On October 13, 1965, The Who recorded My Generation at London’s IBC Studios and post-war youth found its voice.
Pete Townshend is fond of recalling that he was born just a week or so after the Nazis’ surrender in May 1945. This means that, unlike The Beatles’ John Lennon – born during the Liverpool blitz – or the Stones’ Keith Richards – who claims debris from a Doodlebug landed in his cot – the guitarist has no trace memory of World War II. It’s an important nuance: his breed of ’60s teenager, the Mods, were the first true post-war generation. Their parents would never understand their lives (sex, pills, pop music, affluence); and they would never understand their parents’ (duty, sacrifice, death, trauma). And The Who’s third single would be the first pop record to fully articulate that gulf between old and new. Townshend wrote My Generation on a train journey sometime in the early summer of ’65 with, he says, Mose Allison’s Young Man’s Blues playing in his head (see page 79). For all its eventual violence, the song’s other inspiration was faintly comical: Townshend’s car, a black Packard hearse, had been towed away from its Mayfair parking spot on the orders of the Queen Mother, whom it had apparently offended. Riled, the guitarist sought revenge…
An early Townshend home demo of the song shows most of its key compositional elements in place, but the powerful recording eventually nailed at IBC studios on October 13, 1965, underlines the transformative power of The Who as a group. They summon a cyclone of anger, frustration and arrogance made of Townshend’s frantic downstrokes, Entwistle’s ludicrously flashy bass solo and Moon’s furious drumming, ending with what sounds like the destruction of his kit. Then there were the lyrics. My Generation’s blunt language was shockingly alien to pop: not only did a cocksure Daltrey command everyone to f-f-fade away (ie fuck off), but in the startling “I hope I die before I get old…” he looks forward to an early death, presumably to escape the fate of becoming a boring Establishment fart – an even more extraordinary statement in light of the still-fresh human sacrifice of WWII. Meanwhile, the worst those bad boy Stones could muster in autumn 1965 was, “Hey, you, get off of my cloud.”
My Generation anthemised the new attitude of youth – and there’s the rub. A hit parade smash, it became The Who’s insignia, which, by the time of 1970’s Live At Leeds recording, when Townshend was 30, was already beginning to sit uncomfortably. Punk before punk, it helped empower a generation, and made possible many exciting things to come. However, perhaps its greatest achievement was to convince The Who that being ’orrible would be no impediment to success.