The Who Convention

By Mark Wilkerson

SHEPHERD’S BUSH, LONDON: This bustling, blue collar section of East London is the home turf of legendary rockers The Who and therefore a natural choice for the fans convention which took place on April 1st 2006, a full forty-two years since the band’s inception. Tiny Bush Hall was packed for the sold-out event, crammed with three hundred hard-core Who fans – who’d paid nearly $40 a ticket – from literally all reaches of the globe. I was there selling my new Pete Townshend biography, Amazing Journey, and ran into U.S.-based fans from Las Vegas, Philadelphia and New Jersey, plus followers from Canada, Trinidad, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Holland.

Photo of Mark Wilkerson with some guy he met in England
Mark Wilkerson with some guy he met in England

My back was killing me as I arrived at Bush Hall that morning, straining under the weight of two suitcases full of books that I’d dragged up and down the steps to and from the tube station. I swore I’d sooner give them away than carry them home with me. However, the pain was more than dulled by the high I was still experiencing from the day before, when I met Pete Townshend outside his home in ritzy Richmond Hill. He was gracious enough to chat with me for a few minutes prior to taking his new Ferrari for a spin.

The U.K.-based trio Casbah Club was onstage performing a sound check as I surveyed my surroundings inside Bush Hall, an ornate little venue which actually played host to some of The Who’s rehearsals back in the ‘60s. Casbah Club consists of ex-Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki (who played on The Cult’s Love and has performed session work with the likes of Pete Townshend, among many others), Pete’s little brother Simon Townshend (who’s filled in on rhythm guitar and backing vocals for The Who for the last 10 years) on guitar and lead vocals and Bruce Foxton, one third of legendary British outfit The Jam, on bass. Casbah Club has been tagged as opening act for The Who’s upcoming World Tour, which kicks off in the U.K. in June. A U.S. leg is expected in the fall.

The convention got under way at noon with rare Who performance and interview footage displayed on a sizeable screen set up at the side of the stage. Fans began to file in and the place was packed in short order. Exhibits such as original scooters from the Who’s 1979 film Quadrophenia and a new Premier Drums replica of Keith Moon’s famous ‘Pictures of Lily’ drum kit were positioned around the hall, along with merchandise and vendor booths selling books, clothing, rare vinyl records and photographs. Who associates Richard Barnes (Townshend’s art school roommate and longtime friend and author of Maximum R&B, a great Who book) and Dougal Butler (Keith Moon’s personal assistant and chauffer for many years) were spotted in the crowd.

A few hours later, “Irish Jack” Lyons settled into a chair onstage and began reading some of his Who anecdotes. This slight character from Cork, Ireland, nicknamed by original Who manager Kit Lambert, is an original Who fan from the earliest days and is credited as being the inspiration for protagonist ‘Jimmy’ in The Who’s 1973 concept album Quadrophenia. He’s known for his insightful and often humorous tales of his experiences with the band over the years and provided just such sharp, witty stories at the convention.

Next up was tribute band Who’s Who, a U.K.-based outfit whose claim to fame is that their drummer looks and plays so much like original Who dynamo Keith Moon that Moon’s mother spotted him at a previous convention and asked him home for tea. Moon’s mother, incidentally, was present at this convention, too! Anyway, Who’s Who pulled off a complete run-through of Quadrophenia, certainly not an easy task.

The previously mentioned Casbah Club took the stage next, only to be interrupted mid-set by a surprise guest – Who singer Roger Daltrey. Daltrey, whose arrival had been rumored, climbed onstage holding his coat and with a newspaper tucked under his arm, explaining that he’d just left a fundraiser for the Teenage Cancer Trust at the Royal Albert Hall. He thanked the crowd for their support of the charity and assured us that he and Pete had been at work on some “great new songs.” By this point, the crowd’s “SING! SING! SING!” chant had risen to a near-deafening level and to everyone’s delight, Daltrey relented, giving us impromptu renditions of The Who classics Behind Blue Eyes and Substitute, accompanied only by Simon Townshend on guitar and backing vocals. Certainly the most intimate setting we’ll ever see those songs performed. With that, Daltrey hurriedly made his exit (he was due back at the Royal Albert Hall for the ongoing fundraiser) and the Casbah Club resumed their set.

Faced with the unenviable task of following Daltrey onstage, American tribute band The Wholigans took the stage in the late evening and lit into a scorching set of mostly Live at Leeds / Tommy era Who. They pulled it off with confidence and vigor, ending their set with a very satisfactory My Generation, complete with a distinctly Who-like finale of instrument demolition.

In addition to providing a meeting place for Who-crazed individuals from far and wide, the convention also served as a fundraiser for the aforementioned Teenage Cancer Trust, a British charity which provides services for cancer-stricken youths and a favorite charity of The Who, who’ve raised several million dollars for the cause since their first benefit show for the cause back in 2000. In between each onstage performance, auctions were held for items such as a pair of boots worn by Who bassist John Entwistle (who died in 2002), song lyrics signed by Pete Townshend, photographs signed by Townshend and Roger Daltrey and a Premier drum kit. Proceeds from ticket sales, merchandise sales and a raffle also went to the TCT.

I didn’t fare too badly, either – I left the convention, ears ringing loudly, with a head full of indelible memories and two empty suitcases. And I didn’t have to give any books away either!

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 – Prospect, KY resident Mark Wilkerson recently wrote Amazing Journey: The life of Pete Townshend. The book is available at