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.

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