THE WORST THING that can be said about Pretend You're in a War, Mark Blake's excellent new biography on the Who, is that it ends abruptly in 1970. This is before the English band recorded two of the best rock albums ever made (Who's Next and Quadrophenia), before drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, before the group's official breakup and countless reunion tours.
Blake leaves a lot of the Who's story out, but you can't fault him for false advertising: His book's subtitle, The Who and the Sixties, indicates that this is a deep dive into the group's formative years, as they evolved from a scrappy pub band playing R&B covers into proto-punk totems for London's mod movement, then had something of an identity crisis before emerging in 1969 with Tommy.
There's no shortage of Who biographies on the market, but Blake's level of research in Pretend You're in a War is exemplary. Persistent myths surround the band to this day; many, in fact, were perpetuated by the group over the years. Blake aims for concrete facts and firsthand accounts of pivotal Who moments—such as Moon's notorious audition for the band, or the first show where Pete Townshend smashed his guitar. (The group was performing at one of their usual haunts, which had just installed a low-rise stage; Townshend miscalculated the distance to the ceiling and accidentally rammed his guitar right into it.) When a definitive narrative can't be determined, Blake gives equal weight to conflicting accounts, presenting all sides of the story.
What's striking in Blake's book is how the group, for all its musical power, never really coalesced into a tight gang of friends offstage. Internal conflict marred almost every step of the Who's development, as when singer Roger Daltrey was forced to concede leadership of the band to songwriter Townshend, or when Moon's outrageous behavior and inconsistent musicianship hobbled them on numerous overseas tours.
What's even more interesting is how Blake depicts the group as firmly out of step with the societal and cultural changes that surrounded them, even as works like "My Generation" and "I Can See for Miles" defined the sound of the 1960s. The Who were never really comfortable with the "mod" saddle, and were distinctly out of step with flower power.
There's more to the Who's story, and perhaps Blake will tell it in a second volume. For now, this thickly detailed, terrifically readable book is the definitive word on their first decade.