Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mike Segretto's "The Who FAQ": Book Review

The Who Sell Out ranks in my top three favorite albums. I took my first girlfriend to the film adaptation of Quadrophenia when it opened in Hollywood in 1979. I return to their music, especially 1967-1978, for a boost not matched by what I find the overplayed output of the Beatles or Stones. But, as with any other band I admire, I recognize their pomp and their bombast, their egos and flaws. Yet, I continue to admire them. This balance reflects in another fan's tribute, and over three-hundred and fifty pages, Mike Segretto's The Who FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B remains very even-handed. He praises the band's many triumphs and lists their failures.

Throughout, he sustains a spirited tone. I read this narrative with unflagging interest. Segretto discusses the recordings, the claims of the band, the facts calculated, and the rumors circulated. He analyzes the data, he has listened to every cover version and seen every snip of extant footage, and he reports on it every imaginable aspect of the Who in an educational and entertaining manner. Thirty-five topical chapters, many originating on his Psychobabble website, feature not only his own quarter-century of research, but input from fans who participated in online polls to vote on the band's most overlooked 1960s and 1970s tracks, or the best of the Who members' solo albums.

When I started this, I feared a fanatical tribute in gushing fashion. Instead, in three sittings (it would have been two if I had not had to go to work), I raced through this steady and thoughtful treatment. As many readers will be aware of the basics of "the world's greatest rock and roll band", I will focus this review on representative portions which revealed fresh insights or surprising information, to me as a follower if not a fanatic. The distinction is crucial, for while this will serve as a reference able as Segretto advises to be dipped into at any chapter, reading it in succession deepens the book's impact.

Taking in the contents, cross-references hint at past and future connections, and greater appreciation of the complicated tensions within the band and among those who mythologized or demonized the Who display Segretto's calm judgment of the Who's potential realized, and opportunities squandered.

Surprises await. Early on, singer Roger Daltrey chose the replacement for the late Keith Moon, drummer Kenney Jones ([Small] Faces), at a seance, guided by Keith's disembodied voice. Or so he claims, in one of many tall or possibly apocryphal tales this book reports. On the last album Moon contributed to, 1978's Who Are You, the cover famously featured him straddling a metal chair stenciled "Not To Be Taken Away". We learn that this pose, rather than any eerie prophecy (speaking of seances and spirits), more practically if depressingly had hid Moon's considerable "gut" from view.

Pete Townshend, launching high with his windmill power chords played on his guitar, popularized for rockers worldwide Doc Martens. He chose them so they'd protect his toes on landing, after they gave him the extra bounce needed, both from their patented soles. Image mattered for this band, and some of Segretto's best moments come when he explicates how their album covers, dress sense, and media savvy combined to deliver a consistent message. Keith's R.A.F. target shirts, Pete's Union Jack coat (and later more workmanlike white boiler suits to allow efficient guitar playing if as bold a presence on stage), Roger's leonine mane and buckskin wear, and stoic bassist John Entwistle's morbidly odd skeleton suit or flashy attire all accentuated on video and in concert their characteristic personae.

Therefore, each of this fractious foursome stood out. They (like the Beatles) closed ranks against outsiders, but they (like the Beatles again) often contended amongst themselves as to direction. Segretto does not make many parallels to the Beatles or Stones, but the Who sold itself as being a quartet with distinctive types, on vinyl and in person. Segretto shows how from their childhoods, each chose to tinker with instruments or try out attitudes contributing to their characters in the band.

"Roger the tough guy, Keith the lunatic, John the closet romantic, and Pete the spiritual seeker." They were modified by manager Pete Meaden during their early stint as the High Numbers into Mods, but Segretto proves this was a eager manager's choice rather than a philosophical commitment by the members. While they grew rapidly beyond limits of both "maximum R&B" and Mod, that slogan stuck and its iconography endured; the appeal of Quadrophenia throughout the 70s sparked a Mod revival and ensured that unlike many 60s "classic rock" bands, the Who were liked by punks.

After all, the Who courted the public less avidly than did cuddly Beatles or the smirking, sexy Stones. The Who "were notoriously negative, combative menaces who spoke openly about their drug use and sang songs about transgender children or masturbation". "I'm a Boy" and "Pictures of Lily" featured among stunning singles in the mid-60s which dazzled with their lyrical daring and musical shifts. These ambitions carried the band rapidly, despite a late start on record as part of the British Invasion, into the top ranks. As with most music back then, their songs may have imitated their forebears, rivals, and colleagues, but as the introduction here by Dave Davies of the Kinks attests, these British musicians shared an affectionate spirit of competition, pushing song limits in terms of themes and styles. In turn, as a deft section documents, later bands incorporated elements of the Who into their own innovative songs. For instance, Segretto hears in "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "New Year's Day", and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" by U2 musical and lyrical echoes of "Let's See Action", "Join Together", and "Relay", some of the groundbreaking singles released by the Who a decade earlier.

A chapter on covers of Who tunes reveals Segretto's keen ear. Such influence can transcend cover songs. The Soundtrack of Our Lives, a clever Swedish group who can channel the spirit of the Who's golden era without slavishly imitating them and worthy peers, may well be the "greatest cover band ever to play original material". As for influence, Johnny Lydon of the Sex Pistols was director Franc Roddam's first choice to star in Quadrophenia; sadly he was rejected after the distributor balked at the insurance it figured would be needed to protect him. The Who did invite its own menace.

As for anxiety, the band's own excess found them often at odds with one another, given each of their tetchy temperaments. Segretto maps out each member's relationship to the other three, and this goes beyond the usual Roger vs. Pete depictions peddled by the press and probably the band themselves. Segretto calls out members who in interviews often have trafficked in their own mythmaking, and as with Roger claiming that Jimmy Page played on "I Can't Explain", Segretto even corrects the band.

Such expertise proves endearing rather than annoying, for the author maintains a command of the material and tone. Dealing with the decline of Moon, the infidelities of Entwistle, the irritation of Daltrey, or what for discretion regarding Townshend I will refer to as related to the sting titled Operation Ore (details can be found herein or online), he handles sensitive material adroitly. Illustrating the legacy of the band by their pop culture references, he uses a 2000 Freaks and Geeks episode to show its appropriate musical and script use as "reflecting the alienation, identity crises, fraught adolescent sexuality, and profound desire for love and acceptance" within the band's core.

While a few flaws surfaced (Davies makes an elementary grammatical mistake in his introduction; the Union Jack does not use in its design "Ireland's St. Andrew's" blue but St Patrick's red "saltire"; and I note as a native that "South" California is not exactly local lingo), this remains a valuable contribution for fans and fanatics. Summing up this book, a mention of Segretto's rhetorical range deserves its own moment. He can be funny and he can move you, without straining (much) for attention. A typical aside comes during his dissection of a movie I resisted seeing in junior high. I will doubtless continue to avoid it after Segretto's review. Ken Russell's 1975 Tommy has many awful moments, apparently. One of many, given my affection for the advertising parodies cover of Sell Out, speaks for the rest. "Then there's Ann-Margret's infamous swim in a puddle of baked beans and hot fudge. At least it stops her from singing." P.S. She earned one of the film's three Oscar nominations.
(Amazon US 7-19-14 + PopMatters 7-24-14)

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