What with Barnes and Marsh, Motion on Lambert, Fletcher on Moon, Townshend on himself, not to mention Neill and Kent’s chronology, Lyon and McMichael’s Concert File, my own modest contributions and a slew of other minor works, it is not unreasonable to question the need for this book. Why would Mark Blake, an experienced graduate of the Q and Mojo school of music writers, want to write yet another detailed Who biography, albeit one that limits itself to the years leading up to The Who’s significant breakthrough with Tommy which, fortunately for the author, more or less coincided with the end of the Sixties, thus enabling him to frame his book within the swinging decade?
Well, there hasn’t been a decent one for a while and Blake’s publishers Aurum probably thought the time was ripe, and they struck lucky because, although they wouldn’t have known it when the book was commissioned, the 21st Century version of The Who are heading out on their 50th Anniversary tour later this year. Encouraged no doubt by the success of Blake’s excellent Pink Floyd biography Pigs Might Fly, they have struck lucky a second time because Pretend You’re In A War incorporates subtle but important differences to the two books it sets out to emulate, thus making it a valuable if not quite indispensable addition to any Who bookshelf.
Barnes through his longstanding friendship and Marsh in his American diagnostic approach both posited themselves in the Townshend camp and as a result their books more or less told The Who’s story from that standpoint, taking the view that Townshend was the key figure in the group’s development, which might be true, but both books, admirable for the most part, had a tendency to belittle the contributions of the other three. Blake, on the other hand, seems equally well disposed towards Daltrey, and this gives his book a more balanced feel, especially since it opens with Daltrey’s birth, childhood and schooldays, followed by the same for Entwistle, and in doing so takes Townshend out of the immediate spotlight. This helps to stress the crucial point that for all Townshend’s skill as a writer and visionary guitarist, for all Entwistle’s musical chops and professionalism, and for all Moon’s diabolical madness (and never underestimate the importance of Moon’s craziness to The Who’s success), it was Daltrey who assembled The Who and as such was the rock upon which it was built, and that his unswerving loyalty to the cause, cussedness and strength of character has kept it on the rails ever since, in one form or another right up to the present day. That said, despite this impartial beginning, by about half way into the book Townshend has inevitably taken over, simply because he is the group’s most complex character, indeed one of the most engaging characters the UK pop scene has ever thrown up.
So what we have here is a detailed and immensely readable account of The Who’s amazing journey to rock’s high table; the way in which these four disparate personalities and their early managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp found each other, and the many trials and tribulations they went through along the way. What we don’t have is an account of how success altered their flight path and muddied their focus, at least not in any detail aside from a brief but finely wrought epilogue, so this cannot be regarded as a definitive biography. Also, as suggested by the book’s sub-title, we have a pretty good primer of the social and cultural changes that occurred during the sixties; how The Who were shaped by the decade and in turn helped to shape it. Many pages are devoted to events concurrent with The Who’s ascendance, the rise of the teenager, fashions, gurus, drugs, not least the Stones’ infamous 1967 bust and the origins of LSD, sexual freedoms, the radical politics of the era, and their relationship to their peers, most especially The Kinks.
Most of what I read I knew already of course, which isn’t to say it wasn’t enjoyable reading it again, but there were a few details I discovered for the first time, mostly relating to Daltrey’s early days and Lambert and Stamp’s seat-of-the-pants managerial style. Blake has done plenty of original research, talked to all the right people who are still around, including a few from the pre-fame days who haven’t spoken before, and has obviously read anything and everything relevant to the story. Much more has appeared in print and on the internet since Barnes and Marsh’s books were published, in 1982 and 1983 respectively, so he is able to incorporate all the more recently unearthed info into his telling of the story, as well as material from The Who’s more recent DVDs like Amazing Journey. In the 16-page b&w plate section there are also a couple of photographs I hadn’t seen before, one of Entwistle with a trumpet in a jazz band circa 1961 and another of Daltrey in his skiffle group The Sulgrave Rebels, his blonde hair all quiffed up like Tommy Steele, grinning madly as he plays an old f-hole guitar.
The truth behind some issues – like the events surrounding Doug Sandem’s departure and Moon’s arrival, how long Daltrey spent living in the group’s van, the Shel Talmy debacle and whether or not that car really did end up in a swimming pool in Flint, Michigan on August 23, 1967 – remains inconclusive, conflicting memories forever clouding the water. More fun for us Who nerds is to be had from small details, like how Chris Stamp called his brother Terence from Glasgow where he was on tour with a corps de ballet, just to inform him that he’d shagged all the ballerinas, one of whom - lucky girl - had presumably bagged a brace of those handsome young Stamps and wanted to say hello; how Kit Lambert’s passage into The Who was smoothed by one of Daltrey’s (many) early girlfriends who turned out to be Lambert’s father’s god-daughter; and how the cape Daltrey wore at Monterey, described in NME as a ‘heavily embroidered psychedelic shawl’ was in reality a table cloth he’d picked up at Shepherds Bush market. There’s a nice story about Malcolm McLaren visiting Lambert and Stamp for tips on how to manage a successful band, and even a couple of Moon gems that somehow escaped Fletcher’s scrutiny, one about how he called the Fire Brigade to Wembley Empire Pool and the other involving an elephant but I won’t spoil the fun by revealing any more.
Apropos The Who’s shaky financial affairs stemming from the Talmy settlement, Blake comes to the same conclusions as me as regards their need to stay on the road to maintain healthy bank balances (see my essay on the My Generation LP elsewhere on Just Backdated), and he correctly identifies ‘Dogs’ (1968) as a record that would sit comfortably in Blur’s repertoire 30 years later. He’s obviously a fan and he goes into some detail about the music, mostly with a keen eye for identifying The Who’s more innovative moments. Having interviewed Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle for magazines, his book is chock full of quotes from the source and – as ever – Townshend often comes across as selective at best and unreliable at worst, but never less than illuminating.
As I’ve noted before, the ebb and flow of The Who’s long career makes for an absorbing, often hilarious, saga which maybe explains why they have been so well served by biographers over the years. Pretend You’re In A War makes a fine addition to my Who library. It now occupies about four feet of shelf space but I’m more than happy to make room for it.