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Pretend You’re In A War: The Who In The Sixties


Reviewed by Richard Evans

I’ve been a fan of The Who since I was a young art student in 1964 when I bought their first single, ‘I Can’t Explain’, and I’ve worked for them for over 38 years so I thought I knew pretty much everything there is to know about them. I knew their full names, their birthdays, their houses, their wives’ names – even the names of Townshend’s dogs, for heaven’s sake. But I’ve recently finished reading Mark Blake’s excellent new book Pretend You’re In A War: The Who In the Sixties and I realise there is a ton of stuff I never knew, and a ton of stuff that is finally explained and which makes you go, “Ah, right, got it. That must be why etc . . .”

Mark Blake is the best-selling author of Pink Floyd: Pigs Might Fly and his new book puts other Who books in the shade when it comes to the amount of research he did and the minute details that he uncovered about not only the core members of The Who but about their families and their associates. He meets up with some of Roger’s school chums who readily confirm what we’d always suspected – that Roger was a bit of a ‘hard nut’ at Acton County Grammar school, a Ted, a bully and someone you just wouldn’t want to mess with, otherwise you’d be put on your back very quickly. He expands on the troubled childhood of Pete Townshend and his relationship with his grandmother Denny. He tells of extra-marital dalliances by Townshend’s parents, both musicians, and his mother’s confessions later in life to her affair with another man and her several abortions. What I found fascinating were the tales of Pete’s days at Ealing School of Art and his discovery of radicals such as American musician, poet and artist Larry Rivers who was a visiting lecturer and who told his students, “Art is crap, you are all wasting your time, go out and do something else,” and Gustav Metzger, a German Jew who had fled Nuremberg to England with the rise of Nazism, and where he became a Marxist and supporter of CND. Metzger lectured at Ealing, showing films of his ‘auto-destructive art’ involving throwing hydrochloric acid at canvases, smashing a piano and slashing a canvas with a Samurai sword. This ‘auto destruction’ would manifest itself to great effect later in Pete and the band’s live performances.

And then there was John, the Ox, a confirmed Rocker forced, for a few years at least, into playing the part of a Mod and donning flag jackets and suede loafers at the same time as he was singing “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote” in the and’s cover of Eddie Cochran’s all-time Rocker classic ‘Summertime Blues.

Blake goes into the arrival of Keith John Moon into The Who, re-telling the well-known tale of the drunken ‘gingerbread man’ who turned up at the Oldfield pub one night declaring “I can do better than him,” nodding to the drummer who was filling-in following the dismissal of poor Doug Sandom, sacked from the band by Pete for being too old. But in interviews with various people including John Schollar of The Beachcombers, Keith’s previous band, Who roadie Reg Bowen and Lou Hunt, manager of the Oldfield, the story becomes a bit unstuck. “It never happened at the Oldfield” claims Hunt, while the temporary drummer counteracts with “It did happen and I can remember it exactly.’

Pretend You’re In A War, the title comes from Pete’s reply when once asked how he prepared himself for The Who’s violent live performances, covers the band’s rise from the erstwhile Confederates through The Detours, the High Numbers and the six remaining years of the 1960s when they became The Who. It tells of former manager, and door-knob manufacturer Helmut Gorden, who just wanted to become the next Brian Epstein, of pill-popping, jive-talking original Mod Peter Meaden who put The High Numbers in seersucker jackets and Sta-Prest pants and got them their first record deal. Then their ‘discovery’ by East End wide boy Chris Stamp and public school ne’er-do-well Kit Lambert – a right couple of chancers, if ever there were two. But it was Lambert and Stamp who took The Who through the rest of the decade, wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving left, right and centre in their quest for chart success for their boys. Remember, it was Lambert and Stamp who started Track Records, their independent record label, two whole years before The Beatles launched Apple. And it was Kit Lambert, son of classical composer Constant Lambert, who talked Townshend into writing a ‘rock opera’.

The book winds up at the tail-end of the 60s with the world-wide success of Tommy, performed at Woodstock and at every major opera house around the world; Tommy, the rock opera that was, to quote Pete Townshend, “the album that changed our world – and made Roger a superstar.” What struck me most about the book though, was the realisation that the story of The Who and their managers is a very dark and sometimes quite disturbing tale. What became clear on reading the book was that it certainly wasn’t the glorious fab Swinging London 60s that we thought it was. There was far more fighting within the band than I ever thought, and, according to some, there were some very dodgy dealings going on at Track Records, supposedly funded by money ‘from New York’. Said Track recording artiste Arthur Brown, “I don’t want to say too much because I didn’t want to end up with a hatchet in my head.” Nevertheless, one cannot help but look back at The Who, their managers, their associates, and their various incarnations as Rockers, then Mods, their brief dalliance with psychedelia, Townshend’s amazing journey of self-discovery and Indian mysticism, and their rebirth from 60s pop group to 70s rock band with great admiration, as the two survivors of all that, Pete and Roger, prepare to hit the road in their 50th year at what Daltrey calls “the beginning of the long goodbye.”

Mark Blake Pretend You’re In A War: The Who & The Sixties
Aurum Press, 2014

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