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Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Who: My Generation


1) Out In The Street; 2) I Don't Mind; 3) The Good's Gone; 4) La-La-La Lies; 5) Much Too Much; 6) My Generation; 7) The Kids Are Alright; 8) Please, Please, Please; 9) It's Not True; 10) I'm A Man; 11) A Legal Matter; 12) The Ox; 13*) Circles.

When this LP was finally released on the market, The Who were not particularly happy about it, and few of its songs would survive as radio classics or stage favorites. Of course, they were still luckier than The Kinks: almost twenty months of non-stop work separated the congealing of the band's classic line-up from the marketing of their first LP, a period during which Pete Townshend had solidly cut his teeth as a songwriter — you can easily tell that they included those James Brown and Bo Diddley covers on the final version not because they had gaps to fill, but because those had become an essential part of their live act at the time. And yet, Pete was still left behind with the feel of an immature rush job, one that neither managed to properly catch up with all the musical groundbreaking of the epoch nor managed to capture their live ambience.

The second argument is moot, though. In the studio, The Who were perfectionists who could never even begin to set themselves the goal of sounding just as wild and out of control as they did on stage — and this is a good thing, as they are one out of a small handful of «effortlessly two-faced» bands whose studio and live output live two different — connected, but autonomous — lives. But it is also true that both onstage wildness and studio perfectionism are complex arts that require the accumulation of experience, and in 1965, The Who were still learning on both fronts. In retrospect, My Generation is a formative album whose flaws almost outweigh its virtues; the saving grace is that the flaws themselves are downright bizarre from time to time.

No review of My Generation, however, can bypass the point where it all begins — ʽI Can't Ex­plainʼ, one of the greatest songs of 1965 and perhaps of the entire decade. The Who burst through with the same kind of blast as did The Kinks with ʽYou Really Got Meʼ, and indeed Townshend has always acknowledged the huge influence that Ray Davies had on his own songwriting. But The Who did something bigger with that song: where ʽYou Really Got Meʼ amends the rules of pop music with its minimalism and brutality, ʽI Can't Explainʼ downright rewrites them, reversing the roles of the instruments — placing the guitar in the rhythm section and making a lead instru­ment out of the drums. With John's bass staying somewhat low in the mix and Daltrey's vocals still suffering from certain stiffness, ʽI Can't Explainʼ is a Pete / Keith show all the way, and every note, every beat punched out on those instruments feels like a wake-up call to action. The lyrics of the song primarily appeal to young people — it is one of those classic "I'm eighteen, and I don't know what I want" moments — but the musical core of the song is far more mature than your average garage rock nugget from sex-crazed youngsters. And it has one of Keith Moon's greatest drum parts ever: despite the initial feel of crazy chaos, every fill is perfectly calculated and in its rightful place. (And no, this does not apply to every song Keith had ever played on, live or in the studio — he could be extremely messy if he was in a different kind of mood).

As far as I'm concerned, it is a better song than ʽMy Generationʼ itself, if only because ʽMy Gene­rationʼ suffers from being a bit too self-conscious: it spells out openly (and a bit trivially) the same things that other youth anthems were conveying more metaphorically at the time (even ʽSatisfactionʼ was never quite as explicit as ʽMy Generationʼ is with its simplistic philosophy), and its chorus is too simplistic and sloganeering. There are three things that people always re­member about the song — "hope I die before I get old" (a line that got compromised a long, long time ago, what with «The Who» still trudging their sorry asses on stage fifty years after it was written); Roger's bizarre and gratuitous stuttering gimmick; and John's fantastic bass solo — and only the last one of these still gets my head spinning. Yet it was a very important song for The Who and for rock music in general, and without its success, the band's career might have turned out very differently (if only for the fact that they'd only just kicked Roger out of the band when the single began to rocket up the charts, and so they quickly had to bring him back in), and then there's the Live At Leeds version which is an entirely different thing... anyway, who am I kidding? This is friggin' ʽMy Generationʼ, and nothing I say can change that fact.

There is that other fact, though, that Pete Townshend actually wrote some fun songs for the rest of this album, and they sort of got lost in transit when compared to the success of the band's singles. ʽThe Good's Goneʼ — now there's a completely different musical approach to the subject of breaking up, surprisingly deep and mature: not an ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ where the indignant lover is dumping the cheating bitch, but a simple irritated acknowledgement that the feeling is no longer there on both sides, punctuated by Townshend's cold guitar tones and Daltrey's weary and frustrated delivery. (As a psychological portrait, I think the song works better than ʽMy Genera­tionʼ, but don't tell anyone). ʽMuch Too Muchʼ — another really good one: "If it's you I need I've got to pay the levy / Got to pay 'cause your love's too heavy on me". Let alone the fact that nobody probably ever used the word ʽlevyʼ in a pop song, the subject of the protagonist moving away from his object of affection because the affection has become too chain-like is also relative­ly new to the pop sphere — already at this point, Townshend was not interested in writing stereo­typical love ballads, and made sure that the musical atmosphere always correlated with the lyrical message. Perhaps they aren't too great from a straightforward melodic perspective, but they are interesting songs, and Daltrey, even with his still uncertain and underdeveloped voice, understood fairly well how to do them justice.

On Side B, there are a few joke songs, seriously influenced by the Stones (ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, ʽThe Last Timeʼ), but they rank among the greatest joke songs of the Sixties — ʽIt's Not Trueʼ is an early example of an anti-tabloid rant, and ʽA Legal Matterʼ is the first of many Who songs about running away from their wives or fiancées, although its most distinguishing feature is pro­bably the cute little ringing riff at the beginning (so nice to hear it cropping up in the middle of the song as well). But, of course, the greatest Townshend original here is ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ, a song that had probably stunned many with its "I don't mind other guys dancing with my girl" (so whatever happened to the half-chivalrous, half-egotistic ideal of "If somebody wants to take my place / Let's pretend we just can't see his face"?) — and, if you want to entertain darker thoughts, it is not impossible to interpret the whole thing as an invitation to share... oh, never mind. The important thing is that, for all its questionable lyrical content, ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ is a magnificent power pop creation, a rip-roaring-ringing anthem that does for The Who pretty much the same that ʽPlease Please Meʼ did for The Beatles. Except The Beatles showed them­selves to be quite egotistic, whereas Daltrey and Townshend are, uhm, happy to share. You know, in a way this record actually makes the Stones' attitude towards women seem downright courte­ous — at least Jagger and Richards despised their imaginary girlfriends for imaginary promiscu­ousness; Townshend puts down his ones just because he is afraid they might be getting a bit too possessive of his personality. But that's the way life works sometimes, too, and even this kind of attitude deserves its musical depiction — and gets it, fair and square.

Against this background, the James Brown covers recorded here sound disappointing: ʽPlease, Please, Pleaseʼ in particular seems almst ridiculous, coming off the heels of ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ — "I don't mind other guys dancing with my girl" immediately followed by "Baby please don't go, I love you so?". Is this an apology or something? And Roger Daltrey taking on the challenge of covering James Brown... there's a reason why neither The Beatles nor The Stones dared to cover any of Brown's classics, you know. Most likely, the covers were there simply for instructive purposes: being huge fans of American R&B, Townshend and the boys thought it was their duty to properly introduce British audiences to the Godfather, a figure somewhat underrated in comparison to blues and rockabilly greats — a noble, but obviously obsolete purpose.

But who really cares about the James Brown covers when we got 'The Oxʼ? A sonic marvel that still sounds impressive today, with Keith playing a relatively straightforward, but totally relent­less tom-tom pattern and Pete experimenting with feedback on the wildest of all possible pre-Hendrix levels. (Special mention, by the way, should be made of Nicky Hopkins, who adds his energetic piano rolls not only to this song, but to the majority of the other tracks on the album as well: this was one of his earliest big breaks as a session player, and although for the most part he is content to be staying in the background, his piano parts do a good job of «thickening» the sound — it is not for nothing, after all, that Pete was worried for such a long time about the lack of a keyboard player with The Who onstage). ʽThe Oxʼ sounds absolutely nothing like the majo­rity of blues-rock instrumentals at the time: it is accessible and avantgarde at the same time, a celebration of well-structured noise, inspired by the likes of Link Wray but pushing such influen­ces as far forward as they could go at the time. Play it loud and proud today, and it will proudly compete against any noise rock achievements of the past half century.

With all these wonderful breakthroughs, I really do not care that ʽOut In The Streetsʼ begins with the exact same guitar trills that Townshend also used for the far superior single ʽAnyway, Any­how, Anywhereʼ; or that ʽLa-La-La Liesʼ sounds woefully underproduced, a catchy pop song that deserved Beatles-level production but got Shel Talmy; or that the group's vocal harmonies sound frail and shaky next to their peers; or about those noble James Brown covers. No amount of filler can bury the fact that here, in late 1965, when you could think you'd already heard it all, we have emerging one of the most unique and intelligent voices of the first generation of British beat bands. And they were only beginning to heat up — yet My Generation is still a thumbs up all the way, just like any Keith Moon-era Who record.

Technical note: the US equivalent of the album was retitled The Who Sings My Generation and featured a less interesting cover photo on which The Who were no longer seen scrutinizing you from below (but you had Big Ben there, because how else you'd know that these guys came from across the water?), as well as replaced the band's cover of Bo Diddley's ʽI'm A Manʼ with the proto-psychedelic B-side ʽCirclesʼ, apparently because of strong sexual connotations in the for­mer (ironically, The Yardbirds had their version of the song released fair and square in the States that same year). In 2002, the album (previously unavailable for a long time on CD due to a legal matter, baby) got a deluxe edition with numerous alternate takes that are mostly of historic inte­rest — but at least it is now delivered together with ʽI Can't Explainʼ. On the whole, though, I do not recommend the deluxe edition as strongly as the other reissues of the band's catalog that come together with rare B-sides, EP-only tracks and other autonomous, well-rounded songs that often add a lot to the catalog.


  1. Of the first four A-sides, "The Kids Are Alright" did nothing for me at first. For whatever reason it sounded too cutesy to me. It took a couple of years to realize how great a melody it had, and the subtle cleverness of the lyrics.

    As far as British Invasion debuts go, it's ok -- aside from the lamentable James Brown covers, it lacks the charm of "Please Please Me" or the dark edge of the Stones' first album. Still, a good record.

    1. Kids Are Alright sounds like the Four Seasons to me. Or, it would sound cool if they covered it. In the early days, Pete tended to draw inspiration from hit singles. My Generation was written as a Dylan talking blues. Substitute was inspired by Tracks of My Tears. So it's not weird to think he would be influenced by the Jersey Boys.

  2. The Good's Gone is a Mudhoney song 20+ years early. Whenever I hear it, I can't helping hearing Mark Arm singing it, and the entire tune and feel just screams out "Mudhoney!!"

  3. I love The Who but due to the limited access to the band's discography I got into this record pretty late after hearing all the singles so for me the debut album is more of a historical monument rather than a record I can enjoy all songs through (and the sloppy James Brown covers don't help it).

    This might sound blasphemous but I really think that The Who didn't have a proper sounding album until Who's Next. That record caught everything in its' place — Pete's rhythm guitar and soloing, Keith's power drums, John's tricky basslines and Roger's top vocals. Until that it always seemed to me that the studio stuff had been recorded too gently ('Tommy') or to muddy ('My Generation' album).

    But, yes, the historical value of this record is hard to overestimate.

  4. Looking forward to this series!