It was the night of December 3, 1979, when 11 young people were trampled to death in the crush to get inside Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum to see The Who. The band played on, unaware of the tragedy that had occurred just moments before the group took the stage.
That terrible event is being remembered with new doc The Who: The Night That Changed Rock, which features members of the band talking about that fateful date on camera for the first time. The doc will premiere tonight (Dec. 3) at 8pm on WCPO in Cincinnati and via the station's streaming site. Watch the trailer below.
"I'm still traumatized by it. It's a weird thing to have in your autobiography that, you know, 11 kids died at one of your concerts,” Pete Townshend says in the trailer. “It's a strange, disturbing, heavy load to carry.” He along with Who singer Roger Daltrey and the band's manager Bill Curbishley all appear in the doc talking about the show.
For Daltrey, healing from the tragedy came in the form of a private visit to a Cincinnati high school last summer where students placed a memorial to three teens who died in the crush.
“I went to Finneytown last year and I’m glad I did,” Daltrey said in an interview. “I saw the wonderful work they’ve done with the scholarships for the people they lost at that school. And, you know, you have to go forward, and it released a lot for me. And I know it did for our manager, Bill Curbishley. I know it did because I did have the chance to thank him in front of the people who lost, and so that helped a lot for us. 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.”
“This is something I will surely remember on my death bed,” Townshend added in a separate interview. “At 74, people are starting to die faster in my life now … I’ve only maybe got 20, 30, 40 people that I remember who’ve passed in my life I really care about, but you know, the 11 of Cincinnati are part of that number.”
The scene was blamed on "festival seating' (AKA general admission) on the main floor, and there only being two turnstiles open for the 7000+ main-floor ticket holders. When fans rushed the doors after hearing the band tuning up for soundcheck, the situation quickly turned tragic. The Who, shell-shocked from the news, resumed the band's tour. It's a decision Townshend still regrets.
“We ran away is what we did,” Townshend said. “I’m sorry, but that’s what happened. We ran away. We handled it really badly. What we did is we left the city and we shouldn’t have … We had a show the next day in Buffalo. So, we spent the night (in Cincinnati). We couldn’t sleep. We got drunk. We sobered up. We got drunk again,” he continued.
“We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have anyone come and talk to us. We really didn’t know what to say or think or feel. We should have done the dutiful follow-up of being present and available to speak and support the families."
The tragedy had an immediate affect on the world of rock and concerts in general. City officials across the country demanded an end to festival seating. The tragedy was even woven into the story line of popular TV sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati with 1980 episode, "In Concert." Watch it below.