The Who weren’t mods, they were groomed to look that way by Peter Meaden, a pill-popping publicist with so many ideas in his unnaturally active mind that he couldn’t always spot the right one. The mod image was a sound plan; changing the group’s name to the High Numbers and pasting a self-consciously mod lyric onto a Slim Harpo tune wasn’t, and ‘I’m The Face’ died a death. When would-be entrepreneurs Kit Lambert (posh) and Chris Stamp (street-sharp) showed up, Meaden was rowed out, and the group became The Who again.
More lastingly important than the look, which, on all except Townshend, sat awkwardly, as if their clothes were the wrong size and their hair cut for another head, and which, in any case, would soon give way to second-hand ‘op art’ graphic devices, was the care Meaden took to indoctrinate the group into mod culture via visits to the Scene Club in Soho. Townshend absorbed most from the Scene’s scene, the explosive spark for the group’s trio of 1965 hits, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ and ‘My Generation’.
Eight years on and not for the first time, I met the immensely likeable Meaden, shortly after Townshend had completed his mod opus, Quadrophenia. We talked about the drynamil days. He showed me a letter from Townshend, mounted like a picture in a frame and hung on the wall behind his desk. It was Townshend’s thank you – a cheque had been enclosed – for uncovering this precious lode of inspiration that he had lately mined once more.
I only saw him once more, at the start of the Who’s 1975 UK tour to promote The Who By Numbers. The venue was Bingley Hall, near Stafford, an inhospitable shed in which the stink of a recent cattle auction hung like fog. I was writing a review for NME, Meaden was managing the Steve Gibbons Band, their support spot further evidence of Townshend’s enduring allegiance. We were pleased to see one another. Unsurprisingly, Meaden was still popping pills; given a minute and a chronically weak will, so was I.
Although the gig was on a Friday, it wasn’t until Monday morning, with the shadow of a midday deadline as oppressive as my hang-over, that I searched for my notes. Experience had taught me what to expect, for I had doggedly followed my motto: live and don’t learn. I knew, from too many other Monday mornings, that when I located those notes, folded minutely in my wallet or, ratcheting my panic several notches, still stuffed in the shirt or jeans I’d worn to the gig, the layers of paper stuck with sweat or a drink someone had tipped over me, they would comprise at best an inadequate jumble of cock-eyed observations and bons mots, as if I had set out intentionally to play tricks on my hung-over self, or, at worst, entirely undecipherable: words written blindly in darkness, the ink run into a Rorschach blot, leaving me with nothing more to rely on than my memory, fallible when my brain was in the gym every day, but after a bender of a weekend, as safe a repository for my thoughts as if I had written them in sand with a stick as the tide turned to come in.
I stared at the sheet of paper I’d fumbled into my ancient typewriter – an office Olympia to which I had been known to pray in the absence of inspiration – aware that I had to wrench five hundred words from what was left of my brain. I turntabled The Who By Numbers and stilled my shaking hand sufficiently to lower the pick-up onto one track after another in the false hope that at least one number would trigger a productive memory, and rued my old-fashioned view that I – the intrusive ego – should be absent from the articles I wrote. I knew writers who would go for the hey-get-me-I’ve-been-on-a-booze-and-pills-bender-with-The-Who’s-muse angle, but, apart from my journalistic principles, another concern stopped me, which was that, daft as it seemed even to me, ten years after I’d left home, I didn’t want my parents to know I did drugs.
I took a break to submerge myself in a scalding bath with a cold flannel compress on my head, and read what I’d managed to write, while I leaked sweat from heat and fear, then returned reluctantly to my desk. Somehow I wrung out the remainder of the required words, hurtled recklessly along the Embankment and through the old Kingsway tram tunnel to the NME’s office in Long Acre, where I left my car on a yellow line. The reviews editor made a show of counting off the final seconds on his watch as I panted to his desk.
To help me recover from my stressful morning, I stopped off on the way home at The Plough on Wandsworth Road. Over the first pint of a new week, I promised myself that next weekend I’d wait until the gig was over and my notes intact and stored in a safe repository, before I got completely out of it.
When Peter Meaden overdosed at his parents’ north London home in July 1978, weeks before Keith Moon, the verdict was suicide. There was no connection between these deaths, of course, apart from the haunting link of Townshend’s line: “Hope I die before I get old.”