Given the way history is often written you may well be surprised to hear that The Who’s first major festival performance was not at The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, but two years earlier, in August 1965 when they co-headlined the Friday night at The Fifth National Jazz and Blues Festival at Richmond with the Yardbirds. The following year on the last weekend of July they headlined the Saturday night of the same festival that had by then moved to Windsor racecourse in the west of London. Of course neither festival was made into a film so their playing there is confined to a line on a tatty old handbill.
In March 1967 The Who made their first ever U.S. concert appearance at Murray The K’s Music in Fifth Dimension in New York City. Three months later, and the day after appearing at Christ’s College’s Summer Ball in Cambridge the band flew to Detroit and appeared in Ann Arbor, Michigan the day after on 14 June at a small club. Then following a gig in Arlington, Illinois they played Friday night and Saturday night at The Fillmore in San Francisco. On Sunday the band flew south to Monterey in California for an appearance at one of the first, and certainly the best, festivals of the Summer of Love.
“The first thing I felt when I got there was it was fantastically big,” said Pete Townshend. It was in fact a 7,000-seater open-air amphitheatre. Jimi Hendrix was also on the bill for Sunday evening and neither The Who nor Jimi wanted to have to follow the other. John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas flipping a coin resolved it all. Pete won and the Who went on first. Their 30 minute set culminated in Pete destroying his Stratocaster and attacking his amps while Keith Moon wrecked his drum kit as their six song set climaxed with ‘My Generation’.
The following year The Who toured North America twice and played a number of outdoor shows during their second two-month stint from June through to the end of August. It was 1969 before they played another major festival and this one was in the UK at Plumpton Racecourse where they headlined the National Jazz and Blues Festival on Saturday night, 9 August.
Three nights later they were in Massachusetts to play the Tanglewood Music Shed, the traditional summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here they were second on the bill to Jefferson Airplane, with B.B. King also appearing. Five days later they were at Woodstock for a performance that helped to elevate the band to even greater status than they had been enjoying for the previous year or so.
Yet it is an appearance that nearly didn’t happen. The organisers of Woodstock were having serious logistical problems with the shear size of the audience and they were in turn struggling to make the money side of things work. The Who’s road manager John Wolff had the job of dealing with the organisers, tackling them about the delicate subject of the band’s fee. He was offered a check, but this was not going to satisfy the band. For a long while no one from the organisers would talk to Wolff, when it was almost time to go on the organisers tried the old, “Well, you’ll have to go on.” There was no budging Wolff, or the Who, so eventually a helicopter had to be dispatched so that the money could be brought from the bank, having first picked up the bank’s manager, because the vault was on a time lock. The Who got the remainder of their $11,200, having already been paid a deposit, and the public that were still awake, got a great show.
The Who played at 5 am on Sunday morning and some of the 70 minute set was featured in the subsequent movie of the generation defining festival. As the Who’s set was reaching it’s climax the sun was coming up, it was 6.05am on Sunday morning, not the ideal time for any band to perform at their best, but despite that, they were magnificent. Roger Daltrey in particular was in fine voice, which must have been hard having been waiting for so long to even get on stage. The Who’s set was typical of their live performances at the time, featuring a scaled down version of Tommy along with some old hits and rock ‘n’ roll numbers – Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ ‘Shakin’ All Over’.
Less than two weeks after Woodstock, The Who were at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival where they headlined the Saturday night, Dylan was the headliner on Sunday. It was another towering performance on Saturday night, according to The International Times, “But The WHO got it on – and got it on good. Entwistle in skeleton suit Townshend in his usual white boiler suit, & a power & drive that virtually every other band lacked. By the time they came on, the press bar had shut, most of the alcoholic hacks had split back to their hotels, and the press arena was full of leaping freaks. Tommy was resurrected, but there was a lot of life left in the corpse. Daltrey was magnificent; the band played superbly, and for the first time the audience responded to the music. F**king incredible!
It was earlier in 1970 that the Who recorded their seminal Live at Leeds album that did so much to codify their position as one of the greatest live bands of the last 50 years. Over the coming decade their performances at gigs and outdoor gigs in the UK and North America were, for fans and converts, so very memorable. Among them was their appearance at the Oval Cricket Ground in the summer of 1971, The Summer of ’74 festival at Charlton Athletic’s football ground, The Valley in South London. Two years later they returned to The Valley for another gig that for a long while was billed as the “World Record Loudest Concert.”
With The Who on their 50th anniversary tour it is entirely appropriate that like The Rolling Stones in 2012 they should headline Glastonbury. Like the Stones they have also headlined in Hyde Park at The British Summer Time Festival.
Last evening’s show in London was another triumphal festival appearance. As the Telegraph’s Patrick Sawer says in today’s paper, “Only the most jaded would have failed to feel a thrill as the opening chords of ‘I Can’t Explain’ rang out… ‘The Seeker’, ‘Who Are You?’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘Pictures of Lily’, ‘I Can See For Miles’; Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey delivered them with the energy and enthusiasm of performers half their age.” The 70,000 crowd was treated to a climax of ‘My Generation’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
The thing is they never have fooled us and we can’t wait for Sunday and their Glastonbury performance.
Listen to our exclusive Spotify playlist of The Who playing live at Festivals…and more