Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In 1965, The Who were on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in rock music history, with their legendary stage shows, powerhouse sound, and rebellious attitude. But the song that transformed everything for the band’s career, also revolutionized rock history. With “My Generation” The Who created a rock anthem which would define a generation’s identity and represent the spirit of rock ‘n roll for ages to come.
Three of The Who’s founding members (Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Pete Townshend) all grew up in Acton London, where they attended Acton County Grammar School together. Entwistle and Townshend started playing music together as early as 1959, when they formed a trad-jazz group called The Confederates. Around the same time, Daltrey (who was a year older) moved to a new neighborhood. By chance, he ran into his old classmate, Entwistle, who was carrying his home-made bass guitar down the street. Daltry recruited him into his band, the Detours, and Entwistle soon brought in Townshend. By 1964, they had changed their name to The Who. The band worked with several drummers before they met Keith Moon, who had been playing semi-professionally with a group called The Beachcombers. After playing a few songs with the band (in which he smashed through a drum head) the guys were impressed with his high-energy playing and attitude. They immediately invited him to join the band.
The Who began to gain a reputation playing clubs around London. Their first manager, Pete Meaden, marketed them into London’s Mod scene, known for its smart-looking suits, flashy vespas and love of Black American music, especially Motown. While the band were not exactly Mods themselves, Townshend describes the Mod’s as having “adopted” the group, an association which helped The Who gain popularity and traction in the UK music industry.
The Who also began shocking audiences with their wild stage presence and destructive antics. For Townshend, the act of smashing guitar started by accident. After breaking the headstock of his guitar on a low ceiling during a gig in 1964, he then proceeded to destroy the whole instrument. He explained to Rolling Stone in 1968:
“[The guitar] being so precious to me…I was expecting everybody to go, ‘wow, he’s broken his guitar, he’s broken his guitar,’ but nobody did anything, which made me kind of angry in a way and determined to get this precious event noticed by the audience. I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar. I pounded all over the stage with it, and I threw the bits on the stage, and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really meant to do it.”
Word quickly spread of the spectacle and from then on, audiences expected Townshend to repeat it at each show. And while it was an accident, it did tap into art and philosophical thinking that Townshend had been introduced to in art college – auto destructive art. In December 1962, Townshend had attended a lecture by Auto-Destructive Art pioneer Gustav Metzger entitled: “Auto-Destructive Art, Auto Creative Art: The Struggle for the Machine Arts of the Future” while enrolled in Ealing Art College. Looking back, Townshend reflected:
“Gustav Metzger came to my college to do lectures. It was called the ‘Destruction in Art Symposium.’ Yoko Ono did that thing where she had her clothes cut up, and he slashed his way through a canvas with a samurai sword. The next thing I know, I’m breaking up guitars at gigs. Then I have the other guys in the band go ‘what a load of pompous, pretentious drivel!’ and I go, ‘No, it’s auto-destructive art!’ The guitar became, when it was electrified, in my case, an instrument of control aggression and latent violence. People say to me “It’s just stagecraft, isn’t it? Just showing off, smashing up your guitar.’ To me it was far, far more than that.”
The band’s rebellious attitude in performance would also carry into Townshend songwriting. Songs like “My Generation” and later, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” showcased The Who as a band with attitude – a persona which would influence generations of rebellious rockers after them. The band’s first single, “I Can’t Explain” was released on January 15, 1965 and peaked at number 8 on the UK charts. But it wasn’t until the release of the band’s second single, “My Generation,” that the Who really began to revolutionize rock history.
The story behind “My Generation” has spawned many fabrications over the years, but the song’s meaning undeniably lies in the disconnect that the post-war generation of British youth felt from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations during the sixties. Townshend recently reflected in 2019:
‘My Generation’ was inspired by the fact that I felt that as artists we had to draw a line between all those people who had been involved in the Second World War and all those people who were born right at the end of the war. Those people had sacrificed so much for us, but they weren’t able to give us anything – no guidance, no inspiration…nothing, really. We were what we used to describe ourselves as disenfranchised. We weren’t allowed to join the army, we weren’t allowed to speak, we were expected to ‘shut up and enjoy the peace.’ And we decided not to do that.”
The lyrics in “My Generation” highlight the disdain of the adult generation towards the youth culture.
People try to put us d-down (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
The song charts out a litany of the criticism levied against the post-war generation. Roger Daltrey’s stutter on the song further sparked controversy. At first, the BBC banned the song, concerned Daltrey’s performance would be offensive to those who stutter. But after it was picked up and made popular by pirate radio stations, the BBC eventually lifted the ban. Producer Shel Talmy recalled: “Roger was screwing around during rehearsal, and decided just to stutter, and I said, “you know what, you oughta keep that in.” In particular, the stutter on F-consonant on the word “fade” was particularly controversial because of the implied expletive. Every element of the lyrics and vocal performance hit on the anxieties of the adult generation and their criticisms towards sixties youth.
Further, to 1965 audiences, the song was, to put it simply, noisy. The Who performed with a harder and much more distorted sound than was common at the time – predating both punk and heavy metal. Townshend’s simple but strong guitar line parallels the character of Daltrey’s defiant vocals. Entwistle’s Fender Jazz Bass rattles his Marshall fifty-watt amp, mesmerizing audiences with its power. His solo is often considered the first electric bass solo in music history. And of course, Keith Moon’s playing on the drums, sounded like no one else. With each line of the call and response of the verse, he rocks back into the groove, suddenly breaking at the end of the phrase. His performance is never just about keeping a beat. He constantly adds fills and interesting rhythmic gestures. The song ends with Moon completely letting loose on the drums as the rest of the band plays a noisy closing vamp for almost a whole minute. The sound is completely unlike anything else at the time.The feedback from Townshend’s guitar only adds to the chaos of the song’s iconic ending.
“My Generation” was produced by Shel Talmy who had just produced the Kinks and their seminal recording “You Really Got Me.” In an effort to impress Talmy in late 1974, Townshend wrote The Who’s first single – “I Can’t Explain” in a similar style to that of the Kinks. Talmy says it only took about 8 bars of the song to convince him that The Who were the greatest rock band he had heard in England, and he immediately agreed to work with them. After releasing “I Can’t Explain”, the band got to work on “My Generation.” They recorded the single on October 13, 1965 at IBC Studios in London, where they also produced the rest of their debut album of the same name.
Talmy particularly remembers how he recorded the drums – using 12 mics including overheads, kick drums and two mics on the snare and toms. He refers to Moon as his favorite member of the group to work, despite his wild antics. He recalled: “The only story I can tell you about it is Keith – who was known as a wildman drummer – I said, “Do me a favor Keith. I don’t care how close you get… don’t hit the damn mics. They’re too expensive.” He said, “No problem. I won’t do that.” And he never did. He got within a millimeter or two, but he never hit a mic.”
Glyn Johns was the recording engineer for the album. He would later go on to work on the Beatles’ Get Back sessions for their final album Let It Be, and to produce The Who’s legendary 1971 album Who’s Next. Johns later reflected that he knew they were making rock history beginning with the Who’s earliest tracks: “There was absolutely a sense of the possibility of rules being changed, of the enormity of what was going on. One had no idea whether the general public would pick up on it the same way I did. But I can remember very clearly the session for ‘My Generation.’ …. A bass solo? A stuttering vocal? Not to mention feedback or the song itself. Extraordinary! It was certainly special to me at the time. Are you kidding? You’d have to be deaf not to get excited by that.”
“My Generation” was released by Brunswick on October 29, 1965 as a single, peaking at number 2 in the UK — their highest charting single of their career in the UK. The single only peaked at 74 in the US, which may be due to the fact that Brunskwick’s US side (Decca) didn’t quite know what to do with the recording. Many of the record label’s executives even thought that they had received a bad tape — because of all of the feedback on the record. Despite their hesitancy, the song has enjoyed over a half-century of fame in the US as one of rock history’s most influential tracks. Rolling Stone named the song number 11 on their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it in their list of “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”. It was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic, and significant” value.
“My Generation” remains a critical piece of rock history because of how it shaped music and even rock’s identity. It defined rock by its attitude. Perhaps one of the most iconic moments in the song occurs in the first verse when Daltrey cries out “I hope I die before I get old”. In a song all about generational conflict, this declaration asserted the youth culture as the true leaders of the future. And as the post-war generation aged, the song remained an anthem of their identity- one which constantly redefined their conception of aging. As the decades progressed, they declared that rock’s spirit would transcend age. In 2006, Pete Townshend explained what the line meant to him, as he performed the song in his sixties:
” ‘I hope I die before I get old.’ This time I am not being ironic. I am 61. I hope I die before I get old. I hope I die while I still feel this alive, this young, this healthy, this happy, and this fulfilled. But that may not happen. I may get creaky, cranky, and get cancer, and die in some hospice with a massive resentment against everyone I leave behind. That’s being old, for some people, and probably none of us who don’t die accidentally can escape being exposed to it. But I am not old yet. If getting older means I continue to cherish the lessons every passing day brings, more and more, then whatever happens, I think I’ll be happy to die before I get old, or after I get old, or any time in between.”
With “My Generation” The Who created an anthem that would not only define their generation but also transform rock history. A song of power, identity, attitude and the epitome of rock’s spirit, it has lived on for over a half a century, teaching new generations what it means to rock ‘n roll.
Watch the video below to hear The Who’s ‘My Generation’!