This was my first opportunity to see The Who play live after years of adoration and admiration. I had all the records and my bedroom was wall to wall posters featuring the members of The Who, regarded by me as the greatest Rock Band in the World.
I set off on the Friday evening with my two precious tickets and met my girlfriend in the Horse and Tram on Eden Quay who was not committed to the journey up to that point but after a few hours whispering in her ear that she was the only one for me, ever was and ever would be fuelled by countless pints we set sail together across the Irish Sea from the North Wall.
With nothing but the faded blue denims on our backs and the two Who tickets in the breast pocket of my Wrangler Jacket, we made our hangovered way to Lime St Railway Station in Liverpool to catch a train to Swansea via Birmingham arriving in the early afternoon. As the train weaved its way through the rolling hills and mountains of Wales I was picking out the symbols of the times, spotting a series of caves on a mountain side inhabited by a chapter of the local motorcycle gang with swastikas crudely painted on the rock face and camp fires sending up smoke signals into the landscape.
The only thing I knew about Wales up to that point was its famously long place names, and a story about an Irish guy travelling to a Welsh caravan park, who had ran off the road and made his way to a roadside AA phone box to call for assistance. When asked where he was, he said the sign up the road said Dangergoslow and he was promptly told by the AA operator that there was no such place and that the sign was actually Danger Go Slow. This was my pilgrimage to Lourdes, being swept along amidst a sea of similar like minded fans on their way to pay homage to these gods of live rock music. It was momentarily exhilarating, momentarily intimidating, walking towards the Stadium surrounded by my generation most in a reduced state of awareness festooned with embroidered logos and badges with one common denominator, The Who.
The Who were the ultimate live rock harmony of guitar, bass and drums on stage, the legal limit was 90 decibels but this three outdoor Stadium Tour of Britain, had the band cranking it up to 120 plus in Charlton Football Ground London, on May 31st, Celtic Football Ground Glasgow, and now Swansea. This gig in Swansea would turn out to be the last major concert that Keith Moon played in Great Britain before he went to the great stage in the sky apart from a few specially invited audience gigs in London for the filming of their movie The Kids Are Alright. I picked up a local paper en route and found that page after page referred to this afternoon’s event, I felt I was apart of something huge and all around us was the evidence of a major happening. The streets of Swansea that afternoon were a profile of The Who fan base, Mod fans from the mid sixties when The Who exploded on to the scene with anthems like My Generation, Substitute and I Can’t Explain, fans from the late sixties turned on by the Monterey, Woodstock, and Isle of Wight Rock Festival appearances and the seventies converted by the Who’s Next LP and singles like Won’t Get Fooled Again, Join Together and Squeeze Box currently sitting high in the charts.
The thunderous sound of motorbike engines suddenly captured everyone’s attention as we turned to view a convoy of Hell’s Angels cruise by with the ugliest specimens of mankind riding in filthy black leathers covered in tattoo’s and chains on top of spotless chrome plaited high powered bikes. The attitude and menacing expressions would be fierce enough to wilt the flowers in your front garden were they ever to call to your front door. These guys were notorious for their activities, stories abounded in the press about the fact that they would pull out your teeth with a pair of pliers as quick as look at you, and how they rated the exhaust pipe on their souped up Harley Davison higher than the moll sitting on the back seat. As we made our way into the Football Ground we passed a mounting mound of broken beer bottles, cider flagons and cans all removed and discarded by the Security into rows of skips.
Inside the Stadium everyone was settling in, organising their patch on the field or up in the stands and within each group someone was delegated to rolling up the joints, gumming the rizla’s ,making the roches and formulating the recipe for an amazing trip all performed with the brazen confidence of a highly successful cottage industry. The overwhelming sensation on entering the inside of the stadium was the sound coming from the stage PA system, a booming sound that hit you in the middle of your stomach, unlike any stage sound I had ever experienced, the four thousand capacity National Stadium on the South Circular Road was the biggest rock gig I had been to up to that point to see our own Rory Gallagher. The support acts on this tour made their way onto the stage as the afternoon progressed into nightfall, their current popularity creating the hierarchy or pecking order.
Some of the earlier bands on stage were Widowmaker and Streetwalkers who performed good sets but apart from pockets of their own support the crowd remain largely indifferent as happens at such multi act events. The Outlaws were a three guitar Southern Boogie Band riding on the crest of the Lynard Skynard, Allmann Brothers Band style of rock. The colourful shirted Little Feat were a laid back Southern Funk outfit (featuring a fantastic guitarist called Lowell George) with a lot more going on, most of which went over my head on that overcast Saturday afternoon in Swansea. I had bought their album in anticipation of the concert and was already hooked on a song called Long Distance Love and All That You Dream. Their stage set featured props from the cover of that album, a giant cactus and other Texas desert paraphernalia which was breaking big across the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and loads of tambourines and percussive type accessories creating that Southern Funky Dixie Chicken picken funk. Unfortunately this was a great band in the wrong place and the tetchy, restless, drizzled upon crowd were not that appreciative, throwing back the complementary gestures of tokens to the audience such as tambourines and maracas and hurling them back at the band on stage.
Alex Harvey Band were creating a real buzz on the scene at the time bringing a loyal band of Scots with them on tour who seemed to be shouting for the band to come on from minute they stuck their heads into the Stadium, some of them so tanked they continued to shout for the band while they were doing their stuff on stage. They were on top form with loads of theatrics and props, Nazi uniforms and make believe walls to topple long before Pink Floyd arrived with the concept a few years later. Standout songs for me if my memory is correct was versions of Delilah and the Boston Tea Party both great sing along tunes pumped up with the excellent guitar work of Clem Clemson. The comic book imagery of the stage show was fantastic to watch but the impact was somewhat diminished in the daylight. I was feeling quiet nervous in the middle of dampen crowd, along with my equally worried girlfriend as we watched scuffle after scuffle erupt around us as the crowd suffered withdrawal symptoms from the drink they had consumed on the way and angry at the fact that their drink supply was confiscated on the way into the grounds.
There were several coach loads of fans from London, who had been turned away from Charlton because of overcrowding and they were sporting the latest Punk fashions breaking big out of London at the time, the rip shirts and Mohican hair styles, studs, safety pins sold with lots of attitude and aggro. The Who were one of the few bands drawing the Punk audience because so many of the new wave bands were openly influenced by the earlier Sixties three minute power singles like Substitute and My Generation.
Then after a long wait for The Who to hit the stage, interrupted by a huge fight up near the front of the stage, the four people with the power to make things happen arrived for a blistering set, a brilliant performance. Keith Moon cart wheeled onto the wet stage and ran about waving his arms at the crowd before settling in behind his double kit that seemed to take up most of the stage. Roger Daltrey swinging his mike in 20 feet circles around his head and Pete Townshend in double waisted trousers and Doc Martens commenced to rally the crowd with one classic after another. The quiet one John Entwistle tied it all down with his thunderous bass sounding like a 747 revving up to take off, bedding down virtuoso flourishes from Pete and Keith with slabs of foundation. When a skirmish broke out in front of the stage at the start of the set, Pete Townshend marched to the mike and threatened to send in The Who’s minders to sort it out which immediately restored calm. One of Keith Moon’s minders was reputedly a burly former New York Police Detective who was dismissed from the force for allegedly bringing in a suspect in the glove compartment of his car.
Suddenly there was a wild rapturous applause all around me and I knew then that this was what I had waited nervously for all afternoon. It was exactly like I had long dreamed it would be, every line and chord maxed out for maximum rock n roll. We were ecstatic in the stands high off to the right hand side of the stage carried along by the relentless pace of set. The mean and restless crowd of early, were now clearly euphoric and overjoyed roaring on approval as if the band were scoring a goal every three or four minutes. It was an amazing transformation and relief for us to suddenly feel apart of a sea of brothers and sisters in arms. Pete Townshend slashed out power chord after power chord with wide windmill swings of his right hand across the strings of his guitar and Keith Moon swinging sticks like an octopus behind his armoury of drums. Sadly this was to be the last time Keith would play live in front of a major concert audience in Great Britain and his wild ways on and off the stage were in top form that day in Swansea.
The Rolling Stones Mobile recording studio was on site to record the performance but it was twenty years later before this material surfaced, Dreaming from the Waist from Quadrophenia and John Entwistle’s My Wife from Who’s Next were released on The Who’s Box set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B and Behind Blue Eyes and Squeeze Box came out as extra tracks on the CD reissue of The Who by Numbers. The real magic of The Who’s powerhouse performances was always the stage, capturing the energy and fire of the individual talents and pulling the best out of each of them. Their collective stage presence was larger than life and overwhelming especially for me seeing them for the long awaited first time live. As The Who moved through their set with incredible power, it was like watching weapons of audience destruction being wielded; they had a tradition of doing a big job and using big weapons to get that job done. Loudspeaker Cabinets shook violently with electric intensity as John Entwistle spidery thunderous bass lines clashed seamlessly with Pete Townshend’s awesome attacking rhythm and lead guitar work, so familiar with each others sense of timing, firing on all cylinders, locked into groove after groove in a dynamic, explosive spectacle and display as the reigning Best Rock Act in the World at that time and absolutely huge on their home turf. Charles Shaar Murray my favourite writer in my bible those times the NME described the The Who as “The most powerful and majestic heavy metal roar available”.
Pete was building the crowd up to fever pitch doing his inimitable jumps and leaps across the stage, everyone staring breathlessly as he screwed up all his energy to perform one of his full arm swinging windmills across the tortured strings on his guitar. As the daylight disappeared the lights around the ground started to become a major feature of the show. Near the finale during We’re Not Gonna Take It massive mirrors had been positioned around the roof of the Stadium and when the Laser lights came on the atmosphere was filled with spectacular colour formations rebounding over the crowd’s heads. The misty cloud of smoke and breath arising from the Stadium was turned into a multi coloured mushroom over the ground. When the show ended with the classic Won’t Get Fooled Again the lights were blazing with blinding energy pulsating to the finale, a stadium full of fan conquered and converted by Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and the incomparable Moony.
I had waited for years for this and this was my Woodstock, this was what a rock show was all about, celebrating the music of the band you worship in their own church. Years of listening to the music at home and reading about The Who’s legendary exploits all around the world, paled into insignificance as I watch them create a live performance before my very eyes. When the show ended we all spilled out on to the night streets of Swansea and headed for home, except that we had no plan for the way home. The sheer anticipation of finally seeing my heroes had focused all my energy on getting to the gig and not a moment spent on what would happen afterwards.
Decided to get off the busy streets and wait for the exit march to subside, settling into a small Swansea pub and tucking into some local brew and crisps. Got the last train out of Swansea and got as far as Cardiff where we crashed out for the night along with a station full of nomadic rock and roll travellers. The night suddenly became a bonus when we came across a group of hippies with an acoustic guitar playing the soundtrack of the times. I joined in having broken the ice by having a few plectrums in my jeans and playing my three chord versions of The Who’s catalogue and a few Jimmy Reed tunes that I had mastered. I was particularly getting a buzz out of playing The Who’s blues version of My Generation with its Jimmy Reed style rhythm that I had first heard on the televised Charlton Concert in 1974 on the Melvin Bragg Show and had also featured in the show that afternoon. I had to abandon an attempt to provide backing for one of the girls singing a Sandy Denny song called Who Knows Where the Time Goes which has been a cherished memory to this day the sound of her voice that is and not my poor technical proficiency on the guitar. Another rock fan passing by joined in and sang the entire Jetro Tull album Aqualung unaccompanied in a thick Yorkshire accent that was captivating and bone chilling in that cold damp Welsh railway station at 4am in the morning.
Spent most of Sunday travelling to Liverpool reading out passages from The Who Put The Boot In Tour Program which I still have to this day. When we got back to Liverpool we found the whole city practically empty on that Sunday afternoon, walking the legs off ourselves looking for infamous Beatle landmarks immortalised in song, down memory lane like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. Found a cosy little pub opened at about 7:30 that evening and started to spend the last of the money on a few more pints of local Ale and more crisps and peanuts. Our unkempt appearance long hair and unwashed denims were also starting to attract attention. This was 1976 and the Irish accent was often greeted with suspicion and concern to put it mildly and was understandable because of the recent IRA atrocities in Birmingham and Guildford. Like most of Europe at the time, England was going through bleak times as well with high unemployment, high oil prices, soccer violence and an angry Punk and Skinhead movement roaming the streets looking for any excuse to vent their anger. It was a relief to get on the boat back to Dublin that night and fall asleep in one of the couch like seats in the Bar on board for almost the whole crossing.
When we finally went our separate ways on O Connell Bridge the next morning we both realised that the trip had taken a heavy toll on not only our bodies but our relationship as well. That was finally confirmed however when she rang to tell me that I was in deep ship with her family who had an S.O.S out all weekend looking for her. We did however remain good friends afterwards and she subsequently sent me postcards from many foreign adventures she was to embark upon to places like Israel and Brazil always asking how The Who were doing in passing and citing that our trip to Swansea on that June weekend in 1976 as the motivator for her travel bug.
I arrived in the door of my family home and went straight up the stairs put my cherished copy of the The Who Put the Boot In Tour program in my wardrobe and slept for at least 36 hours straight. A bullet proof and resilient twenty year old hippie from Dublin I was shattered but ecstatic after my trek to see the Greatest Rock Band In The ‘World right before my eyes. I would travel again many times to see my favourite group The Who play but that virginal experience has always remained in a special place in the attic of my mind.
The future trips were always by air and included hotel accommodation:
- The Who & Friends @ Vetch Field, Swansea, Wales 1976
- The Who Roar In gig in Wembley Stadium in 1979 supported by ACDC, The Stranglers and Nils Lofgren.
- The Who @ NEC Birmingham 1982 supported by The Steve Gibbons Band
- The Who @ Wembley 1985 for the Live Aid Concert
- The Who @ Hyde Park 1996 supported by Alanis Morisette, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton
- The Who @ London Arena 2000 supported by Joe Strummer and The Mescalaros
- The Who @ Wembley Arena 2000 supported by Joe Strummer and The Mescalaros.
- The Who @ Valley Amphitheatre, Marysville Sacramento California 2002 supported by Counting Crows.
- The Who @ Oxygen Punchestown, Naas Co Kildare Ireland 2006
- The Who @ Marley Park, Dublin 2007
- The Who @ The Marquee, Cork 2007
- The Who @ O2 London 2009
- The Who @ Hammersmith Odeon 2011
- The Who @ O2 Dublin 2013 supported by Vintage Trouble
Long Live The Who