Thursday, November 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Who: The Official History



2015 marks the year that The Who are celebrating their 50th anniversary. I disagree with this classification for a couple of reasons, mainly because A) 1964 was the year in which they solidified their lineup of Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon and released their first single, "I Can't Explain," and B) they really haven't been The Who since Keith Moon died in September 1978. However, as it's their band, it's their choice as to when they want to celebrate their anniversary.  In any event, as one of my favorite bands of all time and one of the most influential bands in history, it was with great excitement that I looked forward to the publication of this official history, especially as it promised to have input from the two surviving members of the band, Pete and Roger. Written by Ben Marshall, upon receiving this attractive book and seeing the eye-catching cover dripping with classic Who iconography, I proceeded to tear into it to see how the story of this fantastic band, this band that has meant so much to my life and the lives of countless others, would be told from an official perspective.


***special thanks to Leslie at Harper Collins for sending a copy of the book to review!***

The introduction of the book hints that, while written by Marshall, there will also be heavy input from Roger and Pete. Of course, upon reading this I was looking forward to the insight they could offer, but it became apparent rather quickly that in actuality there would only be photo captions written by Pete and for all intents and purposes, nothing from Roger, which was very disappointing and gave the book a whiff of being a bit of a half-hearted/cash-in. How could this be an official history with such minimal input from the last two remaining members of the Who? Pete's captions, as would be expected, are quirky, funny, honest, sarcastic, and unmistakably Townshend. The downside is that, the further I got into the book,  the more they served as constant reminders of how more (much more) of his input would have enhanced the book. Ben Marshall starts the Who history (Whostory?) with the backdrop of WWII Britain and the birth of the four members at the tail end of the war (or in Pete and Keith's cases, after the war ended). Inserted in this section were sidebars on life in the post-war austerity period in the UK as well as the rise of Teddy Boy subculture and rock and roll. Sidebars such as these appeared throughout the book and become more and more intrusive and eventually threatened to overwhelm the Who's story, but I'll elaborate on that more later. From here, the author goes through their various pre-Who bands and how they came together until the line-up was completed in early 1964 with the arrival of Keith Moon. The remainder of the chapters are split into eras, focusing on their first album and singles during their Mod period, their Pop Art period of 1966-1968, Tommy in 1969-1970, their period as a top act in 1971-1974, and the remainder of their career with Keith until his death in 1978. This rightly takes up the bulk of the book, with the balance dedicated quite briskly to their attempt at carrying on post-Keith from 1979-1982 and the subsequent reunion tours of 1996-present.



When going through the book, I kept feeling like it wasn't meeting my expectations as to what an "official history" should be but that eventually something I'd hit upon something that would rectify this. However, I kept reading and after finishing the book I couldn't help but think that this book was a real disappointment and, worse than that, a huge missed opportunity. There are several reasons I feel this way. First and foremost, Ben Marshall's written history offers little to no new insight or information about the band or their history. Much of the narrative is quoted verbatim from the Who's remastered CD liner notes and various documentaries and previous books that will be well known and instantly recognizable to any of my fellow hardcore Who fanatics. There were also numerous typos/grammatical errors, as well as several flat-out inaccuracies. These ranged from what I'm assuming are honest errors such as calling the Who's album from 1978, Who Are You, Who's Next (which came out in 1971) by mistake, to the author constantly messing up the name of their recent documentary Amazing Journey, which got to be very irritating. The sidebars, which grew to be almost as long as the chapters themselves, were sometimes fun and informative (such as the ones on Mods and Teddy Boys), but eventually became too long and off-topic, detracting from the central story of the Who. One of them was a long treatise on the history of the hippie subculture; while I understand this happened during the Who's career in the 1960s, the Who were one of the few bands of the era who, apart from dabbling in some florid clothing and LSD, were never remotely close to being a hippie/psychedelic band either in terms of their sound or attitudes, and as such were set apart from the entire movement. There were also some long sidebars on the Mods vs. Rockers fights of 1964 (which made sense as Pete wrote about these on the Quadrophenia album) and a heartwarming but unnecessary (at least in my opinion) vignette about a former London punk drummer telling the story of his brother watching the Who rehearse a few times in the mid-1960s. In all honesty, the book ran out of steam, and quickly, after the chapter-long tribute to Keith Moon. Granted, from that point onward I don't consider the band to really have been the Who, but in my mind if this is to truly be a definitive official history, there should have been more detail on the post-Keith years. There was very little to nothing, for instance, on the Cincinnati incident of 1979, the 1996 Hyde Park Quadrophenia reunion, or their subsequent tours in the 2000s. Apart from a chapter-long tribute to John Entwistle, this final section of the book seemed unnecessary and hurried, and for a band who has desperately tried to convince their fans and themselves that the years after 1978 (and especially after 1982) have been just as vital and essential a part of their history as the 1964-1978 period, it seemed half-assed. Finally, there were far too few picture captions by Pete and far too little input from him throughout the entire book...combined with their being zero input or insight from Roger, it seems a little specious, at least to me, to call this an official history and imply on the cover that it's Roger and Pete telling their story when really, it isn't. This may be an officially sanctioned history of the Who, but it certainly isn't their version of, say, the Beatles' Anthology book which was truly 100% in their own words. A band as important, influential, and revered as the Who deserves better as the official word on their own career.


For all of their visceral, reckless, and aggressive energy, The Who were always one of the most cerebral, reflective, and introspective bands who also were the first (and in my mind, still the best) to reflect back at their audience who they really were. Given what Pete's autobiography was like and what the best of their music offers, it was only natural that I would assume that the official history of the band would embody all of these qualities. However, I have to conclude that this book is a major disappointment and a real missed opportunity to tell their history in their own words, especially as it could have been done really well in a way only Pete and Roger could do. This book is more accurately a band history written by an outside author with minimal input from the two surviving members. Yes, there are some great photographs throughout the book, several that were even new to me, but the actual story, i.e. the words, were almost inconsequential and will offer nothing to any dedicated Wholigan. Is this a book hardcore Who fans should have? Yes, it probably is, but at the same time it's not one they need to have. For a band who has given so much to their fans, and who in turn have demanded so much from their fans in return, the incongruity with respect to this book is jarring. The end result is disappointing, especially if this ends up being the final official word from Roger and Pete on The Who.

*THIS* is what the Who were all about. Crank up the volume and enjoy!


MY RATING: 6/10




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