Before achieving worldwide mega-stardom upon the release of their album Tommy in May 1969, The Who were successful only in their native UK and in Europe. Even though they had burst onto the scene in early 1964 just after the emergence of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and at roughly the same time as the Kinks, they were the only of those four legendary bands to miss the initial British Invasion of America in 1964 and 1965. However, there were isolated pockets of Who fandom developing in America where their records were charting and being played regularly on the radio. Detroit, Boston, Chicago, and New York were all cities that took the Who to their hearts in the mid-1960s and remained loyal strongholds for the duration of their career. By 1967, a second British Invasion was happening and this time, The Who (along with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream) were part of it. The appearances of the Who and Hendrix at Monterey in June 1967 launched their careers in America and exposed them to the rest of the country; by the autumn of 1967, both bands began relentless touring of America that would take them into the next decade and beyond (Hendrix' sudden death in September 1970 of course halting his career). However, due to the young rock music industry at the time, bands still played in some rather unusual venues as rock music transitioned out of the music halls and theatres of previous decades and into the clubs and arenas that became common in the 1970s through to the present day. One type of venue that bands still played at this time was high school gymnasiums, and the story of one of the Who's concerts at such a place is the topic of Michael Rosenbloom's book When Stars Were In Reach.
By late 1967, The Who had a reputation in the UK as one of the loudest, most explosive, and most exciting live acts around, in both the musical and visual senses, for several years and they had begun establishing this reputation in America as well. On the back of their triumphant showing at Monterey, they were in the midst of an American tour in late 1967 when they rolled into Scotch Plains, New Jersey on the evening of November 29 to play at Union Catholic High School (UCHS). Having played two high school gyms already on this tour, this wasn't unusual for the Who, but it was unusual for the students and faculty of UCHS, and the story of how this concert came to be is at the heart of Rosenbloom's book.
Established in 1962, Union Catholic High School is a religious high school run by the order of Marist brothers. Even though the school educated both boys and girls, the sexes were kept separate within the building, sharing common areas such as the gym. As several of the alumni who attended the school in the mid-to-late 1960s recalled, the school was rather unremarkable and was looking for a way to put itself on the map. The idea of staging a concert there was stumbled upon because some students had attended rock concerts at other local high schools within the past year or so, with bands such as the Left Banke and the Lovin' Spoonful having recently played in the area. The Who were still mainly a cult band in the US at this point, but there were several boys at UCHS who were big fans, with a couple in particular having already seen them at Asbury Park, New Jersey and in Chicago earlier in the year. The decision was made to try and bring a rock band to the school for a concert, but letters sent the to management of several American rock bands went unanswered before it was decided upon to try for the Who. With the help of a fellow student who played in a local rock band and was well-connected, the school were able to book the Who to play at the school for only $1,800! With a total budget of $3,000 allocated by the school, this was a stroke of luck and the only stipulation was that the helpful student's band, the Decoys, were to be the only opening act for the Who.
From here, the author chronicles the various students and faculty members who all had a small part in bringing the Who to UCHS and how they pulled the whole thing off. The fact that he has managed to track so many of them down after all these years in order to get their memories is impressive, as is the way he tries to set the context of what it was like to be a Catholic high school student in New Jersey in the heady times of the late 1960s. He was even able to track down and interview many of the faculty at the time, as well as the booking agent who is now in her early 90s and living in Florida. Throughout it all, what struck me is how impressive it was that these high school students were able to pull off the entire endeavor while staying under budget and getting everything to run smoothly. What really comes across is how much simpler and more innocent those times were; this is vividly brought home with the photographs of the Decoys and Who performing. They are literally playing on a makeshift stage underneath the basketball hoop in what looks like an typical American high school gym. Seeing the legendary Who (who, as was mentioned before, were not as well known in the US in '67 as they would be from '69 onward) in all of their 1967 Edwardian glory playing on a tiny stage in a gymnasium is quite a trip! Cramming their massive amplifiers and PA stacks, not to mention Keith Moon's huge and resplendent drum kit, on such a small makeshift stage is something you couldn't even fathom in 2014, but in 1967 it was not only feasible but commonplace. The Who concert was such a success that the students managed to bring another legendary British rock band, Cream, for a concert on March 26, 1968, of which there are some great photos: these include Clapton and Baker jamming onstage under the basketball hoop, and the two of them relaxing "backstage," which was in reality just the teacher's lounge! The school even booked the Jimi Hendrix Experience, although the administration got cold feet based on his reputation and backed out of promoting the show, and they never played at UCHS. Eventually, however, rock concerts became big business, appearance fees skyrocketed, and the school became a victim of its own success. After bringing in acts such as the Lovin' Spoonful, Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, and Black Sabbath, UCHS began to lose money on the venture and by 1971 they were out of the rock concert business for good.
In addition to the story of how the Who were brought to play at UCHS, Rosenbloom also interjects several more personal vignettes into the book. These include his recent interviews with and updates on the members of the Decoys, describing what they've done since 1967 and what they're doing currently. He also includes some biographical anecdotes of his own life growing up in Brooklyn during that era. As a teenager and young adult in those years, the author was extremely fortunate to have frequented the Fillmore East and to have seen legendary acts such as the Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and others in and around New York City. He also even followed the Who on tour in 1971 and managed to meet Pete Townshend twice: once in London in 1973 and again in New York City in 1974. However, by 1975, when he last saw the Who, Rosenbloom realized that the earlier innocence and excitement of rock concerts was beginning to rapidly disappear. In a way, this perfectly mirrored what UCHS found out as they continued to stage bigger and bigger concerts.
While some of the chapters interspersed throughout the main story that describe what the principal players at UCHS are doing at present tend to divert focus away a bit and are a little jarring, overall this is a very fun and interesting book to read. Similar to Dave Schwensen's books on the Beatles' concerts at Shea Stadium and in Cleveland, it transports the reader back in time to a specific moment when rock music was young and exciting, the world was changing, and possibilities seemed endless. A very important thing that the author and former students point out is how open-minded and supportive the Marist brothers were in running UCHS and allowing the students to stage rock concerts, which certainly wouldn't have been expected in 1967 and probably wouldn't even be in 2014, for that matter! All of the former students, in their recollections, look back fondly on their time at the school and their little moment where they were able to put UCHS on the map. Apart from the slight disruption of flow, I really enjoyed this book; one of the main reasons was the great photographs of the concert that were included throughout. It's hard to think of such a band as the Who's stature playing in a high school gym, but in that period in time it wasn't unusual and while seeing those photos is a bit surreal, it also hammers home the point of how much has changed between 1967 and 2014. Overall, if you're a hardcore Who fan, this is an interesting and unique book that deserves a place on your shelf; even if you're not a huge Who fan, if you're a fan of rock music and 60s rock in particular, When Stars Were in Reach will transport you back in time to a moment when some high school kids and the teachers who trusted them pulled off something no one would have expected them to do.
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