Every picture tells a very personal story for Pete Townshend in a new
book by his friend Tom Wright - the man who, he says, put The Who on
the road to fame
March 21, 2009
Tom Wright. Good man. I've always been susceptible to a good man.
My first was Graham Beard, my best friend (though I was perhaps not
his best) from the age of 4 until about 11, when we went to watch
Bill Haley play and I picked up a guitar. Then I was befriended by an
assortment of fellows, from among whom John Entwistle rose as the
most constant until I was 17. Then at Ealing Art School in the spring
of 1962 I met Richard Barnes (later an important Who biographer) and
we laughed our way into a longstanding friendship so intense that
it's not surprising it has quieted in recent years. Barney and I soon
met Tom and ended up in a flat in the same house he shared with his
Almost as soon as I found Tom, or he found me, I felt I lost him. Tom
and Cam were effectively deported from the UK for possession of the
marijuana that had, along with perfectly faded Levi's and the
wonderful collection of R&B records they shared, made them both stars
among the prettiest females and the coolest males at the college,
where Tom studied photography. I read Tom's story and find that he
numbers me among the coolest males in 1962. Indeed, I appear to be
the coolest in some ways, but I was not cool. I was just susceptible.
Within a few days of hearing Lightning Hopkins mawling out his
tortured, primitive version of Trouble in Mind I had worked out how
to play my own version of it. When Tom heard me play it, he adopted
me. Hanging with Tom, as his in-house troubadour, always had a
drop-dead moment hanging portentously in the air: the instant that he
decided to crash into bed to embrace whichever beautiful girl was in
his orbit. It would be a few years on before I was able to turn my
own best assets into an equally intoxicating bird call.
Music is magical. When they were deported, Tom and Cam had to leave
their records behind with Barney and me ... as well as their beds.
The musical kudos exerted by Tom and Cam was suddenly passed to us.
Not necessarily with quite the same romantic association, but we
could unleash memories. Tom says that he also left behind a stash of
grass. That must have increased our pull, but it also confused my
fellows in the Detours, the school band I still played with because
it earned so much money. I think I became a little difficult in the
months I first began to get stoned. I was hearing music in a new way.
The Detours were pretty good, and when I started to introduce some
R&B songs into the set during late 1963 the surprise for us all was
that the audience of Mods who were starting to embed themselves in
the local area where we most often performed were fairly in sync with us.
Indeed, as I taught John Entwistle Green Onions by Booker T and the
MGs, the Rolling Stones were playing their first few shows at the
local Ealing Club, casting the first serious glove down to the
Beatles, who were already beginning to seem like aliens they were so
successful. By the time Tom and Cam's R&B music collection had been
filtered into the Ealing scene, they had been forced to leave the
country and watch from afar as the British music revolution took
place with R&B as its new backbone.
It was not until several years later that Tom and I reconnected. He
worked on the road with The Who in 1967 and took some of the most
flattering photographs of the band ever. I quickly realised that Tom
had a problem. He liked taking pictures and developing the negatives,
but he wasn't crazy about making prints. He wasn't even keen on
opening the various trunks in which they were haphazardly stored. So
the stash of unseen images grew. Some took 30 years to get printed,
some even longer.
But whenever any of his friends saw his pictures, we knew he had an
extraordinary gift to capture the moment: he seemed to sense the
gentle approaching warp in time that predicted that something special
would happen. Tom lived so much in the moment, waiting for the
moment, that some of us felt that he would never properly catalogue
and archive his work, let alone find time to tell his incredible life story.
His recent successful but substantial heart surgery provided the
hiatus, the shock, and finally the focus to write a moving, touching
and funny book that illustrates more about the change in the function
of pop music from the late Fifties to the early Sixties than any
semi-academic treatise written by journalist or critic.
It's clear now that R&B was vital to the shift in function of postwar
pop. From dance music designed as a romantic salve for the walking
wounded of various wars, we moved to the irritant teenaged codes of
Sixties pop. This new music was partly aimed at that same scarred
older generation and suggested that their postwar trauma, horror and
shame - hitherto denied and untreated - had somehow echoed down to
us. R&B, mainly performed by American black musicians and including
some powerfully rhythmic jazz and the most edgy folk music of the
time, was what underpinned British pop music of the Sixties new wave.
The combination of complaint, confrontation and self-healing that was
wrapped up in the average R&B song - usually sung by a disgruntled
but sanguine older black American - was the right model for my white
middle and working-class British generation too. It changed for the
next 40 years the purpose and function of pop music.
Tom has placed himself inside his own story, and that was necessary.
This is also very much my story. There is much of my life that Tom
describes that will not appear in my memoirs simply because I don't
remember it. Some of his tales started me laughing, some made me sad.
The photographs are all wonderful, providing the context and
tangential colour that makes Tom's story seem as particular, real and
romantic as it must have felt to him as he experienced it.
One thing is certain: had I not met Tom Wright, The Who would never
have become successful. We would have remained the Detours, a solid
little pop band doing what hundreds of others were doing at the same
time: playing local clubs, pubs, weddings and parties purely for
pleasure and fitting the programme in and around our day jobs. After
a few years I would have stopped playing with them and gone off to
work as a sculptor or for an ad agency. I needed the nudge of
marijuana to help me to realise that I had real creative musical
vision. I needed to hear Jimmy Reed to know that powerful music could
be made with extremely basic tools. I needed to be given the
recognition that I got from Tom of my special talent, recognition
that Roger Daltrey, the leader of our band, could not give me at
first because he had known me and nurtured me before I grew into my real skin.
It's wonderful to be able to say that today I am susceptible to Roger
Daltrey. But the memory of meeting Tom in 1962, and being specially
blessed by him when he was at his teenage peak, is the most
significant moment of my musical life. Roger often puts the success
of The Who down to his efforts of getting me out of bed, where I lay
stoned listening to Jimmy Reed, to go and play a local pub with the
Detours. I'm afraid, as is often the case in Who history, Roger and I
must differ. I put our success down to the fellow who left that
particular bed behind when he was deported.
Raising Hell on the Rock'n'Roll Highway by Tom Wright and Susan
VanHecke is published by Omnibus Press at £19.95.