A Binky Book Review: 'Pretend You're in a War -- The Who and The Sixties' by Mark Blake

04/24/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

June 1966...

There were about six of us 13- to 15-year-olds crammed into a pal's bedroom, listening to records. It was the earliest co-ed hang of my life. Exciting, scary, baffling... I was abashed, trying to figure out how to talk to the opposite sex and failing, when I came across the first copy I'd ever seen of The Who Sings My Generation album.

Off in my own out-of-place world in that bedroom, I stared at the album cover...

Four guys, standing in front of Big Ben on a blustery day (why, yes, indeedy, these guys are British, too, kids!)... all four looking like they're on the edge of beating the crap out of someone who seems to be just a few feet behind the photographer's right shoulder. I was utterly smitten with The Rolling Stones' unconventional individuality and pumped up insouciance. But, The Who, on this album cover, instantly made the Stones seem almost fey. The impression was inescapable. They are ready to, and seem easily capable of, hurting someone. The totally thuggish blond one alone...

And, truly most weirdly, intriguingly, their hair was the shortest I'd seen in on any British band. This was a major Does Not Compute for me. I could see that their haircuts were meticulous. They meant to do that... Short hair?!

That distinctly against-the-grain hirsute oddity, taken with their two syllable punch-in-the-nose name, their unusual faces (especially that one with the nose!), taken with that genuinely hard thuggish attitude they were exuding, made them look exotically dangerous to me. Specifically, for some reason, and I have no idea why I picked this up from one photo, they seemed utterly uncaring of what you or I or anyone else thought of them or their music. I can still feel it. I was awestruck before I heard a note.

"Wow! Hey, can we hear this?"

Our hostess put the album on her junior hi-fi with the one speaker in the cover. I asked her to turn it up.


I was immediately grabbed by the energy-level of the opener, "Out In The Street." From the first seconds of music on that album, the music actually made complete sonic sense, perfectly complemented the portrait on the cover. Well done, anonymous Decca Art Department third-string underling! The song was fast and every element was tough-as-nails (the lead vocals were downright threatening). The whole track seemed kinda tossed off with something almost akin to disdain, played with casual fury. The sputtering Musique Concrete noise of the six second toggle-switch-and-wallop guitar solo was actually shocking. What the hell just happened!?, I wondered, genuinely stunned by the sonics.

I took a look at the liner notes... "Since starting with The Who, Pete Townshend has smashed 14 guitars."


Was that what I just heard?! Him smashing a guitar and letting that be the solo?!

Was this the greatest, most perfect, gimmick in the History of Music?!

Was I in Heaven?

It was then that I realized something else odd. This band's line up was like no other I'd encountered whether British or American. They only had one guitarist. No rhythm guitar like Beatles and Stones and Kinks. No keyboards like Manfred Mann and Animals. No sax like Dave Clark 5. A lead singer like Mick Jagger, but only one melody instrument. This seemed really strange and risky to me, so stripped down to essentials. I suppose, good enough for Elvis, good enough forever. Of course, over time, with The Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Ramones, Van Halen, and hundreds more, that one guitar/bass/drums/vocalist line up pretty much became the template for what a rock band looks like. The Who were the first.

The rest of side one went by in a blur as everyone else in the room soon started talking over the music. I went and sat by the player. But, I was continually distracted by the nascent flirting going on around me.

Then we hit the last song on side one, the title track, "My Generation."

Things changed.

The first 10 seconds jerked me by the scruff of my mind's neck.

I was riveted! Transfixed! The Drive! The Power! Ecstatic Incredulity!

Holy shit! The singer was st-st-st-stuttering!

The bassist took the (totally wild) solo!

The drumming was thundering and wildly ornate!

The guitar, harshly clanging and willfully lemon-sour.

There seemed to be little musical fuck-ups (deliberate even?!) all over the place!

What the... ! ? !

And then came the last 35 seconds...

To this day, after maybe 1,000+ listens, the bedlam that breaks out in that original version's coda of "My Generation" remains breathtaking to me. I'd never heard any music that abandoned "the one" like that, meaning there was suddenly no tempo, no groove, no four-to-the-bar, nothing but an eruption of musical chaos that simply had no precedent!

As a budding guitarist with a 15 watt amp and a crappy hollow Made In Japan copy of a Les Paul (yes, that shape was always my favorite), I was fully aware of the ugly sound called feedback. And here it was... On this record!

Then the background vocals came back in out of sync with the lead singer.

I was utterly astounded. My God, I'd never heard anything remotely like it.

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Animals, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Byrds, The Rascals, Dave Clark 5, et al, all suddenly sounded quaint and fuddyduddy. That afternoon, one song totally and permanently ruined and remade my standards. "My Generation" remains my single all time favorite song, as long as we're talking about that original version. I have continued to play it in my head note-for-note a few times a week every week for almost five decades.

Anyway, I proceeded to sort of break up the little party by insisting that that song another four or five more times in a row.

Apropos, no?

Okay, so that's who's about to review Mark Blake's new book on The Who, Pretend You're in a War: The Who & The Sixties.

That title comes from an early Pete Townshend interview. It was his answer to the question, How do you prepare yourself to go on stage with The Who?

For the record, my favorite Pete quote is from 1966; "We never let the music get in the way of the show." Now that is a credo, yo!

Mark Blake has already written what seems to be considered the definitive histories of Pink Floyd and Queen before taking on the rabid mongrel that was The Who.

"The Sixties" as part of the title is intrinsically important. Mr. Blake doesn't just tell The Who's warped tale of their more warped trail/trial to success. You are given The Who's story fully in context with what was going on in England and international youth culture and how that impacted the band and how the band impacted it.

One thing is made very clear in this wildly detailed book. The Who as a band, along with their genius/lunatic/thug management team of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, are without question, the third writ large tale of Triumphant Seat of the Pants Madness, along side Brian Epstein and his Beatles and The Rolling Stones and their early Svengali, Andrew Loog Oldham.

I will admit something here. I didn't want to read this book. I've known The Who's story over, under, sideways, down, anyway, anyhow, anywhere for decades. I've been working on my own book about The Who (an extremely me-centric take) for over two years... currently on about my ninth 'final' draft. Arrrrgh! I just wasn't dyin' to revisit. But, someone has to write this Huff Post piece and I am qualified.

So, okay, I open up Pretend You're in a War with an attitude, dude. I'm expecting that exposition crap... "London. in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was still in the process of rebuildiSMASH YER GUITAR, PETE!

But, I was instead greeted with this opening sentence...

"He smuggled the shotgun into the club under his jacket."

Mr. Shotgun turns out to be an old pal of Roger Daltrey, lead singer and head thug of a young band of unknowns calling themselves The Who. Roger's band watched as he told his friend to give him the gun. This guy who'd come to the club to use that gun on someone wanted no part in getting Roger riled.

Okay, so, we've met Roger on page 1 in a way that does actually convey a rare truth. Amongst all the little guitar players and singers and drummers playing at being fucking dangerously tough, there was one band in London that was led by one truly scary motherfucker. This, in turn, slowly but surely, turned the other three members into scary motherfuckers. Why not. While he sometimes thought the guys in his band were moronic sub-humans, Roger's loyalty was the stuff of King Arthur legends. Keith, John, and Pete, in that order, became Rogeresque and voila, you had the actual toughest most dangerous band in London. This was a huge factor in their early early cover band days in the late 1950s and remains to this day.

It is a long acknowledged element in The Who's story that the Large and In Charge singer was slowly but most assuredly supplanted by all three of his band mates, the most illogical band in history; the singer was the least important member... except that he wasn't. There was no such thing in The Who. But, poor Rog, the sane, sensible, tough guy was surrounded by three actual musical genius/savants. Yet, through the 20/20 vision of history, I cannot think of a single singer in any band that could have stood up to Moon, Entwistle, Townshend. Not just stand up to them, corral them. Anyway, we meet Roger first, the oldest Who and the earliest to start a band. Rog is followed by bassist, John Entwistle, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, the order in which they were enlisted into the band that would become The Who.

Mr. Blake's chapters on each members' early childhood/teen years are just chockablock with unearthed tidbits, sometimes it seemed like 3 or 4 a page. One of my main gripes about having to read the same old story, was wiped out by page 10. In many way, early on, I found myself thinking, THIS is what Pete's own Who I Am memoir should've been. His and The Who's story told for Who fans, not People magazine readers.

I suspect that many will take this as a left-handed compliment, but, I mean this in a positive way...

Mark Blake's style feels like a script from Behind The Music in as much as the story just gets pushed along in a way that feels kinetic. Blake also pulls off a rare trick. Far too many bios seem to miss or gloss over maybe most important moment... when a band goes from goofball wanna-bes to actually happening. In Pretend You're in a War, you can feel the build up, really feel it, attending rehearsals, sitting on gear in the back of vans on the way to a gig 2 hours away with another to do later that same night back in London, hopes being dashed, charlatans showing up and putting them months off course, hatching hair brained schemes that peter out, until... we are introduced to Mr. Kit Lambert and Mr. Chris Stamp...

Within a page or three, everything changes.

Lambert and Stamp were an oil 'n' water mix. Kit, the brilliant wild gay son of an infamous classical composer, Constant Lambert, who unforgivably outraged British high society culture by claiming a Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker was every bit as valid as Debussy or Mozart. There is a reasonable claim made in this book that Tommy, by far The Who's greatest commercial triumph, was, in fact, a concept conceived almost wholly by Kit Lambert as a way to get back at those who ruined his father's career and reputation. Chris Stamp was just a horny straight bloke from the toughest part of London, and like Kit, was messing around on the edges of the film business, older brother being the already-a-movie-star, Terence Stamp. Kit and Chris met as underlings on the same film crew and spotted a strong and powerful common denominator... both were intent on making huge amounts of money any way possible that didn't land them in jail. This was what is known as a bond.

The original idea Kit and Chris came up with was the make a documentary about an unknown band trying to make it big. Both started scouring London pubs and clubs for the proper subject matter. Fatefully, one night, Kit walked into the Railway Hotel and caught part of the set of a band that seemed to have an all male audience, all dressed in that snazzy Mod way, and very very loud amplifiers. The noise and the almost dangerous aggression radiating off the stage and in the crowd made Kit pay close attention. Having been old friends with Andrew Loog Oldham, the Svengali behind the, by then, extremely successful Rolling Stones, Kit soon came to the conclusion that he and Chris stood a better shot at a pile of banknotes managing this bunch of hooligans Kit had discovered rather than making a movie about them. Kit thought their name, The Who, was silly, but, loved the rest of the package.

Like A Loog Oldham, Kit and Chris knew that the less parents liked a band, the more kids did. A deliberate strategy of being rude, cold, openly drunk/drugged up indifferent little spivs, capable of smashing more than just their guitars and drums, was as finely tuned as the Rolling Stones 'Bad Boy' image [an amusing irony being that the Stones were nice middle class boys from decent neighborhoods in London, while the cheeky cutie pie Beatles were true hard nut Northern bastards you would not want to fuck with]. The Who took it all to it's logical extreme with a stage act that was aural and literal vandalism. In interviews, the band's guitarist, a pretentious art school geezer would spout incomprehensible art theories swiped from lectures given by his teachers while the other three would grunt actual 2 and 3 and 4 word replies... My favorite being...

Q: "What do you do after you've played a show?"

Keith Moon: "Get drunk."

In 1965, that was ummmm well not all that teenbopperish an answer.

The Who's gory story, which I am not gonna summarize here, nuh huh, no way, is laid out by Mark Blake most comprehensively, with by far the most new unearthed details I have come across about my all time favorite band in many years. Truly, there are so many little tidbits...

Like Keith Moon's mother driving him to his audition with The Who, an audition set up days earlier, contrary to the myth that Keith just jumped on stage and commandeered the drum kit at a gig. Or, in keeping with the automotive, the little jape Keith pulled in New Zealand, where upon realizing just how wide the automatic front doors were in the lobby of their posh hotel immediately went and found a rent-a-car just so he could drive it straight into the lobby and up to the front desk and throw the man the keys... "Park it, dear boy."

The roles of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, unlike most managers, even the ones with this particular myth attached to them, really do come across in Pretend You're in a War as the fifth and sixth members of The Who. The endeavor seemed the work of a Gang of Six rather than managers and their clients.

As a raging Who fan from the age 13, I was constantly bewildered and disappointed by their limited patchy output and botched projects, particularly in the late 1960s. This book revealed just how haphazardly The Who were managed and just how unmanageable a band they were. Between Pete's ruination of guitars that are now worth anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 and were expensive at the time, and Keith Moon's incessant need to destroy things... and it was a mania with Keith... combined with their drug-addled totally-making-it-up-as-they-went-along management team, it's a wonder The Who ever achieved anything... I mean, other than the fact that between 1966 and 1974 they were simply the best live act Rock 'n' Roll will ever ever know.

One of the other things that makes this book special is how often Mark Blake gets into meetings and recording studios with people's jogged memories, giving fresh eyewitness accounts of so many different moments in The Who's career. He dug up some long forgotten, but at one point, genuine insiders and close pals from their childhoods and early early days as the cover band, The Detours, complete with a horn section and Roger Daltrey on lead vocals and lead guitar, ruling the band with his fists. NOT a metaphor. It is telling that Pete Townshend was thoroughly frightened by just the thought of auditioning for Roger, whose initial encounter with young Peter was the threat of a right thumping.

Like a lot of authors of biographies, Mark puts so much effort in archaeological digging of the early days, the last 75 - 80 pages start to feel a bit rushed. The book, focusing strictly on The Who's early heydays in the 1960s winds down with Tommy. their master opus of the Spring of 1969. Try as he and the interviewees might, one gets the distinct impression that everyone involved is just levels past sick of Tommy. So, the book ends on a rather perfunctory note.

But, when it comes to say, how the band and managers put together The Who's third album, the masterpiece, Sell Out, dazzling details and insights and little surprises abound. One thing that is very obvious is that Kit Lambert's vision for the band was brilliant, but, his expertise in the recording studio was nil. This led to many a Who project, all of which I can still painfully recall, never coming to fruition after much bandying about in interviews, all being scotched out of sheer incapability.

The most prevalent plot line, so to speak, is the relationship singer Roger Daltrey has with the rest of the band, particularly, the caustic and snot-nosed budding genius, his guitarist, Pete. When you read this book, their current Two Musketeers relationship is truly an amazing achievement. One of the book's overall revelations is Roger, period. Surrounded by drunken lunatic savants and erratic musical geniuses, Roger comes across as much more pivotal in the functioning of the band while being universally ostracized by the band and their managers. It was that old 359 degrees off. That band would have flown apart without Roger. John and Keith were constantly being hit up to leave The Who, what with them being the most exciting and innovative rhythm section in rock history. Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, to name but two of the unrequited magpies. Fear of Roger was an undercurrent that never left the band's dynamic, even after he was thrown out for a few weeks in mid-1965 until he promised to cool his temper and its manifestations.

In fact, it's safe to say, The Who were probably most dysfunctional and mismatched band in history. Other than a bond that Moon and Entwistle formed over the fist few years, these guys were truly not friends or even friendly. The only band I can think of whose behind-the-scenes life was as tumultuous and, frankly, rawly awful, was The Ramones. Good God, now that band was a MESS!

To stay straight with you, here and there, Mr. Blake let down this reader a bit. There are several events I attended that are presented as the continuance-of-myth... not what actually went down... mostly later in the book. Small stuff... nothing to make me doubt the amazing nuggets of new and fascinating details revealed here. But, some stories are rote. Given the fabulous revealing excavation during the first 200 or so pages, it's noticeable.

Is this book definitive?

Well, Pretend You're in a War only covers the band through the release of Live @ Leeds in Spring of 1970. So, the whole story is yet to be written. But, whoever attempts the next major biography on The Who will be crediting Mark Blake many many many many many many times in their Appendix.

Until then, this is The Primer of the Early Days of one of the Big Three...

The Beatles... The Rolling Stones... The Who.