sipped drinks laced with LSD. The delay, the acid, and the difficulty their tour manager had experienced in extracting the balance of the group’s fee [$11,200] in cash from the promoters meant they were all in a foul temper. Finally, at around 4 a.m., they took the stage.”
Until I acquired the CD on the London Calling label (illustrated above) from Amazon last week I hadn’t heard The Who’s Woodstock set in its entirety which, according to the sleeve, was ‘broadcast on WNEW-FM’, the inference being that the recording is taken from the broadcast*. This, of course, is untrue. No act’s set from Woodstock was broadcast, not at the time anyway, though the entire festival was recorded on 8-track by the noted engineer/producer Eddie Kramer. We can therefore assume that the CD comes from Kramer’s tapes.
Originally, all that could be heard of The Who at Woodstock was ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, included on the triple Woodstock LP released by Atlantic in 1970, and ‘Sparks’, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘See Me Feel Me’ (ie, the coda of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’) on The Kids Are Alright double LP released in 1979. Additionally, I included what we called ‘The Abbie Hoffman Incident’ on the 1994 4-CD box set 30 Years Of Maximum R&B, which I think my co-producer Jon Astley found among Pete’s tape collection. Hoffman barged on stage in the middle of Tommy to express his disgust at the jailing of MC5 manager John Sinclair on drug charges. Pete dispatched him into the pit with a wave of his guitar, an action he later regretted. In 2019, however, The Who’s set was made available on Woodstock - Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, a very expensive 38-CD collection that was limited to just less than 2,000 copies, but those who’ve heard the disc with The Who on it claim the sound mix is poor, not an issue with the CD I bought.
So, what’s the CD like? It begins with an easily identifiable twang from John’s bass before the announcer, Chip Monck, speaks, somewhat profoundly. “Will you please warmly show your appreciation… a group that came to us specially for this festival… please warmly welcome The Who,” and without hesitation they crash into ‘Heaven And Hell’, the regular set opener during this run of shows. They sound like they mean business too, with John’s vocal ringing out loud and clear, Pete’s guitar wafting in and out of the mix until it settles and Keith exploding at the back. There’s a two-second delay before ‘I Can’t Explain’, a sharp, angry, needle-fine version that puts to the sword any ideas about this festival being about peace and love. I doubt that any performer could have taken Woodstock by the scruff of the neck like The Who did at four am that morning.
After ‘Explain’ the group embark on Tommy with no introduction, opening with ‘It’s A Boy’ as the ‘Overture’ wasn't played until later in the year. By now The Who had performed Tommy almost 50 times, in both the UK and US, and what follows over the 17 linked songs is as fluent a chunk of Who live musicianship as you would expect after such training. ‘Amazing Journey’, a bit faster than usual, bursts out; ‘Sparks’, already heard elsewhere, opens with a distorted rumble from John and screaming feedback guitar from Pete through the endlessly repetitive opening section before sliding into the lighter octave drops and surging peaks, Keith skittering around his kit, as towering a version of this Who staple as you’ll hear anywhere; ‘Eyesight To The Blind’ sees Roger, Pete and John singing in perfect unison; and ‘Christmas’ features Pete roaring ‘Tommy can you hear me’ before Roger replies ‘See me, feel me…’ for the first time. When Pete repeats his lines, he sounds truly deranged.
By now it’s clear the group are on a roll, the indignities of earlier in the day forgotten in the rush of their performance. ‘Acid Queen’ fairly zings along, followed by the intricate ‘Pinball’ strum, again a bit faster than usual, and in the final verse John conjures up a drone of feedback for Roger to sing over. With this momentum having been achieved it’s no wonder Pete angrily dismissed Abbie Hoffman who intrudes before ‘Do You Think It’s Alright’. On this recording, however, there are edits that weren’t there on 30 Years…. The word “shit” (Hoffman) is edited out, while Pete’s “Fuck off my fucking stage” is so low in the mix as to be unheard unless maximum speaker volume is applied.
Tommy continues at this frenetic pace until the end, the already released ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, with ‘I’m Free’ another vigorous workout. Finally, there’s ‘See Me Feel Me’, commented upon by Roger in the eight-page pamphlet accompanying the disc. “Shortly after 6 we got to ‘See Me Feel Me’ and the bleeding sun came up. Right on cue. You couldn’t have topped it. After all the shit we’d been through, it was perfect. It was extraordinary. It was one of those moments you couldn’t ever recreate if you tried. Once in a lifetime.”
The Tommy presented here is certainly on a par with the live versions from Leeds and Hull now circulating (or any others for that matter). This, of course, is a much earlier reading – perhaps the earliest on record – which finds The Who performing their opera long before they became weary of it. It shows too. Despite the arduous circumstances surrounding the Woodstock festival, there’s a spring in their step, a sure sign they’ve lost none of their enthusiasm for Pete’s first magnum opus. If it had been available to me, I’d have included ‘Amazing Journey’ (as well as the ‘Sparks’/’Underture’) on 30 years…
But the show wasn’t over yet. After the 8-minute 46-second climax to their opera The Who lurched into a brutal ‘Summertime Blues’ (as seen in the movie, split screen too) and, without hesitating, ‘Shakin’ All Over’. Both are played ferociously, as good as Leeds. “Ladies and gentleman, The Who,” says Monck, a bit of an understatement, as the crowd cheer. Pete returns. “Thank you very much indeed,” he says, sounding quite humble. “We’d like to play a song which, kinda, is our… we knew we were gonna come back and do it… this is kinda our hymn. It’s a song about you and me, we’re getting a bit old now, it a song called ‘My Generation’.”
The bass solo never sounded better, and neither had Roger though the backing vocals – ‘Talkin’ about…” – seem a bit strained which isn’t surprising considering the trial they’d endured before. ‘My Generation’ ends suddenly, followed by loose chords from Pete that morph into the licks that would eventually wind up as the chorus of ‘Naked Eye’. Roger is largely frozen out, and a fairly tight jam breaks down after about three minutes when Keith and Pete lose the plot, only to reconnect moments later. Then, as seen on film, the Gibson SG that Pete used gets some abuse and is thrown into the crowd.
As I wrote in 50 Years Of Tommy: “The ovation they receive was long and loud, still ringing in their ears as they hopped aboard a helicopter that took them to New York City. The performance onstage and in the subsequent film of the event turned The Who into superstars, brand leaders of the stadium rock explosion waiting just around the corner.
“Later, though, all of The Who, especially the guitarist, would say how much they hated Woodstock. ‘Fucking awful,’ was their most common observation.
“The next show The Who played, on August 22, was at the Market Hall in Shrewsbury in Shropshire, England, where the capacity was just short of one thousand.”
*Indeed, a note in the accompanying booklet states that all London Calling releases feature “FM radio broadcasts from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s”.