Monday, August 23, 2010

Pick This Book Up Off the Floor: 5 Essential Studies of The Who

The Who may sit in Rock & Roll’s top tier with The Beatles, Dylan, and The Stones, but they’ve inspired less text than these peers. Perhaps this is because their most insightful and informed critic is the band’s own Pete Townshend. The average Townshend interview is worth any 600-page tome by an outsider.

Still, there have been several excellent books about Rock’s most explosive combo, several of which were written by Who insiders. Consequently, the honesty, fearlessness, and obsession that helped make their music so striking are present in the best of these books. Now, none of them are perfect, which is strangely appropriate considering The Who’s defiant shunning of perfection, but here are five that provide a complete portrait of The Who when taken together.

1. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who 1958-1978 by Andy Neil & Matt Kent

Neil and Kent’s Day-by-Day Chronicle of The Who is not a fully rounded biography or critique like Richie Unteberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, which is probably the best such book I’ve read. It only charts the band through Keith Moon’s death and pays little mind to the guys’ solo work. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere was written before the Day-By-Day Chronicle fully evolved, so it’s a pretty straightforward diary of all the shows, recordings, and major events strewn throughout the first 20 years of Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon’s music career. As such, it is as exhaustive and accurate a reference as anyone could hope for, and unlike many of the more recent Day-By-Day Chronicles, it is printed in full color and busting with ravishing photos of Rock’s most garishly photogenic quartet.

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2. Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who by Dave Marsh

 If Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere doesn’t quite come through as a biography, Dave Marsh more than picks up the slack with his 500-page-plus biography Before I Get Old. Marsh is a former editor of Creem, an avowed Who freak, and an associate of the band. Following Moon’s death, Townshend must have sensed The Who’s history was drawing to a close and requested Marsh write the book (he obviously couldn’t picture himself with a paunch windmilling at the Superbowl almost thirty years later). The group agreeably participated in its research. Like Neil and Kent’s book, it peters out before the end of the story, even though a new edition was published as recently as 2003. But at least the wretched splatter-paint cover from the 1983 edition was replaced with a nicely moody portrait of the band.

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3. Full Moon by Dougal Butler

Dougal Butler was Keith Moon’s chauffeur, drinking buddy, and enabler, and he brings that personal insight to the most entertaining biography I’ve ever read. Also published as Moon the Loon: The Amazing Rock & Roll Life of Keith Moon, I first read Butler’s book as Full Moon, and found it hilarious, sad, and stupefying in equal measure. Composed in Cockney slang (don’t worry, yanks, there’s a glossary), the book is a love letter to Butler’s late employer that details his many outrageous stunts (my favorite involves a loudspeaker atop Moon’s limousine he’d use to impersonate a traffic cop) without shying from Moon’s more odious qualities. His treatment of his wife Kim is appalling, yet Butler still manages to evoke sympathy for the drummer without mentioning that Moon’s erratic behavior was likely the result of a borderline personality disorder.

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4. The Who: Maximum R&B by Richard Barnes

 Richard Barnes is yet another Who insider, the guy credited with christening the band and a prodigious gatherer of Who memorabilia. Essentially, Maximum R&B is a scrapbook of his collection glued together with a biography. The biography is slight compared to Marsh’s book, but the reprints of full-color photos, magazine articles, tour posters, bootleg covers, etc. are staggering. The book is kind of like a print equivalent of the brilliant scatter-shot documentary The Kids are Alright. Key nuggets include Keith Moon’s uproarious primary school photo and secondary school report card (his art teacher’s assessment: “Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects) and a piece from ’67 in which each of the guys explains what he loves and hates most about his band mates (what Entwistle loves about Daltrey: “His beautiful, blond hair”).

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5. The Who on Record: A Critical History by John Atkins

 What’s missing from all the above books? Keen critiques of The Who’s incredible body of work. John Atkins’ The Who on Record doesn’t plum the depths that Tim Riley’s Beatles analysis Tell Me Why does, but it goes far enough to satisfy. Atkins was the brain behind the Who fanzine Generations, although his critique of the group’s music is not a fanboy’s fawning. As such, it may rub fans the wrong way at times (John, John, why so hard on “Happy Jack”?), but at other times he may inspire new appreciation of some of the band’s less-celebrated recordings (Finally! Someone acknowledges the greatness of “Dogs”!). Atkins covers the band’s major singles and albums (his chapter on Quadrophenia could be a book in and of itself), as well as their abundant outtakes and B-sides. Riveting stuff.

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