Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Pretension Wreckers: Peter Stanfield's A Band with Built-In Hate, The Who from Pop Art to Punk

Published by Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press.
“The Who began as a spectacle. Then they became spectacular. They asked: what were the limits of rock and rock? Could the power of music actually change the way you think and feel? The singer-songwriter-listener relationship has only gown deeper after all these years.” – Eddie Vedder

“Can You See the Real Me?” Pete Townshend opined in one of his signature songs of simultaneous self-revelation and concealment. It was an ironic question directed at the whole pop culture he had come to embody almost single-handedly. Things had become pretty fancy in the heady and hyper-stylized world of pop music, and a lot more Serious than its rocking progenitors – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – had probably ever intended. They had almost gotten out of hand and morphed it from pop into art, by way of The Beatles. Someone had to come along and return it to its raw roots, to shake up the pop party and storm the pretentious castle. But this being rock music, they had to do it in an even more bombastic and outrageously artful fashion than the very stylistic inflation whose seeming pretensions they were so avidly trying to wreck. Enter, stage far far left, The Who. 

In 2008 I published a book called Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter and featured a chapter on the incendiary creative partnership of Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and the explosively angry brilliance of one of the great rock rhythm sections, John Entwistle and Keith Moon. In it I suggested that their visionary rough-and-tumble ethos was actually serious punk music, more than a full decade before that musical mode arrived in Britain, and as such was a largely unrecognizable prototype, closer in anarchic spirit to the actual American inventors of punk music, Sonic Smith of Detroit’s MC5, John Cale of Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop of The Stooges, all of whom were already kicking out the jams of the comfortable zone that rock and roll had settled into. It was already what amounts to pop performance art.

I’m delighted to report that Peter Stanfield’s masterful new book on The Who, A Band with Built-In Hate, charts their perfect trajectory from pop art to punk with the serious tone their cultural rage deserves. And he does it with a verve that properly situates creative powerhouse Townshend in a practically ideal collaborative arc with both Daltrey, their bandmates, and gifted producer/promoters Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (two young filmmakers who wanted to create a documentary film about the mods vs. the rockers and imagined the proto-Who as ideal subjects). Their partnership would be nearly as fruitful, successful and historic as that of The Beatles with George Martin and The Stones with Andrew Loog Oldham, and they counter-punched their primary rock rivals in achieving a unique brand of musical entertainment: the alternative pop band as a work of conceptual art. 

Fresh start: the style-mongers scowling in 1965. (Photo: The Visualeyes Archive | Redferns)

The book’s cheeky and irreverent title comes from a seemingly off-the-cuff but still very revealing remark that Townshend made to a journalist for The Observer paper in 1968, “Ours is music with built-in hatred.” Perhaps he was upping the ante on a similar remark made by their prescient mentor Kit Lambert to the same paper two years earlier, when his band was entering the first blush of their somewhat surprising brush with fame in ’66: “The Who is armed against the bourgeois in order to act out a new form of crime.” This anxious kind of spleen was also characterized well by critic Tony Palmer, who explained, “It is directed against not only the social environment which sponsored and then grew tired of him but also against the perverse snobbery which damns what he does to the freakish oblivion of irrelevance.” The erstwhile cultural observer Nik Cohn, who defined them clearly as having only one value, pure style, about which they were fanatic, also characterized the band and their manager/producer as co-conspirators in the apotheosis of a new and shocking anti-artifice brand of style:

Across The Who’s first ten years of creative activity, the band repeatedly refused the limits imposed on post-war youth and on their chosen art form: pop music. In their mutinous stance The Who traipsed over the conventions of civility and restraint and paid deference to no one. They were recusants for the new pop age.

I would also add that they did it all more loudly than anyone else, before or since. For author Stanfield, A Band with Built-In Hate “is about the new forms of cultural crimes The Who carried out: how their particular revolt into style took form and acquired its edge. In 1965, Townshend said that it was a hate of every kind of pop music and a hate of everything our group has done that motivated him. A stance of self-conscious disavowal of the pop ideal, an opposition they refined even as they chased and courted pop success.”

Therein, of course, lies the paradoxical heart of their agenda: to desire success and reject it at the same time. It’s useful to remember that 1965 was also the year of one of the most rewarding creative achievements of their countrymen band, The Beatles: Rubber Soul, which Townshend both admired and hated at the same time. “The Beatles,” Stanfield points out, “had talent and craft in abundance to back up their transgressions, which were often parsed through an adroit ability to play artifice off against authenticity. The Who exuded little of the camaraderie and friendship of The Beatles, they did not speak in secret codes hidden behind a wall of self-affirming jokes. Instead, The Who’s pranks, and Moon’s in particular, were of a combustible nature, with the band as likely to turn in upon itself as it was to close ranks against outsiders. When not attacking each other, The Who mounted their outward assault on convention as if they were participating in an art project.”

This is because it largely actually was an art project. It often appeared, quite accurately, that The Who was really the soundtrack for a pop art experiment designed to erase the borderlines between art and business, culture and entertainment, politics and philosophy. The number of British rock stars whose aesthetic attitudes were formed by the English art school systems is truly staggering: Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Brian Ferry, David Bowie, Joe Strummer, Brian Eno and virtually all of Pink Floyd. Hidden behind blue eyes, the novel and hyper-aesthetic mind of Pete Townshend produced marvelously arty lyrics that apparently could only be properly interpreted and deliv­ered by his longtime performing companion, Roger Daltrey, his surrogate, emblem, best friend and worst enemy. The turbulent history of The Who experiment together is one of ultimately dangerous and volatile mindsets which nonetheless still somehow poetically sums up many of the insecurities, fears, and foibles of the average listener (of almost any age demographic), as reflected through the dark mirror singer-songwriter persona.

Pop music viewed through the prism of pop art, the radical leveling of high and low culture, is the extremist melodrama being performed by this band. How they managed to do this so well and for so long together is the subject of this fine book, which takes a cold, hard look at whether Townshend is a fully functioning creative artist or a dysfunctional emotional wreck who succeeds in hiding his troubled torment behind the power and voltage of his band’s bold musical ventures. Or perhaps he’s both, and is joined alchemically by the equally frenetic Moon and haunted Entwistle in a dystopian life lived large. Stanfield chronicles The Who from their origins as The High Numbers and The Detours (an even more perfect name for them, I think) in the early 1960’s through the late 70’s era, in a series of captivating snapshots of ambition and anger, glamour and grime, aggression and aggrandizement. 

Transformed by Tommy, surprised by superstardom, 1969. (Blue Ray)

Stanfield has produced a valuable document, the accurate archive of a uniquely revolutionary band driven forward by belligerence as they evolved from playing dingy pubs to small stages, then on to massive international arenas, all while maintaining their grasp (or trying to) on the original social, political and cultural anger that inspired them in the first place. In between, they engaged in an equally radical experimental corporate merger between rock and roll, art and opera, one which positioned them at the pinnacle of their creative prowess just as the global arrival of punk was echoing their own chaotic and visionary youth a decade earlier.

The author is the Professor Emeritus of Film at Kent University, whose prior books Maximum Movies – Pulp Fictions and Hoodlum Movies, permit him what I think is a special access to the secret creative chamber in which this band toils. They are almost a cinematic manifestation of what rock music is and what it can do under the right conditions, and yes, this band does definitely qualify as being a special rowdy breed of hoodlum music. In Townshend we see that living psychic entity once called by Edgar Allan Poe the “imp of the perverse,” the spirit deep inside that advises us to do the very thing that is often against our own best interests. And for each of us, that imp is somewhat different, if equally self-destructive.

When his intriguing but jumbled project called Lifehouse collapsed in 1970, under exactly the same circumstances that caused Brian Wilson’s Smile project to fall apart in 1967 – namely the fact that their bandmates simply could not understand the striking new direction these artists were attempting to formulate for the experimental phase of their brands – Townshend revamped the material in order to launch the ideas in the more trusted format of a straightforward rock record. The result, Who’s Next, remains a masterpiece of Who purity containing some of their finest anthems. As Townshend characterized it,‘‘Who’s Next is about the way music works, and how an audience is osten­sibly there to see a band but really is there to see itself." 

History in the rear-view mirror: nostalgia in 1973. (Polydor Records)

After Live at Leeds, possibly the greatest live rock record in history, he reformulated his artistic pattern yet again, returning to his punkish mod-roots, this time exploring the very slow-motion disintegration of his band through the dazzling template of his double record Quadrophenia, which was in many ways an even more daring, if less bombastic, sonic experiment than his more famous Tommy opera. Once again, he daringly included his own audience, their social and cultural affiliations, as the primary subject matter and thematic structure for this outing.

Quadrophenia documented the dissolution of his band, of all bands, with exactly the same rigor as did The Beatles’ White Album, except The Beatles were doing it unconsciously, making four different records disguised as a group release. Townshend and The Who, however, disguised nothing; they never did, since it was their task to counterbalance the profound sanctity that had grown up around rock music and to return it to its nastier, grittier, and emotionally louder roots. It’s been the same throughout Townshend’s and his band members’ lengthy careers, especially perhaps in the post-Moon phase, although their bravado is often camouflaged by the intricate and ornate structures Town­shend builds to protect his own vulnerable pathologies.

But from the very beginning, The Who knew that they were called upon to occupy a kind of permanent rebellion mode requiring an astute vitality if rock was not only to survive but to evolve as an art form. This is captured to great effect by Stanfield as a consummate conductor for this long slow-train ride through musical mayhem, and assisted ably by his open acknowledgment of those earlier pop culture critics – such as Lawrence Alloway (The Long Front of Culture, 1959), George Melley (Revolt into Style, 1970) and of course the great Nik Cohn (Pop From the Beginning, 1969), As Townshend himself put it, ‘‘[Lambert] knew there were pretensions to be broken.’’ And wreck those pretensions they did, along with their instruments and amplifiers as well, just for good measure, in case any in the audience were too out of it to notice their musical mission statement. Once Townshend and Daltrey had clearly established their grasp of “the angry young sound of pop art in motion,” they also defined the age in which they were living. Townshend crafted songs out of the thin emotional air inside his rarefied personality, including all its roughhewn and angry edges:

I can’t really explain what happens when I write songs. I think writing is a mysterious process until you look back on it. And then like a critic – like a clever critic – you can see clearly. Why I’m attracted to the idea of storytell­ing, as a songwriter, is because it allows me to get closer to people with my heart ideas . . . I don’t think that genius is a part of rock and roll, I think it’s an instinctive process. A bit like sport. If you can do it, you can do it.

Townshend clarified it so utterly: ‘‘I think the function started to be about the fact that we needed music which was about escape. I think rock and roll now can be defined as this: it’s the dynamic between confrontation and escape.’’  This has to be one of the most perfectly awake and alert observations about the energy source at the molten core of rock and roll music (when it’s created by masters at the level of The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Kinks) that I’ve ever heard. They all used their personal lives as the raw material for missives directed to a specific and unique audience, one that gets cranky when it is no longer being reflected quite the way it feels it ought to be – the way it imagined it was being celebrated in the first place.

As Larry David Smith pointed out so well in The Minstrel’s Dilemma, ‘‘Pete Townshend’s pen merely evoked his state of mind. As we have seen, the artistic obligations that surrounded The Who had already early on established a context for deteriorization.’’ This observation goes to the issue of what I consider to be his visionary prescience in anticipating punk music as a badly needed remedy or antidote to the bloat that had set into rock (even if some of the bloat was contributed by him himself):  “I’m sure I invented punk, and yet it’s left me behind. If anything was ever a refutation of time, my constant self-adolescence must be. Damage, damage, damage. It’s a great way to shake society’s value systems.”

View from the top, 1978, just before Keith Moon was taken away forever. (Photo by Terry O’Neill)

Townshend’s solution, his resolution of the minstrel’s dilemma of how to remain relevant when you’ve achieved astronomical success, was to materialize what Smith called “the impulse’s opportunity.” For Townshend, The Who eventually became an impediment to his own self-expression, even though, on a grand scale seldom seen before or since, the entire group was always mostly just a vehicle mostly for his own self-expression. A self-directed solo career thus loomed for the raucous rocker. Townshend’s own surrogate voice in the band, Daltrey, had perhaps the most wistful assessment of his bandmate’s clear achievements: “He had an incredible perspective on what was happening around him. He writes with incredible courage and incredible honesty and it’s not always easy to write like that, especially in those early years of your life when you’re all mixed up, not sure about this, not sure about that. And he obviously had his finger on the pulse of what so many people were think­ing, but maybe not saying, and he managed to say it for them in music.”

Stanfield sums it up most succinctly: “The Who were caught between a desire to re-stimulate rock n roll’s savage heart and the conflicting need to extol rock’s newly won cultural authority.” And that’s the story the author manages to share in an intimate and compelling manner.

By revisiting the band’s formative years, by reflecting on what had happened between The Who and its audience, Townshend had planned to manage the seemingly incompatible positions of being a rock star and in a people’s band. He wanted to reaffirm The Who’s bond with their fans -- some of whom in a few short years would use the early Who as a model for their own groups, not the least among them The Sex Pistols and The Clash. This book traces the story of The Who from their Mod roots, through their Pop art phases, their growth as an international attraction, on through the teenage wasteland of the 1970’s: the paradoxical retreat from the present and attempt to lurch into the future.

Lurching into the future would prove to be the secret weapon employed by The Who to remain relevant. Towards the end of their early on residency at the Marquee Club in 1965, at which they accidentally invented punk music twelve years ahead of time, Townshend quipped about their affiliations: "We stand for pop-art clothes, pop-art music and pop-art behaviour. We don’t change offstage. We live pop-art. Actually though, there was something in it, because art borrowed from pop, and we’re taking it back again.” Most importantly, Stanfield’s book is also as much about the moment in time, the social and political changes, the aesthetic and cultural shifts, as it is about the music, which in the end was actually a living and throbbing mirror of those other changes. The best thing, though? This book is not at all about nostalgia. Far from it. It’s actually about a future that has still yet to arrive, as well as a utopian anger that it is taking so long. That’s what the finest pop music has always been about. Especially the kind that rudely shakes the tree just to see what falls out.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. He is also the author of Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, which came out in 2020.

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