Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Brief History of The Who - Part 1

On March 28, 1967, The Who had their U.S. debut at New York City’s now long gone RKO theater at East 58th St. and 3rd Ave. The show was one of those package concerts with 11 acts on the bill presented by famed DJ Murray the K. The Who performed only two songs, "Substitute" and "My Generation."

Pete Townshend smashed up a blond-on-blond Fender Telecaster, the American mindset forever warped, twisted beyond redemption. There was a humanity up on stage, but there was an angry, incensed lack of humanity as well, a knee-jerk violent reaction to a world that that year would go on to colorfully waggle its fingers in the air in a sign of peace. The Who weren't that starry-eyed troop, comprehending the realities of the day, the backlash of love by the establishment. Like the mirror in Tommy, AM’s rose colored glasses are shattered by The Who's violently intense reality. It was the era of Love-Ins, of the Human Be-in; The Who weren’t buying it.

Thirteen weeks following the all-too-brief live taste of Who honey, came the first full-length Who concert, July 8, 1967, once again in New York at the very run-down Village Theater on Second Avenue at East 6th St. (not long after it would become the Fillmore East). Boiling it down to the nub, The Who put on the most outlandish and visually arresting show ever seen by an American audience – to this day.

And this was no Murray the K retrospective (still lacking any real continuity), with two excellent acts warming up, Richie Havens and The Blues Project, and one bathroom-break known as Chrysalis (who were essentially shouted off the stage with cries of "We want The Who").

Silhouettes on a nearly black stage indicated an enormous amount of gear being dragged on stage, and then, without fanfare or warning, The Who thundered into "Substitute." There were three Vox Super Beatle amps on either side of Keith Moon's enormous double-bass drum kit with its cool drippy neon-colored psychedelic graphics, Union Jacks, and sepia pin-up girls from the 1900s over a black background. None of that mattered – Moony could have performed on a Fisher Price junior drum kit and still over-powered the amps. John Entwistle wore his infamous Union Jack jacket, complete with a garish candy-apple red Fender Jazz bass with matching headstock; his black-as-coal hair and mutton-chop sideburns  exactly like his publicity shots. He looked unreal, like a photo in a fan mag come to life. Roger was dressed exactly as he was at Monterey Pop in a foppish shiny blouse that looked like he'd nicked from his Gran's closet. The single most unconvincing cross-dresser in history, Roger exuded actual menace; you knew he'd put guys in hospitals, and not for the last time. Pete, head to toe in icy white, was playing a sunburst Stratocaster.

America’s exposure to The Who at that point had been limited to scant radio play that in 1965 saw "My Generation" make to only No. 74, and "The Kids Are Alright" failing to break the top 100. In 1966, "Happy Jack" made it, surprisingly, to No. 24 and "I Can See for Miles" breaking into the top ten. None of these American hits could have prepared the audience that night at the Village for a concert to end all concerts (even despite a mid-show power outage). The set list, which included "Pictures of Lily," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," "Boris the Spider," and a finale that included "My Generation" replete with smashed guitar, reverb and enough raw energy to power Manhattan, was only an inkling of what was yet to come. In the UK, The Who had come to life as 60’s mod pop, with hits like "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" "I Can't Explain," and the Beatles sound-alike "The Kids are Alright." In the U.S., instead, The Who launched themselves into the American spotlight without the Mod sensibilities and straight into the annals of hard rock, a term a bit cliché these days, a term my mother would use, but at the time, hard rock was like a switch went off for most of us. We'd found pop in a myriad of places, in Dylan and the Laurel Canyon set, in The Beatles and The Turtles and Simon and Garfunkel. The Who, though, with March 28, 1967 as the point of departure, ushered in Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Hendrix.