By Gordon Thompson
Forty-five years ago, in the anarchic world of mid-sixties British rock—with every major British act releasing records and storming the world—a unique record bullied its way into British consciousness that turned the conventions of the pop disk end-for-end. Pete Townsend had penned a song that cut to the core of rock’s nervous system. His inspirations had been the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”; but, “My Generation” set a new standard for minimum musical structure and maximum emotional impact.
In January of 1965, Brunswick had released the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” to an eager mod audience in London and a staged riot on the set of ITV’s Ready, Steady, Go! Come spring and the merry month of May, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” celebrated the mods’ favorite mode of transportation, the Vespa motor scooter. But the band’s principal songwriter, Pete Townsend and their manager, Kit Lambert, had wanted to capture something more viscerally anarchic as Swinging London entered its peak months. The song’s accompaniment consisted of only two chords that rise in tandem as the arrangement gradually modulates, leaving ample room for their musical imagination and building anticipation.
In many ways, Shel Talmy (who had produced hits for both the Kinks and of the Who) represented their best bet at finding the raw musical nerve they hoped to tap. As an independent producer, he had significant control over what happened in the studio, including how much freedom the musicians had. On the one hand, he had dabbled in the internal workings of both the Kinks and the Who when he hired session musicians to play on their recordings. From Talmy’s perspective, hiring Arthur Greenslade to play piano on “You Really Got Me” or the Ivy League to sing backup on “I Can’t Explain” meant that, at the end of the recording session, he had a hit in hand. On the other hand, Talmy would also be the man willing to let them play at the volume levels they employed in clubs to recreate a sound that their audiences cherished and from which corporate studios recoiled.
Townsend told Melody Maker, one of London’s music magazines, shortly before Brunswick released “My Generation” that the song was “anti middle-age, anti boss-class, and anti young marrieds” and that the “big social revolution” on their doorstep was that “youth, and not age” had become the most “important” factor in British lives. Townsend had recognized that the “bulge” generation (what Americans call “baby boomers”) born during and in the wake of the Second World War now dominated Britain’s urban landscape by their sheer numbers.
The performance of “My Generation” broke several basic rules of pop music. First, Roger Daltry purposefully stuttered while delivering the text, most notoriously when he tells the establishment, “Why don’t you all fffffff…” Adolescent listeners anticipated an expletive, only to hear a line from a Rolling Stones hit, “Not Fade Away” surprise them. The music and recording industries expected pop singers to articulate their words carefully, and certainly not to mumble or stammer; but Daltry’s feigned emotional seizure conveyed the anger and resentment of Britain’s youth. Second, rather than a guitar, sax, or piano solo, John Entwhistle’s simultaneously booming and brittle Fender Jazz Bass (through a Marshall fifty-watt amp) rattled the radio, threatening to shred the speakers with one of the several strings he snapped at the recording session. As the song rises to its climax, drummer Keith Moon explodes in a rapturous rolling thunder, cymbals crashing and toms rumbling as the listener imagines the decibel level of the studio. Finally, if that were not enough, Townsend’s guitar squeals with feedback of a distinctly different kind from that in the controlled experiment between Paul McCartney’s bass and John Lennon’s guitar on “I Feel Fine” the previous year.
“My Generation” appeared as a significant buoy in the cultural waves of sixties British pop marking the channel for what some on the Western side of the Atlantic called the “Second British Invasion.” It also represented the culmination of an era for the Who as they would soon attempt to part company with both Shel Talmy and Brunswick (owned by Decca), resulting in months of litigation and stagnation. Manager Kit Lambert promoted himself to produce the Who (with questionable results), while Pete Townsend would set his sights on the idea of a rock opera, beginning with the extended bricolage of “A Quick One.” America (with the exception of Detroit) would be slow to appreciate this distinctly British product; but in November 1965, the Who captured the spirit of London’s mods.
“My Generation” (Pete Townsend). Recorded by the Who on 13 October 1965 in IBC Studios, London. Produced by Shel Talmy with Glyn Johns, recording engineer. Released on 29 October 1965 as Brunswick 05944. Charts on 4 November 1965. Reaches UK #2 on Record Retailer’s charts.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.