The Who graphics by Rob Shields
The Who graphics by Rob Shields

"I Believe That Rock Can Do Anything"

Who I Am; Pete Townshend; Harper Collins Books

Book review by R. Alan Clanton | published Sunday, July 28, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

The rock and roll documentary has raised its game of late and moved seemingly into its golden age. Massive, sprawling documentaries have appeared within the last 24 months covering a variety of iconic groups and musical phases of pop and rock: The Rolling Stones (Brett Morgen’s The Rolling Stones: Crossfire Hurricane), George Harrison (Martin Scorcese’s Living in the Material World), The Eagles (History of the Eagles, Part 1 & 2), Sound City Recording Studio (Dave Grohl’s Sound City), Bruce Springsteen (Thom Zimmy’s The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town), Ginger Baker (Jay Bulger's Beware Mr. Baker), fatherhood among rockers (Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ The Other F Word), U2 (Davis Guggenheim’s U2: From the Sky Down), and Led Zeppelin (Sonia Anderson’s Dazed & Confused). Many others preceded these in the middle aught years, including Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore: The History of Punk Rock 1980-1986, Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud, and Michael Gramaglia’s End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones.

The caliber of these documentaries has been extraordinarily high, save for the sometimes fair complaint that these films—like the decades of musical offerings of their iconic subjects—occasionally wallow in self-indulgence and over-the-topsmanship. But this is rock and roll, after all. Give the devil his due. Besides, no one has ever accused Martin Scorcese of being a stern and stringent editor of his own stuff, and few could suggest that rock legends Mick Jagger or Glenn Frey should suddenly rein themselves in for the sake of a film crew. Rock and roll is an excessive business; therefore the cinematic telling of its checkered history must excel to excess.

Books are a different matter entirely. Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace and Rod Stewart’s Rod: The Autobiography indicate to us that when the guitars finally rust, iconography—or at least the marketability of the inside story of rock—is portable. Aging rockers can set the record straight, as long as their memories serve them (and we salute them if their detoxified, threadbare recollections are intact as they enter their senior years), and they can along the way offer apologies, candor, condolences, and contrition, in addition to the heavy name-dropping and amusing party anecdotes. Readers love excess perhaps more than even fans of the rockumentary.

Still, the partying anecdotes can wear thin: I found a copy of Christopher Andersen’s Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jagger (2012) on a sale rack at a bookstore recently, and bought it without hesitation. After only two days I was not merely disappointed, I was exhausted from the excess. It was a twofold problem: Andersen’s book is fraught with hazards, not the least of which is endless name-dropping (I think by now we get the point that Mick moved among the circles of other famous people). Secondly, who cares? Andersen spent scant few lines of any given chapter actually discussing rock music—its creative processes, the art and craft of recording, or its performance—exchanging the “rock and roll” part of the biography for parties, alcohol, drugs and sex.

This is why it was instantly refreshing as I began my research for this essay to discover (again), that of all the Beatles’ peers, and among those bands who survived well past the end of the Beatles’ era, the group which seemed the most prone to a love of the creative process and musical development was The Who. And this, it can be easily argued, was the work of one man, Pete Townshend, whose recent autobiography, Who I Am, seems to stand apart from the other literary attempts to explain the deconstructionist milieu that is rock and roll.

Townshend was arguably the first of the hard rockers to demonstrate to the larger musical literati that rock music could truly exist in the same venue with innovation and technical prowess. Certainly the Beatles had blazed a wide path, bringing into the studio every form of experimentation and textural layering available at the time: the tabla, the sitar and other eastern instruments; all manner of classical stings and horns and entire symphony orchestras; contextual elements and sound effects from all over the map. In this sense, the Beatles had no contemporary rivals, save perhaps for Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. In 1969 The Who would complete Tommy, which became then—and remains now—the definitive grand-scale melding of thematic rock and operatic storytelling. But it was Townsend, with The Who’s release in August 1971 of Who’s Next (42 years ago next week), that proved that the edgiest of hard rock could share the studio and the stage with the Moog synthesizer and other electronic instruments and not look or sound pretentious.

Who’s Next was a landmark moment for rock and roll, and arguably The Who’s crowning achievement. The album was as innovative as anything seen at the edges of hard rock, and it became one of The Who’s biggest sellers worldwide. It also established The Who, for all time, as a member of the most elite club one could imagine in the early 1970s—the Global Supergroup, with peers among only The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the recently fragmented Beatles. Who’s Next was preceded by a few weeks by the release of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a dazzling, gut-wrenching song showcasing the complex dynamism of Keith’s Moon’s percussion, the raw power of John Entwistle’s bass line, the full range and intensity of Roger Daltrey’s vocals, and breathtaking guitar work by Townshend, the end result being one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Most of the cuts on Who’s Next became classics of hard rock and album-oriented radio, and several of the songs became iconic anthems: “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Going Mobile,” “Bargain,” and of course “Baba O’Riley,” (aka Teenage Wasteland to many rock fans), music durable and fresh even now, over 40 years later.

Townshend’s autobiography comes out the same year as the 40th anniversary of the release of Quadrophenia, an album meant by design to exceed even the power of Who’s Next and take rock music to the next new innovation in sound—“quadrophonic,” which had been intended as the eventual successor to stereo and high fidelity.

The notion of “quadrophonic” had its roots in the group Pink Floyd, whose members had experimented in the late 1960s with studio and live-performance technology which would direct sounds toward listeners from all directions—or at least from four directions. But, like the other infamous cul de sacs of technology, quadrophonic fell flat, plagued from the beginning with problems of industry standards, high costs, competing patents, and consumer disinterest. In his book, however, Townshend recalls that the first inkling for him came as he playfully sought to describe a teenager suffering from a four-sided personality disorder—schizophrenia becomes quadzrophenia, a term which later morphed into quadrophenia (without the “z”).

Like his efforts to forge grand-scale fusions of narrative rock, thematic storytelling, youth opera and even on-stage visuals—Who’s Next, like Tommy, had started out as an operatic package originally titled “Lifehouse”—Quadrophenia was also intended to be a multi-tiered epic, drawing in a variety of tools and technical gimmicks and visuals, but also taking the listener inside the head of Townshend’s ongoing central musical character, a disillusioned, confused, splintered but energetic British teenaged “mod,” the abbreviated term used to describe the young, beatnik-rooted modernist jazz, R&B and rock & roll fans of the London nightclub and music scene of the mid-1950s and 1960s.  Mod was also a term used to describe those young people in London of working-class backgrounds who sought release and recreation through music and the late-night world of coffee houses and mild-to-moderate amphetamine drugs (then generally legal in Britain). The formation and self-identity of The Who had been largely built around the subculture and ethos of the mods, and other British bands also staked out their claim within mod circles, including The Kinks and Small Faces.

This fascination with the mindset of the mods had been Townshend’s cherished creative challenge almost from the beginning of his songwriting career, but during the era of Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, it reached the level of obsession. Even casual musical fans of that era could see the theme shining brightly through all those iconic songs: “My Generation,” “Magic Bus,” “Substitute,” “Young Man Blues” and scores of other tunes offer an unvarnished look into the bewildered, restless and sometimes tormented mind of the typical teen and young adult of British urban life. Reading Townsend’s book, however, one can closely follow how his fixation on youth culture parallels his creativity and his love of musical expression. His autobiography reveals what we already knew: Townshend truly loved the creative process and the challenges of musical innovation.

Townshend traces The Who from its earliest incarnations, which included the musical inclinations of his own family: his mother had been a talented jazz singer in several big band combos; his father was a musician who dabbled in jazz, swing and big band sounds, and by his early teenaged years the young Pete was already schooled in various instruments, including the banjo and guitar. His childhood friend John Entwistle was equally talented on several instruments, including horns and brass. At about the time that Pete was considering art school, thinking it a clever way to meet girls and possibly persuade them to pose nude, Roger Daltrey had formed a party band called The Detours. Musical chameleons, The Detours played private parties and small venues using cheap amps and homemade guitars, belting out jazz, country & western, R&B, Dixieland, conga tunes, anything if the gig paid cash. The band included Doug Sandom and Colin Dawson. Eventually Daltrey let Townshend audition, and The Detours Jazz Band was set upon its trajectory, with Townshend on guitar and Daltrey on trombone.

Later Sandom and Dawson fell away, but once Keith Moon was added on drums, the band made its final progression toward rock and roll and its metamorphosis from party band to mod symbol was nearly complete. The combo drew heavily on the rich rhythm and blues sounds from America. “At the time,” he writes, “we were getting most of our inspiration from growling R&B songs by Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf.” They had also discovered the value of a bit of chaos, and began their early experiments with feedback and distortion in the studio and on stage. Even in this early chapter of Townshend’s life he looks in earnest for musical innovation and achievement, realizing that the band will remain obscure and in the shadows without better equipment and a tighter sound, without the right speakers, the right amps, the right instruments, even the right ways to promote the band.

After renaming themselves The Who, their earliest manager, Peter Meaden (the person chiefly influential in guiding them toward the mod movement and subculture), insisted that they try the name The High Numbers, London insider lingo to designate anyone in close second-place proximity to “Faces,” those mods at the top of the trend-setting pyramid, but well above “Tickets,” which were simply the followers and groupies and young people who came to dance.

Live performances began to gather notice and larger crowds, and even their most controversial trademark tricks—fuzzy guitars, amplifier feedback, distortions, Townshend's leaping and jumping, and especially Moon’s madman drumming—began to solidify the loyalty of their mod fans. Daltrey’s bellicose, powerful singing, which must have been a shock to many in the audiences not expecting such a potent, soulful sound to come from this cherub-faced, fair-skinned, blonde English boy, very nearly set their signature sound in place. The Who was on its way toward stardom, but still lacked a moment or two of good luck.

Then, by chance, band members met Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, who were at the time searching for a subject for their proposed television documentary film project about a small British street band struggling to make it big. Chris Stamp was the brother of the actor Terrence Stamp. Lambert was the son of the music director of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. Their love of art, music, opera, film and theater overlapped neatly with the shared visions of Townshend and his mates, and soon they replaced Meaden (for a buyout of £200) as the band’s managers.  Lambert and Stamp quickly and happily suggested they change the band’s name back to The Who.

The Who played in the shadows of the heavyweights of the club and auditorium scene, opening for The Beatles, Dave Berry and The Kinks. They gleaned valuable information and lessons from the older musicians and the pros, improving their style and their sound along the way. Eventually, Lambert and Stamp got The Who an audience with Shel Talmy, producer for The Kinks and a major player within British music circles, and the group chose one of Townshend’s earliest original rock compositions, “I Can’t Explain” as their audition song. It was another big break—Talmy immediately booked them studio time to record the song. Unsure of Townshend’s guitar skills, Talmy had a young Jimmy Page play the guitar instead. Once recorded, the song languished for a few months while The Who continued their live shows.

In the meantime they picked up regular Tuesday gigs at The Marquee, a well-known jazz and blues club. It was here, among throngs of London’s hippest mods, that The Who gained real traction. The crowds grew, as did the group’s musical power, and Townshend and others began to expand the soon iconic use of Union Jacks as logos, military medallions, the fanciful tall-letter Who logos, and the RAF concentric circle designs on posters and handouts. The now famous Marquee poster, “Maximum R&B,” originated with a design for those very shows. And in the book Townshend says that it was at those game-changing shows at The Marquee when he realized, a bit nervously perhaps, “that Mod had become more than a look. It had become our voice, and The Who was its main outlet.”

Soon, “I Can’t Explain” became a minor hit, and shortly afterward they recorded “My Generation,” the roots of which, Townshend explains, was found in his first wordplay doodling for “I Can’t Explain.” Thus, at the very start of their musical success, The Who had already found its inner voice and its thematic backbone—a linkage between the mixed emotions, displacements and angst of youth, and the need to sing about it through the energetic vehicle of rock and roll. By the time The Who gets around to recording “Magic Bus,” they are already making history, and their music is moving up the charts in the U.K.

The book offers a fascinating portrait of a band moving along the path from obscurity and subculture identity to the same band destined to produce the resonate, enduring and transcendent hard rock of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” and the epic, operatic songs like "Pinball Wizard," and "We're Not Gonna' Take It" found in Tommy

To be sure, Townshend offers plenty of clear-minded and unapologetic anecdotes about alcohol, drugs and sex, along with enough reckless driving and minor accidents that he would eventually lose his right to drive in the U.K. There are the stories of the fights—verbal and sometimes physical—in studios and on stage. There are the ongoing management and legal struggles, typical stuff in the business side of rock and roll when young adults, caught up in partying and girls and fast cars, sign complex agreements and contracts, and, as a result, there are the eventual constant tensions between Townshend, Entwistle, Daltrey and Moon, and their long-time managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. For Townshend, there are self-doubts, there are evictions, there are appearances in courtrooms, and there are bitter arguments with girlfriends and wives. There is depression and there is fear that the band “will implode.” Later, by the mid-1970s, there is the issue of his hearing loss and tinnitus, which will lead some in the press to make him the poster boy for the dangers of loud music.

But what makes the book revealing is how he seeks throughout his life to find his way back toward his love of music. After several marriages and a number of mental breakdowns, his eventual sobriety can be seen as the final destination of a spiritual quest. He has near-death experiences from overdoses of LSD and from alcohol poisoning, not to mention the time he nearly killed himself by jumping from a hotel window into a swimming pool. As with many rock stars, the Grim Reaper seems to hover just off stage. The loss of so many of his peers—Brian Jones, John Bonham (he doesn’t mention Bonham specifically despite several references to Led Zeppelin), Jimi Hendrix, various producers and engineers, and his band mate Keith Moon—along with the near loss of Eric Clapton and others, amplify his own near death experience in 1981 when his alcohol abuse finally combines with his excessive cocaine consumption. He collapsed in a bathroom of a London nightclub, barely breathing and with his heart rate halted. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where he awoke only after doctors inserted an adrenaline needle into his heart.

Keith Moon’s death in September 1978 briefly shattered the cohesion of the band and shook the world of rock music. Moon died from an overdose of sleeping pills, muscle relaxers and sedatives, which he had washed down with a bottle of champagne. It was a devastating moment for Daltrey and Entwistle.

Where Tommy and Who’s Next had placed them on top, the death of Moon threatened the existence of the band forever. It had been Moon’s manic, madman’s energy which acted as a theatrical, spirited foil to the other signature performances on stage: Daltrey’s singular and soulful voice, Entwistle’s stoic but powerful bass line, and Townshend’s masterful guitar handling. But Townshend reveals that his mind went briefly in the opposite direction, immediately urging the others to join him on the road with more touring. “Without grief, in its usual manifestation, I had to find a different way to deal with my loss. You can say I was in denial. Keith had been a pain in the ass, but he had also been a constant joy. Once he’d gone, something irreplaceable was missing...all that was left was a sense of his ghost, playing the drums, laughing as he played ‘Who Are You’ with his earphones on fire.”

After Moon’s funeral, Phil Collins, then touring with Genesis, called and offered his services as drummer. Other percussionists offer their help as well, but Townshend had already made up his mind that Moon’s successor would be Kenny Jones. At about that same time Townshend meets Sex Pistol member Johnny Rotten, who is discussed for the lead role in the film version of Quadrophenia. Townshend reveals that shortly afterwards, tension is already brewing in the studio between Daltrey and newcomer Jones. Daltrey regarded Jones as talented and solid, but not made of the same energetic stuff as Moon. But for Townshend, Moon’s sudden and painful exit becomes a kind of liberation, and he sees the band as able finally to move on into its next chapter.

Along the way Townshend weaves the backstory of his love life, his marriages and his affairs into the musical progression of the band and his own creativity. Like many newly-mellowed rock icons of the era, he seeks neither to sugar-coat the facts nor justify his bad behavior, and he admits to being a selfish oaf and a bore on many occasions.

Though in the end, Quadrophenia was met with warm—but not overly enthusiastic reviews—it nevertheless marked the end of one era of The Who’s music, and the inevitable start, perhaps, of another. Musically, Quadrophenia strikes a rich chord, just as all previous Who albums had, but its production was plagued with technical problems from the start. Only in the 1990s would the whole Quadrophenia concept get repackaged and rebooted with some degree of success.  (The Who recently concluded a summer 2013 European Quadrophenia tour built largely around an updated music and multi-media production as a celebration of the Quadrophenia era.) 

Further, in the book Townshend explores his own growing concerns and recurring fears throughout the 1970s that The Who might grow old—too old, in fact—to remain connected effectively to the band’s roots in the subculture that was the youth movement of the 1960s. Even by the beginning of the 1970s young people were moving in a variety of directions—the American and European hippies, the expanding anti-Vietnam War movements, the more radical processes found in the Black Power and underground groups, and the bohemian and utopian movements. Then, to confound the experts who thought they understood “youth culture,” millions of American and British young adults became conservatives, or at least conformists, making much of the ethos embraced by bands like The Who seem irrelevant even as the songs continued to pay royalties.

Still, in the end, the music mattered most, and The Who did endure, even well into the aught years of this century. Like the biggest of the supergroups, The Who gets its moments of worldwide iconic durability and commercial nostalgia—Super Bowls, Olympic Games, hurricane relief concerts.  As for those dozens of sprawling rock documentaries and pop music histories I mention at the beginning of this essay, The Who's long shadow, and especially that of Townshend, stretches across some part of each of these retrospectives.  To the very last, all of these rockers make at least some mention of Townshend's deep and inescapable influence.

One phrase Thursday Review readers may tire of seeing me employ in reviews is “a fast read,” or, sometimes the word "readability." Some books are dense, some books are slow—which is not to say they are bad, merely slower than others. I gave up on Andersen’s bio of Mick Jagger after only a couple of days. It was slow, and pointless, and had little to do with the music. Townshend’s book is a fast read. It was delivered to my door on Wednesday, and by Sunday morning at 11:45 I had completed nearly all 500 pages. And it had everything to do with the music.

The book illuminates Townshend’s restless energy through the decades, and we see that there is no artistic or creative impulse left behind—art, graphic design, theater, film and television, recording technology, books and publishing, classical and baroque music, opera, charity and philanthropy, political understanding and awareness, religion and spirituality. The central thread, however, is that great fusion that was rock and roll—swing, country, jazz, R&B—melded together as only he could envision it; energies and frustrations of youth, a bit of distortion, a touch of feedback, and a few hundred smashed guitars along the way.

In this sense Pete Townshend has few rivals from his generation.

*Other sources used for this article include Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who, Dave Marsh; St. Martin's Press, 1983.  The title of this article is an excerpt from a 1970 interview Townshend gave to Rolling Stone.  The full quote, as cited in Who I Am, is as follows: "I believe that rock can do anything, it's the ultimate vehicle for everything.  It's the ultimate vehicle for saying anything, for putting down anything, for building up anything, for killing and creating. It's the absolute ultimate vehicle for self-destruction, which is the most incredible thing, because there's nothing as effective as that, not in terms of art, or at least what we call art.")