Pretend You’re In A War: The Who & The Sixties
When asked how one could prepare for the intensity of his band’s live show, Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend replied, “Pretend you’re in a war.” Mark Blake’s biography of The Who uses this humorous quip as its title, and one soon learns just how accurate Townshend’s statement was. If anything, that statement is an understatement, for as one delves into the story, one discovers just how lucky we are that the band even survived the decade.
In many ways, the initial story of The Who isn’t radically different from that of many of their contemporaries: lower-to-middle class boys who did poorly in grammar school gravitated towards American rock and roll and British skiffle music, developing a love of Rhythm & Blues, often while attending art school. But what makes their story different is just how hard-luck their stories were. Vocalist Roger Daltrey was destined towards a life of blue collar work, while the dark and moody Townshend was clearly suited to being an artist. Furthermore, the four members are very distinctive personalities, with different destructive habits—though Daltrey was and is a bit of a teetotaler in a band of heavy drug and and booze hounds, which would cause its fair share of problems.
In the band’s early years, the group was surrounded by a veritable cast of the eccentric, the shady, and the just plain disturbed, whether it be drug-addicted publicists, late middle-aged financiers who wanted a taste of glory, or shady handlers whose personas depended on a sleight-of-hand display of faux wealth and influence. As one reads on, the characters increasingly grow more bizarre, and one can’t help but feel certain disaster is around the corner. Surprisingly, it isn’t, and these peculiar characters actually help propel the young band. The Beatles may have been whitewashed into being “good boys,” and the Rolling Stones may have been perceived as being the bad-boy rebels, but The Who’s image was no PR stunt. They were brooding, intimidating, and more than a little willing to live up to their reputation. The band worked hard to build up their reputation, and were intensely protective of it; new acts such as Cream and Jimi Hendrix Experience were upstarts that caused the band to be even more defensive, inspiring them to double-down on their songwriting, resulting in some of the decade’s best music.
If anything, the band’s intensity was less an act and more a representation of just how tenuous their existence was. More than once, fights break out—especially after Keith Moon joins the band—and members quit or are fired. Even the band’s first tastes of success cannot quell the animosity and the tension. It’s not surprising, then, that the band would routinely destroy their equipment onstage. Blake makes the case that this habit wasn’t a venting of frustration inasmuch as a very complex artistic statement on Townshend’s part, thanks to the influence of one of his art school professors, who insisted an artist should be just as willing to use destruction of art as a legitimate artistic statement. Furthermore, Townshend is masterful about taking his inner torment and traumatic childhood experience and creating powerful music, most notably the end of the decade’s first masterpiece, the “rock opera” Tommy.
Author Mark Blake is a patient man, as he has compiled interviews and discussions over the past two decades, and it’s too the book’s credit that he is willing and desirous of talking to any and every person involved in the Who story. Thus, it’s fascinating to read the very rare opinions and stories from those who previously had not spoken much on the topic, most especially early drummer Doug Sandom, who was fired and replaced by Keith Moon. Though Pretend You’re In A War ends with the end of the decade, it is one of the most comprehensive biographies of this very important rock band’s first decade. Here’s hoping he continues to document the compelling history of The Who, as this is one of the best biographies on the subject that you’ll find.