Monday, 14 July 2014
The Who "Sing My Generation" (1965)
The Who "Sing My Generation" (1965)
Out In The Street/I Don't Mind/The Good's Gone/La-La-La-Lies/Much Too Much/My Generation//The Kids Are Alright/Please Please Please/It's Not True/I'm A Man/A Legal Matter/The Ox
The 'orrible 'oo are leering at me and it's an unnerving sight. Great figures I might have seen down the years, towering scary figures some of them - but they had nothing on this bunch of skinny teenagers, with the look of despair and fury in their eyes. They should have had this photo shot wrapped up and done with five minutes ago, but it's not going well. Nothing seems to be going well in the Who's orbit, despite the fact that the band are the hot new sound of 1965, with two top ten hits and a number one to their name. The oil drums aren't right or something (why are the hottest band on the planet for this month standing on front of a load of oil drums anyway - were they the only sort of drums Keith wouldn't explode?!) The Who don't care whether they're right or not - they just want this picture taken and to get out of there. The Who don't care about a lot of things it seems. In fact I'm thinking of asking them to do a charity album and call it 'Who Cares?' Anyway, I digress. I'm not all that important you see - just your average humble time travelling music historian from the 35th Gateway to Time and I've worshipped this cover photo since seeing it in one of those dusty libraries on Zigorous 3 - one of the few recordings from the 20th century to still exist in our timezone after being deemed 'culturally significant' in 2009 and preserved at the US Library of Congress. In a rare break I try to tell Pete Townshend, the beak nosed guitarist, why I'm here - or rather why my hologram is here: that our whole perception of what it meant to be a kid from the 1960s was built from this album and that sneer on his face; he doesn't seem to be listening. So I talked to Roger Daltrey, the mop-headed singer about the thrill of finally reproducing the album's grooves for the first time using Belobrat technology imported in from a neighbouring solar system and our whole planet's excitement as we realised that the music was every bit as wild and dangerous yet awe-inspiring as that cover led us believe. (It was certainly better than the other 20th century album that had survived: The Spice Girls 'Greatest Hits', a record we all voted to burn, despite its historical importance). But he doesn't seem to be listening either. So I tried to have a quiet word with the smart-suited drummer but that was impossible - it seemed impossible to have a quiet anything with Keith Moon. So in desperation I turned to quiet bassist John Entwistle and poured out my heart to him - how I'd travelled three light years and four thousand years to see history being made right in front of my eyes. And The Ox listens, unsure whether to believe me or not. Finally I ask him to tell me about this monumental album, this masterpiece of uncoiled passion and anger and violence and mayhem and energy and maximum R and B (whatever that might mean - note to self to look it up when I get home) and finally he speaks: 'I never did like that album. Didn't sound anything like as wild as our stage set. The next one will be better.' And with that the photo shoot is finally ready and he walks off, a union jack flag draped over his shoulders, leaving all four of my mouths hanging wide open. Was this really what it was like, being part of this generation?
The Who's 1965 selves would undoubtedly have laughed at anyone who told them that their debut album - hurried in a few days and packed with filler, a fact they knew even at the time - would be held up as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. But 50 years on (give or take a revolution around the sun) it is. Everybody knows it. The punks knew it -this is one of the few 1960s albums they embraced, with several cover versions of this album's simple yet all-embracing songs filling up the sets of bands who only knew how to play one chord. The new wavers who came after knew it too - for them 'My Generation' was the ultimate mod album: check out those sharp suits, that union jack-et, that whole look. And the 1990s Britpop movement knew it too: louder than the early recordings by The Beatles, more together than the early recordings by The Rolling Stones and less scattershot than the early recordings by The Kinks, 'The Who Sings My Generation' sounds like a band who absolutely know where they're going and how to do it. The album got another boost in 2002 when a whole host of contractual tangles we'll go into later were finally put to one side and 'My Generation' finally made it onto CD for the first time, a mere 17 years after the mainstream sale of the compact disc. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pete Townshend is bang on the money from his very first song ('I Can't Explain' in case you didn't know): aching parables about frustration and identity, the need to belong to something in an often crazy world, the theme of quite a few of the songs on this album too. This line-up of the band might have been together less than a year (Keith Moon joining last in 1964) but this power trio-plus-singer are already highly drilled, act on a second-sense bands ten times their age would give their left amplifier to possess and only need a visiting studio pianist (Nicky Hopkins) to augment their sound. Best of all, Brunswick are surely unique in 1965 circles by actually knowing how to get The Who's humungous noise down onto an album. Sure, the Who will mess it up in 1966 when they move to Track Records and go all psychedelic and flowery, but 'My Generation' rocks like no other album from the pre-1968 era. It's a cliché but it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. The songs are still so timeless and so enticing that some new band nobody's ever heard of probably were.
So job done then, classic album, go buy it now, job done. Well, not exactly. The Who have an awful lot of problems making their records as we've seen before on this site and 'My Generation' gave them bigger headaches than most. That part we wrote above about Pete Townshend writing great songs from the first - all perfectly true, he won't write a single bad song until at least 1978 and possibly after, even if the band don't always know what to do with them. But The Who weren't meant to be a band that wrote their own songs - they were very much a soul and R and B covers band. That had been the deal when Roger, Pete and John met at Acton Grammar School. That had stayed the deal when manager Pete Meadon had 'borrowed' them to become the mod group he's always wanted, kitting them out in mod gear and getting them to record a single he'd just written under the name 'The High Numbers'. That had stayed the game plan when their original drummer Doug Sandom - a good decade older than the rest of the group - was rather unfairly chucked out after the band failed an audition because the person judging wasn't keen on drums. Soon after that occasion the band had been rescued by an 18 year old kid who kept turning up to their gigs, who'd died his hair and his clothes ginger for no other reason than he felt like it; Keith Moon's arrival did nothing to change the fact that he was joining a covers band (which was fine by him - even though he really wanted The Who to become a surfing act like his heroes The Beach Boys; The Who's indescribable cover of 'Barbara Ann' is less than a year away). That had been the plan when the Who starting wowing audiences at London's Marquee Club too, the sleevenotes for the ';My Generation' proudly boasting that The Who's Tuesday nights at the venue - 'the one night not to visit the Marquee club' - were now as packed as any other! That was the plan when The Who started becoming regulars on TV show 'Ready Steady Go!' - a couple of clips which still exist and find the band playing 'Shout and Shimmy' and 'Papa Rolling Stone' rather than any Pete Townshend originals. The covers idea was still the plan when the band met to consider their first album, which was planned to replicate their stage set the way the first Beatles and Stones records had done (The Kinks of course did things differently - but then didn't they always, even back then?)
So when did the plan change? Well, it lies in the John Carre-like power struggles that were going on inside the band across 1965. The decision to record a Pete Townshend song as the first single was intended to be the exception rather than the rule - a poppy ear-catching single before the 'heavy' stuff arrived (Noel Gallagher later quoted it as an influence in releasing 'Supersonic' as the first Oasis single in 1994, rather than the more obvious 'Live Forever' or 'Rock and Roll Star'). Roger Daltrey, the band's clear leader up to and including this move, got in on the writing act himself for second single co-writing 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' with Pete (sadly their only collaboration in the whole of The Who's turbulent history!) This album was duly begun in April 1965 as a purely covers-based album. But by third single 'My Generation' - whose lyrics were infamously scribbled out on a taxi on the way to the session where it was recorded - Pete Townshend was already being seen as the spokesperson of his generation and covers were getting passe anyway by 1965. Roger - the band's get up and go man, who physically drove the band to their early gigs and hauled most of the equipment - was not a happy bunny. He'd joined The Who to record R and B songs, not this empty pop nonsense. After being kicked out for school (for fighting, his second favourite hobby of the time) he'd spend horrible dirty painful hours slugging away as a metal sheet worker while Pete Townshend was down the road in a bed sit, living off a student grant and debating whether to go into art college that day or not (Pete's autobiography 'Who I Am' is particularly lively discussing the years 1964-65, with the distance between him and Roger getting bigger every day as the litter on the floor of his digs became far more symbolic obstacles to success). A troubled tour of Denmark shortly before the album recording, when Keith Moon discovered amphetamines and as a result a lifetime habit of being hyper and doped up and part of his own increasingly colourful world, led to a full blown fight: Roger threw Keith's pills down a hotel loo and physically lashed out, using his fists to spell out all that pent up frustration and anger - about having worked so hard to make The Who a success and to see it snatched out from under his eyes. The band had a meeting back in England about whether the band should side with Roger or Keith; despite knowing him for far less time they went with the likeable, still fun drummer rather than the scowling singer. Roger's pride was hurt but, sensing that a stake in a band that clearly had a future was better than being leader of a band that might not have the talent to make it, Roger made up and vowed to become his alter ego 'Peaceful Perc'. To his credit it was a promise he kept all the way up to 1972 despite the often mad house around him. What it meant for 'My Generation' was that instead of the whole planned album of R and B covers, about half of the tracks recorded for the session were axed and the band went back into the studio in October with the latest feverish batch of Pete Townshend songs and not a single cover song in sight (for the record the 'scrapped' songs were all released on the 'deluxe' edition of the album in 2002, a few of them appearing earlier on rarity sets 'Who's Missing' and 'Tow's Missing' in the 1980s: 'Shout and Shimmy' 'Leaving Here' 'Anytime You Want Me' 'Motoring' 'Lubie'; of these the first two really swing and would have been better suited to the album than the two James Brown and one Bo Diddley songs) .
So that's everything settled now, right? The writer's in place, the singer's backed down and the recording went smoothly! Well, no - the Who were having enough problems of their own when in walked Shel Talmy. He should have been an obvious choice: a tried and tested producer who knew just how to get the sound the band were looking for; he was the first producer for The Kinks, the band that above all Pete longed to copy. You'll know from his other appearances on this site already, though (especially his early work with The Kinks) that Shel Talmy was not an easy man for even an easy-going band like The Easybeats to get on with, never mind a band continually at war like The Who. They clashed. Often and badly. The biggest clash came not from the band themselves, however, but manager Kit Lambert, who considered that The Who were 'special' and that the producer was treating them like session men. Moreover part of the 'deal' for working with the great Shel Talmy was that the band would be signed to an unbreakbale five year deal that could see Talmy place their records with whichever record label he chose - reportedly tiny label Brunswick were a lot more sitngy in their royalty rates and publicity budget than most even in the notoriously stingy early 1960s. An argument over the way the album was shaping up saw Lambert - always in Pete's camp rather than Roger's - actually 'fire' Talmy from the project, something he technically didn't have the power to do. Talmy knew that and sued for breach of contract and won - the red tape of which tangled the rights to the master tapes of the album up until 2002, meant the three singles already released were often 'missing' from 1970s and 80s compilations (and what good is a Who compilation without 'My Generation' as it's heart and soul?) and that the fourth single all ready to go, 'Substitute', had it's intended B-side 'Circles' , err, substituted for 'Waltz For A Pig', an instrumental by the much more amenable Graham Bond Organisation. To be fair, what Kit perhaps didn't understand was that Shel was under pressure to make this debut album what the Brunswick label executives considered 'releasable' (they'd already sent back the first pressing of 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' because they'd assumed the squealing feedback on the guitar was 'faulty' - which of course it is but to oh such wonderful, deliberate effect). Future Who fans have long cursed this fact, which robbed us of a proper edition of this album for oh so long, but the immediate effect was even more alarming: as part of the court case settlement Brunswick could release the material recorded till now what when and Who they liked, the singles often 'co-incidentally' coming out at the same time as The Who's later 'proper' singles on Track and thus splitting their sales. Their even more immediate problem was that Shel was now cut in on every Who release until 1969 (and 'Tommy' as it turned out), taking a financial share of a pie that was already at stretching point after smashed guitars and Moon the Loon mayhem on the road had been taken into account.
'The Who Sing My Generation', then, is a troubled LP. It's made by a band who often seemed to actively hate one another and under the 'control' of a producer who didn't think much of them either. But perhaps that's not a weakness of the album; perhaps that's it's strength. What could have been a rather dry and generic album largely made up of a teenager doing James Brown impersonations is turned into an uncontrollable monster of sound, all snarls and bad temper that sounds liberating now in an anodyne 2014, never mind the still largely conservative world of 1965. The papers liked to talk about The Rolling Stones being the band you would never let your daughter go out with in case they took 'advantage' of her and ran away - but on this record The Who sound like they would do that and then return to set fire to the village they liberated her from. Roger has always been one of the 'hardest' sounding singers in rock - but here he's a monster, drawling his way through 'It's Not True' like Billy The Kid and Ronnie Biggs combined and saying so much more than anyone had dared before with the stutter from 'My Generation'. He may have resented singing Pete's songs, but his tough guy way of singing the songs sensitive Pete could only dream of saying in real life is at least an equal part of the reason why they work; ironically it's only on his beloved soul covers that Roger sounds less convincing. Keith Moon practically re-invents rock drumming, his drum fills perhaps not quite up to the sheer power of his 1970s recordings but compared to the other big releases of the year (say, The Dave Clark Five) his drumming sounds like a battered morse code hammered from the depths of Armageddon itself. Pete Townshend had found the art of combining Dave Davies' squeal with Jimmy Page's crunch and his guitar plays a bigger role in the sound of this than perhaps any other Who LP (when John's bass plays more of a role), stabbing at the songs as if unsure whether to drive a knife into everyone's hearts or repair the world with a knitting needle. The Ox very much has a part to play though: his jaw-dropping solo on his very own title song sounds like nothing less than a musical chainsaw carving through any last vestiges of 1950s society, rattling every convention going. The songs clearly play a part in the making of this album, as does the front cover (though perhaps not the less than usual enthusiastic puff on the back sleeve) but it's the sound and power that makes 'My Generation' such a thrilling experience. Just check out the finale to 'I'm A Man', until now the one established song on the album from an earlier era, ending in a jabbering, quivering one-two-three-four-five stab and squeal of mayhem, rage and sighs; you can almost hear Bo Diddley's ghost quaking in the corner and not so long ago his was the sound that sent people running for the hills.
Talking of songs, if there's a theme to this album then it's one of frustration. Had The Rolling Stones not plucked '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' seemingly out of the air one Spring 1965 morning then the song was surely heading for the brain of Pete Townshend. 'Out In The Street' may be the one Townshend song that tries to write in the 'soul' idiom he knows Roger will enjoy, but it's pure Townshend imagery: guy meets girl, guy knows girl fancies him, girl denies it, guy storms off in a huff. 'The Good's Gone' may be the saddest song of the entire 1960s, a 'Ticket-To-Ride' style proto heavy metal song that sounds like the weight of the universe is on its shoulders, crushing it down to the point where nothing good will ever happen again - and the narrator hasn't got a clue how to put things right. 'La La La Lies' might be the sort of silly pop song lesser acts of 1965 were writing, but Pete's narrator is already in denial, defining himself very carefully by saying what he doesn't stand for - but not having the identity enough to fill in the gaps of what he really is. 'It's Not True' pushes the idea even further, just in case you didn't get the message the first time, the accusations piling up getting more and more ridiculous until the narrator ends the song on a snarling 'so there!' 'Much Too Much' is an early version of 'Too Much Of Anything', where a relationship that used to be fun and exciting is now a weight, 'much too much' heavy for the narrator to bear, a fact painfully dragged down by towering virtuoso display of drumming. 'A Legal Matter' is another relationship turned sour, where once the love of the narrator's life stood for everything that was wonderful has turned his home upside down into a sea of 'wedding catalogues and baby trousers'. Now the only escape he can have is the one of divorce, a natural union of hearts turned into nothing more than a slip of paper he can't cut up. Good grief - Pete was all of nineteen when this album came out, too young to have his heart broken that many times surely? (Especially given that he married his childhood sweetheart Karen in 1968 and the pair were very much an item in 1965 - Pete's love and relationship problems don't really hit until the mid-1970s no matter what goes on in his lyrics). Above them all at the end of side one - the very heart of this twelve track album - sits 'My Generation', the most eloquent way of saying 'fuck off' yet written, drawing a line in the sand that life as it was in 1965 is wrong and has to be improved. The one moment of bliss on this first album comes in the oh-so-sweet 'The Kids Are Alright', perhaps the album's second best known song, a hymn that says we're all children at heart, the 'kids' of the song switching from the narrator's long-term mates to the toddlers he's left at home while he's out with his mates (it's worth adding that Pete won't become a father until 1969 either, so where did this come from?!)
Of course, if this album was entirely perfect we'd have covered it as one of our 'core' 101 albums instead of 'The Who Sell Out' 'Quadrophenia' and 'Who By Numbers' (three very different albums that are all about as perfect as dotted notes turned into sound can be). The fact is that the decision to make this album a hybrid of the aborted soul cover sessions and Pete's next batch of writing is one that can have pleased only Roger. The Who never were an entirely convincing covers act (not until 'Live At Leeds' anyway and then only on stage not in the studio) and that fact becomes painfully obvious sometimes: I must confess James Brown doesn't do a lot for me but even I can see why his pleading, emotive performances held people in raptures; by comparison Daltrey just sounds like the spotty 20-year-old he was. The problem we have is the problem we have with a lot of these early 1960s dominantly covers albums - why listen to enthusiastic but unpolished hacks cover something when you can easily get hold of the original (then and now). 'I'm A Man' is better suited to Roger but even there his vocals go a bit OTT gruff and the sultry slide of the original soon gets lost under a race to see who can get to the end of the song the fastest. Not all the originals cut it either: 'Out In The Street' is easily the weakest song of the early batch of Townshend originals, sounding like it's used every cliche in the songwriting book and still come out sounding like a pale version of the sort of song Pete was always writing in 1965. 'Much Too Much' is much too much as well - the song might have scored better had it not come two songs after the gloriously doomy 'The Good's Gone' - here it sounds like wallowing in misery for the sake of it. Much as I love his playing on other albums, including later Who albums, session pianist extraordinary Nicky Hopkins has always sounded slightly wrong here to me too. I fully understand why he was hired - no one had recorded with just a guitar, bass and drums since Johnny Kidd and the Pirates back in the 1950s, the group that inspired the early Who more than any other - but filling in this album's deep growling middle section with some flowery piano fills is not the answer. To be fair Nicky gives as good as he gets on 'The Ox', finally forgetting all the music lessons he's taken and simply playing from the heart in a gorgeous sea of noise. Elsewhere, however, his playing is often obtrusive, getting in the way of all that lovely feedback (of course everyone who bought this album when it came out in the 1960s was told by their mam and dad 'why couldn't the others play more like that nice pianist?) Nicky will be exactly what the epic prog rock Who of the 1970s were dreaming of on their early 1970s works and his playing had rightly gone down in most fans' minds as some of the most perfect playing to ever grace an LP - but in 1965 he's the single daisy in a field of mud, hopelessly out of place.
One final thing to note before we round of: we haven't mentioned the difference between mono and stereo mixes for what seems like ages but its particularly prominent here. For some reason best known to Brunswick the stereo version was mixed without any of the tiny overdubs added at the end of the sessions - you know the sort of thing, a bit of double-tracking here, John Entwistle's brief horn part on 'The Good's Gone' there. Generally speaking I'd always recommend hearing an AAA album in stereo given the choice, but this is one of a handful that sound better in mono - both because of the 'missing' overdubs that do add a surprising amount to the overall impact of the recordings and because the sheer all-from-one-place oompah of the sound somehow suits being replicated in both speakers.
Overall, though, there's little to fault on 'My Generation' - surprisingly little for a debut album recorded in such testing circumstances. Rock and roll was developing at such a tremendous pace that it would be unfair to compare this album to debuts in 1963, but compared to those made in 1964 ('The Kinks' and 'The Rolling Stones') the change is incredible. Ray Davies and co took that little bit longer to get rid of Shel Talmy and were already eager to prove how much of a range they had. The Stones really are a 'covers' band and are excellent mimics rather than fierce and frightening forces of nature. The closest to this album is the first, eponymous Small Faces album recorded over at Decca about six months or so after this alum's second set of sessions but even though that album has even looser, gung-ho guitar battles than this one it doesn't quite have 'My Generation's power and crunch. Pete writes some great songs here, it's true, but ultimately 'My Generation' is a great album because The Who are such a great band at the time of recording. This album may have been made at a time of great difficulty, when the band hated life and each other, but it really pays off in the recording. Forget the dates and what the history books say, 'The Who Sings My Generation' is the world's first punk album, only better played, better sung and - for all the stuttering both actual and symbolic - more articulate.
The album starts as it means to go on: a ringing guitar arpeggio that sounds like the music world being shaken to the core and Roger testing his microphone by screaming the word 'out!' If your parents hadn't run for cover by the time opening song 'Out In The Street' was over they were either indulgent music lovers or deaf, possibly both. Frankly by 19 year old Pete's already pretty blistering short career this is a lame song - the sort of thing every other band of the day were doing (though not quite like this): the love of the narrator's life doesn't want to know no matter how hard he tries to get her attention. The one main lyrical addition to the song was a pained 'You don't know me, no!' chorus that could have become the Who's theme song in their early, most identity-crisised phase (this is a band called 'The Who?' for a reason!) However its very Pete Townshend too that the song spends so long underlining why you don't know the first thing about him that he never gets to actually tell you who 'he' is by the end of the song. Roger's blistering attack reveals that this Motown-y like song is more up his path than a lot of Pete's other songs and he copes especially well on the middle eight when the others shut up long enough for him to be heard, but its the backing band behind him that truly propel this song. John's high pitches falsetto backing is fabulous, caught just the right distance between heartfelt and parody. Keith Moon doesn't play this song, he attacks it, hurling everything at his kit as if the only way the narrator can get the attention he craves is by smashing her to pieces. The best of all comes from Pete's short but blistering guitar attack, leaping from a Kinks-like stabbing guitar riff to a feedback-fuelled crazy slide down the neck of his guitar. If the hairs on the back of your neck weren't standing up after hearing that then you aren't listening properly - either that or you're hearing this album at such a high volume you've just gone deaf. Not The Who's greatest hour by any stretch as a composition then, but The Who are as one even by their early standards and there's no compromises taken in the form of attack.
Alas The Who have clearly gone right off James Brown's 'I Don't Mind' and turn in a rather ropey performance that doesn't even match the similarly lacking cover version by the Denny Laine-era Moody Blues from the same period. Roger's the only one with his heart in this song and he's trying to so hard to match his idol of the time, James Brown, that he loses all the wonderful Roger Daltrey-ness in his vocals. To be fair, he copes better than most white English musicians at capturing James Brown's purr, but he's clearly got a voice built for rock and roll, not soul. To be honest I've never quite understood why so many bands of the 1960s set so much store by this song: it yearns to be a multi-layered song of the type Buddy Holly wrote in his sleep (the narrator clearly does mind about his girl running off and leaving him, no matter how many times he denies it) but other songs do this sort of thing so much better - and longer, with this song just three short verses long and needing something more ('I'm Not In Love' is this song slowed down, after all). The stop-start hook the song is built around is torturous and you sense the Who only just about navigate it's many repeats before the song finally ends, despite the fact that this song had been longer in their repertoire than most on the album. Only Pete's attempt to provide what he thinks is a suitably James Brown-meets-The Supremes guitar lick really catches the ear and that sounds like a timid version of Pete Townshend's already signature sound. Roger may have been pushing for more soul covers on Who albums, but you sense no one else in the band or control room is after this.
'The Good's Gone' is tonnes better. Now that we sit in the early 21st century, with the pop charts relegated to whatever talentless and toneless ' X Factor' drone has gormlessly decided to cover next we've begun to take the opinion that music has never been as bad as it is now. However that feeling was around in 1965 too, with the feeling that the first innocent flush of Merseybeat was over and the establishment had 'won' with a series of crooning OAPs and novelty acts high up the charts. Pete must have been writing this song at about the same time Ray Davies was writing Kinks B-side 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?' and both sense a similar sense of outraged nostalgia curious in writers then aged all of 19 (Pete) and 20 (Ray). Rarely has a production pre-heavy metal ever sounded 'heavier' than 'The Good's Gone', a song that relentlessly churns over the same old riff throughout, gnawing and biting this way and that but never quite being able to lift the mood of impending doom. John's bass rumbles make for the single bass-heaviest production number up to that time and Keith's drums whallop the narrator into submission on a song that implores that a partnership that once felt so right is now over, the title phrase repeated over and over as if it's fact, not opinion. Even Pete's guitar solo - usually the one part of 'escape' in Who songs of this vintage - is a trapped wounded animal, which ends up falling back on the same ringing clatter of dead ends every time you think he's finally found a way out. Roger should be way out of his depth on such a dreary, drab song but actually he's fantastic, deliberately going off key to fit into the song's sense of frustration with his single best vocal on the album outside 'My Generation', dripping with venom, loathing and melancholy. I ought to be writing about this track as a song, but in truth it's more of a 'sound' - there are just two verses of two lines each and the title phrase repeated a full 20 times. Normally I hate songs like this, but such is the overpowering mood and the clever, subtle small changes by Pete and John's guitar-and-bass interplay that the song is a rollercoaster of emotions, trying hard to soar to the skies only to end further and further down the bottom of the slope. The end result is the single best song on the album following the famous title track, a world where all is darkness and where the sun will never shine again. You wonder what on earth can have inspired a song like this in someone fresh out of art college- not that teenagers don't have very big and very real problems of their own (despite what some cruel journalists may think); but this is the sound of a man hurt many times over and the rest of his life seemingly mapped out for him, not just once or twice. Certainly Pete's cried falsetto vocals and his dying phrase ('It's died forever now!...') don't sound like acting. The middle aged Who of the post-Keith Moon era should have spent their career reflecting on doomed songs of failure like this one instead of trying to recapture their youthful days. Incidentally listen out for the first of many appearances of John Entwistle on French Horn (his preferred instrument before he picked up the bass) ducked sadly awfully low in the mix and Pete's brief apology ('Oh I'm sorry!...')about 30 seconds into the song - for reasons that sadly are still unknown!
'La La La Lies' is a sillier, poppier song. Many of Pete's early songs are filled with a mysterious girl with 'glittering eyes' who makes life worth living - this is her first appearance. She's too good for the narrator, frankly - and he knows it too. She even re-acts to his many lies by acting 'cool'. Or at least, that's how the first verse goes; the second is much darker (the teenage Pete could never keep his dark side away, it seems): this time the narrator's wonderful girlfriend is spreading lies about him and even 'kicked' him when he 'was down' (sounds like a match made in heaven to me - they can spend their lives lying about each other!) By the third verse it's all smiles again, the narrator wanting to see her 'smile' and not after recriminations, although the way Roger sings this verse its more as if this is the prelude to knifing her in the back. The cycle then goes back round again, a straight repeat of the first and third verses, as if the couple are inevitably going to end up doing this for the rest of their lives. Were things going badly with fiance Karen? (In case anyone doubts Pete is being autobiographical here Pete's own list of his 'qualities' in the 'fourth face' in Quadrophenia lists him as ' beggar, a hypocrite', desperate for love to 'reign o'er me' but clueless as to how to make that work). Or is this song about the power-plays with Roger? ('I got my girl and together we're strong - we're going to laugh and prove you wrong!') If so nobody told the vocalist, who copes well with what's really a pop song with particularly heavy-handed drumming. The theme of lies and betrayal is a key one for Pete in the years to come, filling in the back story of everything from 'Won't Get Fooled Again' through 'Quadrophenia' and 'Did You Steal My Money?' and 'How Can You Do It Alone?' from 'Face Dances'. However Pete sounds as if he's still a little uncomfortable at airing so much of a personal hang-up in public and instead decides to treat this outpouring as a pop song. The result is a curious hybrid that's too silly to be treated as a deep and detailed song (the 'La La La La Lies' is the equivalent of the Small Faces' hated cover of 'Sha La La La Lee' although The Who don't even have the excuse of having the song dumped on them by an outside writer), but not frivolous enough to be as much fun as it thinks it is. Pretty melody, though!
'Much Too Much' is another struggle to sit through, a Pete Townshend song that's another tale of love turned sour. The narrator is used to paying dearly for his love - his girl plays hard and fast and demands a lot from in. A later song poses the same question and comes up with answer that love, however hard, is still a 'bargain - the best I ever had', but here Pete sounds more doubtful, declaring 'your love's too heavy for me'. Had this song not been on the same album as 'The Good's Gone' I'd probably be waxing lyrical about just how 'heavy' this recording sounds too, but the tone is tempered with a harmony drenched chorus ('much too much babe!') and some of Nicky Hopkin's prettier piano fills. The sound of a man whose deeper in a relationship than he ever expected, this is a song of second thoughts, with a garbled-sounding middle eight that erupts in a sea of frustration and anger (For anyone who can't hear what the double-tracked Rogers are singing its 'My enthusiasm waned and I can't bear the pain of doing what I don't want to do' - another line that could have been The Who's manifesto of 1965). Most of Pete's tunes are pretty good on this album but this one doesn't quite cut it (it's similar to 'The Kids Are Alright' but not quite as memorable) and unlike 'Out In The Street' The Who are playing a little too scrappily to make it work. Still, if this is the closest the album - or at least the second batch of sessions - comes to a failure then that's still pretty good in anyone's book.
There's nothing wrong with 'My Generation' of course, an explosive firebrand of pent up anger, emotion and energy that draws a line in the sand. While Pete had the riff for the song for a while (sadly it's never been officially released but a bootleg demo of the song has done the rounds and its a slow blues, closer to the version the band played onstage in the late 1970s) the lyrics came suddenly and without much thought - allegedly in the back of the cab on the way to the studio to record the song. Pete's much-quoted lines about not wanting to grow old probably just sounded like a cool thing to say when he was 19 - but the longer and longer his career lasts (and the more and more you read in this book) the more it clearly comes back to haunt him. Of course what Pete really means is that growing old is the enemy - it's not a vain thing about wanting to stay young and pretty, it's the fear that one day he'll become like all those other stuck up people who don't appreciate youth and beauty and are locked in their own prisons of how the way the world has only been run. It's here, in fact, that Pete finally becomes a writer in his own right; till now The Who are The Kinks with a pimped up rhythm section but nostalgia king Ray Davies would never have written a song quite like this one. A call to arms for a whole generation and filled throughout with the idea that things are going to be different starting from now, 'My Generation' is a composition that fittingly sums up the era like nothing else - the days when it was us and them before a cautious truce had been called and a whole group of young soon-to-be hippies fell into the traps of their parents ('Won't Get Fooled Again', The Who's second best known song from six years later, is the complete antithesis of this song - worldly wise where this song is innocent and with lyrics that have the youth as part of the problem, not the solution). (Noel Gallagher was almost certainly thinking about this song when he wrote 'Live Forever' - a re-write of 'My generation' from the perspective of a music fan who'd seen his musicians age and wither and instead wanted the world to live on in glorious youth, but it was more unthinkable to be old in the 1960s somehow, when rock and roll was a youth movement that was inevitably going to crumble sometime soon).
However, 'My Generation' is not just a great song but a great recording. Roger owns these lyrics which are more up his own street than anything he could have written (the equivalent of getting the nerdy kid to have his homework read out by the school bully in his own language) and his vocal is easily his greatest moment with the band before 'Tommy'. Many a reason has been given over the years for the stutter: Roger's teeth were cold; he was seeing the lyrics for the first time; it was the closest The Who could get to using a swear word ('Why don't you F-F-F-Fade away?!') However the stutter means so much more - it's the language of a teen who has so much on his mind but no way to put it into words, it's the huge overpowering rage at the state the world's left in which leaves him unable to speak; its' the sheer amount of things in this song that are left unsaid (Pete was always good at leaving things unsaid). He's backed by a band at their peak, too. Keith Moon's tour de force starts off loud and uncompromising and amazingly gets noisier with every verse, whilst putting paid to the idea put around by deaf critics that he couldn't really play by nailing every one of the song's tricky stop-starts with ease. Pete's whining gruff guitar plays the rhythm part, keeping the other musicians on the straight and narrow before turning into a firework display at the tail end of the song. Best of all, John Entwistle finally gets to play the bass as the lead instrument in the band and rises to the challenge, even pulling of a bass solo that works so much better than a guitar one ever could. Hearing this its a shame that John's bass, while always at the heart of The Who's sound, was never quite this dominant again (not till as late as 'Trick Of The Light' in 1978 anyway). Ending in a sea of chaos and noise, 'My Generation' is a battleground where there can only be one winner and is so far ahead of its time (most composers won't be brave enough to come up with songs like this until the anarchic year of 1968) as to be positively scary for anyone scary and thrilling to anyone under. A lot of classic songs that are seen by many an artists have been found wanting on this site: 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'All You Need Is Love' are revealed as minor works from a major band, 'Mrs Robinson' is a novelty song that got lucky; But in terms of sheer annihilation and strangeness for the era 'My Generation sits alongside The Stones' 'Sympathy For The Devil' as the greatest did-they-really-just-say-that? moment of the 1960s. Simply superb -for this track alone 'Sings My Generation' would always have been a classic LP.
'The Kids Are Alright' kicks off side two with another strong song. If 'My Generation' is about division then 'Kids' is about unity - the togetherness that only comes from being in a gang or a close group of mates. The narrator doesn't mind other guys dancing with his chick - they're the three Musketeers after all, what they have they share (err, women's liberation won't be along in Who songs for a while yet!) However even at 19 Pete knows that the changing world won't let them stay like this - the 1965 passage in his autobiography is full of mourning for the school friends he left behind when he went to art college and again the art college friends he left behind to become a rock and roll star. In this song the narrator is married with kids and has the perfect home life he's always dreamed of. However he still yearns to be with his mates and rather than 'go out of his mind' leaves them behind at home with the wife so he can be young and teenage again. You never get the sense what age the narrator is (his friends are 'kids', but that sounds like a nickname that could have been coined decades before). While we're not too sure when exactly these early Pete songs were written I'm willing to bet it was before a lot of the others - the tone of this song is pure Kinks, even if the sound is pure Who. Many critics of the day were disparaging about The Who's harmonies but I've always found them charming and that goes double here, with John and Pete's falsettos wrapped around a higher than normal Roger on a more traditional than normal tune that really makes them shine. There's still a twist in the tale though, a wonderfully ear-catching middle eight where The Who seem to steal directly from period Hollies ('I know if I leave things would be much better for her...'), ending in a wonderful cascading guitar stab (solo would be too grand a term for it) that's marvellously exciting, especially when the band drop out and come in again at the end (typically, the butchers in America heard this section and didn't like it so cut it out for the US market - it wasn't until 2002 than many of The Who's stateside fans heard it the way it was meant to be heard). The end result is one part madrigal, one part perfect summer pop song, with a youth maturing, going through a scary period of losing his identity and everything that matters to him as life drifts relentlessly on, before coming out the other side a wiser, more surer body. 'The Kids Are Alright' is more than alright - it's another of the best songs Pete ever wrote.
Alas 'Please Please Please' sounds like it comes from another decade, never mind a few months earlier. The second of the album's two James Brown covers, it's even more convoluted than the first with Roger stretched to breaking point as he tries to plead in falsetto while John and Pete intone 'you don't have to go' behind him like a policeman's choir. Again I've never really understood why this James Brown song was as admired as it was for so many bands in the early 1960s: it's hardly 'Please Please Me' (the Beatles song on the same theme), never mind 'Go Now'. Pete tries hard with a guitar solo that's clearly way out of his comfort zone, but muffs it up badly in the process, turning in what may actually be his worst solo on record, a traditional Chuck Berry style passage accompanied by funny noises. The band sound indifferent, Roger tries too hard and the result is a noisy mess - but noisy for the sake of noise rather than the thrilling untamed beast that runs wild throughout the rest of the album. Easily the worst moment on the album - surely 'Leaving Here' or 'Shout and Shimmy' would have been better choices to make the album?
'It's Not True' is a blistering Townshend pop song, a chiming ringing Beatles-style song with a darker underbelly. Roger is at his best once again as he hollers out an entire string of increasingly stupid list of rumours (he's been in prison, he's married, he's 'had help doing everything throughout my life', he's got eleven children, he was born in Baghdad, he was half-Chinese, he murdered his dad) - well until his involuntary giggle near the end anyway, which comes close to ruining the song (it all sounded so serious up till then!) What's weird is that at least one of this list is write: no not the born in Baghdad bit but the marriage - Roger had got married to Jacquie Rickman when she fell pregnant with their child, Simon, in 1964 - in an era when a any hint of young marriage was a scandal that could torpedo a band's prospects. Could it be that, instead, Pete was writing this song for himself with no thought about giving it over to Roger - that in fact this song was a snarling response to Roger's surly put-down of Pete's arty-farty lifestyle of the time (the 'help doing everything throughout my life' is the line half-buried in the middle that rings true, a clue to what this song is really all about). When played by The Who, however, this song sounds like a real act of bonding, of togetherness, The Who roundly turning on their critics and musically going 'na na na na na' ('Cause I'm up here and you're nowhere!) So much so that I'm surprised this song didn't stay in the band's setlists longer. This is one of their better performances on the record, caught somewhere between a nursery rhyme (those silly harmonies on the unusually trite chorus) and heavy metal (Keith's loudest drumming yet and the sheer crunch of Pete's guitar). Again, Noel Gallagher must have worn out his copy of this album - the song is a dead ringer for '(Hey You) Up In The Sky' from Oasis' debut. However its The Kinks who repay the debt of what The Who often stole from them in the early days - their 'Word Of Mouth' track from 1985 is a dead ringer for this song. Another of the album highlights.
'I'm A Man' is the one cover song on this album that really swings, Roger getting rid of the slightly tongue-in-cheek style of Bo Diddley's original for a straight celebration of what it means to be of age. Actually none of the band were old enough to sing this song - even Roger, the oldest, was only 20 and for them the golden age of 21 looming so nearly ahead seemed to promise such greater things: respect, independence, freedom, self-worth (as Bo Diddley knew and most of you probably know there's no such things as respect, freedom, independence and self-worth - all being 21 means is that ;legally you can pass your snarling ways down to your kids every time they misbehave). This song is almost a rite of passage for the band, as they try to sound like authentic bluesmen old before their time, which they would have achieved if not for Nicky Hopkins' ever-tinkling piano (Pete's angry, bitter solo is perfect for the song, not playing a tune so much as hammering home chord after chord leading up to that glorious moment when the narrator's birthday comes). Roger is great on this song - he's still great whenever he does it now (even though he tends to ad lib 'I'm way past 21!') - and this song is arguably the closest thing on record to The Who's stage act, when he must have been mesmerising, with his 'mm-hmms', sudden wild shrieks and the humungous tension as he counts out the letters to 'M-A-N' to let the audience think fully about what that might mean. The ending is glorious too: after such a long build up to the 'big day' this song needs a proper big ending and Keith obliges, refusing to let the song end as he thrashes wildly, Pete ever telepathically stopping in alongside him, pounding over and over until the song finally shudders to a halt. Frustratingly, this is the one song from the album Americans didn't get, which is a shame - those who'd remembered the original (few people outside rock and roll bands seemed to know Bo Diddley in Europe) would have raised even more of an eyebrow than their English counterparts must have done on hearing this.
'A Legal Matter' is another terrific performance of a terrific song, with the first lead Pete ever sang on a Who recording surprisingly confident and full of life. The narrator is married, with children (alright that's it - Noel Gallagher just ripped off this album for 'Definitely Maybe' didn't he?!) and already regretting it. What once used to be so exciting and raised so many hopes for the future has turned into a sea of things he can't cope with - wedding gowns, catalogues, kitchen furnishings and houses, maternity clothes, baby's trousers. How sad that a partnership that once promised so much has been reduced to a 'legal matter', a scrap of paper. Where have all the good times gone, indeed? Pete's never really spoken about this song but I'm willing to bet that its based at least in part in how quickly Roger went from being the one always out on the town living the party life to a married dad with 'responsibilities', crippled not by a failing marriage as per here just yet but by the sheer impassable amount of things he now has to do to fulfil his new duties. This must have seemed another life away to the casually dating Pete and Karen who'd been a couple longer than Roger and Jacqui had (was this all life had to offer? Were they next?!) Why Pete chose to sing it rather than Roger is unknown - it would have suited his roar well (Richard Thompson, who has a not dissimilar voice at full pelt, sang a rather good acoustic cover of this song in the early 2000s). Did it make Roger uncomfortable? Or was it to keep the press seconf-0guessing about the fact that Roger really was going through all this for real? A fun song turned into a comedy with some wild zany riffs and Pete's histrionic vocal has a very real and dark heart beating inside it - the fear that one day his partner's hilarious circumstances might come true for Pete and everyone he knows - that being a family man was something to fear and dread, not embrace.
The album then ends with 'The Ox', a powerful improvised instrumental credited to Pete, Keith, Nicky Hopkins and John, but with only one of them at the core. John 'The Ox' Entwistle's bass is all over this song, churning the song's hypnotic riff over and over like a car trying to start as Keith doesn't so much play the drums as fight them, copying the style learnt from so many surfing records but hammered here at twice the speed and about a hundred times the intensity (he wins the battle, by the way, his drums audibly collapsing near the end). This time around Nicky is bang on the money, his trills getting increasingly hysterical on another track that's so bass-heavy it must have sounded alien to any listener in 1965. Pete's harder to hear - is he even there at all? Is the riff in fact his idea given to John to play? Quite unlike anything else around at the time, this is a 12 bar blues without any real melody and no lyrics, a studio jam that points the way ahead to the heavier musical scene of the late 1960s. This song is so different to anything else around it is quite hard to work out what I think of it - heard in context it's the inevitable climax to an album that has been increasingly happy to do away with these things in favour of noise and riffs and seems to have been done simply to prove that The Who can do instrumentals like this one (even with half the band missing). Outside the context of 'My Generation' this sounds suspiciously like filler, an attempt to fill up another four minutes with whatever came to hand - which, in The Who's case, inevitably meant a bass-and-drums battle built around a riff rather than, say, a little ditty knocked together in a few minutes.
Overall, then, 'The Who Sings My Generation' is a call to arms. At times a quite frightening display of noise, fury, bluster and talent, it has a sound and confidence all of its own that most other bands would envy (in fact listening to this album back to back with follow-up 'A Quick One' you'd be tempted to say that that rather nervy and tentative album came first, which has more to do with the shared songwriting credits and lack of Brunswick production than anything else). It's not the greatest Who album by any means - the two James Brown covers take it down a layer or two and both 'Much Too Much' and 'Out In The Street' pale inc comparison to future glories. But for the times it was an important album, a landmark album, an album that dared to create a sound so big and huge no one had dared put it onto record before and for that alone the band should be applauded. The fact that Pete Townshend managed to write four or five truly great songs to go with it makes this an even greater achievement. In short, superb. The choice of this album in the hall of congress record preservation archives surprised many - but for once in its history congress got something right after all!