Film Interview: Director James D. Cooper on “Lambert & Stamp” — Creating The Who

Lambert & Stamp will resonate with musicians who have experienced the volatile give-and-take that is needed to sustain and nurture a rock and roll band.

Lambert & Stamp, directed by James D. Cooper. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA

Footage from the 1960s of Peter Townsend and 'Kit' Lambert in the documentary "Lambert and Stamp."

Footage from the 1960s of Peter Townsend and ‘Kit’ Lambert in the documentary “Lambert and Stamp.”

By Tim Jackson

In the music business of the 1950’s and ’60s, A&R (Artist and Repertoire) men helped great artists find and maintain their creative stride. Early examples include Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and John Hammond. With the British rock invasion, many of best bands were strengthened by the intersection of talent and astute management: Brian Epstein and the early Beatles, Andrew Loog Oldham and the Rolling Stones, and later Malcolm Mclaren and the Sex Pistols. Other examples include Albert Grossman (Dylan, Odetta), Robert Stigwood (Cream, BeeGees) and Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin).

Lesser known are the duo of ‘Kit’ Lambert and Chris Stamp, who are the subjects of a new film entitled Lambert & Stamp. Initially working as filmmakers, their intention was to document, cinema vérité style, the formation and evolution of a rock band that they themselves would nurture and direct. The film was never realized, but their smarts turned what began as a kind of art project into a global phenomenon. They even renamed the band: The High Numbers became The Who.

I spoke with director James D. Cooper about the film during his recent visit to Boston. His movie mixes rare archival footage in with a number of interviews, the subjects including Chris Stamp and the surviving members of the band, Peter Townsend and Roger Daltry. (Lambert died in 1981 from a fall in his mother’s house in 1981. He had a history of alcohol and drug problems. Stamp passed away from cancer several years ago). Even with this riveting material, Lambert and Stamp is far from a traditional rock documentary and that may disappoint some viewers. But there are already two great documentaries on the band that cover the musical history: The Kids Are Alright (1979) and Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who (2007). Lambert and Stamp will resonate with musicians who have experienced the volatile give-and-take that is needed to sustain and nurture a rock and roll band. The music plays second fiddle to how these two men molded and guided four arrogant, slightly unhinged youngsters into a seminal and influential rock act.

“Lambert and Stamp were looking for a band that would represent their audience, and were looking for the musical equivalent of the French New Wave,” asserts Cooper. The film rambles at first, and that is intentional: the editing is meant to echo the kinetic style that Lambert and Stamp originally intended with their own film. “The desire to create art is for me a desperate futile search for order in this mad thing we call life,” the director explains. For him, the opening montage is meant to be a visual representation of an urge to create order from disorder. Dmitri Shostakovich’s composition “Five Days-Five Nights” (a piece written about the bombing of Dresden) is on the soundtrack, adding a fitting postwar reference. For Cooper, the music represents “Chris Stamp’s universal quest of trying to find one’s place in the world.”

While Townsend’s genius as a songwriter is irrefutable, Lambert and Stamp’s backgrounds provided the yin/yang dynamic needed to unite a disparate group of musicians. Stamp, the son of a tugboat captain and the brother of ’60s icon and movie star Terrence Stamp, was a working-class dandy, a handsome womanizer. “He was born into difficult circumstances and came in as a survivalist,” Cooper says. “You hustle and you do what you can do to get by. You’re told that life is going to be a certain way for you. And you make the best within the constraints of your situation.” In contrast, Lambert was the son of the celebrated composer and conductor Constant Lambert. He was Oxford educated, multi-lingual, and gay: “He comes from a completely different area. But he’s got the ball and chain of this daunting legacy that’s telling him ‘this is how it’s going to be for you.’ They both feel exactly the same way coming from completely different circumstances.” That synergy provided the spirit, the image, the inspiration, and even the name for the band. “The streetwise Stamp filled the band with invincible courage and sheer bravado. Lambert provided the intellectual cover. ‘They were,’ as Townsend says, ‘the shell around the egg’ of what would become The Who.”

As managers, they made key decisions regarding production and marketing, notably suggesting the stuttering vocal in the song “My Generation.” The musicians resisted the idea at first, but eventually saw that it was true to the anxious speech found among the drug-taking crowd that frequented the clubs where the band performed. Cooper adds, “a normal manager would not have proclaimed that his band was ‘a new form of crime,’ nor encourage the guitarist and lead singer to say things like ‘we want to leave a deep wound.” By doing so, Lambert and Stamp “achieved a unified direction that harnessed the band’s personas; not by saying ‘don’t be what you are,’ but by saying ‘be what you are – more.’ Then they put this nerviness into service and directed it.”

As the film moves along, the band’s music begins to take over. The stakes get higher, the decisions bolder, the band crazier and more famous. The ensuing story is not entirely a happy one. Daltrey, and Townsend in particular, are eloquent about their past. Townsend makes some compelling statements, saying that “Entwistle was simply an absolute fucking genius” and confessing, though with great respect, that Keith Moon “wasn’t really a drummer.” Indeed, Entwistle’s aggressive skill anchored Moon’s unrestrained approach on the drums. The latter’s style was an essential part of both the show and the way the music was arranged. How he might have survived in another era is an open question. Moon eventually descended into depression and died in 1978 from a massive overdose of heminevrin, a drug used to combat alcoholism. Entwistle died rom a cocaine-induced heart attack in 2002.

Lambert and Stamp’s break with the band was a disheartening experience. Townsend had written the songs for his rock opera, Tommy. Lambert told him that what he had was not yet an “opera,” but merely a collection of songs. Lambert come up with a script for Tommy, but it was ignored. (Townsend acknowledges Lambert’s musical influence on his writing through the years.) More disappointing for Stamp was that they were not asked to direct the film version of Tommy. A break came soon after. Ken Russell directed the film version in 1975 with Roger Daltry in the lead.

“What you’re feeling on the screen — hopefully — are deep universal desires to connect and find one’s way. Even though you have older, for want of a better term ‘rock stars,’ they lived through this process at different stages of their lives, but they started as very, very young men without direction.” This valuable film takes us on a moving journey from exhilaration to regret.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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