It is impossible to talk about the book, without talking about the band. It is impossible to talk about the band in isolation. The band, The Who, only mean anything in relation to those who experienced them, and their music. Thus, not only is this a book review, it is also about my experience of Daltrey and the band, first hand, and how that measures up to what I have read.
I was too young to catch the Who in their 1960’s heyday. My first remembered introduction was when I heard the single “5.15” from Quadrophenia in 1973. I was immediately struck by the powerful vocals, distinctive drumming, and energy of the songs. With so much music going on in the broad pop and rock scene back then they didn’t immediately force their way to the forefront of my consciousness . Bowie was breaking, Glam was in full swing, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were at the peak of their powers, amongst so much else fabulous talent.
The “Tommy” film was my first proper opportunity to consider them more fully. But although a quirky film with some memorable sequences, it wasn’t that good, nor did the music make a big impression on me, with the exception of Elton’s “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me Feel Me”. The latter prompted me to buy the album “Quadrophenia” and everything changed. My perception of the band was of one who could write four vinyl sides of narrative driven songs. It was a revelation. If I had been born ten years earlier, I would have seen them as a singles band, as it was, they were purveyors of the concept album.
Keith Moon died in 78. That could have been the end for the band. Kenny Jones ensured it was not. I was hugely fortunate to be able to catch the band for the first time at the Rainbow Theatre in London, third row, May 2nd 79. They were defiant, they were fired up, they were uncertain, they were magnificent. The “best gig ever” is such a subjective judgement subject to changeable variables, but this was up there. No support. Legendary DJ and TV presenter Annie Nightingale was sat next to me. The lights went down, and the volume turned up ay 8pm.
This was the setlist:
I Can’t Explain
The Punk and the Godfather
Boris the Spider
Sister Disco (Premiere: First performance)
Music Must Change (Premiere: First performance)
Behind Blue Eyes
Dreaming From the Waist
See Me, Feel Me
Long Live Rock
Who Are You
My Generation Blues
Won’t Get Fooled Again
The Real Me
Daltrey sang like a man possessed, Townsend made the sound of a dozen wind milling guitars, Entwhistle harnessed Jones. It was rock perfection. “Pin Ball Wizard / see Me Feel Me” was the highlight.
“Listening to you I get the music, gazing at you I get the heat from , following you I climb the mountain, I get excitement at your feet.”
The song built and soared, the energy exploded past the danger zone, for a few precious moments, everyone was at one, the band, the audience, the emotion, in perfect unison.
Townsend’s lyrics are not of the Springsteen / Ray Davies calibre. Laid bare they look serviceable only, but in conjunction with the dynamics of a live performance, they assume a potency wholly unapparent on the page. The teenage confused inarticulacy of “I’ve got a feeling inside, that I can’t explain” and the rage of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” driven by Daltrey’s angst, and Townsend’s chopped chords, by a process of musical osmosis, metamorphose into something unique. To witness this in a small theatre, when the music felt it was reaching out to greater London and the world was special.
I saw the Rolling Stones in the 90’s, they were a pantomime act. Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 79 were a bloated, tired facsimile of the band that had reshaped early 70’s rock. The Kinks in the early 90’s kept their flame alive, but few were interested. The Who at the Rainbow were the real deal.
I did not see them live again for over twenty years, until Nov 8th 2000, Birmingham NEC, again with prime seats, this time only eight rows from the front, with Joe Strummer and the Mescalero’s as support. They were fabulous. It was typical of the Who that they should give a platform to a British artist, with a fine pedigree, who needed a helping hand to reinvigorate his career.
The Harder They Come
Brand New Cadillac
Rock the Casbah
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
I Fought the Law
It was a vintage set from Joe who revelled in the big space the arena offered, the surprise highlight being a stunning stretched out version of “Rock the Casbah”.
At 9.15p the lights went down again. A full house. A big stage, twenty years on could they still do it? The answer was emphatically yes.
The setlist follows:
Thirty years on from their heyday they could still do it, the magic remains. Two years later Entwhistle was dead, a wonderful rock n roll check- out in an expensive Las Vegas suite, with hookers and cocaine- it is what he would have wanted. Beyond that colourful demise he is sparingly sketched as a man who played his bass too loud and had to have Daltrey explain the benefits of light and shade in his playing and solos.
Daltrey is credited as the author of this work, making it an autobiography, with no credits, or acknowledgements, offered. The writing is not lucid. It reminds me of a series of audio recordings in response to questions. Broadly chronological, some time shifts are apparent, but smack of desperate editing by the publishers, rather than inspired storytelling by Daltrey. Just occasionally first person autobiographies work, Brue Springsteen’s and Rick Wakeman’s most notably. The former by dint of his language and observation, the latter by dint of his humour. Both qualities are in short supply with Daltrey’s offering.
Daltrey is at pains to mention frequently that women were always throwing themselves at him. Once he has done this several times, he then does it again. He also stresses the drug addled state of other band members, and his own abstinence. The lad rates himself. It is not difficult to see how the politics of the band were likely to be tense and uneasy.
This is Daltrey’s story, not the story of The Who, but all too often events are described in a way that appear subjective, lack context, and feel incomplete. Daltrey acknowledges the contribution of managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, sincerely, but succinctly. There is no sense of the extent of that contribution, or its impact, not least with Tommy and Quadrophenia whose operatic sweep was envisioned by the erudite Lambert.
On several occasions Daltrey makes reference to the financial dynamics of the band, namely Townsend as the writer and beneficiary of the publishing rights rich, Daltrey as the singer dependent upon live performances for his income, poor. A recurring theme is the visceral, pugilistic demeanour of the singer, and the reflective, cerebral Townsend. Lambert is also lambasted as a chancer and swindler, which may have some truth in it, but the extent of his contribution is underplayed. Townsend is condemned as acquiescing to Lambert and Stamp’s excesses.
I suspect that there was more to it than met the eye. When the band fired Stamp and Lambert for pilfering the band’s earnings on their own hedonistic excess they turned to convicted armed bank robber Bill Curbishley, brother of football player and manager Alan Curbishley to take over the band’s affairs. Although not an obvious upgrade, Curbishley was clearly a better band manager than bank van raider, and his talents drew Judas Priest and Plant & Page to his management fold. What he lacked in artistic flair he made up for, curiously, in honesty.
Daltrey is not one for analysing and commentary. He arrived, sang someone else’s songs, lived out someone else’s vision, but added his own innate sense of showmanship gleaned from hours of listening to and performing the hits of other rock n roll and blues stalwarts. He chose well. Yet it was his drive which undoubtedly kept the band going, overcoming the deaths of Entwhistle and Moon. Moon is described unflatteringly as a character, a drunk, and an instinctively brilliant drummer who didn’t practice and didn’t even own a drum kit.
What is beyond doubt is that he is a fine singer, one of the rock greats. Yet he stuck with the Who exclusively, despite their having produced nothing of note musically post 1978. He claims loyalty to the band. But I think that he, and the fans, missed out on a more diversified repertoire – contrast him with Paul Rodgers.
As a Who fan, and student of the history of pop and rock, the book is interesting. As a literary endeavour it is poor. As a snapshot of the lead singer of a rock band it has validity. As an objective contribution to the band, its songs and members it is a disappointment.