The Irish Mail on Sunday
A Band with Built-In Hate
Peter Stanfield Reaktion Books €21.60
In a recent interview, Pete Townshend said he sometimes feels like he ended up in the wrong band. The mythology of The Who tends to accentuate the craziness: the smashed guitars, interband feuds, chemical excess and Keith Moon as a constantly ticking time bomb. Meanwhile, Townshend has always striven to introduce more rarefied concepts from visual art, film, literature and technology into rock ’n’ roll.
A Band With Built-In Hate is a cultural thesis in which the group sometimes appear as bit-part players in a story covering Mods, Pop Art, French New Wave, and, in particular, the work of pioneering music journalist Nik Cohn. Cast here as an oracle, Cohn gets more page time than anyone save Townshend.
Readers seeking reheated tales of Moon dressing in Nazi regalia and picking fights with Steve McQueen should shop elsewhere. A professor of film, Stanfield specialises in pop culture and presents The Who (above) as a band that ‘dissembled pop and made our understanding of the 1960s art scene more multifaceted’.
The best parts of the book mirror the best of The Who, fizzing with ideas and connections. Trawling the mid-1960s London scene, Stanfield draws links between the Tate and the Marquee Club, the ‘tight and clean’ opening of I Can’t Explain and Robert Fraser’s vogueish art gallery. The Who were both high- and low-brow, ‘delinquent mischief-makers and radical aesthetes’.
Like the band, Stanfield occasionally over-reaches, granting every casual flex cultural significance.
When Townshend grumbles about The Who’s debut album shortly after its release, it’s not simply routine artistic dissatisfaction – ‘as with the guitars and amplifiers he trashed on stage, [he] was practising a form of auto-destruction’. The author is sometimes so preoccupied with the subtext he misses the obvious: Daltrey’s scream at the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again is as eloquent as any thesis.
The post-1971 period is given fairly cursory attention, as rock’s rebellion becomes commodified and Stanfield increasingly resorts to critiquing the critics. A nostalgic opus, Quadrophenia in 1973 marks the moment ‘The Who’s past became their present’ – as it has remained. Dutifully performing the old hits, they long ago became part of the establishment, but the first half of this book vividly reanimates the nasty, transgressive, scene-shaping thrill of their beginnings. Perhaps Townshend was in the right band all along.