Peter Sanfield on The Who (2021) | featured image

Scholar Peter Stanfield Brings ‘Hate’ to the Who’s Pop Art Period

Peter Stanfield’s ‘A Band With Built-In Hate’ highlights redundancy, aggression, obsolescence, and ambiguity in Townshend’s lyrical stance and the Who’s performing methods.

A Band With Built-In Hate: The Who From Pop Art to Punk
Peter Stanfield
Reaktion Books
March 2021

What’s left that’s new about the Who? While perennially runner-up to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in fan acclaim and press coverage, their career certainly receives its share of attention, as both Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend’s autobiographies [Who I Am, 2012 and Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, 2018] added to the record.

Peter Stanfield, a retired film professor at the University of Kent, examines the band’s attitude and style. More than its music. A Band With Built-In Hate: The Who From Pop Art to Punk turns its scrutiny towards the earlier period of the subtitle. The second fits alliteration but elides how Stanfield slices and dices the book-ended decade-and-a-half of the Who’s global success. The provocative title suggests, per the publisher page, “…a story of ambition and anger, glamour and grime, viewed through the prism of pop art and the radical leveling of high and low culture that it brought about – a drama that was aggressively performed by the band.” Is “hate” an apt description of the Who’s early work?

Townshend explained to fellow rock historian Jon Savage the idea behind the sonic assault of what was billed cleverly as “Maximum R&B” on stage. The venue reverses the model. The audience becomes performers, while the musicians nod to or dismiss the vivid spectacle.

As Stanfield cites the Who’s Svengali manager Kit Lambert: the early hit “Anyhow, Anyway, Anywhere” unleashes sounds of war and chaos. The academic explains: “Townshend positioned himself as both an imposter embracing Pop art for self-serving ends, as as a provocateur turning the world he is presented with back on itself.” The guitarist agreed: ”We play Pop art with standard group equipment. I get jet-plane sounds, Morse code signals, howling wind effects.” The Danes, if an entire country’s reaction can be summed up, described their 1965 reaction to the band on tour as “pigtråd”, as if “having barbed wire pulled through your ears.” This ear for apt detail enriches Stanfield’s stolid account.

He plumbs archives for ephemeral magazines and forgotten interviews to reveal more than the standard recitals of the works of Gustav Metzger, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, and “auto-destruction” as formative aesthetic influences on Townshend. This, however, relegates the other three world-class talents in the Who to background props. Stanfield graciously if briefly compliments Daltrey’s mature command of his voice, yet John Entwistle’s bass and French horn, and Keith Moon’s drums, barely gain notice.

Even if this thesis aims at art more than melody, the presentation that all four members contributed deserves the attention Stanfield gives the Who’s innovative mid-’60s album covers and promotional photos. This scrutiny could have been continued over the rest of the Who’s career, as each LP illustrates a carefully chosen visual message.

Midway through A Band With Built-In Hate, discography-laden facts pile up. Swinging London and Carnaby Street capture the limelight. Yet Stanfield contributes new insights. He highlights redundancy, aggression, obsolescence, and ambiguity in Townshend’s lyrical stance and the band’s performing methods. He attends well to how the band mimicked, knicked, and picked pop of the nascent hippie era, and he convincingly brings in peers the Fleur de Lys (psychedelic rock) the Eyes (punk) a newly christened David Bowie, and John’s Children (pop art/mod rock) as competitors and imitators in turn of the Who’s remarkable hits.

Their “freakbeat” manic intensity attracted bands like the Creation (rock), the Move (psychedelic rock), and a nascent “The” Pink Floyd. Still, Stanfield dashes past these actual tunes, preferring to unearth pull quotes from trendsetting journalists and “cultural commentators”. Then, Jimi Hendrix arrives in London in the Fall of 1966. Townshend began to feel the band already dated. Stanfield insists throughout his study, somewhat awkwardly, to incorporate Nik Cohn’s underground or subversive narrations of the times as they were changing.

“Like the post-punk commentary of critics Michael Bracewell and Jon Savage, Cohn finds a masquerade of contradiction and ambivalence to be the heart of The Who’s appeal: oddness and withdrawal, an unpretentious mini-opera [“A Quick One”] — a pop song with arias, no less — the songs and their presentation at once shining, disposable, humorous, and mournful.” As opposed, one muses, to the title of 1971’s greatest singles album: Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy. Stanfield needed to convince readers why those sharp tunes resonate.

Stanfield recognizes the Who’s attraction-repulsion in the artistic talent recruited for the band’s product: Richard Aldridge’s cover for A Quick One (1966), Ralph Steadman’s caricatures for the US inner sleeve of the same LP, and the design team’s triumph on 1967’s The Who Sell Out. Yet, that album signaled, along with the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pop Art’s end.

Stanfield’s on to a worthwhile exegesis here, but he skips off to digress into Nik Cohn’s career. By the age of 22, after the Summer of Love, he’s already tired of pop genres. Pretense ruled. “Unlike Cohn, who just gave it all up, but like Townshend who never did (Greil) Marcus has tirelessly worked on the divide between instinct and intellect.”

Stanfield’s approval challenges the Who’s integrity, as 1969’s rock opera, Tommy, reveled in amplification, stadiums loomed as venues, and arena rock arrived, full of the pomp of Daltrey’s leonine mane and exposed chest, fringed leather and glitz, embodying an Age of Aquarius messiah as a lucrative circus act. Stanfield excels at analyzing how the press reacted to this spectacle, but he leaves his reader with nearly no sense of how that concept LP enacted its convoluted narrative in synthetic-symphonic movements, or how fun the tall-tale was despite, or because, of the scenery-chewing supporting cast of characters invented by the band.

Nic Cohn rallied around the ferocious Live at Leeds (1970) recording. The new decade heralded a swing back to the ’50s, a yearning for the visceral punch of rockabilly or the exuberance of doo-wop. The Teddy Boys returned. Soon Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) and Kleiser’s Grease (1978) came to the silver screen. This stranded the Who. “Once done, The Who’s move along the cultural continuum — from pop towards the higher arts — was no longer repeatable.” Stanfield’s judgment on their 1971 album, Who’s Next, remains apt.

That album managed to achieve creative authenticity while resisting a slide into “the merely fashionable and profitable”, but as the media hype around the revival of roots rock and greaser fashion portended, nostalgia added up to commodity. The second try at a rock opera, 1973’s Quadrophrenia, recreated Britain’s the Mods battling against the Rockers. “The Punk and the Godfather” dramatizes the showdown. Townshend’s conflicted protagonist represents the clash of “social realism and spiritual self-realization.” Townshend wants to find a place among his cooler chums, but he longs to break from the ties to this old gang.

Quadrophrenia aspired to emulate street credibility, too, but the ambitious performance depicts “a concert every bit as fabulous as those of Floyd and Yes.” Stanfield lets Townshend have the last word. Those critics blame the rock star, the guitarist asserted, “for the fact they’ve grown old.” He was just shy of his 30th birthday.

The rest of the tale gets compressed into a brisk, and oddly incomplete, conclusion. Stanfield charts the rise of glam rock and then the shifts that marked various chronologies of what counted as punk, and he shows the Mods return and evolve into another marketing opportunity. Townshend met the Sex Pistols in 1977. “I recognised their hungry, triumph-pursuant expressions and began to preach.” His self-conscious voice says it all.

Yet, Stanfield inexplicably omits any mention of Who Are You (1978). This album stood as the Godfather’s answer to the Punk. He also fails to list Mark Blake’s similarly titled survey from 2014, Pretend You’re In a War: The Who and the Sixties. For all the value that A Band With Built-In Hate contributes to one’s appreciation of Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon, glaring gaps expose where Stanfield’s diligent research fails to bridge the span between a definitive charting of the band as they struggled to grasp how the authenticity of the Seeker evolved into the pomp of Tommy — with Daltrey as poster-ready idol worship for the masses.