Saturday, September 5, 2015

Mark Blake's "Pretend You're in a War: The Who & The Sixties": Book Review

While Mods and The Who inevitably join together, the band's ties to modernism, in art and culture, have not received the in-depth attention they merit. Mark Blake incorporates many years of interviews with Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey, adding material gleaned from multimedia and previous books on the band. As an editor at both Q and Mojo magazines, and a biographer of Queen and Pink Floyd, Blake presents a solid study. While thwarted by the tendency of Townshend to tell one story to one journalist and another to another scribe a few years later, and while complicated by the reticence of Entwistle, the demise of Keith Moon and the determination of Daltrey to get his side of the record straight (all four sometimes at odds with other bandmates and witnesses) the band members invigorate Blake's narrative. They were a fractious four who insisted on autonomy even as they combined their talents to make rousing music. This offers a readable and accessible consideration of the band's origins, its tensions early on and its struggles as fame took over.

Blake treats the formative years of the band, their early musical ambitions before the band and their early members, especially drummer Doug Sandow, who were edged out before Moon was recruited. The detail here surpasses other treatments I have read, so those less obsessed by history may find the research too meticulous. Fans may argue for its necessity; it exposes the Who's deep London roots.

Townshend's tutelage at Ealing Art School under Gustav Metzger, known for action painting, and Roy Ascott, known for cybermetrics and confrontation, earns welcome inclusion; I wish more had been given over to these impacts on the guitarist's formative years. Pete embraced a liberating lifestyle along with the music. He plunged into London's swirl of art, books, and films as part of this cultural upheaval. Again, his prescient immersion into home taping and mechanical recording techniques is notable, and deserved more depth here; Pete mastered intricacies of production rapidly.

Despite some production oversight being left to the band's managers, the spirited pair of East End-bred Chris Stamp and Oxbridge-tutored scion and heir to a classical music pedigree, Kit Lambert, Townshend took much of the band's control away from Daltrey. Relegated to the mike, as his confidence grew, Roger became a powerful, more nuanced vocalist. This took years, as his wish to guide the band competed against Townshend's technical skills and formidable ego. But Daltrey by decade's end channeled Pete's lyrical gifts and vulnerable sensibility into his own cocky, strutting and preening presence. The book's title comes from Pete's attitude when the Mod models took the stage.

While their managers contended, while the guitarist and singer bickered and fought for leadership, so the stoic bassist, John, and the manic drummer Keith, sought their share of the Who's spotlight. The band ascended quickly into the top ranks, but preceded by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, The Who had to catch up to talented peers and rivals. The Kinks especially competed with The Who sonically and lyrically from the mid-1960s on, and Blake documents this contest well.

The mythic Mod connection was pushed more by management and media, as Townshend longed to speak to his fans from that cohort, but the Mods themselves never lasted very long. "'A powerful, aggressive little army' with its mysterious dress code, music, dances and semiotics" sums up the unity of The Who and Mods. Yet equally crucial were the art school lessons Pete learned from modernism.

Mentors such as Ascott, Metzger and Helmut Gorden (the most eccentric of many contenders) merit mention, and Blake notes their suggestions to an eager student. Pete merged pop art into the classical tastes of Lambert. He integrated Henry Purcell and music-hall into three-minute ditties, often singles, which conveyed "black humour and sexual perversion" as "cameos, essays of human experience."

The "visual gimmick" accidentally invented at Harrow's Railway Hotel (evoked lovingly) when Pete smashed his guitar led to a routine. Keith destroyed his kit, Roger lassoed his microphone, John stood stock still on the side. Pete loved and hated this. His frustration at rock-star poses led to his own changes, in his lyrics, his music, and then his attire, as he chose before decade's end his workmanlike white boiler suit and Doc Martens as onstage fashion, contrasting with his three colorful bandmates.

Keith, under Lambert's sway, found pills, expensive champagne and excess inviting. John succumbed to drink and drugs, if in a quiet, self-critical manner. His musical talents shone in the band, but not enough compared to the main songwriter. John longed for his ideas to be accepted more by the band, which under Pete's dominance roused Roger's understandable resistance. Unlike The Beatles circa 1966, one senses The Who did not close ranks out of friendship  so much as necessity, when songs had to be assembled, and tours had to be endured, to pay the bills that the lavish lifestyles of the band required. Blake leaps from the band members getting by in flats or living with their parents to mansions, luxury autos (more than one meeting a quick demise), and conspicuous consumption with barely any transition. Perhaps the band's entry into the upper ranks of British rock happened that fast.

What wearied The Who, barely into their career, was the pace they had to keep to stay on the charts, on tour, in the studio. 1965-1966 as recounted here resembles the last stages of The Beatles. At least, unlike that foursome or the Stones, the machinations of Allen Klein to take over The Who's finances were fended off by Lambert, Stamp and Townshend. Yet, the band by the close of 1966 lacked continuity or consistency in their releases; the experimentation of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Pink Floyd signaled an era far from Mods vs. Rockers. Pete's "story-songs" struggled at times to chart.

By then, the drug culture which consumed the Mods had soured for Pete. He distanced himself from the scene, even as he loved spending money and acting out his artistic ambitions. This bifurcation helped his music, however. His decision to turn to Meher Baba is well-known, but it did, as Blake shows, ease Pete's egotistical compulsion. He appreciated the awareness of the damage done by his insistence on pushing limits and refusing to listen to the wisdom of his comrades. That drive enabled Townshend to rise above his peers and to reign as a young eminence, but it also aroused his disgust with the contradictions a rock celebrity's career represented, if that star spoke for pure intentions.

Meanwhile, John Entwistle connived, sometimes with a Keith bent on hotel-room smashing, while Roger gave up Dippity-Do. He groomed a leonine mane atop his buckskin vest and rugged, tanned physique. Among a homely band, Roger stood out. Despite or due to his short stature, he grew into the role that Pete and he had worked out, as the confident voice for Pete's torments and triumphs.

Blake regales readers with many familiar stories. Pete's versions, whether set down in his 2012 autobiography or as venerable, conversational anecdotes, can differ with each other as well as with bandmates. Roger gets his own words in, with similar contradictions now and then. The truth of Keith's legendary Holiday Inn debacle in Flint, Michigan, or what song Jimmy Page did or did not play on, may never be known, but it's fun following the narratives as these moments enter rock star lore. Blake strives to keep straight who said what to whom and when. This accuracy enhances this book's value. (A valuable archive, although it may have appeared too late in 2014 for consultation, is not cited: Mike Segretto's The Who FAQ. Otherwise, Blake blends smoothly many standard sources.)

The albums themselves gain short shrift; track-by-track commentary is not Blake's intent. He emphasizes the band's nature more than their recordings, although Lambert's suggestions get due credit, as does the input of Roger, John and Keith to what seems soon after the start Pete's band.  Blake depicts vivid scenes: touring with Herman's Hermits, sparring at Monterey with Jimi Hendrix, making money from and losing even more for Track Records. The "financial profligacy" of the Who grew as troubled, feckless Lambert gave in to the addictions which would eventually consume first Keith and much later John. This hedonism met with Roger's disdain and Pete's ambivalence. Amidst hippie excess, the guitarist "felt like a workman in a lunatic asylum, come to fix the plumbing." But both Pete and Roger celebrated the onstage energy of the band, which reached its peak, in the studio and in concert, as ornamented productions on Tommy warped into massive assaults, performed live.

Even muddy Woodstock worked, despite three-quarters of the band accidentally on acid. Shunted aside to open their set at 4 a.m., luck came their way. They started "See Me, Feel Me" as dawn broke.

Blake ducks out as the story gets good, for the decade ended before the band sustained or perhaps surpassed its 1969-1970 breakthroughs in albums and on tours. Blake provides a brief coda summing up the next decade, but one closes this narrative hoping for the author to return, and to follow this with a complete look at the next seven or eight years. The book ends in 1970, not 1969. But as many claim along with the author, "The Sixties" did not begin until nearly mid-decade. That period of creativity and chaos arguably ended nearly ten years after The Who as we know them assembled, to make their unsteady climb to near or at the top of British rock. There, they won their war, amid very strong competition, during what remain the best years of that music, and more, as this book proves. (In edited form, to Spectrum Culture; as is above, to Amazon US 3-1-15.)

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