In 1979, The Who, at the peak of their career, released the documentary summing up their career at that point, The Kids Are Alright. As veteran rock critic Dave Marsh wrote in his 1983 biography of the group, Before I Get Old, published to coincide with the band’s “first” farewell tour that year:
Kids is one of the most anarchic documentaries ever assembled, running two hours without a shred of narration and with not so much as a subtitle identifying characters or dates. Kids was the perfect cult item, and Who fans flocked to it. Hardly anyone else did, however, so even though it remained a staple of the midnight movie circuit, part of every kid’s introduction to the verities of the Rock of Ages, the film had little impact outside of the Who’s cult. The Kids Are Alright is, nevertheless, one of the great rock and roll movies, capturing all of the Who’s sass and humor and taking the wind out of the band’s pomposity at each and every opportunity.
Naturally, Keith Moon stole The Kids Are Alright, which became a summation of his career as the Who’s anarchic drummer, who passed away nine months before its release, choking on an overdose of the pills he was prescribed to battle his alcoholism.
This year, filmmaker James D. Cooper released Lambert and Stamp, a documentary about the Who’s first managers, a film that can be thought of as the liner notes to The Kids Are Alright. If you’re a fan of the band, you owe it to yourself to see this film while it’s in the theaters (I saw it last night at a sparsely attended showing at the Camera 3 in San Jose), to get a sense of two men who did so much to shape the group in the 1960s. How much you know about the Who will shape how much you enjoy this new documentary, which is built around a lengthy series of interviews with Chris Stamp (1942-2012), the younger brother of veteran actor Terence Stamp (Superman II, Wall Street, The Limey), who also appears in the film, along with Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Daltrey’s wife Heather, and other Who insiders.
The Who were one of the most unlikeliest of bands; Pete Townshend, art school devotee and later follower of Sufi mystic and guru Meher Baba, was essentially the timekeeper of the group, even though he was the rhythm guitarist. Keith Moon’s anarchic surf-music-inspired drumming provided brilliant percussive colors; but keeping time was not his metier; he was not a man in search of a simple backbeat on the 2 and 4. With his fluid single-note runs, John Entwistle was in many ways the band’s lead guitarist, despite being the bassist. And Daltrey, the founder and nominally the frontman of the group, was forced to fight for attention as singer as his three innovative sidemen roared away alongside him. Somehow it worked — brilliantly — in spite of themselves.
Similarly, Lambert and Stamp were the most unlikeliest of rock managers. They hadn’t really planned to be managers at all. Kit Lambert (1935-1981) was the son of composer/conductor Constant Lambert, who sought to make a name for himself in the shadow of his famous father, who died, as Wikipedia notes, in 1951 “two days short of his forty-sixth birthday, of pneumonia and undiagnosed diabetes complicated by acute alcoholism.”
Britain didn’t legalize homosexuality until 1967; the upper-class Lambert was very much gay during that era. And the handsome, modish Stamp was equally aggressively heterosexual and working class, the son of a tugboat captain. The two originally didn’t want to be managers; after meeting while both were working at Shepperton Studios in the early 1970s, they were looking for the perfect rock group to feature in a documentary on the exploding British rock scene in the wake of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, when they stumbled into the Railway Hotel in Harrow where the Who were playing Motown songs to an overpacked room crammed mostly with hundreds of young Mod men. As the documentary explains, Lambert and Stamp were instantly convinced they had found the perfect group for their film; the band was instantly convinced they were the authorities, about to close down the gig as a fire hazard. While they did shoot some early footage of the group, Lambert and Stamp decided instead they’d rather be Brian Epstein than filmmakers, and quickly began managing the group.
Keith Moon brilliantly summed up the tone of the two men in the early days in his 1972 Rolling Stone interview:
Kit Lambert came to see us playing at the Railway ‘Otel in ‘Arrow. We had a meeting. We didn’t like each other at first, really. Kit and Chris. They went ’round together. And they were . . . are . . . as incongruous a team as we are. You got Chris on one hand [goes into unintelligible East London cockney]: “Oh well, f**k it, jus, jus whack ‘im in-a ‘ead, ‘it ‘im in ee balls an’ all.” And Kit says [slipping into a proper Oxonian]: “Well, I don’t agree, Chris; the thing is . . . the whole thing needs to be thought out in damned fine detail.” These people were perfect for us, because there’s me, bouncing about, full of pills, full of everything I could get me ‘ands on . . . and there’s Pete, very serious, never laughed, always cool, a grass-’ead. I was working at about ten times the speed Pete was. And Kit and Chris were like the epitome of what we were.
Lambert was a brilliant ideas man; he shaped The Who’s image as sharply-dressed mods, encouraged Townshend and Moon’s guitar and drum smashing, and hired a graphic artist to design The Who’s iconic “Maximum R&B” poster (a copy of which is hanging behind me in my home office as I write this). Lambert also moved Townshend into Lambert’s flat in the posh Belgravia section of London, giving the band a veneer of success far beyond what they were earning as working musicians. Meanwhile Stamp was largely funding the band’s early days via his work as a second assistant director on the Kirk Douglas WWII movie, The Heroes of Telemark.
Lambert fueled Townshend’s composing skills, convincing him to link together several short, incomplete songs into one nine minute number in 1966 called “A Quick One,” which the two called “their mini-opera,” and which Townshend credits for inspiring some of the ideas on Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles’ landmark concept album the following year. That album would go on to inspire the Who’s double album “rock opera,” Tommy, released in 1969.