“My Generation” by The Who is a quintessential part of British culture and an important component in the evolution of contemporary rock music.
Although recorded nearly sixty years ago, in the midst of ‘love obsessed’ pop tunes, The Who’s debut single sounds as exciting, unique, and fabulously frenzied as the day it first struck the ears of mid-60s teens.
Penned by guitarist Pete Townshend, this classic rock hit immediately became a manifesto for youths tip-toeing through a post-war social minefield whilst desperately scrambling to forge an identity they could be proud of.
“My Generation” is still considered an underclass masterpiece in many quarters. The song defines a moment, both in terms of musical craft and its embodiment of an entire subculture’s spirit. Here are five reasons why it rules.
Guitarist Pete Townshend wrote “My Generation” on his 20th birthday. Yet despite his tender age, his composition offers a surprising number of complex layers, packed full of worldly insight and cultural significance.
“That song,” Townshend has explained, “Is the only really successful social comment I’ve ever made.”
Originally intended for a generation of “Mods,” the connotations woven into “My Generation” extended to any youth born at the close of World War Two, who were frustrated by the roles forced upon them by their elders.
The frustration amongst 60’s kids was the expectation that they should ‘shut up and enjoy the peace’ that had been heroically fought for on their behalf. But in reality, youngsters wanted to be heard. Music provided the opportunity to speak up and speak out, kicking or screaming at anyone who cared to listen.
“My Generation” is highly praised for its innovative, feisty attitude. With snarling themes of conflict and rebellion, such tropes are perfectly captured in the line “I hope I die before I get old.” It signals a carelessness rarely seen in the mainstream music of the age, a real ‘live for now’ quality.
Following an intense thrash of electric guitar, Roger Daltrey launches ‘throat first’ into one of the most recognizable vocal performances in rock music: his legendary stutter.
The quirky concept was allegedly dreamt up by The Who’s manager Kit Lambert who had a vague idea that Daltrey should sound like ‘a British kid on Speed.’
Ironically, Daltrey suffered from a slight stutter in real life but had learned to hide it whenever in the public eye.
Originally only the word ‘fade’ at the beginning of verse two was planned to be a stutter. Yet during the recording sessions, several other lyrics received the same ‘stop-start’ treatment until the style became slathered across the whole track. Many believe the frontman’s performance conveyed a deeper meaning by supposedly highlighting anxiety amongst the 60s youth.
The stuttering caused controversy in the media and the BBC initially banned the song over fears it would be deemed offensive to those who suffered from the speech impediment in question.
Bassist John Entwistle’s work on the track is regarded as one of the earliest examples of a bass solo in mainstream pop. His swaggering arrangements throughout the song play a crucial role in creating its memorable energy and purposeful attack.
A common misconception is that the recording of “My Generation” contains lead guitar parts; it doesn’t. In fact, its famous, hectic, intricate fills are all courtesy of Entwisle’s superb bass runs.
When performed on TV and as the tune’s first breakdown begins, show directors would often cut to Townshend to capture his lead guitar riff but would find the band’s bassist bursting into action across the stage and end up missing their shot completely.
At its heart, “My Generation” is a simple song with many basic yet effective songwriting techniques at work.
For example, instruments seem to be mashed together haphazardly in the mix to create a crashing wall of sound. The spiraling rhythm guitars and twisting bass notes soar from the speakers at supersonic speed.
But what’s unusual is the song’s use of key changes and impressively there are three changes in total. The song begins in “G,” rolling through two verse and chorus combos before clattering into an instrumental break.
Verse two soon kicks in with a shift upwards to an “A” key then as we return to a repeat of the opening verse again it elevates further to “Bb.”
And just when listeners think they’ve reached the climax of the song, a third and final key change attacks them, a manic outro rising to its crazed finale.
The ending to “My Generation” is a crescendo of pure chaos. In stark contrast to the typically ‘neat and tidy’ outros of mid-60s pop rock, The Who instead choose to leave audiences in a state of wild disorientation.
Drummer Keith Moon’s raging beats were recorded using twelve mics and they seem to assault the ears from every possible angle. The randomness of Entwistle’s bass quickly collapses into near sporadic nonsense amongst Townshend’s frantic guitar jabs.
With one final yell from Daltrey, the track echoes to a close, leaving fans elated yet somehow feeling they’ve been beaten black and blue.
It’s the perfect way to end a great song.
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