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When I Saw the Who Live in Charlton

You could see the tide was turning that day at the Valley. Whenever someone stood up to indulge in a spot of what was popularly known as “idiot dancing”, i.e. waving their arms around in a hippy-like manner, they’d immediately become the target of a barrage of empty cans or whatever debris was at hand to make them sit down again.

It was the last day of May 1976, and there were something like 60,000 of us packed into Charlton Athletic’s ground to see an all-day festival featuring six bands, headlined by the Who. My girlfriend Lesley was mad about The Who, especially Roger Daltrey, and we travelled down by tube and train from our bedsit in Cricklewood to Charlton on that Monday, arriving just after midday. There were already crowds at the turnstiles and by the time we got in and took up a good position half-way up the terraces facing the small stand containing the stage, we’d already missed Widowmaker who featured Steve Ellis, ex-vocalist of late 60 teeny favourites the Love Affair. I wasn’t bothered about missing them as I didn’t take Steve seriously at that time.

Next up were Chapman-Whitney’s Streetwalkers, who featured the two main men from Family, one of my favourite bands of the late 60s/early 70s. I’d seen them four times in 1969 and they were a great live band. I wasn’t familiar with their songs at Charlton, apart from the oldie ‘Burlesque’, which rocked out as great as ever. The sunny weather soon turned cloudy and for the rest of the day it poured off and on. There was a fair bit of booze in the crowd, though I think it had been banned by the organisers and the next band up, the Outlaws, suited the mood of a boozy spring afternoon crowd, including me, with their southern boogie style, and got the biggest round of applause so far.

There were sizeable gaps, of course, while the bands were setting up, and DJ’s, including Nicky Horne of Capital Radio, were doing the MC-ing in between playing records. When ‘Stairway to Heaven’ finished, it got easily the biggest round of applause of the day till then. Nicky Horne did a great counselling job when some guy decided to climb almost to the top of the floodlight nearest us – well, it was there. If he’d fallen, he’d have splattered a few of the crowd as well as himself and it provided an entertaining interlude as Nicky calmly talked him down till he finally got round the band of barbed wire intended to deter ascents such as his, ripping his shirt in the process, and bouncing to terra firma, accepting a kiss on the cheek from a male admirer. I later had a close encounter with Nicky. Pete Townshend was due to be interviewed on his show on Capital and as Lesley was unable to go, I dutifully waited outside Euston Tower so I could cop his autograph for her. I wondered why nobody else was around and then a diminutive curly-haired man in platform shoes emerged from the front door and asked me: “Are you waiting for Pete?” I realized it was Nicky himself and he explained that Pete hadn’t actually come because his dog had been run over earlier that day and he’d been too upset to do the interview. I’ve always thought that was very kind of Nicky. Lesley met Roger Daltrey at Euston Tower in similar circumstances and when she asked if she could have a kiss, he replied: “I thought you’d never ask.”

Little Feat had earned great reviews during their Warner Bothers package tour a couple of years earlier, but their denser, more soulful music didn’t make much impression on the crowd, who were ready to boogie some more. Then, half-way through ‘Dixie Chicken’, their magic suddenly kicked in with me and a large number of the crowd, and the rest of their set seemed blistering. Looking back – my God, it was 32 years ago! – I’m really glad I managed to catch Lowell George at his peak.

There was a long gap before the next act, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band came on, largely because Alex’s special wall had to be constructed at the back of the stage. I’d never really got this band’s quirky style – ‘Delilah’ had been a bit of a laugh but all that theatrical stuff and tunes that seemed to wander all over the place didn’t do anything for me. Zal, their guitarist with the painted face, could certainly play really well and there was a bit where a hand came through a gap in the wall and nicked his guitar before dangling it out of reach, which was on the entertaining side. A guy near me shouted, “Give him it!”, but I couldn’t get that excited and was starting to find time drag.

It was getting really packed as the sun went down and the rain really started bucketing down too. We found out later that thousands of counterfeit tickets had been sold. When Lesley went to the lav, which took a fair while, I had to guard her spot as people were muscling in on all sides. A bloke usurped another guy’s place near me and when this was pointed out by his friend, she received a right mouthful in reply. This was no Summer of Love.

Finally, the Who came trotting onstage, but as they waved to the crowd two of them went flat on their arses on the wet surface. They started with ‘Can’t Explain’, followed by ‘Substitute’, and delivered a tremendous set for the best part of two hours. I saw the Who three times, the other two being in December 1966 and October 1975, and they always put on a great performance and gave the crowd what they wanted, including of course much of their back catalogue.

I’d never sat and listened to ‘Tommy’ all the way through – I still haven’t – but the ‘Tommy’ songs they played that evening were brilliant, with ‘See Me, Feel Me’ being the highlight of the whole day. As the song reached its climactic “Listening to you…” refrain, propelled there with much deep rumbling from Entwhistle’s bass, several huge spotlights beamed out, as well as laser beams, and the crowd spontaneously roared. A magic moment. I was surprised to hear that Moonie had such a posh voice, not knowing then that it was merely a pose, as he jokingly berated Pete between songs. Roger fell over a few more times during the set but didn’t bat an eyelid, and we were treated to the sight of him kneeling down to wipe water from the stage on several occasions. I can’t imagine many other stars of his calibre acting like that. Incidentally there were no huge screens at the sides of the stage, but each of the band were clearly identifiable.

When it was all over, we had to endure the huge crowds as we queued outside of Charlton Station before we eventually squeezed on to a packed train back to central London.

Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours.


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