Wednesday, October 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Pretend You're in a War: The Who and the Sixties


No band from the 1960s identified and asked as much of their audience (and vice versa) than The Who. Driven by the creative genius of songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend, the Who not only wrote and performed music that articulated the insecurity, angst, and confusion of their audience, but they shared in it themselves. From snot-nosed adolescent punks in the early 1960s to the elder statesmen of rock that they became in the 1970s, the Who were one of the few of the major bands to emerge from 1960s England that meant more to their audience than the casual fan would or could ever know. However, most of the Who's legend is due to their groundbreaking album Tommy and their appearance at Woodstock, both from 1969, as well as their stadium rock anthems throughout the 1970s. These songs are staples of classic rock radio and touchstones for wannabe rock musicians all the way to the present. What is less known and appreciated is who and what they were in the 1960s, and why. That is the thesis of Mark Blake's excellent new book, Pretend You're In a War: The Who and the Sixties.

***special thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book to review!***




During the 1960s, rock music unquestionably had its golden age, when the sheer number of influential and talented bands all coexisting was at its peak and the breadth of their styles resulted in a staggering number of classic albums and singles. While the scene in America was exciting and produced many great bands, it is inarguable that the majority of the best bands of the decade hailed from the UK.  The Beatles led the way wire-to-wire throughout the decade, but the Rolling Stones, Who, and Kinks were hot on their heels and would all outlast the Beatles after the Fabs split in 1970.  Of the four great bands, however, the Who had the strangest and bumpiest ride to stardom (although the Kinks didn't fare much better in either of those departments). Additionally, while all British bands of the 1960s generation were unquestionably shaped by growing up during and immediately after WWII, the Who harnessed that influence in a manner and intensity that stood apart from the rest of their musical peers. The title of this book comes from an answer a young Pete Townshend gave to a reporter who asked him how the band get themselves up for their powerful, loud, and often violent live performances. However, as Mark Blake shows, this answer applies not only to their stage act, but permeates everything about the band's career. 

As I've discussed before, the Who were four guys who really didn't particularly care for each other even though they cared about each other. Daltrey, Entwistle, and Townshend all met at school and had been in bands together when they joined forces with Keith Moon in early 1964. After going through a couple of name changes and managers, they came under the guidance of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two fast-talking hustlers who would go down as two of the craziest managers of all time. The Who were, for most of the decade, the quintessential singles band, releasing numerous quirky and powerful singles that were all successful in the charts, from "I Can't Explain," "My Generation," and "Happy Jack" to "I'm a Boy," "Pictures of Lily," and "Magic Bus."  However, the band fought each other as much as they fought with producers, the press, and unruly fans. Constantly in debt from having to replace the instruments they smashed on an almost nightly basis and having signed one of the worst record deals of the decade, they were kept financially afloat due to their fast talking managers. Lambert and Stamp spent as if they were Brian Eptsein and employed every sleazy trick in the book to stay one step ahead of the debt collectors. The chaos and instability of their management company could only have happened in the 60s, but eventually their faith in the band and Lambert in particular nurturing and encouraging Pete's artistic and songwriting ambitions led to a rapid development that helped the band keep pace with their three closest peers (the Beatles, Kinks, and Stones) before they finally hit the jackpot with 1969's Tommy. Not only did the band break America wide open, but they managed to become trailblazers with the first full blown rock-opera, connecting with fans and critics alike while becoming the best live band of their generation and beyond. 

Mark Blake draws on several influential primary sources, as well as his own new research and extensive interviews with the band and those close to them in order to fully paint the portrait of the Who during the sixties. In particular, he sets up the book in order to show that, of all the sixties English rock bands who grew up during and after WWII, the Who were the ones who bore the marks of its impact in just about every facet of their being. It's worth noting right here that one of the things I've long thought interesting is the difference between the American and British of that generation in terms of the War's impact on them. While the Americans fought the war abroad and returned home to a country that had pulled out of a depression and went right into an unprecedented period of affluence and stability, the British returned home to a country ravaged both physically and psychologically by the conflict. Ruined cities and towns and a crippled economy went hand in hand with continued rationing of food and luxuries and a drab pop culture. They looked to American movies and music for excitement and inspiration.  As Blake and many others have pointed out, it was in this climate during which the 60s generation in Britain came of age and which would shape the outlook and output of the musicians, actors, writers, directors, and artists.  The Who dealt with this by channeling their violence, insecurity, and anger into their music, demeanor, and live presence, most manifest in their destruction of instruments and stages.  While the Beatles were lovable, the Stones were scruffy, and the Kinks a bit odd, the Who looked like they were fixing for a fight at any moment, and they were. They fought each other, their audience, and attracted an undercurrent of violence and tension no matter where they went. Blake traces this throughout their evolution during the decade, from their early days playing hard-hitting R&B to their phase as mods with which they are most readily identified in the 60s. The author does a nice job giving background into the mod movement and exploring the band's, and in particular Pete's, fascination and embrace of the movement before they outgrew it and left it behind. At every turn, however, the Who had to fight: with themselves, their managers, and the musical environment they found themselves in. If it wasn't a battle to get up the charts, they had to stave off challengers like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, never mind the Kinks, Stones, and Beatles. Blake paints a vivid and detailed picture of the turmoil and upheaval felt during the decade and how it shaped the Who as musicians and people, with the scars from WWII always just beneath the surface. 

While I was able to recognize certain bits of info sourced from other Who books I've read, there was still a huge amount of new information in the book that was new to me. For instance, I knew that Roger had been kicked out in '65 for his conflict with the other three, but I never knew that he flat out quit in '66 due to uncertainly over the band's future before deciding to stay.  Indeed, they all wanted to quit at one time or another but could never bring themselves to do so, always being drawn back to each other.  Additionally, just how dire the band's circumstances were in 1968 and realizing just how make-or-break Tommy was is thrown into sharp relief when compared against what their peers were doing. While the White Album, Beggar's Banquet, and the Village Green Preservation Society were all released in 1968 and are classic albums, the Who spent the year working on Tommy and gigging heavily simply to earn enough money to pay off their debts. This is just one of the many juxtapositions the author makes to show how unique the Who's situation was compared to their legendary peers of the era (although the Kinks had just as tumultuous a decade in their own right). 

This book does for the Who what no other book on the band does, which is focus solely on their formative years and the role the 1960s played in their career. Most in-depth looks at the band tend to skim over the decade and begin really focusing on Tommy and 1969, and this does the band and their fans a major disservice. Thankfully, Mark Blake has rectified this with Pretend You're in a War. It's the first book I've read with a detailed chronicle of their youths, especially those of John and Roger. In addition, while their years as the Detours in the early 1960s has been written about in some detail in various other books, I've never read (or enjoyed reading) as much detail about their time under Lambert and Stamp as I did with this book. The level of detail and the manner in which it was written shows just how insane the situation was and that it could only have happened to the Who. Myths are busted, stories are set straight, and the truth is revealed over the course of the book...what it all adds up to is an achievement worthy of being the definitive biography of the band's early life and career up to and including 1970. My only wish now is that the author will follow this up with a companion book on the Who in the 1970s...after all, they were still pretending to be in a war even then.  In fact, as Blake's afterword shows, even in 2014, Pete and Roger, as the surviving members of the band, still are. 

MY RATING: 9.5/10


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