London was interesting environment at the beginning of the sixties. The deprivations and horrors of the second world war were still a vivid memories but the post war generation were coming of age and expressing their individuality through the arts, pop music, fashion and youth movements.
Against this background two men from different backgrounds, both frustrated in their ambitions to become film directors hatched an unlikely plan to energise their stalling film industry careers. They would find a young band, become their managers, and make a film about them thus gaining a backstage pass to their career of choice, filmmaking.
These men were Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. Lambert was the son of a composer, Oxford graduate, sometime explorer, gay, and distinctly upper class. The sharp suited Stamp was the son of a tugboat coal stoker, a straight working class boy from the East End. The band they ‘discovered’ were called The High Numbers, you may know them by the name they switched to, The Who.
James D. Cooper’s entertaining documentary is very much the story of these two men rather than the band they managed, although the two are intertwined. This could make for a rather frustrating experience for people more interested in the band, but Lambert and Stamp are fascinating subjects in their own right. Their friendship despite the gulf of class makes the film a fascinating document of a transitional period in postwar Britain.
The pair had no money, and no experience in rock management, but their contribution to the success of The Who was clearly immense. Lambert’s family background in classical music shaped the development of Pete Townsend from a writer of pop hits into a composer of grandiose rock operas. Stamp’s gift for marketing and recognising trends shaped the band’s image and helped create the idea of the group as a cultural brand.
Apart from singer Roger Daltrey, The Who were far from conventional rock gods. Stamp and Lambert recognised that the band’s real stars were Townsend and drummer Keith Moon. Moon was a force of nature for which the term drummer seems hardly adequate. The gawky Townsend became the template for future generations of ‘difficult’ indie guitar heroes.
Carefully selected talking heads including Chris Stamp, Townsend, Daltrey, Stamp’s brother Terrence Stamp (yes, that one), Heather Daltrey, and a few other key figures keep the film focussed. Any retrospective documentary risks being dry but Cooper keeps Lambert & Stamp chugging with some great archive footage. There is particular amusement from French interviews with Lambert when simply by speaking in French the slightly uncool chain-smoking upperclass gentleman transforms into a supercool nouvelle vague film director. Stamp on the other hand is so sharply dressed and good looking that he would still be king of Shoreditch today.
Stamp and Townsend are the most vocal of the interview subjects and the spine of the film is a growing tension between each man’s version of events. In particular different takes on the relative contribution of Kit Lambert to the creation of The Who’s seminal album Tommy, the record that turned them into one of the most successful rock bands in history. The tension is exacerbated as the two are never together in the documentary (although Stamp is seen with Daltrey).
This is a film of two halves, one is startling and unusual. The background of the two managers and the early career of The Who is far from a standard rock fable. The film becomes more conventional in the second half when massive success (The Who eventually mounted tours so excessive the bought Shepparton Studios to house their lasers) leads into an all too predictable tale of chemicals, paranoia, and business backstabbing.
As the relationship between the managers and their band deteriorates, the stories of the two men diverge and (this is no spoiler) because Kit Lambert is not alive to give his side of the tale, it favours Townsend’s account of events a little too much. The film is also a little on the long side and could have used some tightening in the later stages, critically losing focus around the time of the filming of Tommy the movie.
As Old Etonians are stand currently accused of a stranglehold on British politics and acting schools the most interesting aspect of the film for me, was how it shows the how Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp both exploited and transcended class.
A fascinating section of the film explores the impact of the right post code on a person’s ability to succeed in sixties London. Lambert sets up Townsend with an account at an exclusive Belgravia wine merchant from which the guitarist claims never to have received a bill despite decades as a customer. Yet at the same time, Stamp’s working class roots connect him to the youth culture in a way Lambert’s seem to distance him. In a Q&A session after the screening I attended Terrence Stamp remarked that class was something that had no effect on his career as an actor in the sixties. It is strange to consider if British society has retreated back to pre-sixties establishment structures.
It might sound like an accountancy firm, but venture beyond the rather bland title and Lambert & Stamp is a fascinating Rock Doc that is slightly hampered by an unfortunate (but sadly unavoidable) weighting towards one side of the story.
Lambert & Stamp is released in the UK by Dogwoof Films on the 15th of May.