I See The Who's First American Gig With Murray The K, 1967

We never saw The Who as anything but gods. They were in full flight within 10 seconds of the beginning of their opening song and we hadn't even gotten a glimpse of them.
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Wednesday morning, March 28, 1967. After weeks of fevered anticipation, in the middle of our Easter vacation, me and my pals, Benjy and Anthony, got on the uptown 5 train in Brooklyn, off to Murray The K's latest holiday extravaganza, Music In The Fifth Dimension at the RKO Radio Theater on 3rd Avenue at 58th St. in Manhattan.

Yes, that was one hokey-ass "psychedelic" title (although I remember thinking it was fine and dandy back then!) for the usual Cavalcade of Stars-type show. Then again, this was 90 days before the Summer of Love. Murray was hip.

In parentheses, the ads for the show promised (Total Audience Involvement) (?)

The much ballyhooed T.A.M.I. Show filmed in late '64 is a perfect example of the kind of productions these were. Bang bang bang... an act doing a song or two, immediately followed by another artiste, with occasional master of ceremony patter and/or some dance numbers in between.

Murray The K had put on many of these shows over the years, most with an accent on the R&B acts that were happening in New York's charts. The theaters were always rundown movie houses that back in the 30s and 40s were places of opulent fantasy complete with stages, dressing rooms, etc. By the 1960s, they were getting worn and torn by blase New York moviegoers.

This spring '67 show's headliners were Mitch Ryder, Wilson Pickett, Smokey Robinson (who actually never showed after an argument with Murray), the Blues Project, and the Hardly Worth It Players. The Also Appearing acts, listed in a font half the size in the show program, were Jim & Jean, The Chicago Loop, Mandala, and two English bands making their US debuts: The Cream (as they were listed) and The Who. We three rabidly Anglophile Brooklyn boys were going for these last two. Especially The Who.

Amusing fact: Frank Barcelona, the head of Premier Talent, was Mitch Ryder's booking agent. Mitch was huge by 1967, like five or six smash hits in a row. Frank, actually trying to dissuade Murray regarding booking Mitch Ryder as his headliner, kept coming up with provisos, one of them that Murray would have to have these two unknown British bands, Cream and The Who, on the same bill. Murray, to Barcelona's amazement, agreed.

Okay, okay, you can have Mitch, Murray.

There were four shows a day, each a nine or ten act set about 90 to 100 minutes long, separated by a movie. Once inside, it turned out, you could stay all day.

Benjy, Anthony, and I decided to get there as early as possible for the first show of the day. By 10 a.m. our tickets were torn in half. We found dead-center seats in the front row of the mezzanine. We were really close up there, like the equivalent of the 10th row in the orchestra, about 25 feet up, with a stage-wide panoramic view. Gimme five!

About 15 minutes later, the lights went down and the house band in the orchestra pit started a familiar R&B vamp (maybe "Bring It Up" by James Brown?). Out of the stage left wing strolled Murray The K in his trademark hip striped deep-V-neck sweater, white turtleneck, knife's edge center creases in his silver-gray slacks, and his all-important stingy-brim straw fedora.

Murray was an outright Star! all by himself; the single most visible and revered radio DJ in New York. His mere presence on stage left was an instant buzz and had us crowd revved up before anything had happened. Murray immediately went into his trademark schtick.

Murray, "Ahh Bey!"
Us, "HO!" Murray, "Ahh Bey!"
Us, "HO!" Murray, "Kooa Zowuh Zowuhhhhhhh"

Hey, (Total Audience Involvement)!

And then, the maroon curtains opened and on came the first act, the Mighty Mandala from Canada, to do their one song, "Opportunity." All five in pale yellow pinstripe suits, against a shimmering gold backdrop. I had never heard of this band and have never heard that tune since, but I still have the hook in my head. They seemed an amazingly cool group. The blond singer, George, was clearly a sexy badass. The guitar player had the most trashed and beat up Telecaster I'd ever seen up 'til that point. That was cool. We dug 'em. Some of Mandala eventually wound up backing Alice Cooper, the band and the solo act.

After them, we sat through the goofy crap that none of us really cared about, although none of them bad. Each act was subjected to the same treatment. Being intro-ed by Murray, trotting out, waving to the audience, plugging into the communal back line, and counting off their one song.

Going on about fifth, the first of the headliners, The Hardly-Worth-It Players lounged through their Vaughn Meader style "Wild Thing" as "Senator Bobby." Haha. They seemed to be sick of it themselves.

Next, the Blues Project, who we were excited to see, came out and did... a ballad?! I think it might've been Donovan's "Catch The Wind." Even stranger, about 45 seconds into it, their then-legendary guitarist, Danny Kalb, waved the band to stop and walked up to the mic and said, "Sorry, let's start that again." Even three boys in junior high school knew this was bad weird.

Then, to our delight, Murray The K introduced this band that we'd heard on his show several times. We were in love with their song, "I Feel Free." They also had an utterly cool name, but, they didn't have an LP out in the States yet. So we didn't really know what to expect.

Out walked Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker -- Cream. They started up with the fantastic "NSU."

Their sound was deep... thick... and sizzling.

It was instantly clear that they were staggeringly better than anything we'd seen so far.

Eric was playing his gorgeous and iconic The Fool-painted Gibson SG and Ginger's drumhead was The Fool-painted to look like whipped cream. All three of them were wearing cool billowy ultra-colorful psychedelic-print shirts. Their look was, to us, radically cutting-edge.

They played two more killers, "Sweet Wine" and "I'm So Glad." Every act before them had done only one song (except two by Blues Project). We loved that they did three!

Even from the balcony, we could see that Jack and Ginger were very intense weirdos. Clapton, who seemed to move in slow motion, played all three of his solos with his back to the audience, sustaining notes for 8 bars or more, practically leaning against the Vox Super Beatle amp he was playing out of. That seemed like such an outrageously odd way to perform. We were dazzled. The three of us little Brooklyn numbnuts had basically come to see The Who (early members of their cult), but we now wondered: How could anyone possibly top Cream?

[Remarkably enough, about six months after this show, I bought Eric Clapton's Cream guitar case.]

Then, immediately after Cream, for the first time since the beginning of the show, the dark red curtains closed. Up next, Murray announced Jackie The K's Dance Contest (Jackie was Murray's wife), where guys from the audience got up along the front edge of the stage and gyrated to the pit band's polite funk with one of the Jackie The K's Girls; three very hot young long-haired models in groovy and fab houndstooth miniskirts and knee high white boots. The girls from the audience got to dance with sexy singer George from Mandala, still in his yellow suit. Told ya he was a badass.

Mrs. The K stood off to the side, subtly swaying while her girls danced, looking Vegas-snazzy. Imagine a 40-year-old white Ronette with piles of jet-black hair a la Priscilla Presley that same year.

The winner, chosen by the loudest applause, got to go backstage and meet the act of their choice. The guy who won wore an authentic Mod haircut, a Carnaby St. corduroy jacket, pale desert boots, and could actually really dance. Murray asked him where he lived. He answered, "In the Village." The audience loved that! The guy immediately chose to meet The Who. We were duly impressed. Lucky bastard!

With the contest over, Murray came back out and did a few minutes of patter and then, as he stood in front of the closed curtain, announced "And now, from London England, those 'Happy Jack' boys... Please welcome... The Who!"

Immediately, we heard the solo guitar intro to "Substitute" and then... BOOOOM! The bass and drums came thundering in and then, and only then, the curtain finally slowly started to open.

The first Who we saw was Roger, dressed in an odd but very cool long Edwardian coat and two-tone gangster shoes with two inch heels (!!), menacingly throwing his mic in a fast tight circle. His hair style and color looked so perfect, it almost seemed fake.

The curtain opened a bit more and there was Keith, in a Batman t-shirt, wildly thrashing away behind a brilliant cherry red sparkle double bass drum kit with THE on one drumhead and WHO on the other. Within the first three or four seconds he was visible, Keith shot at least six or seven drumsticks out into the audience, spraying them in every direction.

Then, the curtain opened all the way to reveal John and Pete, both head to toe in immaculate white, both playing blond Fenders, matching bookends. Pete was standing in his "Birdman" pose, legs spread, arms straight out with the guitar droning roaring noise. He contemptuously spit on the stage, actually hocked a real loogie (yikes!), sauntered over to his mic stand and angrily (and on beat) kicked it over and into the orchestra pit!

As John Entwistle watched, standing stock still, his shoulders barely shrugged as he theatrically sighed in weary boredom.

A four ring circus!

And, remember, this was 1967. This kinda punk behavior was completely novel, wild, even disconcerting, and about a decade early!

The curtain trick was an amazingly clever move... and The Who were the only band to utilize the gimmick. No running out with a cheery wave and plugging in. No audience witnessing the toiletries. We never saw The Who as anything but gods. They were in full flight within 10 seconds of the beginning of their opening song and we hadn't even gotten a glimpse of them. And... The Who simply produced the loudest, most brutally raw and exciting sound I'd ever experienced. Cream were forgotten!

I'd seen the Beatles in 1964 and the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones in 1965. Both were incredible. But The Who were the most breathtaking rock spectacle I'd ever witnessed. Frankly, to this day, they are the standard by which I judge every live band. And, literally, even sadly, I have never seen their equal.

Immediately after "Substitute", Pete Townshend said something snotty into his mic and they launched into "My Generation." Oh my God, my favorite!

Now, in the liner notes of their first U.S. album it said, "Since starting with The Who, Pete has smashed 14 guitars." So, naturally, me and Ben and Anthony, having discussed this issue for weeks, concluded there was no way we'd get to see that. 14... that meant he did it maybe once a month... and this was such a short show... Oh well.

But, as "My Generation" hit its chaotic coda, gray-white smoke suddenly started pouring out of the back of Pete's amps! Oh shit! He yanked off his Telecaster (yes, the exact same model I'd gotten for Christmas about 90 days earlier, and at that moment, the hottest must-have guitar in the world) and, holding it by the top of the neck like bat, started pounding the stage with it. Up in the front row of the mezzanine, three 14-year-old boys were losing their minds.

"Oh My God, he IS gonna smash it!! He's gonna wreck a fuckin' Telecaster!!"

After banging it around and bashing it against the mic stand, Townshend threw the guitar so high it momentarily disappeared into the rafters. He let it fall with a huge Kerrrrang! While the guitar lay there groaning and shrieking, Pete stalked back to the two Vox Super Beatles (the largest amps in the USA back then) and with one graceful move, simultaneously pulled them over, both crashing to the floor face-down, and then he casually strolled offstage.

At the precise moment the amps were falling, Moon, on a riser, kicked his entire drum kit over, at least half of it flying into the orchestra pit, as the musicians down there scurried to duck incoming tom-toms.

John casually unhooked the strap on his bass and it too slammed onto the stage with a monstrous Brooonnnng!

The curtains quickly closed on the carnage as the pungent smoke wafted into the theater.

The audience was in a genuine frenzy. While there certainly was a contingent of us who were there to see The Who, most of the kids there had no idea who they were. Consequently, there was something akin to pandemonium as hundreds of totally mind-blown teenagers tried to assimilate what they'd just witnessed.

As we tried to recover from the ecstatic release of musical and literal vandalism, I realized that both my upper arms ached. Why? As the entire destruction episode went down, Benjy and Anthony, sitting on either side of me had been punching me over and over again in their excitement. Poor Wilson Pickett and Mitch Ryder had to follow that!

To their credit, both did, kinda. Wicked Pickett and Billy Levise both came on with full 12 piece bands. Both tore into their material. Both dressed to the nines; Wilson in a dark blue/silver sharkskin suit, Billy (Mitch) in white hiphuggers and translucent white pirate shirt opened to his navel. I should be able to wax eloquent and ecstatic about these two wonderful performers. But, they were both just flat-out anti-climactic after The Who.

It turned out both Wilson and Mitch were furious having to follow the smoke bombs and bombast. One couldn't blame them.

When Mitch Ryder finished his three numbers, bowed and walked offstage, and Murray said his goodbyes and thanked us for coming, the lights came up and the three of us made up our minds to stay for the whole show again just to see The Who.

We sat through this absurdly bad, dull, gloomy black and white British B-movie called The Sinister Man, whose only redeeming feature was that it starred Wifrid Brambell, who played Paul's grandfather in Hard Day's Night. We yelled things like "He's a clean old man!" or "Where the fuck is Paul?!" every time he came on the screen.

Knowing the deal from the first show, pal Anthony, a total extrovert in a lavender satin shirt, went downstairs at the right time, was first in line for the dance contest, and by mock-humping the Jackie The K Girl onstage, actually won the damn thing! Ben and I were besides ourselves with pride and jealousy as a Jackie The K Girl took him backstage to meet The Who.

Anthony followed her up a narrow staircase, down a short hall and suddenly he was face to face with all four Whos crammed into a tiny dressing room. She introduced him as "Tony." As a totally awestruck kid, the only question Anthony could think of as he watched Pete using a soldering iron to last-minute repair the Telecaster he'd trashed was, "Do you have to pay for all the equipment you destroy?"

They all laughed and answered with various Brit expressions for "Hell yeah!" Then, the Jackie The K girl scooted Anthony back to his seat in time to see The Who.

And yes, The Who were absolutely just as exciting the second time.

Coda: Eight months later, in late November 1967, The Who were back in New York to play the Village Theater, soon to be the Fillmore East. With amazing luck and timing one late afternoon, Anthony (without me, grrr!) walked into Manny's Music Store and there was Pete talking to the head salesman, Henry. As he cautiously walked up to Townshend, Pete turned and casually said, "Hey, Tony..." roughly 250 days after meeting Anthony for 20 seconds backstage at "Murray The K's Music In The Fifth Dimension." WTF ?!

Coda 2: Here is the article from September 1967's Hit Parader, written by The Who's publicist at the time, Keith Altham, about their nine-day stay with Murray The K in the RKO Radio Theater on 58th St and 3rd Avenue.

Back then, I must've read this 100 times!

And Richard Goldstein, one of the very first (and best) 'intellectual' rock writers, did an evocative piece for the Village Voice in 1967 about The Who at this Murray The K gig...

Two great quick reads!

Coda 3: Joey Ramone was interviewed by King Kitsch, Joe Franklin himself, back in the 1988. Joe Franklin, having hyped The Ramones' influence over the scene at the time, asked Joey who had influenced him (at about 5:20). Joey immediately answered, "The Who at the Murray The K show in 1967 made a big impression and was a huge influence on me."

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