The Who and rock 'n roll's biggest tragedy

[Far Out Magazine] The Who and rock 'n roll's biggest tragedy

20,000 people. Two doors. That’s how one of the most deadly events in rock history came to be. Due to a mix of unassigned seats, poor planning, and an audio illusion, an entire crowd tried to storm through just two doors at the far end of the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. The resulting crush would kill eleven people and shine an ugly light on stadium concerts, rock music, and The Who.

It wasn’t surprising that so many people wanted to see The Who in 1979. The previous year, legendarily maniacal drummer Keith Moon had overdosed on alcohol withdrawal medication, leaving the band in limbo. Just five months later, the band was back on the road, now with former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones taking over the stool. That alone was reason enough for curious fans to buy a ticket.

Beyond that, though, The Who had established themselves as the premier stadium rock band throughout the 1970s. Thanks to their epic concepts, mesmerizing light shows, and theatrical antics from Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, The Who were not to be missed if they were coming to your town. The American Midwest was one of rock music’s most ravenous areas, so it was no surprise when Riverfront Coliseum sold out all 18,348 tickets it put on sale.

Local advertisements claimed that the doors were to open at 3 PM. Fans started gathering in the brisk Ohio winter even earlier, and by early evening, a sizable crowd had gathered outside the front doors. Since the concert was general admission, it was imperative for many fans to not only get there early but also push their way to the front as much as they could.

By 7pm, only a pair of doors at the far right of the arena had been opened. Fans were growing increasingly restless when music started to come from inside. The Who had either been performing a late soundcheck or were playing portions of their film Quadrophenia (which they frequently showed instead of employing an opening act during this era). Fans mistook the noise for the start of the concert, and that’s when panic set in.

A massive rush to get in the bottlenecked entrance before they missed any more of the concert caused fans to press up against each other and even trample those who had fallen to the ground. Some were pressed up against the glass. Others were at the bottom of the pile, unable to get up. In total, eleven fans died of asphyxiation while another 26 were treated for injuries.

The Who weren’t told of what had happened and took the stage as normal. It was only after they finished the entire concert that they were informed of the tragedy. “I went through two phases,” Townshend told WCPO in 2019. “One was, of course, tremendous upset and concern. But the other was incredible anger that we had been performing while this was going on.”

The poor front-of-house management and the lack of assigned seats in a massive arena setting, along with the misunderstanding of when the concert was actually starting, was most likely the cause of the crush. But contemporaneous new reports focused on something else: the supposed surge of violence and destruction that followed rock concerts. The fact that The Who were continuing on with their concert in Buffalo the following night certainly didn’t help matters.

The majority of the victims were either teenagers or young adults, the primary audience for rock shows at the time. Lawsuits against the band and the concert promotors eventually awarded compensation to the victims, and the city of Cincinnati implemented a ban on unassigned concert seating that lasted for 25 years.

In August of 2010, a memorial for the victims of the tragedy was erected and a scholarship fund on behalf of the victims was established at Finneytown High School, the same school where three of the victims attended. Daltrey visited the school in 2018, meeting with family members of the victims.

“I saw the wonderful work they’ve done with the scholarships for the people they lost at that school,” Daltrey told WCPO. “And, you know, you have to go forward, and it released a lot for me… But the scars are still there. The scars will never go away. They never do with that kind of grief. I think it’s like the scars of someone coming home from a war zone. They just sit with you.”

The Who avoided returning to Cincinnati for more than 40 years, but in May of 2022, the band finally played their first show in the city since the tragedy. The event became a memorial, with a video message from Eddie Vedder (who saw his own deadly crowd crush outside a Pearl Jam concert in 2000) and appearances by alumni of Finneytown High School. The names and pictures of the victims were shown during the concert, finally confronting the tragedy that became one of rock’s deadliest days.

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