Talking ’bout that Who generation – back in conversation with Richard Houghton

Did you happen to catch a band called The High Numbers in Greenford, West London, in 1963? They were regulars at the Oldfield Hotel around then, still playing there the following year, by which time they’d changed name to The Who. Barbara Hicks was one of those lucky enough to be there, and remembers ‘the place was always completely full and jumping’.

Meanwhile, on the Mod scene at the Florida Rooms in Brighton, Hazel Smith tells us that same group’s singer, Roger Daltrey, had her and her friends ‘drooling’, putting her tinnitus down to that gig, having stood too close to the main speakers. Further afield, Mick Shelton was at the Corporation Hotel, Derby, saying The High Numbers (they regularly switched between names, dependent on bookings) ‘went down a storm’, while Tony Churchouse reckons they played so loud at the Regency Ballroom, Bath, ‘you could feel it in your stomach’.

John Schollar goes further back, having played in a band called The Beachcombers who placed an ad in the Harrow and Wembley Observer for a new drummer, Keith Moon turning up for the audition at the Royal British Legion, Harrow, in December 1962. Brought along by his Dad, aged around 16 – five years younger than the rest of the band – he was deemed unsuitable … until he played, getting the job there and then, sticking with them for around 18 months until joining Daltrey, John Entwistle and Pete Townshend in The Detours, the band soon re-christened. Schollar also mentions the young drummer shooting their singer with a starting pistol, one of the earliest anecdotes related to a legendary character soon labelled ‘Moon the loon’.

On another night at the Railway Hotel, Wealdstone, Harold Mortimer – the venue’s entertainment manager then – recalls one local ‘in a bit of a disagreeable mood’ arguing with Townshend, ending up throwing him on to a snow-covered pavement. And barely 10 miles south, Richard White, in a South London band called the Rivals, was on the bill with the band at Goldhawk Social Club, Shepherd’s Bush, remembering being complimented by Townshend on his bass playing, while Daltrey ‘always had a crowd of girls around him’ and ‘Keith was totally barmy – you’d be travelling somewhere by train and he’d be running through the railway carriages. He was very extrovert but very likeable and very sociable. He loved talking to people and loved having a laugh’.

There were occasional North West visits too, Steve Gomersall catching The High Numbers at Blackpool Opera House in August 1964, The Beatles and The Kinks further up the bill. He tells us how Entwistle was listening to the headliners in a dressing room through a tiny PA speaker, insisting John Lennon was singing a rude version of A Hard Day’s Night, not so much working like a dog as something far less savoury in the company of the screaming girls present, however oblivious they were.

We also get Michael Smith Guttridge, whose band The Avalons supported them at Rawtenstall Astoria, recalling how Moon – ‘probably the friendliest’ – ‘had gone walkabout’ in East Lancs, borrowing our drummer’s jacket’ while Townshend ‘was drinking red wine from the bottle, unaware that Keith had urinated in it’. And back on the West Coast, Syd Bloom was at Morecambe’s near-empty Floral Hall Ballroom, parked ‘right outside on the promenade’, when he found Daltrey ‘freaking out at the lack of interest’, saying how at Eel Pie Island people were ‘queueing for two days to get in’. But Daltrey still bought him a drink, inviting him backstage, adding, “I bet there weren’t 60 people there that night, but Keith Moon still managed to pick a fight with somebody’.

Those are just a few of the top tales of the influential r’n’b outfit’s early shows told to Richard Houghton for his new Red Planet title, The Who – I Was There, an epic read painstakingly compiled. And by the end of that year the band were Ready Steady Go regulars, Top of the Pops guests in Manchester, playing the Empire Pool, Wembley, the big time well and truly cracked. But what about the author, who was barely four when they played those first gigs as The Who –  when did they first come on to his radar?

“Listening to the radio as a teenager you inevitably got to hear The Who. When Radio 1 still played songs featuring guitars, stuff like Pinball Wizard would get an airing. I remember the greatest hits album, The Story of The Who, the cover of which featured an exploding pinball machine, being prominently displayed in the window of my local record shop in Northampton. It was a ‘must have’, and a great introduction to the back-catalogue.

Rich Pickings: Richard Houghton stands proudly with his latest publication, The Who – I Was There

Ever get to see them live?

“Yes, at Stafford Bingley Hall in 1979 and at Wembley Stadium in 1980, both times with Kenney Jones on drums. Sadly, I never saw them with Keith Moon. They were rumoured to be playing a ‘secret’ gig at Loughborough University the year I went up, as someone who worked there developed the lasers for their stage-show and playing the new student union building was supposed to be their way of saying ‘thank you’. But Keith’s death about a month before put paid to that.  I don’t know whether the story is true, but it would have been great to see them in an 1,100-capacity venue like that.”

The book runs to more than 400 pages, with 400-plus fans, friends and colleagues of the band telling their stories of seeing, knowing or working with them, right back to their roots. Can Richard explain the basic concept behind The Who – I Was There.

“I’m trying to tell the story of the band in the words of the people who were there and in the process give a different take on a story that has been told many times before. I’m hopefully capturing memories that might otherwise be lost and preserving something that is part social history, part pop history. Seeing a band live isn’t just about the band – it’s also about the people, the venue, how the crowd interacts. And I’m trying to take the reader back to what it was like to see The Who at the Railway in Wealdstone or the Trade in Watford during the height of Mod.”

Did this – like your last two books on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – prove something of a learning curve?

“I was pretty familiar with the story of The Who, although some of the reflections on Tommy – how Pete Townshend had to do quite a sales job to persuade people to listen to an album about a severely disabled child who is empowered through playing pinball – were quite illuminating. But it left me feeling sorry for The Who’s sound engineer. Pete wasn’t afraid to let his feelings show if things weren’t right, as they often weren’t when they toured the Who’s Next album and were trying to work with backing tapes in what was the pre-digital age. Bob Pridden, who famously engineered a lot of The Who’s shows, was often on the receiving end of verbal abuse when things weren’t going right, especially when they were trying to use quadraphonic sound. It’s all so much simpler now for sound engineers.”

How do you feel The Who’s personnel differed from the characters in the other bands you’ve featured in this series?

“They were four quite strong personalities, all pulling in different directions. Even John Entwistle, who has a reputation for being the quiet one, was it seems quite the party animal. And the tension within the group often spilled out on stage – Roger quitting, Keith and John quitting, Pete punching Keith, and so on. The Who were famous for their explosive stage act, and the fireworks weren’t just theatrics put on for the audience.”

Do you think you know more about the individual members of The Who from writing this book? Only it’s far too easy to latch on to the clichés, i.e ‘Moon the loon’ and so on.

“What I learnt about Keith was that he was mad as a hatter but a really nice bloke. If he was a child now, he’s probably be diagnosed as having ADHD. But he channeled his energies into playing the drums and as a result became what he himself described as ‘the best Keith Moon-type drummer in the world.’ But the others come across as nice blokes too, giving lifts home to female fans to make sure they got home safely and so on.

“It’s easy to overlook how much contact big bands had with their audiences back in the day when you had to play six or seven nights a week to get your music heard. Don’t forget, when The Who started out there was no Radio One, and if you wanted your music to be heard then getting out and playing live was the best – in fact, the only – way to do it.”

Were there points in compiling this book where you felt, ‘Oh no, not another Keith Moon prank or Pete Townshend trashed guitar story’?

“No, because that’s part of what they were, and it also charts the evolution from a band that did it to create a spectacle through to a band that was forced to carry on doing it because the audience expected it.

“Some of the memories – ‘I caught a drumstick’, ‘I saw the roadie give Pete a guitar that had been patched together because he didn’t want to smash his Rickenbacker’ – are precious to the individuals telling those stories, and that’s what I’ve tried to encapsulate too. Teenage memories of seeing your heroes live on stage.  I think the instrument-smashing helps paint the picture of The Who, as do the stories about them ‘liberating’ gear from the BBC and flogging it to support bands!”

A lot of the material used has been previously unpublished, such as photos and memorabilia. Were there a few ‘wow’ moments while sifting through the responses?

“Although The Who’s career is well documented, the real ‘wow moments for me were in uncovering four different Who shows that were not listed in other books, including one in Wem in Shropshire where the three people who were there can’t even agree on which year it was and where the date doesn’t seem to be recorded anywhere. It’s not exactly up there with discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb, but it is still quite exciting from a rock historian’s point of view, if I can call myself that!”

If there was one Who or High Numbers gig you could go back in time and sneak into, which would it be?

“Even though it would be great to go back to when they were starting out and playing small clubs and dance halls, I think it would have to be one of their two gigs at Charlton Athletic FC’s ground, probably the 1974 show. They were playing to 60,000 people and it just seems like it was a fantastic celebration of their music.”

I get the impression Tommy got a lot of spins in the Houghton household at one stage, seeing as you mention how your son Bill knew the words to Sally Simpson by the time he was four.

“We had the soundtrack on the CD player in the car for a while, and it’s perhaps not fair to subject your child to something like that when he should be listening to The Wheels On The Bus or something a little less intellectually challenging than a Pete Townshend lyric. But in my defence he would keep asking for it.  And I wouldn’t let him watch the Ken Russell movie of the album, even though I had it on DVD. That was because it was an AA certificate – aimed at 14 year olds and older – when first released. I didn’t think some of the scenes in the film were suitable for a four-year-old, and certainly didn’t want to subject him to Oliver Reed’s singing.

“Bill’s 21 now. He’s more into Grime now than he is The Who … and I’m proud to say that I don’t really know what Grime is.”

Could you pick out a favourite Who album and track, for whatever reason?

“I think it has to be I Can See For Miles.  What I love about Pete Townshend is that he never writes what you would call classic boy-girl love songs. This is a great example: ‘You’re gonna lose that smile, because all the while…’ But Roger Daltrey’s singing about getting revenge in such a beautiful voice.”

I see your Rolling Stones book is getting a new edition. How will that differ from the original Gottahavebooks version reviewed on these pages two years ago?

“It will have around 25,000 extra words and loads of different images. The publisher will also be issuing it at a more competitive price, so hopefully more people will be tempted to buy it. I haven’t seen the artwork yet, but the layout on the Beatles and Who books have attracted lots of favourable comments, which is nice. The Rolling Stones are my first love, and I’m hoping to go and see them next month in Zurich, although the last time I travelled abroad to see the Stones Mick Jagger had a sore throat and the show was cancelled.”

You’re already hard at work on the next book too, I see – an I Was There project focusing on memories of Pink Floyd. How can people who saw the band get involved?

“I’m working on the book right now, and it’s amazing how many gigs they played in the late ‘60s before hitting the big time, including shows not far from my own Lancashire patch in Nelson, Southport, Ainsdale and Blackpool, the latter supporting Jimi Hendrix. And if you saw Pink Floyd, in the early days or later in their career, I’d love to hear your memories via isawpinkfloyd@gmail.com.

So how is this director of operations for Chorley Community Housing – based between offices in Chorley, Leigh and Manchester, where he also lives – managing to fit in the day-job with all this extra work?

“Writing the books is still a hobby. It would be great to be able to concentrate on my writing full-time, but I still need to pay my half of the mortgage.”

For a link to a writewyattuk interview with Richard Houghton following the publication of The Beatles – I Was There last year, head here.

The Who – I Was There is available from HMV stores and can be ordered at Waterstones, other reputable bookshops, or direct via redplanetzone.com. Red Planet’s I Was There series also includes Neil Cossar’s newly-published David Bowie – I Was There titles, available from the same outlets. Meanwhile, Richard’s Rolling Stones – I Was There is due out later this month, with his Pink Floyd book set to follow later this year, along with Neil Cossar’s Bob Dylan – I Was There.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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