“Eleven kids dead, but what the fuck?”: Pete Townshend’s reflection on The Who’s concert disaster

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Since the very early days of rock ‘n’ roll, there have been those determined to make it into a business. What often starts out as a youthful rebellion against society and the status quo is quickly appropriated into a purely profit-driven venture by the music industry. Inevitably, when things become solely about the money, corners get cut, and when corners get cut, people get hurt. One band that are all too aware of this fact are The Who, whose 1979 concert in Cincinnati is forever enshrouded in tragedy.

During the fourth month of The Who’s extensive tour of America in 1979, the group appeared at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. The world tour of 1979 was already a difficult one for the mod rockers, being their first tour after the tragic death of their friend and bandmate, Keith Moon. However, the events that would unfold in Cincinnati would make matters much worse. The show was horrendously disorganised, with concertgoers told to arrive at three o’clock, despite doors not opening until five o’clock.

As you might expect, a huge crowd had gathered by the time the doors opened. To make matters worse, only one entrance to the venue was opened up, meaning all 18,348 ticket holders were forced to go through one doorway. Soon, a bottleneck formed at the entrance, and when the crowd heard – what has since been theorised to be – a late soundcheck or excerpts from the recently released film Quadrophenia, a rush ensued. In the chaos, eleven Who fans were killed.

The youngest of those to die in the crush were only 15 years old, with the oldest being 27. Unbelievably, the show still went ahead despite this tragedy occurring before The Who took to the stage. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the band swiftly moved on to the next stop on their tour, appearing in Buffalo, though guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend has repeatedly expressed his regret over that decision.

During a 1994 interview with Playboy, the guitarist spoke of his deep-rooted regrets over the band’s handling of the tragedy. “We could have stopped,” he said, “and I think we should have stopped. We should have stopped the tour. I don’t quite know why we didn’t. I suppose we didn’t, to put it bluntly, because there was too much money at stake.”

Continuing in his explanation over the band’s decision not to stick around in Cincinnati, Townshend admits, “It would have been a big legal mess to cancel tour dates, but we should have. It’s obvious that we should have stopped,” adding, “The idea that ‘We’re going to Buffalo and we’re doing this for those kids’ was rubbish. The kids were gone.” According to the songwriter, The Who were pressured to continue the tour by the management and promotion team that surrounded them.

“Our advisors, our lawyers and everybody else were just completely wrong, inhuman and stupid,” Townshend argued, though he did also note, “I sat on top of all those stupid people as Mr. King Stupid. I mean, we had to go on for rock and roll? What shit! It’s like Wayne’s World, ‘Rock and roll!’ That’s what we did after Cincinnati. ‘Rock and roll! Eleven kids dead, but what the fuck?’”

There is no doubt that the crush in Cincinnati was a result of poor planning, disorganisation by the venue, as well as ignorance and cost-cutting by the band and their management. Nevertheless, even in 1994, Townshend seemed to heap some of the blame onto the fans themselves, saying, “It was much more a symptom of the kids who go to rock-and-roll concerts–being young, getting drunk, doing whatever shitty drugs are available. It can happen at a football game or high school reunion– and it does”.

It is likely that, within that quote, Townshend was referring to events like the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, during which 97 Liverpool football fans were killed in a crush. In contrast to his hypothesis, though, the case of Hillsborough, as with The Who concert in Cincinnati, was certainly not the fault of people “being young, getting drunk”. People died in both instances as a result of disorganisation and a lack of care by those operating and controlling the venues. The fact that, even years later, Townshend refused to take any responsibility for the tragic events – either on behalf of The Who or their management – is incredibly disappointing.

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