Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lighthouse to Quadrophenia, by Richie Unterberger

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet



Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lighthouse to Quadrophenia
By Richie Unterberger
Jawbone Books (London), 2011
302 pages; USD $19.95
ISBN: 9-781906-002350
jawbonepress.com


A reader should never skim through a Richie Unterberger book; rather, as with a fine wine, one must savor it, much like the music he is discussing / describing / dissecting. Published relatively on the heels of his last book, White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day (reviewed on this blog), there is consistently a high level of research, detail, and the joy of the topic comes through in all his work.

His latest focus is on the 1970-‘74 period of classic rockers, The Who. The title of the volume, however, is a bit of a misnomer on more than one level. For example, as Townshend was writing Lifehouse, the band was caught up in the frenzy of the post-Tommy release, so the early part of the book is thick with that as well; bookending this at the conclusion is, of course, the Tommy film that the band work on and for which Townshend also wrote additional music. Also, this book is much more focused on Townshend, as he is the brainpan of The Who, writing most of the music and material, which is especially true in the case of both Lifehouse and Quadrophenia. In fact, the rest of The Who barely even show up in the story as individuals until a third of the way in, other than cursorily.

Do I sound like I’m being critical, because that is not the way I feel. After all, this book concerns the writing of the material for Lifehouse, which is sort of Townshend’s equivalent of Brian Wilson’s Smile, another (until recently) great mystery in the great rock’n’roll pantheon that went down in flames because it was just too esoteric – read as “ahead of its time” – to come to fruition. While we have traces and bits of Lifehouse that have emerged over the years on albums like The Who’s Odds and Sods (especially the expanded CD version), bootlegs, and some other random collections. However, as Richie painstakingly points out, some of it was collected in a non-narrative form and then expanded with non-related songs that became one of rock’s great classics, Who’s Next.

Unterberger meticulously and loving follows the trail of period interviews, articles, and other obscure sources of information, making this book as much a detective story as a history. He takes the facts and synthesizes them, pointing out errors and contradictions in the historical documents (e.g., dates, locations). This adds to the fascination of making it even more interesting, if that’s possible. Richie never gets caught in that too familiar assumptive biographical web of “so-and-so felt at that moment…” Rather, he states his own opinions, sometimes being critical, others a bit gushing, but never pandering. For example, in describing Quadrophenia, he states on pages 211-212:

Townshend may have been very much the auteur of Quadrophenia - in fact it was the only Who album which he wrote all the material – but the tracks did leave a lot of room for the rhythm section to shine as instrumentalists. Entwistle in particular played not only some of the best bass of his career, but some of the best electric bass by anyone, his nimble and pungent runs combining grace and throbbing power. The songs, and perhaps the production, lent themselves far more to Moon’s unpredictable torrent than had Who’s Next, especially on the more up-tempo numbers, such as “Bell Boy” and “I’ve Had Enough.”

I’d like to interject a bit of my own opinion here about The Who: though technically Entwistle (d. 2002) and Moon (d. 1978) were the rhythm section of the band, calling them that is actually an injustice. There was no back-up in The Who, which is why they were one of the great rock bands. Daltry was lead vocals, Townshend played lead guitar, Entwistle played lead bass, and Moon played lead drums, all at the same time.

Okay, now back to the book…

Won’t Get Fooled Again starts of as a love story, of sorts, with Pete Townshend’s growing affection and obsession with synthesizers, which would inform much of his work in the coming years. While Pete would become an expert of the technology at the time, it would also lead to conflicts within the group, including one noted physical confrontation. The rest of the band, as noted, are represented more as Lifehouse fades, and Who’s Next and Quadrophenia became more of a reality. Another presence thickly in the book, nearly as much as the rest of the band, is spiritual leader Mehr Baba (d. 1969), of whom Townshend was an avid follower.

Between the famous (and infamous) musical output (and attempts) on record, Unterberger also discusses and analyzes their tours (such as the night Moon famously passed out in mid-song), television appearances, studio work, management issues, films, and the like. It is more of all that had occurred during the span of those four years than just those two or three projects. There are many quotes from interviews that Richie has included, both historical and those that he’s conducted himself recently, with many of the band’s associates, but sadly none by the two remaining Who members.

It always takes me a long time to get through one of Unterberger’s books because there is just so much juicy material to absorb, lots of information, and journalistic investigation, that I need to stop occasionally just to take it all in. This is a high compliment. Calling this merely a Who “history” is certainly a disservice, and I look forward, as always, to his next exploration and investigation.

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