(Book reviewed by Amy Hughes)
Historically speaking, crystallizing the behemoth known as The Who – band, music, movies – involves flying over their career (decades in the making) and analyzing the history and events that influenced not only their impact as a unit but the generation that gave them a voice to erupt volcanically, spewing forth high-volume lava that for many right now, has become hard black coal, dense and cold of meaning.
Author Peter Stanfield writes with academic-minded insight that A Band With Built-Hate: The Who From Pop Art To Punk (Reaktion Books, 2021) should be soaked up with as much history as possible, just in understanding the environment and history of their times (and before). He makes us – the reader – get inside the genesis of prepubescent swinging Britain, move around it, throw it far and attempt to retrieve it back, encapsulated in that era’s urgent pop sensibilities.
For purposes of this review, the book is not a straight-up bio nor is it an extended diatribe framing The Who as hooligans bent on disarming the norm of rock, trashing instruments and hotel rooms (thanks, Keith Moon). What Stanfield does with extensive historical detail is frame the band as overall antagonists, armed with the windmill angst and intelligence of Pete Townshend – who I generally regard as a genius beyond compare – to smash and break the mundane lives of post-war Britain into a compact unit that pushes boundaries unheard of in late 50s and early 60s England.
The band’s ‘built-in hate’ stems directly from a Townshend quote and not far from the kernel truth of The Who’s beginnings in London. The pop scene itself blew up around art, art that had an immediacy and therefore an intelligence that couldn’t be described adequately for the masses. As the band germinated in the early days, the ‘Mods’ that were The Who’s (known as The High Numbers) audience were a fixated young mass that didn’t idolize them onstage or off. Dancing, drinking, clothes-styling, and amphetamines galore kept the message on a speed course that figuratively had them exploding all comfort conventions.
With the advent of pop, the term barreled on through with a notorious edge. Among the writers to expound and define this new wave was critic Nik Cohn. From the initial heady days of reigning in what the sound of pop was (as Townshend relayed the noise as “jet planes, Morse Code, howling wind effects”), Cohn sent forth an undefined, pointed, yet beautiful agenda: first writing in ‘Queen’ then throughout The Who’s career in this reading, giving (or maybe not) Townshend a critical mouthpiece. Cohn was there to hear ‘Tommy’ and later ‘Quadrophenia’ and as an overall arc to this book, provides the blueprint for understanding how the operation of pop culture machines on, whether it made sense then and by way of Stanfield, where to accentuate the importance of all these ground-breaking events in Who history.
Cohn was a pop descriptor extraordinaire and his writings and quotations are sprinkled liberally throughout this book. While there was no preconceived notion as to what ‘pop’ was supposed to be, it’s avenues continually splintered, while Hendrix was setting fire to his guitar: was he upstaging Townshend or paying homage? When ‘The Who Sell Out’ (and just previous to that ‘A Quick One’), Cohn was questioning and embracing it’s humor. Yes, sometimes it was pretentious – who in their right mind wanted to listen to this ten-minute ‘mini opera’ with vocals that shouted ‘clang’ and ‘cello’ in places The Who couldn’t half afford – as the subject matter made light (and dark) notions of a young girl’s naïve awakenings to wanted (or unwanted) sexual advances?
Stanfield also has a great appreciation for the media and artwork that surrounded The Who – from the advert-styled ‘Sell Out’ (among the conceived jingles and spoken word fillers), while at the same time, pointing out the conservatism in alternate, bland sleeve artwork for the European market with point-on results. The former was all part of The Who’s DNA marketing and salesmanship (now handled by filmmakers turned managers/producers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert). The band with hatred was in essence becoming ‘pop’ to be consumed – albeit via a juggernaut of feedback and screeching.
At first glance, these were the baby steps, the rudimentary blueprint for what The Who were to become because of their association with art, consumerism and as it began to unfold in the US and the UK in the late 60s, the rock press: Townshend became the expert in his own Who history, divulging pages and pages of onion-peeling and partial proposals on what pop music was, where he had been (art school auto-destruct), where it was going (read: Tommy 1968 interviews) and later, how were these approaching 30 years of age (the doomed living out their own ‘My Generation’) supposed to bring their gatherings along with them (and did it really matter to the audience anymore).
I know for certain that as a high-schooler that was raised on The Who, there was a complete embrace of songs, especially ‘Baba O’Riley’ for whom the faux hip cigarette-smoking, corduroy-wearing, hanging-outside-the-cafeteria-at-lunch crowd was so off point, so brought up on FM radio to it’s real meaning, that the entity of The Who presented in this academic-leaning dissertation will have zero impact akin to understanding of what Townshend & Co. are all (or were about). I know I missed it, somewhere in-between ‘The Kids Are Alright’ film and ‘It’s Hard.’
Another stop-gap moment if I may: punk rock. As addressed in this title, how has The Who aged these 40 years since the release of ‘Who Are You’ with the bull crap stance of Daltrey dropping the f-bomb amongst synthesizers or ‘Sister Disco’ or Townshend’s footstep backbeat in ‘Music Must Change?’ Townshend at the time thought it was all over with the second coming of The Sex Pistols and The Clash and punk. But punk was already there, simmering and bubbling. It was merely a label. Lydon & Co. did skewer the inflated senses of Britain at the time, but Townshend’s alcoholic-fueled pissy-ness while being talked up by the Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook only added gasoline to the pyre. The band’s volcanic eruption (best shown at the end of ‘The Kids Are Alright’s’ ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – due to director Jeff Stein asking them to go out and perform an encore they didn’t want to do) pretty much summed up the end of The Who as we knew them. On the edge, yet high up on the precipice waiting to be pushed off.
While the death of Keith Moon effectively put to bed the essential meaning of their opposition, the push-back of their music and lives, ‘Built-In Hate’ can now address with minute clarity and put-right connections how it all started and for the others that followed in their tidal-wave wake, and for the lows and the highs of the cultural innovators that are collectively engraved as The Who.
I give this book 4 out of 4 beetles!