50 Years Ago: The Who Play Their First U.S. Show
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The Beatles had invaded America via The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. The Rolling Stones soon followed. But it took until 1967 for fellow British rockers the Who to make their live debut in the United States.
But when they did, they made an impression: deafening sound, smoke bombs, smashed-up guitars and tumbling drums coupled with a fierce, sneering attitude. And that was all in the 12 minutes of stage time that Pete Townshend and company were allotted.
That’s because the Who had signed on to a package show run by New York DJ Murray the K, titled Music in the Fifth Dimension. Set to start March 25, 1967, and run for eight more days at Manhattan’s RKO 58th Street Theater, the event was headlined by Mitch Ryder and also featured Wilson Pickett, the Blues Project (with Al Kooper), the Hardly-Worthit Players, Mandala, the Chicago Loop and Jim & Jean.
Cream (also making their American debut) were booked together with the Who, although Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were delayed until the second show on March 26. Smokey Robinson was on the poster, but the Motown star had gotten into an argument with Murray at rehearsals and dropped out of the show. Meanwhile, special guests on certain dates included Simon & Garfunkel, the Blues Magoos, the Young Rascals and Phil Ochs.
Not only did the concert have to find time for all of these acts, they whole performance took place five times a day, every day – from 10 a.m. until past midnight. Some acts only got to play one song. Having landed some singles on the radio and a current hit on the charts – “I Feel Free” and “Happy Jack,” respectively – Cream and the Who each were allotted 12 minutes to deliver two tunes (times five performances).
“We were smashing our instruments up five times a day,” Townshend recalled in Musician. “We used to play ‘Substitute’ and ‘My Generation’ with the gear – smashing it at the end, and then we’d spend the 20 minutes between shows trying to rebuild everything so we could smash it up again.”
It probably felt like 20 minutes between performances, but there was a little more time than that, what with all of the other bands, a mid-show dance contest run by Murray’s wife (Jackie the K – no, really) and plenty of vamping from the famous DJ. A film was run in between the concerts, and if early arrivers wanted to stay for five run-throughs, they were allowed to take it all in.
Many in the crowd were enraptured by the Who’s sound and antics, from John Entwistle’s powerful bass and Roger Daltrey’s microphone twirling to Keith Moon frantic drumming and Townshend’s punky swagger. Others, including Murray the K and soul legend Pickett, didn’t know what to make of the English band. The host wasn’t thrilled that Roger was continually breaking microphones while the R&B singer didn’t like the Who’s smoke bombs.
“Wilson Pickett called a meeting because we were using smoke bombs as well,” Townshend remembered, “and he felt that we were very unprofessional, and that the smoke was affecting everybody else’s act.”
Pickett wasn’t the only one dismayed by the unpleasant ramifications of the band’s special effects. In a piece about one of the shows the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein quotes one of the concert’s go-go dancers as saying “I smell the Who” after another explosion.
The Who made it through all nine days of their first American engagement. Perhaps it’s even more surprising that so did the band’s instruments… just barely. At the end of the run, on April 2, the quartet put a little extra muscle behind their destruction. Before the last show, they had decided the gear was too busted up to bring back to England.
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