I suppose the lead on this one should be routine: The Who’s first album has finally been released on CD in its original (monophonic) mix — and at a consumer-friendly price, no less. Hooray, right? Right. Seriously, it sounds great – “like it should”, or at least as close as you need without picking up an LP – and the renewed clarity to the lead guitar lines and piano fills is most welcome. Previous CD editions were limited to either (a) an expensive deluxe with bad stereo mixing that didn’t even do the courtesy of adding the original “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” single as a bonus, and (b) a cheap, stock-packaged version of the album’s American release, which was retitled The Who Sings My Generation and was a lesser whole even if it did replace the (solid) Bo Diddley cover with the flat-out immortal “Instant Party (Circles)”. (Wonderful as “Instant Party” is, the spacey mix and damn-near devotional French horn figure simply do not fit with the dirty, stripped-down garage rock of the original sequence. Also, the cover looked stupid.) So even though this all might feel like just another case of major artists trying to rake in some extra beer money from the obsessives – lookin’ at you, Peter Gabriel – the bottom line is that this CD is (a) completely necessary, and (b) about bloody time.
That’s about all that needs to be said about this from a collector’s perspective. More discussion is warranted to the content itself, because My Generation is the Who’s most casually underrated record, in the sense that it’s usually acknowledged as a classic and then quickly brushed-over after a mention of the title track and maybe “The Kids Are Alright”. This is understandable, in a way; the debut is both the least-conceptual and least-ambitious of the band’s great albums. And yet it’s also probably their freshest sounding, too, probably because the lightness in their step wasn’t yet weighed down by any of their (ensuing) (often great) pretensions. No narrative thread, no “mini-operas”: just limber, muscular rock music with a sweet side that didn’t sound quite like anything else at the time.
And it really didn’t. It’s common to hear early Who records (along with early Kinks records) described as the inceptive movements of punk rock. (Grandiosity intended.) And while I often consider this kind of logic to be a form of backtracking that usually misses the forest for the trees, My Generation definitely signaled something crucial in the development of the “hard, lean, and in-your-face” ethos. Similar to punk’s Ramones/Clash/Pistols first wavers (three bands who loved the Who), Pete Townshend was expressing direct, parodic, self-deprecating sentiments over jumpy (or chugging) power chords – more barre, in punk’s case – with the rhythms informed by Keith Moon’s backing in surf rock (dig the swirling trance of “The Ox”) and the aforementioned sweetness taking harmonic cues from Townshend’s (and John Entwistle’s) backing in country music. So there is a musical blueprint, sort of — it’s like Link Wray on six shots of espresso. Thing is, contrary to the Who’s (then-)image as stage-smashing reprobates, there was also an almost academic refinement to their songwriting and a subtlety to their dynamic control – not to mention the sparkle in those guitars – that even at its crudest just doesn’t carry much of the, well, feel of punk music. Lyrically, yes — they’ve got the snark and they’ve got the sensitivity. But even there, it’s worth re-stating that even though all punk music wasn’t nihilistic (obviously), the Who’s stage obliterations were never nihilistic. They certainly don’t play that way, at least — the behavior just seems like a natural (yet daring) extension of form and tone. Blissful, whimsical sexuo-spiritual release as a proxy for apocalyptic destruction, and vice-versa: that’s the ’60s in a nutshell.
But this is getting too theoretical, and above all My Generation is an album of snappy, hooky songs. Whereas some of the best tracks on The Who Sell Out or Tommy could be considered “growers”, you’ll know whether you like the songs on My Generation pretty much instantly, and though the instrumental palette may be limited – guitar, bass, drums, vocal chords, and occasional piano (relish the soft figure during the verses of “Much Too Much” — kinda pretty, isn’t it?) – every cut packs a punch and none overstay their welcome. Well, okay: their crack at “Please, Please, Please” – one of two James Brown covers – is a bit of a dud. (Whereas one could believe the need in Brown’s vocal, Roger Daltrey frankly just doesn’t have the soul for it. This isn’t a fervent plead in the doorway — it’s whining into a webcam after she’s already left the conversation.) But the band are in a kind of scruffy sync with each other through the whole whopping 12-songs-in-36 minutes — it’s as though even their most in-the-moment stumbles could be matched on the spot by every other player. (Moon, of course, was factually telepathic. That’s a fact, ladies and gentlemen. That’s a fucking fact and you know it.) Witness the way they all slip through the honeyed harmonies of “It’s Not True” – an undervalued gem of a song – to get to a two-chord noise bridge with a teasing string-bend of guitar; you barely realize what they’ve done until you’re right in the thick of it. (And I do mean “teasing,” by the way: that string-bend sounds like a taunt.) It’s not always so cathartic, either: the choruses of “La-La-La Lies”, and particularly the line “Don’t ever think I made you mad / I didn’t listen to your lies / Lies / La-la-la-la-la-la-lies,” are written and sung with the kind of tuneful shrug that would make Bob Dylan proud, and Entwistle’s guttural roils in “The Ox” are eternally kicking ass. And don’t discount Daltrey, easing his voice into a sober, seething low end in “The Good’s Gone” (“Iiiiiiiiiiiiiii know when I’ve had enouuuuugh…“) or swinging for Mick Jagger’s territory in “Much Too Much” (i.e. the giggle on “when I make love to you,” or the way he sings the word “darling”). (Incidentally, the verses in “Much Too Much” seem to be as much a melodic demo for the classic “Substitute” single as “It’s Not True” is a lyrical one.) A lot of credit should go to producer Shel Talmy, an important name in the British Invasion because of his way of making “heavier” rock bands sound loose and sporadic in the studio — this whole album is a masterful simulation of a classic “live” garage rock sound. (Talmy and Townshend ended up on bad terms, which led to Talmy releasing “A Legal Matter” as a single without the band’s permission specifically to fuck up the group’s chart standards. And while Townshend’s lead vocal in that song isn’t tops and the mix is a tad airy – the bass isn’t even close enough to loom – it seems strange that anyone would prescribe a song like that as any kind of “spoiler.”)
As for Townshend…well, put it this way: the man would go on to play better stuff, more ambitious stuff, more emotionally expansive stuff. But his style in writing and playing was never as, so to speak, carelessly perfect as it was on that first LP. He delivers the guitar bridge of “Out in the Street” like a pilot toggling the switches of an airplane, gauging how much power is at his fingertips while refraining from wasting it all at once in a hasty blast of excess. His timing as a rhythm player is, of course, beyond reproach. His tone glimmered like gold and was just as hard – a sort of chime-twang best heard in the arpeggios of “The Good’s Gone” or “A Legal Matter” – but he was just as capable of making disorienting gulps near the end of “Out in the Street”, or simulating airplanes and bee swarms in “The Ox”. (Despite Moon’s surf beat in that instrumental, be assured that “The Ox” is a lot more abrasive than the mellowed-out tide waves of most of the era’s surf-rock.) And from the perspective of songwriting, he knew when to hitch a song to a particular strength (i.e. making the simple riff of “I Don’t Mind” simultaneously blunt and spiky) and when to subsume other strengths in order to make them more curiously indirect (i.e. delivering what I suspect are rape undercurrents in “Out in the Street” by keeping the ambiguity of the American r&b harmonies he’s drawing from — is it “no no no” or “know know know”?). Townshend wrote with undertones of dark skepticism and self-parody that were counterbalanced by overtones – sonic and textual – of a “quest for higher meaning” that, like John Lennon and many others of the time, he seemed to believe we could all reach. It’s no coincidence that “The Kids Are Alright” – along with “Baba O’Riley”, my personal (belated) entry into rock music – gets frequent comparisons to the early Beatles: its melody, and the sound of those first few chords, share the Liverpudlians’ (and particularly Lennon’s) deceptively simple blend of cynicism and sky-gazing. If “My Generation” is an anthem for adolescence, “Kids” is an anthem for childhood; for sunny school days and the glorious escape that hides wherever you wanna find it. “Bells chime” indeed.
There’s also “My Generation” itself. You probably feel that you’ve heard that song as many times as you need to; that if you never heard it again, you wouldn’t really miss it. Understandable. (Damn you, classic rock radio.) I don’t play it that often, either. But listening to it with its restored original sound feels like a re-charge, and ultimately “My Generation” is a song that – oddly enough – knows no age. It’s very of-its-time, and yet the lyrical sentiment – that is, mocking the generation gap while asserting your own era’s freedoms that the others will never understand – is forever. The frequent jabs at Daltrey and Townshend for having the nerve to keep singing the “Hope I die before I get old” line well into their sixties have always been tired (what, you think they were dumb enough to actually mean that?), because it’s a song whose message is so universal that it will inevitably be both (a) held on to as a mission statement by the ’60s generation themselves, and (b) passed on through every ensuing generation. Which isn’t to imply that the longevity rests only in the lyrics: musically, it’s a brilliant synthesis of crazy, from the sing-song schoolyard taunt of the backing vocals (“Talkin’ ’bout my generation…”) to the call-and-response solos between Townshend and Entwistle to the way it all falls apart through percussive, feedback-y clamor. Rarely have vocal stutters been used as fluidly, on such a powerful continuum, and rarely have bass solos sounded as necessary. It’s a bratty middle finger of a song, certainly. But it’s not just that, and the contrast in the choruses between the busy drums and the relaxed jingle-jangle of the guitar implies something much more transient and ineffable than snark or confrontation. My favorite moments on the whole album come when Daltrey sings the word “fade” — as in “Why don’tcha all fade away.” Except he holds that “f” sound in imitation of those stuffy elders, so that it comes out “ffffffffffade.” At which point the snare drum snaps off Daltrey’s stammer, like a scrunched-up note from a slingshot making perfect contact with the back of your friend’s head while the teacher isn’t looking. Delivered with an offhand control that undercuts the word itself.