Sunday, December 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles: A Day in the Life

Being a teenager in the early- to mid-1990s was probably the next best thing for a diehard Beatles fan who was too young to have experienced it the first go-around in the 1960s. With the announcement of the Beatles Anthology TV series, two "new" Beatles tracks, and three 2-CD sets of outtakes and rarities, it was a second wave of Beatlemania that was absolutely thrilling. As an obsessed 14 year old in 1994, I collected every newspaper and magazine clipping on the band that I could find (all of which I still have!) and eagerly awaited the new releases. Of course, during this time there was an increase in books released about the band, some great and some awful. One such book released during this period is the subject of this review, A Day In the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles.

I had read an article in a newspaper around this time discussing an upcoming book written by Mark Hertsgaard. The drawing power of the book was that he was the rare second writer (the other being noted Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn) who was allowed into the tape vault of Abbey Road Studios to listen to the Beatles master tapes. That, and the fact that he was an American writer in contrast to the British Lewisohn, gave the promise of a slightly different take on the musical evolution of the band.  I eagerly awaited the book and bought it as soon as it was released in 1995. I read it once and then it sat on my bookshelf ever since, so I decided to give it a fresh re-reading for the present review. The purported draw of the book was to be that Hertsgaard would focus on the music of the Beatles and not dwell too much on their personal lives; this was to be an in-depth and analytical look not only at their released records, but at the process that went into their creation.  Coupled with his access to the session tapes, it was set up to be a substantial tome to supplement all of the great works Lewisohn had written about the band. However, as you'll see as this review progresses, the book never quite ascends to the lofty perch which Lewisohn's books occupy.

A Day in the Life is laid out in chronological order, beginning with the Beatles' first recordings for EMI and George Martin in the summer of 1962 and continuing through to their final recording session in 1970. Along the way, the author devotes chapters to each album the band recorded and released, as well as topical chapters interspersed throughout that are dedicated to other important aspects of their career, such as Brian Epstein's management, George Martin's production, the Beatlemania phenomenon, the Lennon/McCartney collaboration, and so on. While the book checks in at around 430 pages, the individual chapters are rather short so that the book seems almost like a series of vignettes about the band's music, making it quite enjoyable to read. The downside is that there is really not much of substance throughout the book, making it an enjoyable read that manages to be strangely unsatisfying at the same time, saying a lot while not really meaning anything in the end. This is especially noteworthy with what I consider to be the biggest missed opportunity of the entire project: the author's access to the session tapes. Whereas one would expect a fairly in-depth analysis of the creative process through the alternate versions and earlier takes of the songs, which after all was the selling point of the book in the first place, instead we only get the occasional reference to some studio banter or a brief description of a broken-down or early take. Oftentimes, he has nothing better to share about a take than something as meaningless as Paul singing "scoobee-doobee-doobee!" to himself off-mic while waiting for the next run through of "A Hard Day's Night" and other similarly meaningless nonsense that we're all guilty of during the creative process. Worse, almost all of these will be instantly recognizable to any serious Beatles fan, or even someone who has only listened to a few of the more common bootleg recordings or the Anthology albums themselves, which were released within months of this book. (As an aside, I've been listening to the 7CD Unsurpassed Masters series of Beatles outtakes, one of the most commonly available and best collection of outtakes, and the bulk of what is described in this book can be found on these discs!). It seems such a shame to squander the opportunity when a literal treasure trove of material was available to the author.  I realize that I'm speaking from the perspective of a fan who has studied these tapes for years and that casual fans will probably learn something new from this book; however, the book was aimed as being a serious look at the music for dedicated fans, so given the intended audience it seems more could have been done with this source material literally at the author's fingertips.

Further compounding this creeping feeling of superficiality as the book progresses is the fact that the author relies on outside sources for what little personal background on the band that he does offer. Thus, such apocryphal, oft-told, and flat out incorrect anecdotes such as the Beatles smoking a joint in Buckingham Palace when they received their MBEs (which they never did) get trotted out yet again. The author also doesn't seem to have too deep an understanding of the nuts and bolts of music beyond a rudimentary sense, which is quite obvious when he describes songs that have key-changes when they really don't, or "two-chord sequences" that actually comprise of four chords, as but two examples. As a musician, these really irritated me and I can see them doing the same for any other Beatles fans reading the book who also happen to be musicians. Finally, while some degree of subjectivity is to be expected when discussing music, and acknowledging that it is almost impossible to remain purely objective when discussing music as everyone has their own opinion, the author often lets his personal views on the music get the better of him. He summarily dismisses several generally universally-lauded tracks as little more than throwaway while doing the opposite to several songs that the Beatles themselves have called "work songs." Again, opinions are of course subjective but I think it's safe to say just about everyone acknowledges that "A Day In the Life" is a defining achievement, whereas a lesser song like "It's Only Love," while very catchy and enjoyable, is nowhere near the same level.  Finally, while I commend Hertsgaard's attempts to dig a little deeper into the band's music and the context in which it resides, he has an annoying tendency (as did MacDonald in his excellent but similarly frustrating book Revolution in the Head, which I will review at a later date) to over-analyze the songs and lyrics to almost comical effect. However, where MacDonald tended to take all of the joy out of the music by focusing too much on the songs' construction or lyrical meanings, Hertsgaard's over-analysis border on the ludicrous at times. While several of the early Beatles songs, for example, have the occasional lyric tossed in that elevates them slightly above the "boy-girl" narrative they purposely pursued, one certainly can't infer much more of a meaning behind, say, "From Me to You" than is already clearly communicated out of the mouths of the Beatles themselves on the record.   

A Day In the Life was almost universally hailed by book reviewers and the press when it came out in 1995 and as a giddy 15 year old, I read it and was summarily impressed by the book, rating it one of the best books on the band that I'd written. However, over the years the reappraisal of the book has gradually brought opinion about it back down to earth. Having given it a fresh and critical reading 20 years later as an older, wiser, soon-to-be 35 year old, I can now say that while it's an enjoyable and fairly interesting book, it's by no means the essential or scholarly read on the Beatles that it was initially made out to be. While it's pleasant enough and never becomes annoying as some other, more lightweight Beatles books do, it manages to say a lot on the band and their music without really saying much at all. My 7/10 rating doesn't necessarily mean this book is bad; it simply means that it's not as good as the better Beatles books that are available. While overall my recommendation for this book is positive, anyone more serious about learning about the band and their music will find this to be little more than a broad overview and a good starting point. More in-depth, well-researched, and substantive information can be found elsewhere.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Just a short message wishing all of my family, friends, and readers a very Merry Christmas filled with family, rest, relaxation, and all of the blessings you deserve.  I'm very blessed in my life and thankful for all that I have, and Christmas is always a time of reflection for me as we get ready to head into a new year next week. Whether the religious aspect of the holiday means anything to you (as it does for me) or not, I think we can all agree that believers and non-believers alike can agree that a message of peace, love, and goodwill toward our fellow men and women is something we should all strive for, especially in these troubled times here at home and around the world. I'll be back to my regular schedule of posts here after a few days, but until then I'm going to enjoy Christmas and I hope all of you do, too.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Light and Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page

Jimmy Page needs no introduction. As the founder of Led Zeppelin and one of the greatest guitarists and producers in rock history, he's left an indelible mark on music and is rightly revered as one of the all time giants of the genre. However, much like the band he launched and guided to almost universal acclaim during their twelve year career, the man remains shrouded in mystery. Part of this is down to how private and quiet a person he is, while much of it was and still is a purposely cultivated mystique. His long-standing distrust and disdain for the press, going back to the earliest days of Led Zeppelin, are also a huge reason why so little is known about Page beyond the music. While there have been books written about the band, some of them quite good, not much has been devoted to Page in particular. This is surprising given his stature as a musical giant in the rock world and the high esteem in which he is held. A very good biography was published several years ago, but this was unauthorized and done with no input from Page whatsoever...only the author's dogged research gave the book its source material.  In recent years, Jimmy has published a photographic memoir called Jimmy Page on Jimmy Page, but this was a very expensive limited edition book although a less expensive mass-market version has recently been released (which I hope to review on this site soon). However, even this book focuses only on Page the musician and doesn't reveal any insight into his private life.  That is where Light and Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page tries to fill the gap.

Brad Tolinski is well known as the editor-in-chief of Guitar World Magazine and is someone who has interviewed some of the most famous names in music.  Over the years, he's sat down multiple times with Jimmy Page and discussed a wide range of topics, mainly relating to music but also to Page's personal life, drugs use, and interest in the occult. This book is compiled from the author's numerous interviews with Page and presented in chronological order such that it presents a picture of the guitarist's life from his birth and childhood in rural Surrey in 1944 all the way to the present.  While the bulk of the book understandably focuses on his work in Led Zeppelin, there are also many other fascinating areas of Page's career that are touched on. This is most notable when the end of Zeppelin in 1980 is discussed, as most books treat Page as though he'd stopped working at this point. Light and Shade doesn't do this, instead devoting a significant portion of the book to Page's various solo and side projects throughout the 1980s and 1990s, culminating with the one-off Led Zeppelin reunion in 2007.

The structure of the chapters remains the same throughout the book: a short two-to-five page summation of that particular phase of Page's life and career followed by the relevant interview between the two. Even though these interviews took place over the course of many years, it is to the author's (and his editor's) credit that it never feels like a cut-and-paste job. It's remarkably readable and flows quite nicely. Many of the passages will be well known to fellow Zeppelin fans, but there is still a lot of interesting insight from Page. More than that, hearing him discuss his life and music in such informal settings really does a lot to humanize him. While one is still left with a sense of mystique and intrigue about the man, especially because he never gives away too much when it comes to his personal life, he does peel away quite a few layers of mystery from his image. It was interesting, too, to hear him say that he knows a lot of the false narratives and urban legends that have sprung up about him over the years. In many cases, he's more than happy to reveal that what we've all thought about him over the years is incorrect...but he won't set the record straight. It also shows that he has quite a dry and funny sense of humor, something that is not usually associated with him.

Where the book really gets good for fans, especially if, like me, you play guitar and grew up in awe of Page's mastery of the instrument and his studio production, is when the discussion turns to specific songs, albums, and recording sessions.  Again, Jimmy doesn't give all of his secrets away, but to hear him discuss the various guitars, amps, effects, and settings he used, as well as how he mic'd and recorded it all, is just wonderful. I was instantly transported back to my small bedroom circa 1993, remembering how I spent hours puzzling over certain riffs and sounds on Zeppelin records while I tried to suss them out on my guitar.  It's also great to read him really expound upon his early pre-Zeppelin years as a top session guitarist and member of the Yardbirds. In particular, his lifelong relationship with childhood friend (and former Yardbird bandmate) Jeff Beck is really cool to read about. There are several chapters, termed "Interludes," where Page, the author, or an outside writer will expound upon a particular aspect of Page's life, such as his gear set-ups, his top-10 guitar moments, his stage fashion, and so on. There is even one written by his former Zeppelin bandmate John Paul Jones, which I really enjoyed! The only ones I didn't particularly care for were the joint interview with Jack White (whom I do like) as it didn't really contribute anything in the way of knowledge about Page, and the final one where an astrologer expounds upon the heavenly signs to discuss Page's life.  However, these are minor quibbles of mine and hardly take away from the book as a whole.

Overall, this is a great book and probably the closest we will ever get to an actual autobiography from Jimmy Page. While it does somewhat frustratingly not offer a ton of new information in regards to his personal life, there are some new bits in here. Better than that, though, are all of his discussions on the it was written, how it was recorded, and how Zeppelin performed it live. This book isn't perfect, but it's excellent and I highly recommend it as an essential read for any Led Zeppelin fan. Any time you can learn from the master himself, how can that not be a good thing?


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

To PhD or Not to PhD? (PART 1)

The Rock and Roll Chemist talking to 3rd graders about what it's like to be a scientist, complete with lab coat and safety glasses

Since I started my new job this past September, I've felt rejuvenated as a chemist and am again really taking pride in my career and what I do. This is due in part to finally being in a more stable, focused situation and also due to having found what I feel (so far) is the perfect match of my background and skill set with the projects I'm working on and the company's direction. It's also gotten me to write more about my experiences as a chemist, which I've been able to discuss with other scientists online. More recently, I was part of a career day at my daughters' school where I was one of the parents chosen to speak to the third graders about my job, including what I do at work, what skills help me be successful, and how much education and training it took. Of the three parents speaking in the classroom I was in, I was the "winner" (if you want to look at it that way) with 23 years of schooling, starting with Kindergarten at age 5 and ending at age 28 when I finished my postdoc and got my first job as a chemist.  To say that the kids' eyeballs popped wide open when I told them this fact would be an understatement. Many of the kids seemed genuinely excited by what I was telling them and many of them asked some great questions. A few even said they already loved science and want to be chemists now (which is cute, but I took with a grain of we all know, there's a LONG time to go between age 8 and college).  However, all of this got me thinking about all of the schooling I went through; did I enjoy it? Has it helped me? Would I do it again? And would I recommend it to someone else thinking about it in the future (especially my own children)? Therein lies the impetus for this post...

I will start this with a brief background on my own experiences...if you want more detail, you can read the other posts that I've written previously and linked to above. In a nutshell, I pursued my PhD in organic chemistry after I graduated college in 2001 because I loved materials synthetic chemistry and wanted to pursue an academic career. I finished my PhD in 2006 and started a postdoc. However, 3/4 the way through my postdoc, I realized I loved being in the lab doing research and had no enthusiasm for teaching. Coupled with the low starting salaries in academia (at the time my wife and I had two kids) and all of the extraneous work of grading exams and homework, coming up with course syllabi, and all of the extra things that go along with being a professor, I decided to pursue the industrial path instead. In late 2008 I finished my postdoc and started my first job as a professional chemist. Two job changes later and I am now working as a materials chemist but with an emphasis in engineering, organometallics, contact physics, and metallurgy. I love what I'm doing and even though I miss doing synthetic work, my background has helped me out as I've progressed down this path. Sounds rosy, no?

Well, that's where I'm intending to slap you with a  (somewhat) cold, hard dose of reality with this article. Now, I'm not going to be completely negative about it because that's not how I feel. But now that I'm in my mid-30s and have experienced what I've experienced, I figure I can look back on it with some clarity of age and wisdom. I was moved to do this not only from talking to my daughter's class, but from reading about the current woes of the chemistry job market on excellent blogs like ChemJobber, as well as personal experiences with friends who were classmates and colleagues of mine, some of whom have struggled since graduating and some who have thrived.  Lastly, several friends and coworkers over the years have asked me advice about whether they should go back to school and get their PhD. All of this has led me to think long and hard about my feelings on the matter and how I would answer all of these questions. These are long and complicated matters, so I'm going to do this in parts, the first of which is this post you're reading. So here goes...

1. Would I recommend a PhD in chemistry (or any science) to anyone who is either graduating college or who wants to go back to school?

This is a tough one because there's no right or wrong answer. What follows is, like the rest of this post, mainly my opinion. I realize that all things, like the economy and the job market, are cyclical and what I say now is based on how it is now, and that things may and probably will change. With all of that said, my answer at worst is a cautious but firm "NO" and at best is "it depends." There are several reasons, many of them dependent on current conditions as I alluded to, and many that are concrete regardless of what's going on around us.

As far as the fluidly dependent reasons, right now is a bad time to either be graduating with a degree in science or looking for work in this field. As bad as the overall economy and job market are in this country, they're even worse within chemistry (which is the field I know best). First and foremost, there is a glut of PhDs who are either working in the field, unemployed and looking for work in the field, or graduating and looking to enter the field. This is due mainly to the fact that graduate schools are driven to publish and bring in grant money, and the decades-old model for doing so is to employ loads of graduate students and postdocs to do all of the work. As such, groups and departments that are successful bring in more and more students to accomplish all of this, which is great except that at the end of their time in grad school, they are flooding the market and competing for a finite number of positions that is shrinking on a daily basis due to economics and jobs moving offshore (this is especially bad if you're in pharma/medicinal chem or biotechnology). It's the same issue that's plagued new law school grads for years: too many of you and not enough jobs to go around. In chemistry, this has led to many scientists becoming career postdocs or non-tenured staff scientists at universities, making slightly more than their grad student and postdoc brethren, but often not getting health or retirement benefits and with little room (if any) for career advancement. And once you've entered this cycle, it's VERY hard to get out of it. Industry, in particular, looks down upon this during the hiring process when they see it on a resume (and I know this from having been involved in many hiring processes throughout my career).

Another factor to consider is what I've always termed the Input/Output Ratio; that is, what you put in to getting the PhD vs. what you get out of it. Again, none of this is sour grapes on my parts because I've been blessed and lucky in my own career: I finished my postdoc in 2008 and got my first job literally a month or two before everything went to hell with the economy and through a combination of hard work, networking, and a smidgen of luck, I've worked at a few different companies and am now really happy with where I'm at.  However, when looking at this Input/Output ratio, even for someone who has had an on-the-whole positive experience with it all, this ratio is woefully imbalanced.  Let me put it this way: you put in AT LEAST five extra years of school after college, school where your tuition is paid (yay!) and you receive a stipend (not much, but still...yay!) to teach undergraduate labs (meh), spend long hours, nights, and weekends in the lab (depends on your advisor as to how hard you're driven) and have a LOT of stress coming at you constantly as you have to work to pass your classes, pass your seminars, pass your cumulative exams, pass all of the hurdles and requirements thrown at you, AND generate lots of good data and progress in your research such that you can publish some of it (which helps your advisor's reputation and helps your resume as you prepare to apply for a postdoc and/or job).  Assuming you're not a "non-traditional" (ie older) student and you started your PhD right after undergrad, you will be ~27-28 when you finish (I was 26). Then it's off to a postdoc for additional training. In your postdoc, it's all about research and mentoring the grad students in your group. You still have to work really hard and the more papers you can publish, the better. This fellowship can take anywhere from 1 to an infinite number of years depending on your situation (and your advisor's grant money). Somewhere in there, you have to carve out some time to polish up your resume, apply for jobs, have phone interviews, and (if you're lucky) travel to on-site interviews until you find a job.

PhD Comics is a brilliant site...anyone who has gotten their degree can relate to these!

When it's all said and done, your 20s are pretty much gone. I was 28 when all of this finished, and I was lucky to be this young for several reasons: 1) I'd skipped 5th grade in elementary school so I was a year younger than everyone in my class, 2) I had great advisors in both grad school and postdoc who really did help me, mentor me, and encourage me, 3) I published a LOT of papers before applying for jobs, 4) I specialized in an area of chemistry (materials) that is actually growing and in high demand, and 5) my timing was beyond fortuitous, snatching a job after just under 2 years of postdoc right before the economy collapsed. However, I realize my experience isn't the same as everyone else, and I have some close friends who have had about as polar opposite an experience as I did in all regards. These are not all-inclusive, but range from working for an unpleasant advisor, too few or no papers published, unexpected loss of a position due to grant money running out, and a skill-set that is not in demand by employers are all some reasons some of my friends have struggled and continue to struggle in this market.   Remember, too, that while you are spending your 20s working hard in grad school pursuing this degree, your friends who majored in other subjects (or went with the Masters degree instead) are working and earning a living, progressing in their careers and settling down in life. I have many friends who started working in 2001 (the year I graduated undergrad) with their bachelor's degrees in engineering, computer science, business, etc while I started grad school. By the time we all hit 30, I had been working for not quite 2 years and was just starting on the career ladder while they had been working for almost a decade, were earning as much or more than I was, and had gotten promotions, raises, bonuses, etc. They had saved money, bought houses, new cars, went on vacations, and started families...I didn't get my first raise until I was in my early 30s and didn't have a retirement account to start saving money in until this past year.  I was lucky to have met my wife in college, we got married right after college, and started our family mid-way through my PhD (it wasn't easy balancing all of that at the time!) but I was the exception, not the rule. Most, not all but most, of my colleagues in grad school and postdoc put all of that off until after they graduated. So I am now 34, been married for 12 years, and have 4 kids while many of my friends the same age are either still single, newly married, or newly married and are just starting to have kids. Most people have to put adult life on hold a LOT when they're in graduate school.

I don't mean to paint this picture as bleakly as it seems to come across, but my point is that regardless of whether you have a good or bad experience through all of that, getting your PhD is one of the hardest things you'll ever do. You sacrifice a lot, put up with a lot, put off a lot, and you do all of this during the decade when most of your peers are starting their careers and beginning to ascend their respective career ladders. It's normal to feel far behind once you finish and start your own career...I certainly felt that way and it's something I've only recently come to terms with and stopped beating myself up over. And while I don't usually advocate measuring your self-worth against anyone else, it's unavoidable in this case and can really bring you down if you're not careful. Granted, those years were spent going to school for free (financially speaking) and earning some money, but there are no health benefits (at least there weren't when I was in school...luckily my wife was working at the same time and we had insurance through her employer), no 401k accounts, and not nearly enough money to save anything. That's why I always advise people who ask me if they should go for their PhD that they need to be 100% sure they want to pursue the degree and they should do it right after college without taking a break; while there is the risk of burnout, since you're already used to being a poor college student, you might as well suck it up a little longer, put your head down, and plow through school. Very few people will want to abandon whatever job they've been doing since college, take a HUGE pay cut, and make the lifestyle change from being an autonomous adult to a grad student at the mercy of their advisor (who very oftentimes may be younger than them!). Finally, I don't ever actively dissuade anyone from pursuing a PhD if that's what they really want to do, but I do want to make sure they know what they're in for and what they'll be giving up along the way. If you know upfront what it will be like, you won't be as surprised while it's happening or as shell-shocked as some are when you come out the other end. To make a long story short, in my opinion the Input/Output Ratio is badly skewed, and not in our favor. What you get out of the entire experience is not nearly equal to what you put into it, and it takes many years of working to achieve the break-state...I feel as though I'm finally approaching this stage, and this is coming at a time where I've been in the workforce for almost 7 years and am approaching 35 years of age. Yes, doctors also go through a ton of schooling and training before they begin practicing (being the son of a doctor, I've had this discussion with my dad many times over the years) but there are MANY more guaranteed jobs for new physicians and the starting income levels are much higher for doctors than they are for scientists. The medical profession has its own set of circumstances that are battering the industry, especially in recent years, but the fact remains that the Ratio is less favorable for new PhDs than it is for new MDs. Food for thought...

So, to answer question 1 in this first part, To PhD or Not to PhD? My overall answer is "it depends, but probably no." I don't say this emphatically and I don't begrudge anyone who decides to go this route, but make sure you know what you're in for, not only while you're in school but what will be your prospects when you get out.  If you truly love chemistry/science and know without a shadow of a doubt that it's what you want to do as a career, then go for it, but if you're not 100% sure in your convictions, it might be best to think about something else that you can do. For everyone who has been fortunate through the whole process (as I consider myself to have been), there are many more who have gone through hell and back (or not at all). There are no guarantees in life and that holds true even more for the PhD chemist.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Interview with Mark Blake, Author of Pretend You're In a War: The Who and the Sixties

Author Mark Blake

The Rock and Roll Chemist is pleased to present the following interview with Mark Blake, author of the excellent new book Pretend You're In a War: The Who and the Sixties, which was reviewed previously on this site.  Mark is a renowned author who has written several seminal rock music biographies; in addition to the Who book, he has written about Pink Floyd (Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd) and Queen (Is This Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen) to name a few. Other books include works on Bob Dylan and Keith Richards, to name but two. He is a writer whose work has been published in magazines and newspapers since 1989, and he's previously been assistant editor of Q Magazine and is a long-time contributor to Mojo Magazine. Mark was kind enough to take the time to talk with me and answer my questions about the Who and his new book.

RNRChemist: What was the impetus for writing this book? Why this particular period of the band's career?

MB: The Who were one of the first, for want of a better word, ‘serious’ rock groups I ever heard, and I felt that there was a great story still to be told. Richard Barnes’ Maximum R&B biography was and still is brilliant, because he was there with them ‘back in the day.’ But his book stops at 1982. So, to start with, I looked at the idea of writing a book that brought the story up to date. But then I had a change of heart, because the Who’s story is such a mess. They split up, they get back together and tour, then they split up again.. There are loads of sometimes dodgy solo albums… The more I read around the story the more fascinated I became with where they came from. I’ve only known The Who as a big arena band. I wanted to know what they were like before that.

RNRChemist: How do you think the Who's career in the 60s stands up to their peers at the top of the heap like the Beatles, Kinks, and Stones?

MB: I think the Who’s music stands up alongside the music made by the other three. In terms of recognition and, probably, sales, they were third on the bill to the Stones and the Beatles, but probably ahead of the Kinks. In terms of oddness, though, I’d put them ahead of all three. There’s something incredibly odd about The Who in the 60s.

RNRChemist: Obviously, as you've pointed out in the book, growing up during and immediately after WWII had a huge effect on the British musicians of that generation. How do you think this is most directly manifested? (ie the music, fashion, etc)

MB: It manifested itself in the freedom they had. I think it was Ringo Starr who said that he was only able to become a pop star because of the abolition of National Service (or conscription). Prior to that, in the early and mid 1950s, all 18-year-old boys had to take a few months out of their lives and join the armed forces. Once the government scrapped that, you had a generation of teenagers with more freedom than their parents had ever had. That led to the freedom to make music, dress the way they wanted to…I’m over-simplifying, but I think, in broad terms, the freedom young people acquired was a great enabler.

RNRChemist: In what ways do you think growing up during and after the war for the London bands (most notably the Who, Stones, and Kinks) differed from how the Beatles up in Liverpool experienced it? (if you think it differed at all)

MB: I think most cities have their own musical identities. Liverpool being a port town would have impacted on The Beatles and all Liverpool groups – and in a good way by giving them direct access to new American records, straight off the boat. I think London being the capital city put The Who in a fortunate position. The music business was in London. A lot of hip clothes shops were in London. Chris Huston, who engineered some of The Who Sell Out, had previously been in a Liverpool band called The Undertakers, who’d shared a bill with The Who or The High Numbers. I remember him telling me that he couldn’t get over how The Who/High Numbers were dressed in 1963/4: “We were all still rockers, and they had the mod thing going on.”

RNRChemist: Your book contains a lot of great (and new!) information on the Who's childhoods, most notably for Roger and John. What was the most surprising thing your research uncovered about any of them?

MB: It was interesting for me to get some first-hand accounts of Roger, John and Pete’s schooldays from other ex-pupils, and ones that weren’t necessarily big Who fans who just wanted to dine out on their connection. Any band that have been around as long as The Who have a tendency to mythologise their past. They all do it – and then writers come along and mythologise a little bit more. What I discovered was that some stories about Roger being what we call in England “a bit of a handful” at school were possibly exaggerated, but others weren’t. One ex-Acton County pupil I approached for an interview told me that he remembered Daltrey very well, but refused to ever mention his name again. I also rather like the story that after winning a local battle-of-the-bands competition with his school skiffle group, the 14-year-old Roger packed up the guitar for a time because he had a girlfriend. Always a lover and a fighter.

RNRChemist: The Who were a very violent band both onstage and off, as were their peers (ie the Stones and Kinks). Yet all three bands hailed from different parts of London. Why do you think they had so much aggression and anger? Was it just the combination of youthful rebellion, speed, and excitement or something more, in your opinion?

MB: Youthful rebellion and excitement, I guess, yes. Roger came from quite a tough area, and was rubbing shoulders with some tough characters. Maybe that fed into the music. But in a funny way, I associate a lot of the anger and aggression in the music with Pete Townshend. I think his conflicted mindset was a contributing factor.

RNRChemist: Could you imagine Lambert and Stamp existing today? It almost beggars belief how they got away with what they did, and for how long. Yet they seem to often be given short shrift when credit is doled out, unlike their managerial contemporaries like Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog-Oldham. Why do you think this is?

MB: I don’t think Lambert or Stamp would have survived in the modern age. Keith Altham, the music journalist and later The Who’s PR, talked to me about this in the book. Keith pointed out that, in some way, men like Lambert and Stamp, and also Epstein and Loog Oldham, paved the way for the managers and accountants that followed in the 70s and 80s when rock music became really big business. In a sense, though, their bands all outgrew them. I think the lack of credit compared to Epstein and Oldham is down to the fact that the Beatles and Stones were bigger bands; Epstein died young in slightly mysterious circumstances; Andrew Oldham didn’t and has written three great books about his experiences.

RNRChemist: Kit and Chris came from vastly different backgrounds yet they seemed to work together perfectly as a management team. What's your take on how they made it work? What did they each bring to the table?

MB: I think they met at the right time. Social barriers were coming down in the early 60s, and the entertainment industry was a great leveller. Kit’s friend Robert Fearnley-Whittingstall pointed out that “nothing binds people together like making money.” In simplistic terms, Kit seems to have had the grand ideas, the flair and the chutzpah, and Chris was good at putting some of those grand ideas into practice. That said, Townshend has talked a lot about how good Stamp was at brainstorming ideas with him. I think their roles were quite fluid rather than clearly defined.

RNRChemist: How do you rate the Who's pre-1969/Tommy live performances? As someone who has collected bootlegs for years, I find them to be incredibly exciting from the earliest recordings (1964) but they definitely seemed to evolve as the decade went on. Agree/disagree?

MB: They definitely evolved, as they became better musicians and songwriters, their musical tastes changed, the equipment improved, etc. I like the rawness and the improvisations of that bootleg from The Railway Hotel in 1964. But just listen to them at Monterey and on the Rock’N’Roll Circus and then, of course, on the Tommy tour. It’s astonishing. I think there’s something to be said for all those live performances.

RNRChemist: Conventional wisdom holds that in the 60s he was just up to harmless youthful hijinks and that he didn't really start self-destructing until the Who slowed down their touring schedule in '72, yet as you and Tony Fletcher have pointed out in your books, Moon seemed to go off the rails rather quickly once the band started to get famous and successful. It's clear he had some sort of mental issues even beyond the obvious ADHD and borderline personality disorder he had.  He was certainly a one of the kind personality in 1960s/70s rock. What's your impression of the man beyond his fabulous drumming skills?

MB: I found it quite tricky writing about Keith for two reasons: Tony Fletcher did such a good job already in his book, Dear Boy, and, secondly, because it’s difficult not to get swayed by the mythology. Several people told me Keith stories that had me almost crying with laughter. I didn’t want to shy away from that. But at the same time he was also what Daltrey calls “a tragic little man”. I think Moon was a far more complex character than he’s often portrayed.

RNRChemist: As much as a Hendrix fan as I am, it's always bothered me that he ripped off and appropriated a lot of Pete's innovations as his own, like the bigger amps, feedback, stage antics, and instrument destruction. Am I being too harsh in my assessment?

MB: I think you’re being maybe a little bit harsh. But, then again, Daltrey has spoken several times about how Hendrix copied what Townshend was doing at The Railway Hotel three years earlier. I suspect everyone was ‘appropriating’ off everyone else.

RNRChemist: I've always held Pete in as high regard as a songwriter as I do Lennon & McCartney and Ray Davies.  Do you think his innate talent would have flourished to the extent that it did had he not had Lambert's nurturing and encouragement?

MB: You’d like to think that Townshend’s  songwriting talent would have shone through regardless. But I always think there’s an element of luck involved in any band making it big. Lambert was certainly a great enabler.

RNRChemist: How close to leaving the Who do you really think John and Keith were in '66/'67?

MB: Probably not that close. I just think they were frustrated by the band’s financial problems and the bad mood within the camp. Both of them flounced out for a few days or so, whereas Daltrey actually left/was sacked, properly, twice. But Chris Stamp has talked about a “gravitational pull” that stopped all of them leaving for good.

RNRChemist: I've always felt the Who's work in the 60s inspired the power pop, new wave, punk, mod revival, and britpop movements that came in the following decades. What do you think is the most enduring influence(s) their 60s incarnation has had?

MB: I think it’s the attitude that had endured. The early Who’s anger and energy has never really gone out of style. That, and their Englishness. I became very aware of that influence on Blur in the 1990s. The Who’s 1968 single Dogs sounds like a prototype for Blur’s Parklife.

RNRChemist: The Beatles, Stones, and Kinks all hit big in America in '64 but it took the Who until '67. Why do you think it took the Who so much longer than the other three giants of 60s British rock to break through in America? 

MB: I think it was a combination of financial and managerial bad luck – The Who had all sorts of problems with their US record label and their first producer Shel Talmy – and the fact that they were a bit too peculiar. The Beatles and Stones, especially, were easier sells.

RNRChemist: Do you think Shel Talmy's production helped the Who on their early singles and debut album? I've always found it a bit tinny myself (similar to his production on the early Kinks records). Certainly the atrocious contract he signed them to didn't help them!

MB: I think Talmy was in the right place at the right time. But he got The Who up and running as a recording act. You can criticise the production on those records, but it was what it was. The Who had been trying to make it for a while before Talmy came along, and they’d already had a flop with that High Numbers single. What was it Daltrey said? “If they told me I had to stick my head up a donkey’s arse and I would have been a successful pop star, I would have done it.”

RNRChemist: Pete Meaden and Helmut Gorden are forgotten figures in Who history. Both would not have ultimately made the Who successful yet both performed vital tasks that helped the band along on their road to success. Do you think the Who would still have made it had they not worked with these two?

MB: Yes I do. I don’t think Helmut Gorden contributed a great deal. But I do think that Pete Meaden’s ideas helped point the band in the right direction. In some ways, Gorden was still working to the old Tin Pan Alley, pre-Beatles business model, and Meaden was thinking to the future, with shrewd marketing and image ideas.

RNRChemist: Doug Sandom is a classic case, ala Pete Best, of the one who was left behind on the cusp of stardom, yet I don't think the band would've made it without Moon, who was the perfect fit both musically and personality-wise. In your talks with Doug, did you sense any regrets or bitterness? (I've read his book and he seems to harbor no ill will toward Pete, Roger, and John). 

MB: I think there is some element of regret with Doug, but not bitterness. Or certainly not when I spoke with him. I don’t think The Who would have had the same success had he stayed in the band. Like the other ex-members, Gaby Connolly and even Dave Golding, who was drumming at The Oldfield when Keith ‘auditioned,’ it was interesting to hear Doug’s stories about The Who before they were The Who, so to speak.

RNRChemist: The 1960s were an incredible decade for music and pop culture, especially in London, although it seems the Who were either a step behind some of the movements (transitioning from focusing on singles to albums) or sat some of them out almost altogether (psychedelia). Any insight as to why this was?

MB: I think The Who floundered a bit in the mid-60s. They weren’t sure where to go. They certainly tried to stay a singles band for a few months longer than perhaps they should have done. I think their attitude towards psychedelia was fascinating, though. They were more honest than a lot of bands, who stuck on the kaftans and beads and preached peace and love without actually believing a word of it. I think The Who were too cynical for all that.

RNRChemist: How do you think the Who in the 1960s would have been remembered had they faltered with Tommy and faded into obscurity? Even though they were a top chart and live act, do you believe they would still be held in as high regard as their peers if Tommy had been a disaster? (this of course doesn't take into account the stellar work they did in the 1970s). 

MB: I think they’d be well regarded, but certainly not to the extent that they are now. They’d be a cult band, a bit like The Pretty Things, but bigger! A critic’s favourite, worth a nice feature in Mojo but never on the cover. I can imagine it now, in fact.

RNRChemist: How would you summarize the Who's body of work in the 1960s in terms of quantity and quality? No need to be objective if you don't want to be!

MB: It’s a beautiful mess. It’s stylistically all over the shop, and some things like A Quick One and even to an extent The Who Sell Out don’t work quite as well as they could have. But it doesn’t matter. Just listen to that first run of singles. And the messiness is all part of The Who’s charm.

RNRChemist: Favorite 60s Who single? Album?

MB: I Can See For Miles and Tommy.

RNRChemist: How about favorite Who single and album from any era (not just the 1960s)?

MB: Who Are You, the single, and for a great underrated Who album, The Who By Numbers. It’s not as good as Who’s Next or Quadrophenia, I know. But there’s something I love about it.

RNRChemist: I'm one of those Who fans who thinks the band died when Keith did in September 1978...what's your opinion on the band after he passed away and they continued on?

MB: I think there are some good songs on Face Dances (You Better You Bet, Cache Cache) and even one or two on It’s Hard (Eminence Front and, maybe that’s it!) and I genuinely liked Endless Wire, but none of them felt like Who albums exactly. The 1980s and the early 1990s were difficult transitional periods for a lot of acts who began in the 60s – Stones, Dylan, Neil Young etc. They weren’t used to being older rock stars yet, and we weren’t used to them being older rock stars. But that’s passed. Now we are. The bands and their audiences have adapted. Expectations have changed. At the end of the day if they can still do those songs justice on stage, I can live with it. I can now ignore the fact that it’s Zak Starkey on drums and Pino Palladino on bass. I went to see the Quadrophenia show in London in 2013. I didn’t expect to like it, but I loved it. And I didn’t even know the drummer’s name. He was no Zak Starkey, mind.

RNRChemist: Have you thought about a similar book on the who in the 70s? I know I'm not alone in hoping you'll write one!

MB: I have thought about it, yes. Thanks for your kind words and support. But I probably need a lie down now. I’m a bit Who-ed out!

Mark, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and to discuss your book. To all of my readers, I highly recommend this book! Mark can be followed online at his website, his blog, and on Twitter.