Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.
The Who were already a wildly popular band by the time they got to Woodstock. They had been touring in one incarnation or another since 1962, making them veterans of the concert and festival scene.
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Sly and the Family Stone had just left everyone in a funky groove, and up after The Who would come the final act of Day 2, Jefferson Airplane.
The Who's guitarist Peter Townshend had first come up with the idea for a "rock opera" in 1967. Their album The Who Sell Out, a concept album that paid tribute to then-banned pirate radio, was a masterpiece and a sign of the genius to come from this band. The song "I Can See For Miles" was the best known of the tracks from the album, featuring complex arrangements that set The Who apart from other rock bands of the time, and "Rael (1 and 2)" contained some of the opus-like elements that would go on to define their work on Tommy. If you haven't given The Who Sell Out a listen in a while, now is the time to revisit this gem. And if you are a "super fan," the deluxe edition released in 2009 is one you want. It contains rare bonus tracks featuring both the original mono and stereo recordings of many of the songs.
Though Roger Daltrey was considered to be the group's leader, it was Townshend's genius that kept the band moving forward. By 1968, their shows had devolved into three required elements; play the hits, have drummer Keith Moon wreck his kit, and see Townshend smash a guitar. Destroying musical instruments and trashing hotel rooms were hobbies that were keeping them broke, despite their commercial success. Something had to change.
Townshend was keen to move the band to the next level musically. They had been at it a long while, at least by rock'n'roll standards, and needed a way to remain relevant while still giving their fans fresh songs. "Glow Girl" from The Who Sell Out had started the musical outline for what was to come next. Townshend had proven on that album that he was a master of the concept album, able to weave songs together to tell a story. He had also started studying the teachings of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritualist who believed that the way to enlightenment lay in introspection and compassion.
And so, Tommy was born. Townshend wrote the majority of the material, but all of the band members contributed to the final arrangements. The songs were softer and very un-Who-like, and told the story of a boy named Tommy whose senses go dead ("the deaf, dumb and blind kid") after his mother brainwashes him when his long-lost father returns and kills his mother's current lover. The songs were meant to be played from beginning to end, and this concept provided the band with a new framework for their live shows.
Recording began in September 1968, and was slow going. The band was using eight track tape, which allowed them to overdub the music on many tracks. As the project progressed, the concept started to gel, albeit slowly. All of the band members, with the possible exception of Townshend, were becoming tired of recording. There were still gaps by the time Christmas rolled around, and the LP didn't yet have a title. A short tour at the end of the year helped them refocus—and pay a few bills. They went back into the studio in January 1969, and aided by a script written by one of the band's managers, Kit Lambert, and some pressure from the record label, they finally got Tommy done. Their final bit of work in the studio wrapped up on March 7, 1969, the same day that "Pinball Wizard" was released as a single. This LP is a masterpiece, and Rolling Stone ranked it #96 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all time. The CD released in 1996 contains remixed versions of all of the original material from the LP.
Ever since I was a young boy
I've played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all
But I ain't seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball!
— The Who, "Pinball Wizard"
The Who's Woodstock
The Who spent the month of April 1969 rehearsing for their upcoming US tour. Several of the songs from what had become a double album were dropped, and the order of the songs had been changed to better present the story in a live setting. On May 2nd, the group embarked on their tour, with the first show in Detroit on May 9th. They were generally booked into concert halls, which Townshend believed was a better setting for Tommy. They had been avoiding large, outdoor venues and festivals, but after an all-night argument with the tour's promoter, they finally agreed to play Woodstock.
The band had arrived at the site on Saturday afternoon, and ended up higher than kites—not by choice—due to the spiked coffee and water backstage. Roger Daltrey had been warned off the beverages backstage, and had a bottle of liquor with him to satisfy his thirst. He was done in by a spiked cup of tea. By the time their turn rolled around, it was after 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning and Townshend in particular was in a bad mood, sending a warning kick to one of the cameramen onstage to stay out of his way.
They opened their 65-minute set with "Heaven and Hell," a song written by bassist John Entwistle, and "I Can't Explain," then began their Tommy opus, shortening a few songs and dropping others all together in order to tell Tommy's story in 18 songs. The order was perfect, the band was tight, and the spell was cast.
The Who Performing "Pinball Wizard" at Woodstock
The Abbie Hoffman Incident
Literally half way through their set, and just as they were wrapping up "Pinball Wizard," New York Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman suddenly rushed the stage. He had come to Woodstock to agitate on behalf of his various pet causes, and had dropped acid after a stint in the "Trip Tent." Hoffman had already taken the stage once before to expound on freeing a radical-activist friend of his, John Sinclair, and had been led away to the side of the stage by organizers.
Hoffman grabbed Townshend's mic and screamed “I think this is a pile of s*** while John Sinclair rots in prison.” Townshend was furious, and used the headstock of his guitar to deliver a hard blow to the back of Hoffman's head, causing the Yippie to jump from the stage in fear for his life. The band then fired up the song "Do You Think It's Alright," with Townshend's guitar now audibly out of tune. Pete threatened to kill the next person who dared to set foot on HIS stage.
The Who Performing "See Me, Feel Me" at Woodstock
The band ran through the rest of their Tommy songs without incident, culminating in the finale from the album “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which of course includes the overture "See Me, Feel Me." Two more songs followed on their planned set list, including brilliant covers of “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over.”
If anyone was still asleep at this point, the rousing cheer from the crowd took care of that in short order. After all that had happened, The Who surprisingly came back onstage for an encore. And what an encore it was! They played an absolutely pumped version of "My Generation" that morphed into "Naked Eye," a song that wouldn't be released until 1974. One of the absolute best sets at Woodstock.
The Who Performing "My Generation" at Woodstock
Life After Woodstock
In the aftermath of Woodstock, the band were all critical of the event, with Daltrey declaring it to be "chaos." In his 2018 memoir, Daltrey says "“We were due on in the evening but by four the next morning we were still hanging around backstage in a muddy field waiting. And waiting some more.”
A few weeks later, they appeared at The Isle of Wight Festival, which in contrast to Woodstock, went off without a hitch for the band. They continued to tour, record and innovate, releasing their 3X Platinum LP Who's Next in 1971.
Five Musical Facts
- As with a few of the other artists on the bill at Woodstock, The Who had played at the Monterey Pop Festival two years earlier.
- The Who were actually reluctant to play Woodstock, and demanded that they be paid $13,000 up front. Smart move on their part.
- As if on cue, the sun peeked above the horizon during "See Me, Feel Me," causing Entwistle to declare later "God was our lighting man."
- At the end of their set, Townshend tossed his Gibson SG guitar into the crowd. It was immediately retrieved by a roadie.
- The Who appear in the 1970 Woodstock film and on the original soundtrack. "My Generation" also appears on the "Woodstock Diaries."
© 2019 Kaili Bisson
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 15, 2019:
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on June 15, 2019:
Bashing Abbie Hoffman on the head with a guitar is the best thing I've heard all day.
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 06, 2019:
Hi Flourish and thank you,
No arrests! lol...a pretty tame time for The Who. Just the requisite beating up of hippies and smashing of guitars :-)
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 06, 2019:
Thank you so much! I always learn new things when I am researching these articles. The account of Daltrey being done in by tea--such an English thing!--was something I found in an old interview. And, Abbie sure got what he deserved!
FlourishAnyway from USA on June 06, 2019:
And no lawsuits or arrests? It was a different time. This was very entertaining. You’ve done a marvelous job on this series.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 06, 2019:
This is an interesting account of how The Who appreared at Woodstock with many facts that I didn't know before now. They were a successful band after Woodstock also with music that touched many. Very good article Kaili.