Bob Pridden has watched The Who perform more times than anyone else on the planet.
The band’s long-time sound engineer, he joined during the pop art era, watched them transform guitar music with the rock opera ‘Tommy’, and then took them to American stadiums during their swaggering, record-breaking, hotel-shattering pomp.
Right now, though, he’s packing his bags for a quick break to Scotland. “I’m going to Fort William!” he exclaims. “I’m looking forward to it very much, and then I might take in Rannoch Moor on the way back. I can’t wait!”
It’s not quite as rock ‘n’ roll as it used to be, but Bob has never quite lost his sense of adventure. It was chance that first took him into the band’s path, after all. “It was 52 years ago this year,” he says with a half-chuckle. “I met a friend of mine – a guy I knew vaguely – and I had just stopped working with a band, and I was looking for another outlet.”
“This guy was in the phonebox - long before the days when everybody had phones at home! - and he shouted: what you doing, Bob? I said, I’m going to phone about a job with a band. He said, look, I know where there’s one probably on the books. This guy was called Wiggy, and he was John and Keith’s driver, he drove them around. He said, come with me!”
“So I got in his car, this nice Bentley, and off we went to their office in Mayfair. Then I met John and Keith there that afternoon, and they said, d’you want to come to a club tonight with us? And I said, great! We went to the club and there it all started. They said, come along – join us!”
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Entering a whirlwind, Bob Pridden was tasked with channelling one of the wildest beasts in rock ‘n’ roll. Keith Moon’s flamboyant, untamed drumming. John Entwhistle’s incredible, symphonic bass player. Roger Daltrey’s mic-swinging, blues-shouting delivery. And Pete Townshend’s incredible auto-destructive guitar techniques.
“Basically we grew up with the technology as it was coming in and changing,” he insists. “Whereas today it’s like a spaceship what you see onstage. But we grew up with it, so it was quite good. I think to walk into it today being young you’d need to go to university or something, but because we grew up around it, it worked.”
Bob’s first show with the band came as venues, the entire method of breaking bands, was changing. The four-piece played the Streatham Locarno in South London, and went down a storm.“The Locarno was a chain – all over the country,” he recalls. “I think we did most of them across the 60s and 70s. A lot of them had this terrible revolving stage!”
The movement between showbands and variety shows towards life-changing counter-cultural groups had many foot soldiers, but the lowly sound engineers were the ones who took that studio experimentation and translated it to a live environment.
“We put a 1000 watts of wham in there!” he laughs, recalling the obscene (for the time) volume levels. “1000W was the norm. We progressed from the Marshalls. Then we got our first mixer and we used to use it with the Marshall stacks, it was a Swedish model which had an echo unit in it which was another thing that I got really hung up on using. So then we moved from that to the Wem audiomasters, Wem copycats, and we had Wem columns. They made some special ones for us. Pink Floyd had them as well. It resembled Stonehenge up there! But it worked. They were great!”
“We brought it back to England and we played the Oval cricket ground, with Rod Stewart on before us,” he recalls. “We put our PA out – they wanted to use the existing PA, which was fine by us – and when we tried to switch ours on it was unbelievable! Chalk and cheese because it was just so clear. And I think that was a big step forward. You could see the look on some of these people’s faces when The Who went on, thinking: wow, what is this?! It was just the most fantastic system.”
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The reason for our chat is the release of The Who’s show from New York’s Fillmore East venue in 1968. A truly blistering experience, it captures the band at a crossroads, moving from Mod heroes to stadium giants. Bob was with them all the way, and was initially appalled at the American circuit – little more than reconvened baseball grounds used for rock shows.
“At times they’ve suffered a bit – particularly in America – simply through those arenas,” he insists. “Before they were updated some of the arenas were atrocious sounding and that really was difficult to work with. We got through ‘em and they got through ‘em but we did the best we could. Their best was better than most bands, I think – when they’re excellent, which they were most of the time, nothing could touch ‘em.”
“Really, a lot of the problems that did occur were in the older arenas, which were just echo boxes. They weren’t made for rock ‘n’ roll. They were made for baseball, so at least when the fans cheered it was always loud.”
What makes the Fillmore East show particularly special, then, is the venue, the promoter, the sound system, and the fans. “Doing the Fillmore was always a great gig, and Bill Graham was a very good promoter,” he says. “They had very good equipment there for the time. They had a fantastic PA system in there. Mixers weren’t really developed, so they recorded the show on about eight channels.”
“I remember mixing it. It’s on four track – all the drums were on one track, bass was on one track, guitar was on one track, and all the vocals were on one track. It wasn’t bad – we had to clean it up a bit – but I think that helped to make it what it is. You’re overloading the tape. And half inch four track is just fantastic – you’ve got the headroom, and that helps to make it sound great.”
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The show is famed for some of Keith Moon’s infamous antics at New York’s Waldorf hotel. Even the very mention of the name has Bob collapse into laughter.
“The Wardorf!” he guffaws. “I remember very clearly going up to my room and trying to put the key in the door and it wouldn’t go in. I’m looking at the key, and it’s the right key, but still it wouldn’t go in. I thought, well there’s something wrong with the lock.”
“As I went down to the lobby we all seemed to come out together, and all the doors weren’t working. What the hotels used to do if you weren’t paying your bills was they’d put a key in there and break it off, so you can’t put a key in on top of it. All our rooms were locked so I couldn’t get in. Then we were asked to leave, actually! Which was a regular occurrence in those days.”
This period of The Who’s existence is renowned for being fraught, with each band member often at another’s throat during those tense journeys on the road. “In some cases, yes, it’s part of the chemistry and makes it what it is,” he admits. “Definitely. We need to take into consideration that they’re all total opposites to each other, and that alone is quite extraordinary. Doing a gig was always – I thought – like going to war, going into battle. Here we go, another battle. The energy onstage was incredible. Unbelievable.”
The show at the Fillmore took place at a tragic time in American history, with civil rights leader Martin Luther King being shot dead only a few days before. Tension was high across America, creating a palpable atmosphere on the streets of New York.
“I think it was very subdued,” he recalls. I didn’t see any rioting or anything, I think everyone was completely shocked by it.”
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The minute the doors of the Fillmore opened, though, a different world was created, far removed from what was outside.
“Obviously one would think about it, but the show was iconic and great. A fantastic show. They rose to the occasion,” he enthuses. “The support act was Buddy Guy! And that’s something to follow on because he was the man – we were brought up on that sort of stuff. Certainly, I’m sure most of The Who used to listen to rhythm and blues, it was all part of our backbone. So having that onstage made it even more special.”
The show is notable for a number of firsts - ‘C’Mon Everybody’ enters the band’s set after a run through in the dressing room, while the old New Orleans number ‘Fortune Teller’ also gains its inaugural airing. For Bob Pridden, though, what’s important is what comes next, the direction the band were accelerating towards.
“I think it’s great,” he grins. “The great thing about working on this album now is that it’s so long ago you’ve actually forgotten a lot. I always thought it was a great, but I’d forgotten how dynamic it was. That was a great show as far as I’m concerned, it really was a dynamic show. A 30 minute live version of ‘My Generation’ - that takes you a long way out and then back again. And that, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear influences that will come on later in songs.”
Many of The Who’s shows in this period ended in outright destruction – from Pete piercing the roof of a venue with his guitar, to Keith Moon loading his drumkit with cherry bombs for the band’s explosive set on The Smother Brothers TV show. It was Bob – and people like him – who had to piece these instruments back together in order for the tour to continue.
“Put them together, repair them,” he says with a shrug. “When we couldn’t repair them we’d borrow money to buy them guitars. It cost them a lot of money in those days. A guitar, it really depended – it might be all over in one smash. The damages were always quite a lot, I would say... equipment wise. But we managed to repair a lot of it – it’s always worse than it looks.”
“I think a lot of it was, where else can we take it? And that was one way of ending it. It’s so dynamic, what more can they do? So to end it, that’s when that happened. There was then no question of doing an encore because an encore would fizzle it out. How do you carry on after a set like that?”
How, indeed. Then and now, hardly anyone could top The Who.
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As special bonus here's Bob discussing The Who's performance at the Fillmore that night...
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'The Who - Live At The Fillmore East 1968' is out now.
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