Stars at Woodstock were not the bands, but the 500,000 crowd

The Who's frontman Roger Daltrey performing at Woodstock (above) in 1969 in a Tommy suede suit with white leather fringes and at the Concert for Sandy Relief (right) in New York in 2012.
The Who's frontman Roger Daltrey performing at Woodstock (above) in 1969 in a Tommy suede suit with white leather fringes and at the Concert for Sandy Relief in New York in 2012.PHOTO: WOODSTOCK/INSTAGRAM
The Who's frontman Roger Daltrey performing at Woodstock (above) in 1969 in a Tommy suede suit with white leather fringes and at the Concert for Sandy Relief (right) in New York in 2012.
The Who's frontman Roger Daltrey performing at Woodstock in 1969 in a Tommy suede suit with white leather fringes and at the Concert for Sandy Relief (above) in New York in 2012.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

LONDON • The lone highway that led to Woodstock was jammed with traffic, so The Who left the hotel early to play their Saturday night show. When they arrived, word was out that bands were not getting paid - the promoters had decreed it a free show and stopped trying to collect tickets because so many people turned up.

The Who refused to go on until they received a cheque. While promoters scrambled to find money, the wait stretched for 14 hours before the band took to the stage early on Sunday morning and showcased their new album, the epochal rock opera Tommy.

Roger Daltrey reflects on what he has called the band's worst set and his suede suit in this edited excerpt.

What kind of mood were you in when you went on at 5am?

Tired. You build yourself up for a fight. We were determined to make our music count.

"We're going to beat this one, we're not going to let it beat us."

The Who may have been the only band at Woodstock that felt combative.

You got to remember, by the time we went on stage, we had been standing in the mud for hours. Or laying in it or doing whatever in it. It was not actually that muddy backstage, but it was not comfortable.

  • WOODSTOCK REBOOT

  • With days to go before the 50th anniversary of Woodstock held in New York from Aug 15 to 18 in 1969, musicians Carlos Santana and The Who's Roger Daltrey go back to the festival of love, music and freedom. Woodstock, an icon of the 1960s hippie counterculture, was held against a backdrop of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement

Sounds like it was mostly boring. Hours and hours of that is boring.

We could hear the bands that were on before us and I particularly remember how good Creedence Clearwater Revival were.

And The Who were the wrong band to keep waiting, right?

That is exactly right. Our music was a kind of energised anarchy. We were breaking Tommy, the first kind of rock opera album, so we had a specific goal we wanted to achieve. Against all the odds, it all kind of worked.

But I do not think the bands were the stars of Woodstock. In my mind, it was the audience. They were the stars, that half a million people who put up with the (conditions) at the festival.

That coming together of that community was, I think, the key to getting America out of Vietnam (war). That was when politicians actually started to take notice.

You have said Woodstock was the moment you knew The Who had broken through in the United States. How significant was the change in audience size?

That summer, our audiences went from 5,000 to 100,000 in a six-month period. It was a ridiculous, rapid elevation in status.

You have said it was the worst gig The Who ever played. Do you still think so?

It was a particularly hard one for me because of the state of the equipment. It was all breaking down.

I am standing in the middle of the stage with enormous Marshall 100-watt amps blasting my ears behind me. (Keith) Moon on the drums in the middle. I could barely hear what I was singing.

What were you wearing on stage?

I wore what I always wore when I did Tommy, which was a buckskin suede suit with white leather fringes that I had made, and I beaded the back. I wanted to create a mystical figure. When I began performing Tommy, I realised it needed to have a visual character, to carry the weight of this piece.

There we were, four snotty kids from Shepherd's Bush, saying to our audience: "This is a rock opera. Have a little respect."

The central character is Tommy. The audience is all the other characters. Uncle Ernie, Cousin Kevin - they are metaphors for different sides of human nature.

The Who played something like 112 nights in 1969. Did you have more than one suit?

Only one. It stood up on its own after a while. It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) now.

I loan it out to museums.

Can we do some Woodstock word association?

Er, I do not know about that. Go on.

Hippies?

Not many left (laughs).

Peace and love?

Woodstock was not peace and love. There was an awful lot of shouting and screaming going on. By the time it all ended, the worst sides of our nature had come out.

People were screaming at the promoters, people were screaming to get paid. We had to get paid or we could not get back home.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'Stars at Woodstock were not the bands, but the 500,000 crowd'. Print Edition | Subscribe