Wednesday morning, March 28, 1967.
After weeks of fevered anticipation, during Easter vacation from school, me and my pals, Benjy and Anthony, got on the uptown 5 train at Boro Hall in Brooklyn en route to Murray the K’s holiday extravaganza, Music in the Fifth Dimension, at the RKO Radio Theater on 3rd Avenue and 58th Street in Manhattan. Yes, that was one hokey-ass “psychedelic” title (although I remember thinking it was fine and dandy back then!) for the usual Cavalcade of Stars-type show. Then again, this was 90 days before the Summer of Love. Murray, New York’s leading rock deejay, was hip.
The much ballyhooed T.A.M.I. Show, filmed in late ’64, is a perfect example of this kind of production. Bang bang bang… an act does a song or two, immediately followed by another, with occasional master of ceremony patter and/or some dance numbers in between. Murray the K had put on many of these shows over the years, most with an accent on the R&B acts that were on New York’s radio charts. The venues were once places of opulent fantasy, complete with stages, dressing rooms and all the trappings; by the 1960, they were rundown movie houses.
The Spring of 1967 show’s headliners were Mitch Ryder, Wilson Pickett, Smokey Robinson (who actually never showed after an argument with Murray), the Blues Project, and the Hardly Worth It Players. The “Also Appearing” acts, listed in a font half the size in the show program, were Jim & Jean, the Chicago Loop, Mandala and two English bands making their US debuts: The Cream (as they were listed) and the Who. We three rabidly Anglophile Brooklyn boys were going for these last two. Especially the Who.
Frank Barcelona, the head of Premier Talent, was Mitch Ryder’s booking agent. Mitch was huge by 1967, with four Top 20 hits to his credit. Frank wanted to dissuade Murray from booking Ryder as his headliner (the Detroit singer hated those kind of shows) and kept coming up with demands, one of them being that Murray would have to put two unknown British bands he represented, Cream and the Who, on the same bill. “Mitch likes them.” Murray, to Barcelona’s amazement, agreed.
There were four shows a day, each following a film and presenting nine or ten acts in 90 to 100 minutes. Once inside, it turned out, you could stay all day.
Benjy, Anthony, and I decided to get there as early as possible for the first show of the day. By 10 a.m. our tickets were torn in half. We found dead-center seats in the front row of the mezzanine. We were really close up there, like the equivalent of the 10th row in the orchestra, about 25 feet up, with a stage-wide panoramic view. Gimme five!
About 15 minutes later, the lights went down and the house band in the orchestra pit started an R&B vamp. Murray the K, in his trademark V-neck sweater, white turtleneck, stingy-brim straw fedora and knife’s edge center creases in his silver-gray slacks, strolled out. Murray was a star all by himself; his mere presence set the crowd buzzing before a note of music was played. Murray immediately went into his familiar schtick:
We answered: “HO!”
“Kooa Zowuh Zowuhhhhhhh”
The maroon curtains opened and on came the first act, the Mighty Mandala from Canada, to do “Opportunity.” All five in pale yellow pinstripe suits, against a shimmering gold backdrop. I had never heard of this band and have never heard that tune since, but I still have the hook in my head. They seemed an amazingly cool group. The blond singer, George, was clearly a sexy badass. The guitar player had the most beat-up Telecaster I’d ever seen. That was cool. We dug ‘em. (Some members of Mandala later played with Alice Cooper.
After that came goofy crap we didn’t care about, although none of it was bad. Each act was presented the same way: after an intro by Murray, they trot out, wave to the audience, plug into the communal back line and count off their song.
Going on about fifth, the Hardly-Worth-It Players — a trio of comedians –lounged through their Vaughn Meader-styled “Wild Thing” (as Senator Bobby, they had a topical Top 20 hit with it earlier in the year). Haha. They seemed to be sick of it themselves. Next, the Blues Project, who we were excited to see, came out and did… a ballad?! It might’ve been Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” Even stranger, about 45 seconds in, guitarist, Danny Kalb waved the band to a halt, walked up to the mic and said, “Sorry, let’s start that again.” Even three boys in junior high school knew this was bad weird.
Then, to our delight, Murray the K introduced a band we’d heard on his show several times. We were in love with their song “I Feel Free.” They also had an utterly cool name, but, they didn’t have an LP out in the States yet. So we didn’t really know what to expect.
Out walked Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker — Cream. They started up with the fantastic “NSU.” Their sound was deep… thick… and sizzling.
They were staggeringly better than anything we’d seen so far. Eric was playing his gorgeous painted Gibson SG and Ginger’s bass head was painted (also by The Fool) to look like whipped cream. All three were wearing billowy psychedelic-print shirts. Their look was, to us, radical.
They played two more killers, “Sweet Wine” and “I’m So Glad.” Every act before them had done only one song (except the Blues Project: two). We loved that they did three!
Even from the balcony, we could see that Jack and Ginger were very intense weirdos. Clapton, who seemed to move in slow motion, played all three of his solos with his back to the audience, sustaining notes for 8 bars or more, practically leaning against his Vox Super Beatle amp. That seemed like such an outrageously odd way to perform. We were dazzled. The three of us little Brooklyn numbnuts had basically come to see the Who, but we now wondered: How could anyone possibly top Cream?
After Cream played, the curtains closed. Murray came out and announced Jackie the K’s Dance Contest (Jackie was Murray’s wife: imagine a 40-year-old white Ronette with piles of jet-black hair), where guys from the audience got up along the front edge of the stage and gyrated to the pit band’s polite funk with one of Jackie the K’s Girls; three long-haired models in houndstooth miniskirts and knee-high white boots. Meanwhile, female audience members got to dance with sexy singer George from Mandala, still in his yellow suit. Mrs. the K stood off to the side, subtly swaying while her girls danced.
The winner, chosen by the loudest applause, got to go backstage and meet one of the acts. The winning guy had an authentic Mod haircut, a corduroy jacket, flower print shirt, desert boots and could actually dance. Murray asked him where he lived, and he answered, “In the Village.” The audience loved that! The guy immediately chose to meet the Who.
After the contest, Murray came out in front of the curtain and did a few minutes of patter. “And now, from London, England, those ‘Happy Jack’ boys… Please welcome… The Who!”
The guitar intro to “Substitute” began and then… BOOOOM! The bass and drums came thundering in. Only then did the curtain finally start to open.
The first Who we saw was Roger, wearing a long Edwardian coat and two-tone gangster shoes with two inch heels (!!), menacingly throwing his mic in a tight circle. The curtain opened a bit more and there was Keith, in a Batman T-shirt, wildly thrashing away behind a cherry red sparkle double-bass kit with THE on one drumhead and WHO on the other. Within the first three or four seconds he was visible, Keith flung a half-dozen drumsticks out into the audience, spraying them in every direction.
Once the curtain was fully open, there stood John and Pete, matching bookends, head to toe in white, both playing blond Fenders. Pete was standing in his “birdman” pose, legs spread, arms straight out, his guitar droning roaring noise. He spit on the stage, sauntered over to his mic stand and angrily (and on beat) kicked it into the orchestra pit.
A four ring circus!
This was 1967, and such punky misbehavior was completely novel, wild, even disconcerting.
The curtain trick was an amazingly clever move… and The Who were the only band to utilize the gimmick. No running out with a cheery wave and plugging in. No getting into position. We never saw The Who as anything but gods. They were in full flight within 10 seconds and we hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of them. It was the loudest, most brutally raw and exciting sound I’d ever experienced. Cream were forgotten!
I’d seen the Beatles in 1964 and the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones in 1965. Both were incredible. But the Who was the most breathtaking rock spectacle I’d ever witnessed. Frankly, to this day, they are the standard by which I judge every live band. And, literally, even sadly, I have never seen their equal.
Immediately after “Substitute,” they launched into my favorite: “My Generation.”
The liner notes of their first U.S. album reported, “Since starting with The Who, Pete has smashed 14 guitars.” That meant he was doing it maybe once a month. Having discussed this issue for weeks, my friends and I had concluded there was no way we’d see him break anything. But, as “My Generation” hit its chaotic coda, gray-white smoke suddenly started pouring out of the back of Pete’s amps! Oh shit! He yanked off his Telecaster (the exact same model I’d gotten for Christmas about 90 days earlier) and, holding it by the top of the neck like a bat, started pounding the stage with it. In the front row of the mezzanine, three 14-year-old boys lost their minds.
“Oh my God, he IS gonna smash it!! He’s gonna wreck a fuckin’ Telecaster!!”
After banging it around and bashing it against the mic stand, Townshend threw the guitar so high it momentarily disappeared into the rafters and then crashed back to the stage. While the guitar lay there groaning and shrieking, Pete stalked back to the two Vox Super Beatles (the largest amps in the USA back then) and, with one graceful move, pulled them over, both crashing to the floor face-down. He casually strolled offstage, not looking back.
At the precise moment the amps were falling, Moon kicked his kit over, at least half of the pieces flying into the orchestra pit, sending the musicians down there scurrying to avoid incoming tom-toms.
John casually unhooked the strap on his bass and let it it slam nto the stage with a monstrous brooonnnng! The curtains were drawn as the pungent special-effects smoke wafted into the theater.
The audience was in a genuine frenzy. While a contingent of us was there to see The Who, most of the others there had no idea who they were. Imagine the psychic energy expended as hundreds of shocked teenagers tried to make sense of what they’d just witnessed. (At that point, I realized that both my upper arms ached. Why? As the entire destruction episode went down, Benjy and Anthony, sitting on either side of me had been punching me over and over again in their excitement.)
Poor Wilson Pickett and Mitch Ryder had to follow that!
To their credit, both did, kinda. Wicked Pickett and the leader of the Detroit Wheels both came on with full 12-piece bands. Both tore into their material. Both were dressed to the nines; Wilson in a sharkskin suit, Mitch in white hiphuggers and translucent white pirate shirt opened to his navel. Both were wonderful performers, but they were indisputably anti-climactic after the Who.
Ryder finished his three numbers, bowed and walked offstage, and Murray said his goodbyes and thanked us for coming. The lights came up and the three of us decided to stay for the whole show again, just to see The Who.
We sat through an absurdly bad, dull, gloomy British B-movie from 1961 (!) called The Sinister Man, whose only redeeming feature was that the cast included Wifrid Brambell, the Irish TV star who played Paul’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night. We yelled things like “He’s a clean old man!” or “Where the fuck is Paul?!” every time he appeared on screen.
My friend Anthony, a total extrovert in a lavender satin shirt, went downstairs at the right time, was first in line for the dance contest and, by mock-humping the Jackie the K Girl onstage, won the damn thing! Ben and I were besides ourselves with pride and jealousy as he was escorted backstage to meet the Who.
He later reported that he went up a narrow staircase, down a short hall and was suddenly face to face with all four Whos, crammed into a tiny dressing room. As he watched Pete using a soldering iron to repair the Telecaster he’d trashed was, this totally awestruck kid could only think of one question to ask: “Do you have to pay for all the equipment you destroy?” They all laughed and answered with various Britishisms for “Hell yeah!” Then, the Jackie the K girl scooted Anthony back to his seat in time to see The Who.
And yes, The Who were absolutely just as exciting the second time.
Epilogue: Eight months later, in November 1967, The Who were back in New York to play the Village Theater, soon to become the Fillmore East. With amazing luck, Anthony (without me, grrr!) walked into Manny’s Music Store one afternoon and saw Pete. As he cautiously approached, roughly 250 days after they’d met for 20 seconds, Pete turned toward him. “Hey, Tony…”