HarperCollins, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Who I Am, By Pete Townshend

This rock memoir candidly traces the effects of stardom – but also misses its opportunity

If, as that multi-part BBC2 documentary once maintained, there were seven ages of 20th century rock music, then The Who are the bridge between eras two and four. Essentially they were a West London beat group, forged in the same crucible as the Stones and the Kinks, who enjoyed a brief mid-1960s fling with psychedelia, fashioned the first "rock opera" (Tommy, 1969), and then emerged blinking into the post-Woodstock glare as the world's heaviest exponents of over-amplified Sturm und Drang.

What allowed them to sustain this impetus into the Seventies and beyond was the song-writing (and organisational) skills of their guitarist Pete Townshend. Without him, The Who would scarcely have existed. With him, the ride would never be easy, and if some of the tensions that undermined the band can be ascribed to the three other founding partners, then quite a few are down to Townshend himself.

Most rock memoirs – and Who I Am is a winningly candid example – weave variations on the chicken-and-egg debate. Does the music business damage the personalities of the people who work in it, or does it merely attract people with damaged personalities and damage them further? Here, nature and nurture zealously combine.

Townshend, tricky childhood behind him, popular music wired into his consciousness by a dance band-ornamenting dad, was an archetypal mixed-up Sixties kid. Drummer Keith Moon and bass player John Entwhistle were career hedonists, who once paid a girl $100 to infect Townshend with gonorrhoea on the premise that he was too strait-laced around the groupies. Vocalist Roger Daltrey, outwardly the sanest of the four, was a hard-boiled but insecure Mod from Acton, scathing of pretension, who once knocked his guitarist out cold after waiting 48 hours for the stage tapes of their 1973 album Quadrophenia to arrive at the recording studio.

What follows is a version of that elemental music pageant in which one person in the group has the drive and the talent while the others follow his lead, annoying him with their regular guy-dom and being annoyed in their turn by his moods and affectations: the story of The Kinks, of The Jam, only with more drugs, death and mayhem.

Having established the band as early 1970s behemoths, against a backdrop of profit-sapping chaos, Townshend runs through the full menu of rock-star trauma, finds God, goes manic-depressive and stages titanic drinking contests with the roadies, while striving for a brand of self-expression that will reveal "the essence of rock itself". The concepts get more abstract, and come the rehearsals for the abortive Lifehouse project in 1971, Daltrey, Moon and Entwhistle are bewildered onlookers. It is left to the veteran Sixties scene-sweller John "Hoppy" Hopkins to assure him, "This is radical, Pete".

By Quadrophenia, the original charge had gone. Later material often sounded like Townshend solo albums in disguise. Moon auto-destructed in 1978, with Entwhistle following in 2002. If a glance through Townshend highly diversified later career (film projects, publishing, multi-media) suggests that his best work was done in his twenties, the same can be said of many a lyric poet. His autobiography is a deeply felt and rather dogged performance, full of fretful self-analysis, anguished status-broking (although Townshend's claim to have "invented the power chord" might be contested by, say, Link Wray) and interesting period detail, such as the West London cleaning ladies wanting to inspect the marriage certificates of "trendy young 60s couples" before they set to work.

Elsewhere, the descriptions of female company met along the way ("her breasts firm and proud under the thin fabric"…) invariably raise a smile, and one had an idea that that George Formby, who the youthful Pete – not a fan - recalls "plucking away at his silly little banjo", actually played the ukelele.

"Pop music was evolving, becoming the barometer for a lot of social change," writes Townshend of the Sixties maelstrom. There are several intensely fascinating moments when he picks up the pop-sociology baton first wielded by the late Ian MacDonald in his Beatles book Revolution in the Head and looks as if he might give it a flourish of his own, but not nearly enough. For all its candour, Who I Am has to be filed under "missed opportunity".

DJ Taylor's latest novel is 'Secondhand Daylight' (Corsair)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam