“I’m still traumatized by it.” That’s how The Who guitarist Pete Townshend sums up his feelings about the darkest day in the band’s career in a new mini-documentary scheduled to air on Cincinnati’s WCPO on Tuesday night (Dec. 3). In Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey’s first extended on-camera interview about the tragedy that took the lives of 11 Who fans on Dec. 3, 1979, the duo — and manager Bill Curbishley — spoke to WCPO anchor Tanya O’Rourke about the impact the deaths had on them then, and now.
“It’s a weird thing to have in your autobiography that, you know, 11 kids died at one of your concerts,” Townshend said. “It’s a strange, disturbing, heavy load to carry.” Townshend, Curbishley and Daltrey share their personal accounts of what happened that night at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, where 11 fans were crushed to death by a surging crowd trying to enter the building, with the dead ranging in age from 15-27. The doc, The Who: The Night That Changed Rock, was taped in Seattle earlier this year on what the band has said will be its final tour.
The incident left a lasting scar on the city, which has religiously marked the grim anniversary over the years, with survivors of that night and their families sharing their stories with O’Rourke in the special. “That dreadful night of the third of December became one of the worst dreams I’ve had in my life,” Daltrey says in the hour-long special, which will air at 8 p.m. ET on WCPO and stream here. Curbishley witnessed the deaths that night and made the call to not tell the band until after the gig, convincing local fire officials to let the band keep playing to avoid any other potential injuries or deaths.
The WCPO interview is the longest amount of time the band has dedicated to discussing the incident to date and in it, Townshend says The Who left town and played a show in Buffalo the next night, with the guitarist explaining that he thought they should have stayed in town, but that he was overruled by Daltrey who felt they should continue the tour. Years later, in 2000, Townshend called Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder after nine fans were crushed to death at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark during the band’s set with some sage advice: don’t leave town.
“Despite everything, I still feel inadequate,” the band’s long-time manager Curbishley says. “I don’t know about the guys, but for me I left a little of my soul in Cincinnati.” The story is personal for O’Rourke, who grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Finneytown, where three of the 11 who died also grew up. “Dec. 3, 1979, didn’t just change some details at rock concerts. That night changed the lives of many in our region,” Mike Canan, senior director of local content for WCPO says in a statement. “This documentary is an unprecedented effort to tell the story of that one night and its impacts. I’m proud of our team’s work in commemorating those who were lost that night.”
In addition to the emotional interviews with the band, the special looks at the lasting impact the crowd crush had on Cincinnati and concerts around the country after it brought the dangers of general admission seating into the national limelight. Part of the issue tied to the deaths at the time was the rush by 7,000 ticket holders to lock down the first-come, first-served spots in front of the stage, not enough doors open or ticket takers on duty, which led to a decades-long ban on festival seating in Cincinnati. Two dozen fans were also injured that night.
In the years since, a memorial plaque was unveiled outside the now-renamed arena honoring the dead, Daltrey visited a Finneytown memorial site in 2018 and Townshend recently told the Associated Press that the group has plans to return to Cincinnati for its first concert since that night in 1979; Daltrey and late bassist John Entwistle have played solo shows in the city. “For 40 years they have felt the weight of this. This changed their lives,” O’Rourke tells the Cincinnati Enquirer.