Revisiting That Time the Who Brawled Onstage
The Who's early years were violent ones. We're not just talking ear-splitting volume and set-closing instrument wreckage, but a great deal of animosity between the boys. On May 20, 1966, those nasty feeling spilled over into an onstage fight in front of fans during a gig at the Ricky-Tick club.
In the middle of a string of gigs up and down the British Isles, the Who were playing host to Beach Boy Bruce Johnston on that night. Already an enormous Beach Boys fan, drummer Keith Moon got some extra time with Johnston by first taking him to the Ready Steady Go! studios and procuring a TV interview for him on the pop music program. Bassist John Entwistle came along, and the trio indulged in drinks and more, along with the other musicians on the show.
By the time the Who's rhythm section showed up late for their evening gig in Berkshire, they discovered that guitarist Pete Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey had begun the set without them. Tired of waiting for their bandmates, Townshend and Daltrey had eventually conscripted bass player Colin Strandring and drummer Geoff Brown of opening band the Jimmy Brown Sound.
Entwistle and Moon were pissed, in both senses of the word, and angrily took over midway through the performance. Moon, who was under the influence of more than merely alcohol, barked to Townshend about letting another guy use his kit, and the guitarist shot back with a remark about not caring enough to show up for the job.
The show went on, only to explode in a storm of violence during the “My Generation” finale. While destroying his drum kit, Moon's cymbal crashed into Townshend's leg. The guitarist then drove his guitar into a speaker, and missed, hitting the drummer.
“I wasn't hurt, just annoyed and upset," Townshend said in Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend. "Keith and John had been over two hours late. Then I swung out with my guitar not really meaning to hit Keith. I lost my grip on the instrument and it just caught him on the head."
An all-out brawl broke out from there. As the curtain came down, a club announcer supposedly remarked, "Don't worry, it's all part of the show."
Johnston, the mild-mannered Beach Boy, watched in amazement.
"I don't know what sparked it off," he remarked in Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon. "I just remember watching from the side of the stage, and all of a sudden they got in the biggest fight I've ever seen. Guitars are swinging, everybody's just in a frenzy."
The fight fizzled out and the bandmates assessed the damage backstage. Moon seemed to catch the worst of it, with a black eye, a cut that required stitches and an ankle injury. "Guys were bleeding," Johnston said. "The concert was one of the best things I'd ever seen, [but] I was thinking that maybe 'God Only Knows' was more fun to do."
News of the fight spread fast and even became the front-page story in NME. By way of the British rock magazine, Moon announced that both he and Entwistle were leaving the Who.
However, the departures were short-lived. Entwistle played with the Who the very next day. Townshend also made an attempt to apologize to Moon, though the drummer wouldn't see him. "In the beginning, I just couldn't get through to Peter," Moon said in Behind Blue Eyes. "We really have absolutely nothing in common apart from the music."
Townshend felt similarly. A few months before the fight, he had made his feelings clear about Moon: "I don't care what he thinks of me. He's the only drummer in England I really want to play with."
But Townshend would have to spend a small amount of time playing with other drummers. The Who played a run of gigs with replacement drummers (usually borrowed from opening bands) while Keith Moon held a grudge and licked his wounds. But by May 28, he was back to manning his kit.
The drummer's week-long hiatus wasn't just because of injury (to his ankle or ego). Moon's dissatisfaction with the fiery personalities in the Who caused him to pursue joining other groups that appeared to be happier collaborations – from the Animals to the Small Faces. Even though there would be more turbulent times ahead, Moon remained the Who's drummer until the day he died.
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