I recently read the Pete Townshend autobiography Who I Am after acquiring a nice hard backed copy surprisingly cheaply brand new from Amazon – a life story I’d long looked forward to reading. As heroes go, Townshend and The Who have been a part of my life for around forty years with their albums being some of the earliest vinyl records I ever bought. I was interested therefore to understand what makes this erudite insightful and intelligent man tick. The book was certainly a page-turner and left me with some conflicting thoughts about a man who’s body of work I’d long admired.
The Who and Townshend need no introduction, indeed they are still current to many it seems as their on-going Quadrophenia and More tour of the US presently is seeing them receive rave reviews still after all these years. It’s clear then that the scope of Townshend’s conceptual writing transcends decades and fashions in music whilst the legendary past live performances of the original four members of the group, Townshend, Daltrey, Entwhistle and Moon are perhaps without equal. An absolute powerhouse of a band with a genius writer driving the band forward. So what do we make of this man?
A friend in the States, an original Who fan dating back to early Mod days in 1965 also read the book and asked me what I thought about it and about Townshend and I got to thinking about the character and nature of this legendary writer and performer.
Whilst reading Who I Am I found myself at times not liking my long-time ‘hero’ very much at all. I then compared that to my (hopefully) compassionate side and, as I always try to, attempted to understand (as opposed to excuse) some of his behaviours and the reasons for them.
Of course the apparent abuse he appeared to be dealt as a young person has to be considered. This is not to trot out the hoary old (and incorrect) theory that the abused are more likely to become abusers in some form. He seemed to have little stability or feelings of security in his young life – far from it – and I would suggest that influenced some of his behaviours as an adult.
I see a little of the ‘George Best syndrome’ here. Pop stars and famous young people of the 1960s blazed something of a trail which had not been travelled before. Many didn’t appear to know or understand the ‘correct’ way to react to their fame, they were young and were carried along with it. It’s interesting that Townshend’s failings are often self-admitted, talking of himself disparagingly as having a ‘big rock star ego’ etc.
I’m not sure why I was surprised but I took the casual way he talked of some of his philandering with some discomfort. He seemed a little blasé at times about his involvement with other women while he had a wife and young children at home, though not always was this the case in fairness. Again, part of the famous sixties pop star trip maybe.
I liked and was intrigued by his creative will and that shone through; people like Pete are important to society in that way.
The child pornography issue? Well he gave a good and thorough explanation in the closing pages. Who will ever really know but I tend to believe his story. The only point I couldn’t get my head around was that for such an intelligent man he really was naive clicking on the link to the pornographic site. A bad mistake though I think and maybe nothing more nor less.
Another curiosity about the man was his well-known following of Meher Baba. This faith seemed a juxtaposition with the way a lot of his other life was led. He was obviously looking for something though. Maybe he was simply looking in the wrong place.
I was listening to a review on the Radio Two book club with Simon Mayo this week of a newly released book on the subject of the 1970s called State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook. The title itself is of course supposedly very descriptive of early part the decade in question but I have to say, the book title and some of the chat and consideration of that colourful era did not coincide with my own memories of the time. In fairness it was stated that for those who largely grew up in that decade the feelings would be quite different and probably more positive than the image of austerity that appeared to be presented by the book. It should also be stated that the four years covered by the book were perhaps isolated in certain ways from what followed.
Some of the conversation revolved around the early part of the decade being something of a ‘black and white’ period with the clear inference that the rich, vibrant and colourful ‘swinging sixties’ was now being superseded by a much grimmer, sober and more grave age.
Oh no it wasn’t, not in my memory at least!
I was twelve years old when the new decade beckoned and just beginning senior school. It should be said that the industrial problems and resultant strikes and subsequent power cuts didn’t affect my wage packet as I was still on a few shillings (soon to be decimal pence) pocket money a week which was dutifully laid out for me by my dad on the mantelpiece every Friday evening. I do however remember the strikes and the three-day week that was declared to combat the regular power cuts. As a kid it was all great fun actually. There was much rummaging for age-old candles that had been stashed, unloved around the home for years. Meanwhile the clamour for new candles, paraffin lamps and other paraphernalia from hardware stores to deal with those hours of darkness were something of a new challenge for people. To people of an age with me it was all about making fire which was something us kids did for fun anyway. All something of a great adventure.
Not too long after I was embarked upon an apprenticeship in the print trade when there was still a small rash of further power cuts with a following industrial dispute. We couldn’t read the lead type in the gloom and of course the printing presses had ground to a halt in any case so it was time to down tools – not the biggest hardship in the world when you’re on your feet for a nine-hour shift. Those same work colleagues told me how they had coped quite admirably in the three-day week days by simply doing three twelve-hour day shifts. They were quite happy with this arrangement.
Others will have had more difficulties of course and there were certainly serious problems with some of the industrial disputes such as refuse bins not being collected for long periods as I recall. As always with these things it’s always the most vulnerable that suffer such as the old, infirm and sick and I certainly wouldn’t want to ride roughshod over the very real problems those people experienced.
Maybe it’s the age I was but these are not the things I chiefly remember about the 1970s. For me it was always a decade that entered as one construct and disappeared as quite another. Nowhere was this best illustrated than in the music scene which was incredibly varied and went through a huge revolution when punk rock reared its head in the middle of the decade. The year of 1970 was ushered in with hit 45’s such as Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime, The Mixtures’ The Pushbike Song and The New Seekers’ I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing – all mainstream pop songs to my twelve-year old ears. Sixties mini-skirts gave way to midi and maxi length skirts but this was delightfully punctuated (to most men’s eyes) by the advent of hot pants for women – a last hurrah for the look of the 1960s.
If you look closely at the above picture you can see a 1970s Raleigh bicycle Read more »
I was reading an interesting debate entitled The Beatles are/were vastly overrated! on The Hibees Bounce forums just recently and couldn’t but help contribute a few thoughts. What brought me into the discussion was the mention of the great Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds in a very worthy comparison with The Beatles great work, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Now Pet Sounds is probably in my ‘top one of a group of one’ albums (as a certain former football manager would have said!) For many years the album wasn’t considered as being a ‘better’ piece of work than Sgt Pepper though – if you can possibly order these things in any meaningful way – but I personally think it has stood up better over the decades than the Fab Four’s platter. It’s always been a slight surprise to me that opinion has changed over time regarding Sgt Pepper though as I always believe it was regarded as The Beatles ‘masterpiece’ for many years.
The debate itself asks the question if The Beatles were overrated. I wouldn’t attempt to change anyone’s mind over what they think about The Beatles but it’s interesting to see some of the reaction to their work these days – one that questions their superiority over other bands. Naturally, this is how it should be and it’s always healthy for things to be questioned. There are two reasons for this I believe – the first one being the natural generational one where people’s tastes move on and observes heroes of their own time. This is seen in all sort of spheres as we know and football is a prime example. Secondly, and more interesting for me is the curiously ‘British’ (and I use that term advisedly!) attitude to the people it initially places on a pedestal. I’d question how people in the US would regard The Beatles if they had been of their own, in comparison to how they’re sometimes disregarded here.
I’ll lay my cards on the table, no problem. The Beatles were the best – no question in my mind and no shadow of a doubt. Their creativity, musicianship and song writing were without equal in any other band. I can go year on year playing music of my own tastes, Northern Soul, Otis Redding and Stax/Atlantic soul generally and bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Who, The Jam, The Clash, Joy Division et al without playing any Beatles tracks at all but I know who the masters were. A band without parallel. One who single-handedly developed and pushed forward popular music more than any other act in my humble opinion. Particularly in the way they wrote their own songs, as few did in their earlier days.
It’s been said before but I think it’s worth reiterating. The Beatles were great innovators of their time and they were ‘first’ in so many ways. These are the kind of creative people I admire in life generally. It’s important to also remember the context and era in which they were writing, recording and performing but I feel that this is often lost a little in debate.
It’s almost a back-handed compliment to see the way some of their songs from all of forty-odd years ago are picked up as a point of debate. It kind of says it all really, one might say…
Regarding Sgt Pepper specifically, from the public’s general conception rather than my own necessarily, it was a wonderful piece of imagination of the day and almost seemed like an axis for the major change in popular music that occurred at that time. Whatever people think about the songs on it now, and there were some absolute classics – She’s Leaving Home, A Day in the Life etc. – it remains at least as important as any other album in the course of popular music in history in my own humble opinion
It’s a question I’ll never be able to answer, Sgt Pepper, Abbey Road, The White Album, Revolver – which was the best album? I don’t think there actually IS an answer to that. They were all wonderful.
When the original Quadrophenia album by The Who was released in October 1973 I was a young teenager approaching sixteen years of age with all the angst and most of the unhappiness that those years can muster and provide. I’d caught up with the The Who’s violently productive era in the 1960s’, mainly by originally listening to the compilation Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy which featured the great and classic Who hits of that era such as My Generation, I Can’t Explain, The Kids are Alright. Intrigued and totally entranced by this band and by it’s songwriter, Pete Townshend in particular, I ‘discovered’ the band’s original rock opera,Tommy and set about arming myself with every single piece of Who material I could, right back to their original incarnation as ‘The High Numbers’.
Pete Townhend, artist, intellect, hero
There was no question. The Who and Pete Townshend spoke for me. They detailed all the anger and frustration I had as a youngster and there was something liberating about the on-stage violence and destroying of instruments but much more importantly the way that Townshend wrote that made them ‘my’ band. Because of those seminal years, years when I managed to see three of the original Who’s imperious live performances and followed them avidly, they remained ‘my’ band.
Let’s spin rapidly up to date. It’s August 2009, fully thirty-six years after the double album telling the story of young Mod, Jimmy’s life. I’m a whole lot older, I see things through different, more wary and experienced and yes sometimes more sullied eyes. I observe the local entertainment listings and see that a stage version of this story that was very precious and sensitive to me all those years ago is to be aired at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. What to make of this?
You know that feeling when you’re rummaging through your old record collection? For some of us that means leafing through a heap of vinyl albums, old and familiar cover art, perhaps looking a little tired at the edges? I find that searching for oldies doesn’t work for me this way and that’s why I struggle in second-hand record stores with the myriad of titles to mull over. What does seem to happen
with me is that I get a tune or a band/artist in my head and I just HAVE to then find it – one way or another. This happened most recently to me with The Jam and in particular an album track entitled I Got By in Time from their debut album In The City.
In 1977 music was changing fast. It’s well documented how the old bands were quickly becoming passé with younger music fans. Groups like Genesis, Yes and even the likes of rock gods like Led Zeppelin were suddenly being regarded as dinosaurs, flabby, overblown and distant from the fans. In their place came people such as The Sex Pistols notably and other people such as The Damned and The Buzzcocks. Even more significantly a vanguard of other bands who came to transcend the ‘punk’ tag with their huge, original and fresh talent and commensurate record sales. These bands exemplified by The Clash and The Jam, who were never really punks but conveniently tagged as such, led rock music into the 1980s and on.