THE WHO – The Official History

Some 32 years as editor at Omnibus Press has afforded me a healthy disdain for books that carry the words ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ on the cover. Aside from the rather pompous suggestion that they are somehow superior to unofficial or unauthorised books (when more often than not the opposite is true), they are usually on the bland side and invariably ignore controversial issues in favour of portraying the subject in a positive light, emphasising their huge talent, enormous success and saintly behaviour. The ‘official’ history of the royal family, for example, won’t dwell on Diana’s divorce from Charlie, nor will the official history of the Tory party go into the bedroom details of the Profumo affair.
         In the music world official biographies are normally the preserve of artists who feel the need to project a positive image so as to spare the blushes of a fan base of delicate sensibility – Cliff Richard, for instance – so it is to author Ben Marshall’s credit that he has grasped the futility of this approach with regard to The Who. After all, The Who’s dirty laundry has been washed in public many times in several excellent ‘unauthorised’ biographies, some of which enjoyed the patronage of various members of the group, and Pete Townshend didn’t hold back from addressing thorny issues in his autobiography Who I Am either.
         So it pleases me to report that although it reiterates much of what has gone before and offers little we don’t already know, this Official History of The Who isn’t the sycophantic whitewash job we have come to expect from the genre. Now for the bad news. There are, however, many other reasons why the book is horrendously deficient, not least numerous errors of fact, some trivial, others less so, and of omission, and there are instances where I would take issue with nuance (of which much more later). Annoyingly, frequent unnecessary meanders into areas tangentially connected with the Who’s story – mods, pop art, hippies (very tangential, that one!), films, managers’ stories, obituaries etc – not only interrupt the flow but take up too many pages that could have been devoted to group matters. Also, it begs the same question I posed when reviewing Mark Blake’s very respectable Pretend You’re In A War in 2014[1], ie what’s the point of another Who book? Beyond drawing attention to the commercial wisdom of publishing it at a time when The Who Hits 50 Tour was to have been visiting America, now disappointingly postponed while Roger Daltrey recovers from viral meningitis, that’s a question I cannot answer.
         Marshall’s input aside, the book is credited to Daltrey and Townshend but, as anyone with only the slightest knowledge of the inner workings of The Who must concede, the likelihood of these two actually sitting down and writing a book together is about as remote as Keith Moon and John Entwistle resurrecting themselves for the final show on next year’s reconstituted US tour. One is left to assume therefore that Daltrey and Townshend limited their input to new interviews but evidence of this – as far as I can see – is scant, most of the quotes from them in the book having been lifted from previously published interviews or existing books. The design is unimaginative and almost all of the photographs, some of which Townshend comments on, and other illustrative material will be familiar to those who already own large format ‘coffee-table’ Who books, of which there have been several. At 320 pages it’s slightly longer than the best of these, Matt Kent and Andy Neill’s superb Anyway Anyhow Anywhere chronicle, but that stopped after Moon’s death in 1978. Nevertheless, because the Official History has numerous text-free double-page spreads, large type and plenty of blank space, AAA managed to pack in a lot more words, not to mention more accurate information.
         The Official History begins with Hitler’s war and how it impacted adversely on the lives of Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle, followed by accounts of the childhood and education of the four principal characters. Marshall is keen to place our heroes within their social milieu, perhaps too keen, so a bit of nicely observed text about Teds comes next, heralding the arrival of rock’n’roll, thence skiffle which inspires Daltrey to form The Detours as an antidote to panel-beating, soon to be joined by Entwistle who recommends Townshend come in on guitar as The Detours are whittled down into The Who after Moon arrives to light the blue touch-paper. Pete Meaden turns them into the High Numbers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp oust him and we’re off and into the well-known story: guitars smashed, ‘Can’t Explain’, RSG!, no money to pay the bills, ‘My Generation’, Shel Talmy dumped, ‘Quick One’, failure of ‘… Miles’, and redemption with the deaf, dumb and blind one. We know it off by heart now and I told the same tale myself in 1982 in my first book about The Who (available used on Amazon for £1.32, the Official History costs £20.40 on Amazon, £30 in bookshops).
         After Tommy the problem of peripheral issues clogging up the space becomes much more pronounced. The plots to Tommy itself, followed by Lifehouse and Quadrophenia are all described and analysed in tedious detail, especially as this takes precedence over what’s actually happening within the band. I’d have preferred to read about how success changed their outlook and working methods, or the introduction of synthesisers into the group’s live sound, of which there is no mention whatsoever; nor is there of the difficult tour that followed the release of Quadrophenia and there’s nothing much about the touring in 1975 and 1976 after Who By Numbers either. Nevertheless, after Moon’s death, some 22 pages are devoted to the Quadrophenia movie, many of them simply featuring stills from the film, followed by four pages about Mods and Rockers disturbing the peace in Brighton. This is excessively disproportionate, to say the least, especially as earlier in the book a further six pages had been devoted to the cult of Mod.
         Backtracking a bit, it is implied that during the Quadrophenia sessions Daltrey wanted to dismiss Lambert because he wasn’t turning up on time, contrary to the perceived wisdom that it was because Lambert stopped a cheque that was supposed to pay for studio equipment, as reported in other books. Another tendentious claim that I would take issue with concerns the chain of communication with regard to Moon’s death. In the generally reliable books by Richard Barnes, Dave Marsh and Tony Fletcher it is reported that the news reached Who headquarters when Jackie Curbishley, Bill’s wife, rang the flat where Moon was staying and was told by the attending doctor that he had passed on. Bill then rang Townshend who called Daltrey, Entwistle and, finally, Moon’s mother Kitty. In the Official History is it reported that Daltrey rang Townshend with the news, and though this tallies with Townshend’s less reliable memoir, I have my doubts.
         Oddly, Moon's death is immediately followed by four pages about Bill Curbishley, who as ever is refreshingly candid, which makes this one of the book’s stronger sections but its placement, before a tribute to Moon, seems awry. This tribute finally credits his percussive genius but it also contains the spurious claim that after the fracas during his 21st birthday celebrations in Flint, MI, The Who were banned from Holiday Inns for life – but I know this is not the case as I stayed in one with them at Charlotte, NC, on November 20, 1971.
         The period following Keiths death, with Kenney Jones on drums, is passed over very quickly as, indeed, is the rest of the story right up to the present day. As with Moon, it isn’t until we reach the tribute to Entwistle that his musical prowess is acknowledged. Thereafter we speed on to Endless Wire which is followed by a heartfelt summary of what The Who mean to us all now that they’ve reached 50.
         And now to the errors of fact: in the credits at the end no fewer than three editors are mentioned as having worked on this book, which is a lot, and this makes such errors that much more inexcusable. Clearly none of them know anything about the tools of the rock trade, otherwise the fairly well-known photograph of Entwistle playing a Fender 6-string bass guitar with his mum looking proudly on would not be captioned, ‘John, practising on his home-made guitar…’, and I suppose it would too much for any of them to know that the Beachcombers were not a ‘surf’ group as they are referred to more than once, or that it was Sun Records boss Sam Philips not Colonel Tom Parker who longed to find a white man who could sing like a black man, or that ‘My Generation’ boasts a two-chord attack (not three), or that Roy Carr wrote for NME not Melody Maker, or that Lou Reizner’s orchestral Tommy did not come a year after the Rainbow show on December 9, 1972 but was released that same month, or that the concert in Paris at Fête De l’Humanité before 100,000 or more – the biggest audience for a day-long show during The Who’s entire career let us not forget – occurred on 9 September 1972 and not on the same date in 1973. A picture of Pete in his white jump suit, evidently taken at the concert at Hull City Hall in 1970, states that this show preceded the one at Leeds where the live album was recorded which contradicts the correct information in the text, ie that Hull followed Leeds; another caption refers to the ‘first of three shows’ at Charlton Athletic Ground in the Who Put The Boot In tour. I could go on… individually these small errors are quite trivial but when they start to pile up like traffic on an overcrowded motorway, a kind of road rage sets in. How simple would it have been for one of the three editors to run the manuscript by someone better versed in rock and Who folklore than themselves, or even to cross check the captions against the text?
         Issues of nuance and omission are subjective, of course, but I think it’s stretching the truth a bit to state that after Lambert and Stamp took over the Who’s management in 1964, they were ‘soon’ joined by Curbishley when he didn’t actually join the team at Track until 1970, as he makes clear in his intro. Although they have appeared in many books before, including one in my own, no fewer than five of the very familiar and remarkably similar pictures of the besuited Detours appear in the chapter entitled Pre-Who Beginnings but the captioning is sloppy, failing to identify pre-Moon drummer Dougie Sandom. A photograph of a crowd gathered outside the 2is coffee bar in Old Compton Street is captioned in a way that suggests it was a Mod hang-out but the crowd don’t look like Mods to me, and a caption of The Who at Ready Steady Go! on New Year’s Eve 1965 states that they were ‘well on their way to megastardom’ at this point in their career which is debateable to say the least. Actually, the captioning throughout is slapdash and whoever wrote “Still crazy after all these years” as a caption for a fairly recent photo of Pete jumping on stage is hereby sentenced to one week’s solitary confinement in a padded cell while ‘Dogs Part 2’ is piped in non-stop at concert volume. With regard to omissions, earlier in the book I could find no mention of the drama that surrounded Roger’s dismissal and reinstatement in the autumn of 1965, nor of the 1967 US tour with Herman’s Hermits, nor of the Tommy opera house shows in 1969, nor of any extra-curricular adventures, not to mention the lack of reportage re concert tours in the seventies, as noted above.
         Of far greater import than all these irritating errors and omissions, however, is that author Ben Marshall has made no real attempt to convey to readers the excitement of The Who in concert. A bio I found on-line states that he began writing about music in the 1980s which suggests he never actually saw The Who with Keith Moon (or Kenney Jones) on drums, but there’s plenty of video evidence available to watch and from which conclusions can be drawn. In this regard there’s a quote from me, taken from my sleeve notes for Live At Leeds (“On their best nights a sixth sense seemed to take over the tiller and lead them and their audiences towards a kind of rock nirvana that most bands can only dream about”) but that’s about it. I couldn’t find any mention of Daltrey twirling the microphone around on its lead, scant mention of Townshend’s extraordinary athletic stagecraft, nor Moon’s expressive gestures nor Entwistle’s calm rigidity; nor their extraordinary ability to improvise, to stretch out on a song, or how anger sometimes brought out the best in them. This really is unforgiveable. It was due to their phenomenal expertise on stage that The Who became as popular as they did, that thousands upon thousands queued to buy tickets to see them and still do. Anyone lucky enough to find themselves close to the front when they pulled back on the bow string and let fly as Tommy reached its climax, the guitarist windmilling furiously, the singer roaring like a lion, the guy in white at the back knocking ten tons of shit from his kit and the bass player holding it all together with the casual panache of a master craftsman will know what I mean. If ever there was a moment when rock music might perform miracles, heal the sick, make the lame walk and, yes, the deaf, dumb and blind, hear, speak and see, it was when Wiggys searchlights shone in our faces as the three at the front lined up for one more delirious chorus that began with the words Listening to you.... This was what made them great. In my own writing about The Who I have tried to communicate this as best I can, especially as I know that many of today’s fans never saw Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon rip a stage to pieces, but the Official History devotes far more space to the rise and fall of hippie culture – good grief – than to the heart-stopping excitement this quartet once generated, for my money still and forever the greatest live act ever to plug in and blow minds.
         Finally I should mention that at the end of the book eight pages are devoted to an illustrated and annotated album discography. The text for this is lifted straight from The Who’s own website and was actually written by me in 2007. So I have inadvertently contributed to this book, even though it came as a complete surprise to me.
         Approach with extreme caution.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lucid review. As you mentioned, anything labeled 'official' makes me raise an eyebrow these days. I suspected this book might go down the repurposed info path, let alone relying little on Daltrey or Townshend. I was hopeful this book might erase such doubts, but apparently not. Appreciate the good work.


Unknown said...

I second that. This saves me from inevitable aggravation had I sprung for the book.

David Harrison said...

I've no intention of reading this book, Chris, but we should be grateful for its appearance. As long as this kind of stuff makes it into print, I'll have the enormous pleasure of reading your entertaining reviews!


JPALLEN said...

Is there a companion historical career spanning music cd planned as well?

humblebee said...

Thank you for your candor. You obviously love the Who as much as we do. I will ignore this book on the stacks at the local Barnes and Noble

Chris Charlesworth said...

There's already too many!

Mak said...

With this now...I shall go back and re read your book again Chris!

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