Back in Black
Maximum R&B. No other phrase associated with the Who, not even the more frequently quoted “hope I die before I get old”, more concisely and emphatically described the band’s sound and attitude. It’s important to employ the past tense here. Despite soldiering on through yet another aesthetically irrelevant but lucrative “reunion tour” after bassist John Entwistle’s recent death, the Who is finally no more.
But I come here not to eulogize the Who but to praise them. After a series of life sustaining reissues (A Quick One, The Who Sell Out, and the pulverizingly great double disc Live at Leeds), My Generation, originally released in 1965, becomes the final sonic puzzle piece, offering indisputable proof that the Who, despite needing a little seasoning, were great from the get-go.
Finally loosened from producer Shel Talmy’s death grip (at one point he was entertaining bids for the master tapes on eBay), My Generation is the sound of a very young (average age 19) band on a mission of self-discovery while negotiating the rugged terrain of black American soul, R&B, and blues. They were not dogmatic archivists, they were kids—rampaging, amped-up, amphetamine-fueled kids from Shepherd’s Bush (West London)—driven by a common understanding of their place in the zeitgeist, and the desire to smash the whole damn rock and roll thing to bits and start all over again.
That vision, with its attendant rage and intensity, is articulated on nearly every track on My Generation. By embracing the music of African-Americans (like punks did with reggae) the Who, as working-class kids drunk on anomie and deeply disconnected from middle-class notions of propriety, took their attitudinal and musical cues from a culturally potent yet marginalized other, something that white British (and American) blues obsessives had been doing since the 1950s.
Mercifully, the Who weren’t literal minded in their approach to R&B and soul. John Entwistle’s and Keith Moon’s sui generis rollin’ and tumblin’ was quite the opposite of the effortlessly insistent groove of great Motown session men like drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen, and bassist par excellence James Jamerson. Roger Daltrey’s vocals remain a pleasantly gritty soulful simulacrum (and a little funny on the James Brown covers), and Pete Townshend’s guitar playing, despite moments of power and dexterity, was still in utero.
Conceived as an R&B-heavy debut LP (in a manner not unlike that of the Rolling Stones), a pre-release acetate of the early sessions was panned prompting then-manager Kit Lambert to shelve the tapes and order Townshend to write something a bit more modern. Most of the R&B tracks were dropped, but a few (James Brown’s “I Don’t Mind”, “Please, Please, Please”, and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”) were used to fill out the record. In its original form (in glorious compressed mono) My Generation was the sound of a band in mid-morph—Chicago blues and Detroit soul with an extra dollop of Shepherd’s Bush hard pop. Townshend-penned tracks like “Out in the Street” and “It’s Not True” take their riff-driven cues from Berry Gordy’s hit factory. Even the record’s most potent and indelible moment, “My Generation”, was a talking blues, albeit one where the solos are played on the bass. But on songs like “The Good’s Gone”, “La-La-La Lies”, and “A Legal Matter”, Townshend was establishing the template of what would become the distinctive, powerful Who sound.
The deluxe edition restores the remaining R&B tracks and it’s a motherlode of frantic rock ‘n’ soul nuggets, among them Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Leaving Here”, James Brown’s “Shout and Shimmy” (which includes hilarious hipster asides by Townshend), Otis Blackwell’s salacious “Daddy Rolling Stone”, and a ragged-but-right version of Garnet Mimms’s “Anytime You Want Me”. There’s a subtle tension to these performances, a reminder of the struggle the band was going through reinventing itself. Kit Lambert was probably right keeping these tracks off, but adding them back was also right, for it is here that the complete picture of the early Who finally emerges.
Among the extras included in this reissue, one jumps out. It’s a photo on the inside flap that I’ve never seen before. It looks to be from 1965, the band (especially Moon) look impossibly young, yet there’s an undercurrent of conflict, maybe even violence, hinted at in Townshend’s half-sneer. The band’s entire history is contained in this photograph—four young men who are beginning to understand the enormous power they will spend an entire career trying to control and turn into something called, simply, rock. Now, many years later, I’m well aware that the expression “greatest rock and roll band in the world” has been assigned to another longstanding (and also currently touring) blues-based British band, but only these four West London geezers were deserving of such a distinction. They talked the talk and walked the walk the hard way. And that made all the difference.