[24 July 2014]
The Who Sell Out ranks in my top three favorite albums. I took my first girlfriend to the film adaptation of Quadrophenia when it opened in Hollywood in 1979. I return to their music, especially their 1967-1978 period, for a boost not matched by what I find in the overplayed output of the Beatles or Stones.
As with any other band I admire, I recognize their pomp and their bombast, their egos and flaws. Yet, I continue to admire them. This balance reflects in another fan’s tribute, Mike Segretto’s The Who FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B. In its 350+ pages, he praises the band’s many triumphs and lists their failures even-handedly.
Segretto sustains a spirited tone throughout. I read this narrative with unflagging interest. Segretto discusses the recordings, the claims of the band, the facts calculated, and the rumors circulated. He analyzes the data, he has listened to every cover version and seen every snip of extant footage, and he reports on every imaginable aspect of the Who in an educational and entertaining manner. Thirty-five topical chapters, many originating on his Psychobabble website, feature not only his own quarter-century of research, but input from fans who participated in online polls to vote on the band’s most overlooked ‘60s and ‘70s tracks, or the best of the Who members’ more uneven solo albums.
When I started this book, I feared a fanatical tribute in gushing fashion. Instead, in three sittings (it would have been two if I had not had to go to work), I raced through this steady and thoughtful treatment. Because many readers will be aware of the basics of “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band”, I chose to focus this review on representative portions which revealed fresh insights or surprising information to me as a follower, if not a fanatic. The distinction is crucial, for while this will serve as a reference (Segretto advises readers dip in at any chapter), reading this in succession deepens the book’s impact.
Taking in the contents, cross-references hint at past and future connections, and greater appreciation of the complicated tensions within the band and among those who mythologized or demonized the Who display Segretto’s steady judgment of the Who’s potential realized, and opportunities squandered. And surprises await. Early on, singer Roger Daltrey chose the replacement for the late Keith Moon, drummer Kenney Jones of the Small Faces, at a seance that was guided by Moon’s disembodied voice. Or so he claims, in one of many tall or possibly apocryphal tales this book reports.
On the last album Moon contributed to, 1978’s Who Are You, the cover famously featured him straddling a metal chair stenciled “Not to Be Taken Away”. We learn that this pose, rather than any eerie prophecy (speaking of seances and spirits), more practically if depressingly had hid Moon’s considerable “gut” from view.
On the matter of fashion Pete Townshend, launching high with his windmill power chords, popularized Doc Martens for rockers worldwide. He chose them so they’d protect his toes on landing on those patented soles—after they gave him the extra bounce needed, that is. Indeed, image mattered for this band, and some of Segretto’s best moments come when he explicates how the Who’s album covers, dress sense, and media savvy combined to deliver a consistent message. Moon’s R.A.F. target shirts, Townshend’s Union Jack coat (and later more workmanlike white boiler suits to allow efficient guitar playing), Daltrey’s leonine mane and buckskin wear, and stoic bassist John Entwistle’s morbidly odd skeleton suit or flashy attire, are all accentuated on video and in concert their characteristic personae.
Therefore, each of this fractious foursome stood out. They (like the Beatles) closed ranks against outsiders, but they (like the Beatles again) often contended amongst themselves as to direction. Segretto does not make many parallels to the Beatles or Stones, but the Who sold itself as being a quartet with each member a distinctive “type”. Segretto shows how, from their childhoods, each chose to tinker with instruments or try out attitudes, which would later contribute to their band characters.
“Roger the tough guy, Keith the lunatic, John the closet romantic, and Pete the spiritual seeker.” They were modified by manager Pete Meaden during their early stint as the High Numbers into Mods, but Segretto proves this was an eager manager’s choice rather than a philosophical commitment by the members. While they grew rapidly beyond limits of both “maximum R&B” and Mod, that slogan stuck and its iconography endured; the appeal of Quadrophenia throughout the ‘70s sparked a Mod revival and ensured that unlike many ‘60s “classic rock” bands, the Who were liked by punks.
After all, the Who courted the public less avidly than the cuddly Beatles or the smirking, sexy Stones did. The Who “were notoriously negative, combative menaces who spoke openly about their drug use and sang songs about transgender children or masturbation.” “I’m a Boy” and “Pictures of Lily” featured among stunning singles in the mid-‘60s which dazzled with their lyrical daring and musical shifts. These ambitions carried the band rapidly into the top ranks, despite a late start as part of the British Invasion. As with most music back then, the Who’s songs may have imitated their forebears, rivals, and colleagues, but as the introduction here by Dave Davies of the Kinks attests, these British musicians shared an affectionate spirit of competition, pushing song limits in terms of themes and styles.
In turn, as a deft section documents, later bands incorporated elements of the Who into their own innovative songs. For example, Segretto hears in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”, and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2 musical and lyrical echoes of “Let’s See Action”, “Join Together”, and “Relay”, some of the groundbreaking singles released by the Who a decade earlier.
A chapter on covers of Who tunes reveals Segretto’s keen ear. Such influence can transcend cover songs. The Soundtrack of Our Lives, a clever Swedish group that can channel the spirit of the Who’s golden era without slavishly imitating them, may well be the “greatest cover band ever to play original material”. As for influence, Johnny Lydon of the Sex Pistols was director Franc Roddam’s first choice to star in Quadrophenia. Sadly he was rejected after the distributor balked at the insurance it figured would be needed to protect him.
As for anxiety, the band’s own excess found them often at odds with one another, given each of their tetchy temperaments. Segretto maps out each member’s relationship to the others, and this goes beyond the usual Daltrey vs. Townshend depictions peddled by the press and probably the band themselves. Segretto calls out members who, in interviews, have often trafficked in their own mythmaking, as with Daltrey who claims that Jimmy Page played on “I Can’t Explain”.
Such expertise proves endearing rather than annoying, for the author maintains a command of the material and tone. Indeed, Segretto handles sensitive material adroitly, as in the decline of Moon, the infidelities of Entwistle, the irritations of Daltrey, and the discretions regarding Townshend. Illustrating the legacy of the band by their pop culture references, he uses a 2000 Freaks and Geeks episode, “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”, to show its music and script as “reflecting the alienation, identity crises, fraught adolescent sexuality, and profound desire for love and acceptance” within the band’s core.
While a few flaws surfaced (Davies makes an elementary grammatical mistake in his introduction; the Union Jack does not use in its design “Ireland’s St. Andrew’s” blue but St Patrick’s red “saltire”; and I note as a native that “South” California is not exactly local lingo), this remains a valuable contribution for fans and fanatics.
A mention of Segretto’s rhetorical range deserves its own moment. He can be funny and he can move you, without straining (much) for attention. A typical aside comes during his dissection of Ken Russell’s 1975 Tommy, which apparently has many awful moments. “Then there’s Ann-Margret’s infamous swim in a puddle of baked beans and hot fudge. At least it stops her from singing.” (P.S. She earned one of the film’s three Oscar nominations.)