It is the summer of 1967. Herman’s Hermits and The Who are touring the United States. Which band is the opener and which is the headliner? This is a trick question because technically, the opening band was The Blues Magoos with The Who second on the bill and Peter Noones’ lightweight pop band Herman’s Hermits being the main attraction. You read that right: The Who were warming up the audience of screaming, mostly teen girls who came out to see the Hermits perform their hits.
I am on the road visiting the West Coast Bureau in Eugene, OR this week so an article about touring seemed be a good match with my own little tour. I was lucky enough to make it in and out of Chicago between major storms on the way to Oregon. The airport shut down twice before we departed west and for a longer stretch after we were somewhere over Nebraska. The eastern half of the trip was over cloud covered terrain so I was able to spend a couple of hours reading up about the fabled Who/Hermit tour that spawned many of the iconic ‘terrible Who’ stories that survive to this day. The Hermits may have been marketed as the squeaky clean, anti-Stones, but they were in the thick of some of The Who’s notorious adventures.
Why on Earth were The Who even touring with Herman’s Hermits to begin with? Simply put, HH were a bigger draw at a time when The Who weren’t getting much traction in their career. By this time, the band had broken up twice due to interband tensions between the pill popping trio of drummer Keith Moon, bassist John Entwistle, and guitarist/creative director Pete Townshend and their drug-free lead singer Roger Daltrey. Daltrey was fired the first time in 1965 for punching out a drug addled Moon backstage in Denmark. After his return, they spent an unsettled year that was capped off when Daltrey left on his own with the intention of forming a soul group. He again returned to the band whose norm could best be described as a ‘dysfunctional family’.
Herman’s Hermits were the pop band even your mother could love, but The Who were touring America with the intention “to leave a wound”. Herman warbled Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter and that was just what his fans wanted to hear, but how did they filter out the guitar smashing finale of My Generation that came before it every night? While Noone and Company charmed their way to the top of the charts singing I’m Henry The Eighth, I Am, Townshend was telling much less frilly tales with songs like A Quick One While He’s Away and Pictures of Lilly. Herman’s Hermits were laying the foundation for a later career on the oldies circuit (which is where one can find the still impossibly cute Noone today), but Townshend and The Who were digging much deeper as they invented the art of what is now commonly called “The Rock Opera”. On the surface, these bands may not have been compatible, but the members of both had similar backgrounds. Classic Rock Magazine describes them all as, “Post-war, ration-book kids, hell-bent on enjoying themselves in a country that until recently they had only seen on T.V..” The Hermit’s manager Harvey Lisberg was all of 27 years old and handed the responsibility of being ‘the adult and common sense’ on the tour but he summed it up quite nicely when he said, “They were all English, they were all working class and they were all drunk in the middle of nowhere.” He probably should have added “and we had Keith Moon.”
The guitar smashing became Townshend’s calling card when they won a coin flip at the Monterey Pop Festival in June. Winning meant they did not have to follow Jimi Hendrix, but they certainly wanted to raise the bar a bit going on before him. What the crowd didn’t know was Townshend knocked his guitar around enough to separate the body from the neck and each night, his roady glued it back together for the next show. Hendrix responded by sacrificing his Stratocaster with a lighter fluid induced blaze. A lot of great musical moments came out of Monterey, but the most enduring images are still Townshend smashing and Hendrix burning (their) guitars. The Who found a way to shock and fascinate their audience at the same time so they came into the ten week tour with The Hermits looking to top themselves every night.
Keith Moon was not the only prankster in the crowd, but he certainly wasn’t going to let anyone else out prank him. Five days into the tour, Moon put a piranha (or two or three depending on whose account one believes) in his hotel bathtub and asked room service to deliver a raw steak to his room. Whether the water was too warm or the steak was too tough matters little as something killed the fish and Moonie left it gift wrapped in toilet paper for the cleaning lady. Some of the band boys started a ritual of jumping from their balconies into the hotel pool. Multi-storied buildings dictated that shoes be worn so no feet would be damaged. At one particular establishment, the Hermits were placing bets on who could jump from the highest balcony. Moon bested them all in riding boots, a top hat and cape as he rocketed past them all from the roof. Moon may have picked up the headlines, but he had to keep ahead of his younger cohorts who were egging him on.
When the tour hit the southern United States, they were shocked by the lingering Jim Crow politics they encountered. They all loved black music but found in some areas, ‘long haired Limeys’ were treated with the same contempt that the non-whites were still subjected to. Moon countered by using his newly discovered distraction (cherry bombs) to blow up anything that he thought might need to be blown up. Having stocked up on over 500 of the cartoonish looking contraptions, he blew holes in chairs and suitcases before he and Entwistle decided to see what would happen if one got flushed down a toilet. The duo were quite surprised when the little devil bobbed back to the surface with the fuse still burning after they tried to flush it. Townshend reported, “There was no toilet (after the explosion), just a sort of S-bend coming out of the floor.” Lisberg was handed the $1000 bill as tour promoter: “We weren’t going to pay. I tried to have a talk with Keith and tell him not to do it again, but he was totally wacko.”
That any of them survived scooting about the country in an aging DC-9 is also somewhat of a miracle. Taxing down a runway in Florida after one show, they were chased down by a pickup truck driven by an enraged father whose daughter had spent time with the band after the show. Luckily for them, he found it hard to hit a moving airplane with a double barrelled shotgun from a moving vehicle. They left Providence Rhode Island in the same plane and watched in horror as oil splattered the side windows and flames shot out of the engine. Having made an emergency landing to have the fire extinguished in Memphis, The Who and The Hermits killed time in the bar while repairs were made. Townshend, however, spent his time composing the song Glow Girl (‘The wing of the airplane has just caught on fire / I say without reservation we ain’t getting no higher. . .’). With Moon and Entwistle spending their time drinking and Daltrey entertaining the groupies, Townshend occupied more and more of his time looking for the idea that could match The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.
The crown jewel of the traveling circus came the night of Keith Moon’s twenty first birthday. Various conflicting versions of this end of show birthday bash have been related but there are a few undeniable facts: Moon indeed required an emergency trip to the dentist after knocking out one of his front teeth, a car did end up in the hotel swimming pool, and The Who were banned from the Holiday Inn chain for life. While the event has become a bit of ‘music biz folklore’, Townshend remembers, “This day was unpleasant for me, though it has been turned into an apocryphal joke by everyone involved.” This may be true, but after the final show in Honolulu in September, The Who capped their American journey with an appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour before returning to England. To say they ended their American adventure with a bang would be an understatement.
Moon was somewhat unhappy that the stagehands’ union rules would not let him load the prop cannon he planned to set off at the end of their mimed set. When no one was looking, he added a little extra charge to the cannon. When he set it off during the set ending equipment smash up, there was a thunderous explosion that shook the studio. The survivors can be seen holding their ears and staggering about the stage as the cameras wobbled. Being closest to the blast, Townshend had the best vantage point to observe the carnage: ”My hair caught on fire and my hearing was never the same again.” The unexpected consequence of this near disaster on American T.V. was seeing I Can See for Miles climb into the top 10 of the American record charts after it had bombed (sorry) in England.
The Who were on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest acts in the world. Herman’s Hermits found their career going in the other direction and The Blues Magoos headed for the one hit wonder charts. One must ask how a tour like this could have happened in the first place. With that said, I am reminded that Jimi Hendrix once toured as the opening act for another ‘cute’ band: the Monkees! That will have to be another story for another day!
Top Piece Video: The music is mimed, the explosion is not! Canon or cherry bombs? You decide!