The Who: A look back at the British Invasion band's 50 years in Pittsburgh
March 10, 2016 12:00 AM
"The Who," from left, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle und Keith Moon.
Roger Daltrey performs with The Who at Consol Energy Center, November 11, 2012.
The Who, from left: John Entwistle, Kenney Jones, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, circa 1979.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Was it over when they lost one of the best rock ’n’ roll drummers on the planet? No.
Was it over when they said it was over in 1982? No.
Was it over when the windmilling guitarist couldn’t hear anymore, or when the bass player joined the drummer in the heaven band, or when they looked like a senior-facility house band at the Super Bowl? No, no and no.
With: Tal Wilkenfeld.
Where: Consol Energy Center.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Tickets: $41.50-$146.50; ticketmaster.com.
This time, though, it really might be over.
The Who, one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the Earth, is on the road once again on The Who Hits 50! Tour, which began in November 2014 and was interrupted last fall when frontman Roger Daltrey contracted viral meningitis. Thankfully, the man who has sung “hope I die before I get old” thousands upon thousands of times bounced back and will be at Consol Energy Center Wednesday night for a makeup show originally scheduled for October.
The 72-year-old Daltrey and his 70-year-old mate Pete Townshend, affectionately known as The Two, are joined by Pete’s brother Simon (guitarist since 1996), Pino Palladino (bassist since 2006) and Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey (drummer since 2010) along with other backing musicians. This one, unlike the “Quadrophenia” tour the last time we saw them in 2012, is a greatest hits show (“My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley,” Won’t Get Fooled Again,” etc.) with occasional curveballs like “So Sad About Us.”
If it’s the last show in Pittsburgh — and Who knows — it’s been a hell of a ride, from the very beginning:
Sept. 3, 1967 (Civic Arena): The Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles led the British Invasion, playing their first U.S. shows (and first Pittsburgh shows, in that order) in 1964.
The Who, part of the second wave of that Invasion, made more noise across the Atlantic in its early days. The band’s Top 10 hits in England in ’65 (“I Can’t Explain,” “Substitute” and “My Generation,” among others) barely cracked the Top 100 here, if at all. The Who didn’t make its U.S. debut until March 1967 in New York City. In June, the band conquered the Monterey Pop Festival, shocking fans by smashing their instruments at the end of the set.
The Who went from that grand stage to its three-month tour with quaint British lads Herman’s Hermits and Blues Magoos, billed here as the Back to School Shower of Stars.
“Dick Clark and I were partners, and he was big on Herman’s Hermits,” recalls promoter Pat DiCesare. “That was a big act, but I had a couple younger kids who hung out at my office, and they were more excited about The Who.”
Herman’s Hermits fans were prepared for something harder as the Animals had opened on their previous visit. The Who got 12 minutes to rip through proto-punk songs like “My Generation” and “Substitute.” (“I Can See for Miles,” The Who’s first and still only Top 10 U.S. hit, didn’t come out till October.) “The concerts made for a strange culture clash,” Mr. Townshend wrote in his autobiography, “Who I Am.” “We smashed our guitars and screamed about our disaffected generation, whereas Herman sang about someone who had a lovely daughter, and the fact that he was Henry the Eighth, he was.”
Pittsburgh music historian Dave Good-rich recalls smoke bombs and Keith Moon kicking over his drums, but it was “not like the mayhem” of other shows.
Mr. DiCesare didn’t get to see much of it. “The ushers, the building managers, they resented us bringing those acts in, and they were always looking for trouble. I was constantly putting out fires. I mean, they wanted the kids sitting in their seats.”
He wasn’t wild about working with most of the British acts himself, The Who included. “Always PO’ed at the world. Upset by the Boston Tea Party or something,” he says, laughing. “I never looked forward to them.”
“Most of the British acts, their tour members, their roadies, never got paid very well,” says Rich Engler, Mr. DiCesare’s future partner, “so they were all grumpy and kind of abused on stage. They felt like slaves rather than employees.”
Everything you hear about bands ripping things apart backstage was all true, he says.
Oct. 26, 1969 (Syria Mosque): Having absorbed the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” Mr. Townshend was ready to make his own bold statement, and did so with “Tommy,” the surreal rock opera about a “deaf, dumb and blind” (or rather, hearing-, speech- and vision-impaired) pinball wizard. It was played for the first time live in London in May 1969, a few weeks before its release.
The Who brought it to the states that same month on a tour that included its combative 5 a.m. performance at Woodstock in which Mr. Townshend got into a shoving match with Abby Hoffman.
In October, The Who played its one and only theater show in Pittsburgh with the James Gang (led by Joe Walsh) opening, and despite the Woodstock buzz, it was not covered by the local papers — an indication perhaps of how The Who was seen as a second-rate British import. This was the second leg of a U.S. tour playing “Tommy,” and by this point they were doing almost the entire rock opera, along with songs like “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation,” with a “Tommy” reprise inserted. The Who had matured beyond being instrument-smashing lunatics and were more focused on the demands of the songs. Mr. DiCesare’s right-hand man recalls it as the best Who show he ever saw here.
Mr. Townshend had complained about having to play quietly opening for Herman’s. Mr. Goodrich recalls being completely deaf for six minutes upon exiting. But he could still see and speak.
Aug. 10, 1971 (Civic Arena): The band’s first arena headlining gig here took place four days after the release of the classic fifth album, “Who’s Next.” By this point, they were only playing a few holdovers from “Tommy” and had introduced songs like “Pure and Easy,” “My Wife,” “Bargain,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” “It was a good one,” recalls longtime concertgoer Steve Acri. “I was mesmerized by Keith Moon. ‘Tommy’ was probably my all-time favorite album at the ripe age of 15, so my expectations were high. I was not disappointed.” Christian rock pioneers Mylon Lefevre and Holy Smoke opened the show.
Dec. 2, 1979 (Civic Arena): The Who skipped Pittsburgh on the brief “Quadrophenia” tour in ’73 and the “Who By Numbers” tours in ’75 and ’76. After that they took 14 months off, to spend time with family and let Moonie get his act together. He did his last performance with The Who in May 1978 and died when he overdosed on pills used to treat his alcoholism in September, a month after the release of “Who Are You.”
Determined to carry on, The Who replaced him with Kenney Jones of the Faces in November, and the band was back on stage in May 1979 in England and in the states in September. On the spot, PG reviewer Barry Paris declared it the best show of the year. At one point, a firework went off, prompting Mr. Townshend to utter words you wouldn’t dare say today: “If you see someone with a firework, kill him!” The Pittsburgh show was the night before the disaster in Cincinnati in which 11 people were killed in the crush to get inside. Having lined up hours early that day for the “festival seating” admission, I can say the same thing almost happened here (and at many other shows in that era).
Sept. 28, 1982 (Civic Arena): “It’s Hard,” released in early September ’82, wasn’t any Who fans favorite album, but it did include the keeper “Eminence Front.” What followed was one of rock’s most famous farewell tours — “... I think touring in five years time is going to be outdated anyway,” Mr. Daltrey had told Rolling Stone — and The Who was going out on top and in great form, according to local reviews. The show included a big chunk of “Quadrophenia” and climaxed with “Twist and Shout” rather than “My Generation.” The opener was former New York Doll David Johansen.
July 16, 1989 (Three Rivers Stadium): Retirement didn’t stick as The Who reunited for Live Aid in 1985 and Britain’s BPI Awards in 1988, and then hit the road in ‘89 to celebrate its 25th anniversary and rescue bassist John Entwistle from financial collapse. The band’s numbers suddenly swelled to 15 members, including a horn section, and Mr. Townshend, suffering from tinnitus, was largely limited to playing acoustic. The band started the Three Rivers show in a drizzle and played 40 minutes of “Tommy” before venturing into the rest of the catalog and playing a two-set, 40-song marathon with just about everything you’d want from a Who concert. It was a whopping, sold-out success.
Nov. 8, 1996 (Civic Arena): With “Tommy” going to Broadway in ’93, Mr. Townshend was looking to groom Jimmy, the split-personality mod in “Quadrophenia,” for similar treatment. They took “Quadrophenia” on tour, with Gary Glitter as the pompadoured punk Godfather and Billy Idol almost stealing the show as a strikingly glam Bell Boy. The opener was 4 Non Blondes. “I was excited about it, but it was not accepted well by our city,” Mr. Engler recalls. In fact, they lost so much money that The Who’s management “was kind enough to write a sizable check to account for the loss,” Mr. Engler says, “something that doesn’t happen these days.” The band members also were gracious backstage, spending time with a Make-A-Wish kid.
June 29, 2000 (Star Lake Amphitheater): They were sharing production with the Jimmy Page/Black Crowes bill the previous night, so this was part two of a double-shot for classic rock fans. Coming in the wake of two rock opera tours, it was a return to a tighter, best-of set (the last album was now 8 years old), and it was our last look at Mr. Entwistle, who died two years later of a cocaine-induced heart attack.
Nov. 11, 2012 (Consol Energy Center): The Who completed its discography in 2006 with “Endless Wire,” its first album in 24 years. The tour did not play here. Six years later, the band once again unearthed its 39-year-old tale of Mods vs. Rockers, drawing only 8,300 to Consol and proving that Pittsburghers obviously favor “Tommy” to “Quadrophenia.” Mr. Daltrey sounded shaky at first, but gained momentum as “Quadrophenia” wore on, and the band’s fallen mates were both featured in moving video tributes. Roger Waters had done “The Wall” and just “The Wall” at Consol in July. The Who stormed through its rock opera and added a crowd-pleasing encore set with six more songs, including “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” an anthem that always takes on heightened meaning in a presidential election year.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.
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