29.3.21

ALL OR NOTHING: The Authorised Story of Steve Marriott, by Simon Spence

 


Ill-served in 2004 by Paulo Hewitt and John Hellier’s well-meaning but toothless It’s All Too Beautiful, Steve Marriott gets the biography he deserves in Simon Spence’s unflinching oral history. Insofar as a book can be ‘authorised’ when its subject is 30 years gone and his posthumous affairs in eternal disarray, All Or Nothing has evidently been sanctioned by Marriott’s sister, first two wives, four children and several surviving bandmates, all of whom contribute, but not his third and final wife (and sole heir) whose errant behaviour since his death invites castigation from all concerned. 

        “The format of an oral biography… makes for an honest, often brutal form of storytelling, especially when dealing with the shadier side of Marriott’s life; the gangsters, addiction, immorality and long-held suspicions over his untimely death,” writes Spence in a concise preface that lists no fewer than 125 interviewees. “[It is] insightful, gossipy, engrossing, frightening and stickily intimate. Here is the man in full, warts and halos, on stage, in studios, backrooms, bedrooms and dark holes.”

        Well, bring it on then is the only response to such blatant trumpeting but after winding my way through its 438 pages I can faithfully report that he isn’t kidding. Blessed with a voice that made his rivals weep, Marriott was an inestimably talented musician but, like a few others in this line of work, he threw it all away by living recklessly and alienating just about everyone he met. For better or worse, the extent of his dickhead behaviour is laid out forensically on page after page, the only surprise being that so many of those close to him have authorised such a damning account of his short life. 

        “He was a very, very naughty boy,” says his aunt Sheila on the opening page, echoing Terry Jones as (Life Of) Brian’s mum and summarising an opinion shared by just about everyone else as we travel through Marriott’s childhood, early acting roles and uneven musical career with the Small Faces, Humble Pie and groups he led himself under the All Stars and other banners. Towards the end, perhaps inevitably, he winds up broke, playing pub gigs for cash as Packet Of Three, having learned absolutely nothing from his many mistakes, misdemeanours and misadventures. 

        Cocky, opinionated and inconsiderate, Marriott was certainly difficult to like – and the impression is given that it wasn’t really worth the effort. He was also tiny, a few inches over five foot, and this might explain why he was drawn towards tough-guy managers in the belief that these traits would serve him well in a dispute, physical or otherwise. What he failed to realise, however, was that these managers, chief among them the notorious Don Arden and, in America, mob associate Dee Anthony, were unlikely to deal honourably with their clients either. All Or Nothing is full of information about deals that involve decent sums of money, but what little of it ended up in Marriott’s bank account was invariably squandered within days or owed to the taxman. 

        Arden, who actually comes across as less sinister than his popular image suggests, certainly treated the Small Faces as a commodity to be bought and sold, and though their story has been told many times before All Or Nothing reinforces the impression that, for all the great songs they recorded, the four boys – Steve, Ronnie, Mac and Kenney – didn’t really have a clue about what was going on around them. It’s no secret that when Marriott quit there wasn’t much left in the kitty and the rights to their work wasn’t theirs. Meanwhile, all four, but especially Steve, had acquired a taste for drink and drugs, and while the other three matured in the company of Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, Steve didn’t. 

        Humble Pie, on the other hand, have not previously been under the microscope like this and it’s here where Marriott finds his greatest success which, paradoxically, sends him off the rails, not least because manager Anthony believed that the best way to sell records, and therefore generate income, was by touring endlessly. Drummer Jerry Shirley and bass player Greg Ridley recount endless tales of exhaustion, drugs and money woes, with Marriott spinning out of control, trashing hotel suites and picking fights with men twice his size, blaming his behaviour on an alter-ego, a wrestler called Melvin. (Puzzled? Read the book.) Yet, at the same time he was singing out of the skull, night after night, a pint-sized prima donna beloved of audiences across America, an artist in his element, as good a rock and soul singer as the UK has ever produced, an opinion shared by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and David Bowie. 

        Journalist and PR Keith Altham, a shrewd observer of the pop scene for over 50 years, makes the point as well as anyone: “[Dee Anthony] was a clever, powerful man. His way of handling artists was to give them what they wanted. ‘You want more girls? Drugs? Bigger houses? Have them.’ They don’t find out until later that the money was a loan and they’ve got to repay it, and they’re mortgaged to the hilt.”

        Meanwhile Marriott treats his women, whether he married them or not, shamefully, friends recoil in horror at his behaviour and he slides into drug addiction and alcoholism. It all makes for an absorbing, if chilling, read; the awful truth laid bare. His death, in a fire at his cottage at Arkesden in Essex 30 years ago next month, is covered exhaustively with a suggestion that questions surrounding it are likely to remain unanswered. And wife number three, to whom he had been married for less than two years, inherited whatever was left but has declined to share it amongst his children. That she winds up in Holloway after a drunk driving incident in which a girl was killed seems like a macabre postscript to an already lurid tale.

        As well as the thoughts of those mentioned above, and many more, All Or Nothing contains 24 pages of well-researched pictures, a foreword by Jerry Shirley and a great cover shot by my old colleague Barry Wentzell. 


17.3.21

A BAND WITH BUILT-IN HATE: THE WHO FROM POP ART TO PUNK by Peter Stanfield


Alone among their contemporaries in the UK, The Who attracted a handful of fans and at least one influential critic who viewed them not just as a lively pop group but as a performance art project conceived by Pete Townshend, aided and abetted by co-manager Kit Lambert. This component of their being, exemplified by their clothes, the auto-destruction and the tone of their early records and interviews, is scrutinised here; not so much a biography as a rather academic thesis on The Who’s role in the cultural environment of the sixties that produced social realism in the cinema, Peter Blake’s pop art, Mary Quant’s mini skirt, Blow Up, great pop music and all the rest of what made the decade swing. 

        The critic in question, of course, is Nik Cohn who believed that the best pop was transient, a sudden explosion followed by nothing else, much like the climax to a Who concert. Long careers and earnest expressions in pop were anathema to Cohn whose acclaimed 1969 book Pop From The Beginning expanded on this theory, arguing that once good taste triumphed over trash it was all over. Still best known for his story in New York magazine that formed the basis of the movie Saturday Night Fever, Cohn wrote a provocative music column for Queen magazine in the sixties, and the point is made that unlike the music press Queen did not rely on record company advertising to stay afloat, thus permitting Cohn to adopt a ‘critical honesty’ he might not have enjoyed elsewhere. Such honesty appealed greatly to Lambert and Townshend, both of whom disdained the hypocritical, PR-driven showbiz culture that infected pop. 

        Insofar as he loved to demolish sacred cows, Cohn’s writings reflected the same lapse in deference to authority as shown by the Mods and Rockers clashing on Margate beach or Mandy Rice-Davies’ famous ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’ response during Stephen Ward’s trial. In The Who, and Townshend in particular, Cohn found his champions, so it’s no surprise that he gets almost as much space as the group in A Band With Built-In Hate.

        Thanks to Townshend and Lambert, The Who were arty, clever, stylish, revolutionary and, with Keith Moon’s gleeful help, subversive. ‘Attitude as style, style as attitude’ was Lambert’s dictum and Stanfield, Emeritus Professor of Film at Kent University, sets out his credentials in the book’s first chapter, an impressive essay on how social realism dramatically changed film-making and so enthused Lambert and his more pragmatic business partner Chris Stamp. Furthermore, he intriguingly draws attention to The Who’s seldom-seen film d├ębut, Carousella (1965) in which they appear, for a few seconds, as background colour in a short X-rated documentary about Soho strippers. 

        Such in-depth research warmed me to his book. Stanfield is no less impressive on Mods and Pop Art, both of which were adopted and abandoned by The Who in 1965 and 1966, and on their early singles, which he examines forensically, and with great insight, in Chapter 3. He’s also impressed by their LP artwork. “There is nothing po-faced, pretentious or obscure about this sleeve,” he writes about Alan Aldridge’s cover for A Quick One. “It is glossy, colourful, superficial, humorous, self-depreciating, commercial and fun. It is Pop!” He’s equally enthused about Sell Out, but quotes others, notably Cohn, over his own opinions.

        It’s slightly droll to imagine that, unbeknownst to the other three, Townshend envisaged The Who as an extension of his studies at Ealing Art College and might even have abandoned the group once he brought the experiment to a conclusion. ”Obsolescence was a given in [Townshend’s] concept of the band,” writes Stanfield at one point, adding weight to the theory. If true, Townshend clearly decided at some point to carry on with the band, no doubt because he realised he could make a decent living from it and/or because it would have been churlish to let the others down. 

        Either way, Stansfield’s book loses some of its purpose, at least as far as The Who are concerned, once these objectives have been achieved. From around the midpoint he devotes as much space to what is going on around them, and to lengthy passages about Cohn’s Pop From The Beginning and, to a lesser extent, his 1967 novel, I Am Still The Greatest Says Johnny Angelo, about the rise and fall of the titular pop star. Thereafter he deals with Tommy, and Cohn’s role in its conception, and how it brought The Who into the mainstream. Discussion on Leeds and Who’s Next follow but unlike in the first three chapters Stansfield relies more on quoting other critics – whose opinions I’d read before – than offering his own take which is a shame, because I enjoyed what he had to say earlier. Much of the chapter on Next is about politics, youth cults and rock revivalism, somewhat tangential to The Who, who by this time were rock superstars and of less interest to critics favoured by the author whose mission was by and large to seek out the new. Much of the final chapter is about punk and The Whos role as founders. Oddly, there is little mention of Meher Baba’s influence on Townshend, none at all of his confrontational columns in Melody Maker and scant appreciation of the excitement generated by The Who’s stage shows, nor of their skills, when they were in their pomp.

Nevertheless, Stanfield is probably right when in his Conclusion he writes, [what]... had originally driven The Who, the desire to flaunt convention, to remake one’s world, to refuse the easy way, to contest what it means to be a pop product… had all started to come to an end… around the time of Quadrophenia.” And he’s definitely right when, later in this concluding chapter, he asserts, “Whether they liked it or not The Who were now in the business of making heritage products, selling their fans the comfort of consuming the already experienced.” Still, as Cohn put it, and Stanfield concludes his book, “The Who played longer, harder, and straighter, for the people than anyone else,” a view with which I have always concurred.

With 280 pages, A Band With Built-In Hate: The Who From Pop Art To Punk is an easy but by no means breezy read, well researched and notated, and illustrated thoughtfully throughout in black and white. Just published, it brings together some significant criticism of The Who, connecting them with all manner of cultural references, and is a valuable addition to my ever-expanding Who library. That The Who continue to be so well-served by knowledgeable authors is a tribute to their importance.