Eyewitness: The Who’s 1967 NYC Debut

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A mind-blowing full concert in 1967 by the Modfathers of Classic Rock was transformational
The Who get explosive later that year on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

The Who get explosive later that year on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

In the spring and summer of 1967, at the age of 14, I got a one-two punch from The Who that made me into a devoted fan of the band if not a Who fanatic for life.

First came a quick one on March 28, when I saw The Who’s 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.”

I watched Pete Townshend smash up a blond-on-blond Fender Telecaster exactly like the one my Dad had bought me 90 days earlier. My mind was forever warped. Twisted beyond redemption. That day, I didn’t see human beings on stage.

I’d seen The Beatles at Forest Hills on August 29, 1964 (Thanks forever, Dad). And The Rolling Stones on November 5, 1965 (Thanks forever again, Dad). Both were life-altering experiences as well. But even in my utter fandom I found humanity in my idols. Not so those two songs by The Who that blustery March afternoon. That day, I saw gods: Pete, Roger, Keith and John.

murraykshow-stageview

Onstage at the Murray the K show/Photo source: The Who.net

Thirteen weeks after my initial and all-too-brief live Who taste, on July 8, 1967, I went to the first full-length Who concert in New York at the very run-down-but-once-sorta-glorious Village Theater on Second Avenue at East 6th St. (not long later to become the Fillmore East). Boiling it down to the nub, The Who put on the most outlandish and visually arresting show I’d ever seen…. To this day.

Typical of the concerts of that era, the bill included a light show and three musically unrelated acts prior to the band that had already thrilled me beyond belief on record and at that Murray the K extravaganza. I loved the “Psycholoramic Lights,” though In retrospect it was anemic crap compared to the Joshua Light Show, still eight months away from arriving with Bill Graham to transform this pit of a theater into the fabled Fillmore East. But knowing no better I dug the effects.

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I sat through the noble but after three songs monochromatic Richie Havens with my fellow Who freak pal, the late Anthony Jones, later bassist in my own band, The Planets. Next up, The Blues Project. This was a hot hot band! Very tight. Very tough. As close as New York City got to the mighty Paul Butterfield Blues Band in Chicago.

Keith's famed "Pictures of Lily" drum kit made its U.S, debut that July '67 night

Keith’s famed “Pictures of Lily” drum kit made its U.S. debut that July ’67 night.

We then suffered the first 15 minutes of Chrysalis, a dishwater local band that long ago disappeared under the waves. And along with a few dozen other brats made them suffer the next 15 minutes or so with lusty teenage cries of “Get off the stage!” and “We want The Who!”

Then, finally….

The stage was extra dark while The Who’s gear was put in place. Silhouettes indicated an enormous amount of gear being dragged on stage.

And then, with no warning, stage lights blasted on as The Who hit the beginning of “Substitute.”

There were three Vox Super Beatle amps on either side of Keith Moon’s enormous double-bass drum kit. In 1967, this looked like a Wall of Death by guitar and bass. Keith’s sensational drum kit outshone the six amps, soon enough literally. The entire kit was covered with cool drippy neon-colored psychedelic graphics, Union Jacks, and sepia pin-up girls from the 1900s over a black background. Dazzling! A work of art as much as a musical instrument. Now an iconic rock drum kit, this was its first appearance in New York.

John Entwistle was wearing 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 were exactly like his publicity shots. Pale skin almost to actual white against the jet hair. 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, a touch of transvestism atop a hard-as-granite nut. As if Norman Bates’ mother was the singer of the band. The single most unconvincing crossdresser in history, Roger exuded actual menace; you knew he’d put guys in hospitals. Very very odd! Disconcerting even. Like, purposely 359 degrees off. Oh, and, without a doubt, the first guy I ever saw in two inch heels.

Pete, head to toe in icy white, was playing a sunburst Stratocaster. This, of course, meant, within seconds of the show beginning, I now had to also have a Fender Stratocaster, period. No discussion.

During the guitar solo in “Substitute,” every light on stage suddenly went out. And the entire drum kit was glowing. They’d surrounded Keith’s drum riser with black lights. You could only see Pete and John’s snow white pants, the swirling multi-neon-colored graphics on Keith’s kit… and Keith’s twirling drumsticks that glowed green in the dark. After the show, I saw someone in the lobby with one of Keith’s sticks. It was indeed pale green and at the grip end of the stick was stamped, “Keith Moon – The Who – Pictures Of Lily.” I’ve never seen another since.

The highlight of the whole show – besides the last 30 seconds, of course – was my first-ever exposure to “a new one for us”, as Roger garbled in an intensely thick London accent, “It’s an old rock ‘n’ roll number by Eddie Cochran… ‘Summertime Blues!'”

John flew his Union Jack in the Colonies at the show

John flew his Union Jack in the Colonies at the show.

That song floored me. Still does! (Fun to note that Pete inverted the same three chords as in “Summertime Blues” and came up with his classic, “Baba O’Riley.”)

The Who then played a superbly raw but tight take on their latest single, “Pictures Of Lily,” contrary to Pete’s swearing they never played it in the USA back then. It was also the one time I saw them perform one of Pete’s less-heralded masterpieces, “So Sad About Us,” which he announced simply as, “So Sad”.

The longer a band is playing onstage, even if they may seem to us like godsthe more human they become. This happened with The Who to the least extent of any band I’ve ever seen. But, yes, by about the sixth song, they started taking on a certain almost-human quality and I was able to start analyzing the sounds I was hearing.

One of their most significant sonic qualities came from the fact that all three instrumentalists had deliberately exaggerated their high end. While Townshend and Entwistle’s guitars rumbled and thundered, both had a very raw almost brittle top end to their sound. Add to that the fact that Keith, ever the complete rule breaker, rode on his crash cymbals. This alone created a white noise wash across the sonic spectrum of The Who, akin to a jet engine, as Roger described Moon’s playing the first time he sat in with the band on Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” (also the song where Pete “discovered” his patented string-scrape with his pick). Combine the three layers of sizzling high end and, while you heard the music clearly, there was this sonic element that was just, well, intimidating and uniquely aggressive. An aural assault!

And when Pete hit his fuzz-pedal, Jesus, it wasn’t really even music anymore.

I had simply never seen or heard anyone play bass remotely like John Entwistle (and God, he and Keith had the coolest last names in any Brit band). He just flew around the neck, wildly spinning out flowing riffs, unwinding like an endless serpent. He was theatrical in his fingering, making both hands look like spiders leaping around, even from the 15th row. And John “The Ox”… was… LOUD!

Pete’s guitar could and would fight through, but fight was the operative word throughout the entire set. It was at this show that I realized John’s semi-subtle shoulder-shrugging sighs of boredom were as much theater as Roger’s mic-lasso, Keith’s stick-twirling and Pete’s leaps and windmills.

The concert also gave my first taste of just how utterly skewed and off-the-rails this band’s overall dynamic was. The Who had to be the first group ever where the lead singer was the least important guy. This might have been the single most dramatically odd and compelling element of The Who’s stage show. And Roger Daltrey was/is a genuinely and organically charismatic guy, and as strong and dramatic a singer as anyone you could name. But he was surrounded by three actual savant/genius/hoodlums. Daltrey’s saving grace – besides his magnificent voice – as a visual presence wasn’t his ultra-cool extreme-fashion statements. It was that seething toughness he exuded. I can’t think of another rock star who gave off this vibe as powerfully. Now, Daltrey’s a rock statesman (a Leftist, too, God bless him!). But back then, Rog was a thug, plain and simple. The aura of threat on their first US Decca release’s cover was plainly evident live and in person. Particularly Daltrey.

Murray the K poster

How’s this for a classic rock concert bill?

The Who’s music/act was almost a weapon. They took the stage with something akin to an invasion/occupation. It was theirs now until they… didn’t… want… it… anymore.

About five times that July evening, Pete broke into really serious lead guitar playing. In the middle of windmills, leaps, power chords, feedback, he’d suddenly be shredding 1967-style. Each time, within maybe ten seconds, he’d cut it dead with some huge blustery stage move that conveyed an attitude that said: Why waste my time playing real guitar for you? You don’t care and, frankly, neither do I. We both know this bit of plank and wire won’t even exist 20 minutes from now… and that’s what you’re fucking here for, right!”

About halfway through the show, the PA crapped out. Suddenly, no vocals. The stagehands panicked scurrying around the edges of the stage made it clear there was a real problem.

The Who, having little choice, launched into John’s theme song, “The Ox,” the absurdly over-the-top instrumental from their first album loosely based on “Wipeout” meets “Green Onions.” Pete came close to smashing that Strat several songs too early. He actually played paddle ball with the tremelo bar, holding the Strat straight out, flat, in front of him, by the trem bar, and shaking the bar with what seemed the intention of snapping it off. He did the trick twice and I have no idea how the bar survived or how the guitar stayed in tune. But it did!

At one point, just before the Coda of Chaos began, all the stage lights went out again, but this time, while Keith’s kit glowed in the dark, there was a tight hot white spotlight no more than two feet wide that landed square on Pete Townshend’s white-clad ass. While The Who basically just made raw howling noise, Pete shook his cute little ass at all of us. It was ummm… memorable.

And yes, July 8, 1967, was back in the days when they still set off smoke bombs during the chaotic coda of “My Generation.” Even knowing it was bullshit, it still looked just fantastic. The destruction was thorough. That gorgeous new sunburst Fender guitar definitely did not make it to another show, that much I know. I saw the pieces fly!

Just how amazing were The Who in 1967? Watch them play “My Generation” at the Monterey Pop Festival.

What does a fan like Binky do with Pete's guitar? Play it through Hiwatt amps like Pete did, of course.

What does a fan like Binky do with Pete’s guitar? Play it through Hiwatt amps like Pete did, of course.

I vividly recall the most thrilling little factor for me: Pete really seemed to have nothing but total contempt for the guitar. None of that “sacrificing something I love” jive. More like, “Fuck this cookie-cutter piece of shit!” A piece of shit that me and many hundreds of thousands of other kids worshipped like a sacred object. It was that impression of total jadedness and his haughty-disdainful, dismissive anger, actually something akin to an ennui meets fury, that made its mark on me.

There was a distinctly Clockwork Orange vibe about The Who. The wanton destruction had a harsh indifference about it. Although with Keith Moon you did get a dose of rabid glee, too. They really never came off remotely ‘zany’ during the smash-ups. Pete, especially, would often look really really pissed off.

God, whatta thrill!

The sad fact was that I was a kid whose parents’ marriage was dramatically falling apart. My reaction: I was always angry. Pete manifested my anger and vented it in the most spectacular way, destroying that which I coveted most. Pete Townshend was blindingly, impossibly cool.

This show has taken on a dreamlike quality as I recall it over the decades. Details swim to the surface and recede… my mind was so very very blown as it was occurring, I’m surprised I was able to mentally “video” as much as I did in my wee brain.

I do know this: I arrived at that venue that night an excited Who fan… and left a Warped Zealot!

Also read our article by Who biographer John Swenson on Who Are They at 50, and Editor Rob Patterson’s early concert review and CEO Greg Brodsky’s later review from the Who Hits 50! tour.

Adapted and edited from a Huffington Post blog by Philips. Read the original here. And he’s not kidding about being a warped Who zealot, perhaps the band’s ultimate fan. Binky also blogs on HuffPo about hearing The Who on record for the first time, the full Murray the K show where he first saw them live, seeing the band a year later at the Fillmore East and how his parents met Pete Townshend at one of those shows (and again here). And how he watched Townshend buy more than 30 guitars at Manny’s Music in midtown Manhattan, and later that year seeing The Who yet again in Central Park (and getting early Beatles news that day). Then in 1970, he catches a guitar Pete threw from the stage when they performed Tommy at the Metropolitan Opera House (read Part 2 of that story here). The next year Philips writes Townshend a letter and gets an incredible gift in reply. By 1974, Pete knows Binky well enough to invite him to his hotel room for a chat (and he attends an after-show party). Finally, in 1981, Philips gets a hug and a punch in the face from Townshend at an Adam Ant show. “Warped Zealot” indeed!

Binky Philips

Binky Philips, a lifelong New Yorker, was born a few years before Elvis changed everything. Permanently ruined by The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, he has devoted his life to the glorious noise made by larynxes and electric guitars. He spent the 1970s and '80s performing, writing and recording his own songs in the semi-legendary CBGB/Max's Kansas City band, The Planets. For the last three decades he has run East Village record stores, done radio promotion for every major record label's rock and alternative acts, and started and ran his own indie label, Dotpointperiod. He blogs about his myriad and fascinating experiences in rock music on The Huffington Post. Philips is currently working on a memoir of his misspent youth and adulthood in the music business.

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  1. Noe the G
    #1 Noe the G 25 May, 2016, 04:24

    Hey Binky, I was at the Village Theater show as well. I remember Daltrey prancing around on “My Generation,” my favorite Who number. He was twirling the mike like a pom pom. I will be seeing them tomorrow night in L.A.

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  2. slm
    #2 slm 5 March, 2017, 15:51

    Roger is the most beautiful, gorgeous human being ever to walk the face of the earth!

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