People try to put us down
(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around
(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful cold
(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old
The Who have recently become my favorite band. Not the best band, nor the most consistent, influential, innovative, or historically significant, just the one that resonates with me the most. Considering my general artistic palate, they may seem like an odd choice. I’m a slobberingly emotional optimist who tends to gravitate towards groups of predominant idealism like the Beatles, gently honest souls like Bob Dylan, viscerally atmospheric orchestrators like Pink Floyd, fascinatingly unrestrained auteurs like Frank Zappa, bombastic emotional button-pushers like Arcade Fire, and of the course the dumb, geeky fun of Queen or Rush. The Who were the godfathers of the punk movement, and maintained a live persona that was easily identifiable by professional restraint and an edge that was too sharp to be gritty. Neither of these descriptors grabs me.
So why the Who above any of those other artists? I’m putting aside any eloquent dissertations I could hammer and jabber out regarding how Keith Moon and John Entwistle are my absolute favorite drummer and bassist respectively, how Pete Townsend is quite possibly my ideal lyricist, how Roger Daltrey’s versatile vocals were as clear as they were passionate, how each of these personalities combined to make an inimitable whole, or how the artsy pop rock of their prime studio albums actually lines up quite well with my usual tastes, because that’s all grass-level stuff and I’m looking for the dirty roots. On an essential level, my love of the Who comes from two primary factors. The first is their sense of melody, unrivaled by any collection of people who don’t have “Beatle” on their resume or “Stephen Schwartz” on their nametag. It wasn’t simply that Pete Townsend was a brilliant songwriter who created marvelously multi-pronged hooks, it was that every member of the band brought their own thick, intuitive chops. I drool over the intense melodicism in the choruses, the verses, the bridges, the arrangements, the vocals, the guitar, the basslines, and especially the drumlines. The Who put every part of a song to the work of pleasing the ears, and the results are often suitably orgasmic. Melody, by my personal constitution, is the most important part of a piece of music, so the band has already accumulated major points.
The second factor, the one that solidified The Who as my favorite band the more apparent it became to me, is an extremely subjective point: The Who are the most professionally creative band I’ve ever come across. The key word is PROFESSIONALLY, a descriptor placed to discount bands and artists who, though their output may be more imaginative, show little in the way of restraint or the ability to do justice to their ideas. I adore the unpredictable musings of Frank Zappa, but across a twenty-year catalogue he showed that he often couldn’t tell a good wacko idea from a bad one. My previous favorite band, Pink Floyd, often couldn’t deliver on the grandiosity of their vision. The Who were a band that were both intriguingly original and completely adequate, presenting balanced and satisfying packages.
Their debut, The Who Sings My Generation, is an excellent example of both strengths. The compositions are nigh-flawless and the creative variety of arrangements and song topics keep the album intellectually interesting throughout its run time. This is, famously, the first “punk” album, though more in spirit then in content. There’s rough playing, a fantastic collection of garage melodies, amusing lyricism, a strong rebellious attitude rivaled only by the Stones, and…two abysmal James Brown covers. Yeesh. Minor flubs aside, My Generation is one fantastic album, required listening for fans of punk and garage rock, as well as anyone who wants to dig into one of the greatest bands rock ever had the pleasure of seeing.
So let’s get old before we die, or some similar sentiment. Side one opens with the ominously empowering chords of “Out In The Street”, which explode into a rough melody with even rougher feedback, vocals and lyrics. The Who set out their intentions and successfully meet them in a display of confidence only the best album openers can pull off. As with practically every melody on the record, it’s good for a hum or a headbop depending on your mood. Roger growls his throat out, Pete sketches his rebellious lyrical boundaries with brutal simplicity, and everyone’s playing is vicious.
It’s a dang good thing that opener was so captivating, because they proceed to drain away all that goodwill with “I Don’t Mind”, the first of the album’s two covers. It’s clumsily played, doesn’t fit the album’s tone, and provides some of the very worst vocals of one of the very best vocalists of all time. Roger’s unconvincing RnB performance here is more troublesome to me than any provocative “punk” things they do on the rest of the album.
Thankfully, the greasy, gritty, glaring stars of the punk world aligned again to produce “The Good’s Gone”, a moody and resentful ode to an unsatisfying relationship. The effect is unsettling, with a melody that sounds like it should precede a serious brawl. The brutal lyrics and growling vocals cement the effect.
“La-La-La-Lies”, true to its name, features a wonderful vocal hook, aided by infectiously spattery playing and a catchy drum riff. It’s not all that remarkable in the company it has, but it’s a fun break from the moodiness. “Much Too Much” has similar strengths, showing that even the lesser songs on the album are hookalicious. If they count as filler, they’re at least filler you can have a blast humming.
If you’re tired of slighter songs, turn your gaze to the window, as we have reached the end of side one and the centerpiece of the album: “My Generation.” The list of great things about this song is astounding: the melody is creative and unpredictable, Pete’s scathing writing is at its highest function, Roger’s paradoxical vocals stutter with aggressive power, and the playing is marvelous, especially Keith’s insane drumming. So…best song on the album, right?
Actually, no. In my musical directory, that honor goes to side two’s opener, the album’s other immortal classic: “The Kids Are Alright.” Contrasting the previous song, this is unmistakably pop. It comes complete with a beautiful melody, powerful vocals from Roger, and playing that could only come from musicians having a blast. If I don’t hear this song at least once a week, my musical life feels void.
So to follow up that mastery, how ‘bout another cover? “Please Please Please” pulls off the incredible feat of being even choppier and more intolerable than “I Don’t Mind”, with everyone involved making complete fools of themselves, especially poor Roger. This is by far the worst performance I’ve heard him give (not that anyone else fares well). This isn’t just an album lowlight, it’s a career lowlight, and coming right after a song where the opposite was true is physically painful.
“It’s Not True” is a welcome and needed return to form, with funny lyrics from the perspective of a person at the brunt of a tasty assortment of insane rumors. The melody is power pop perfection, and everyone brings a wonderful exuberance to their instruments. Changing up the mood is the driving instrumental “The Ox”, a fun showcase of The Who’s already top-notch playing ability, particularly with the drums and piano. It’s a frantic scramble that provides enough pure energetic enjoyability to rise above the obvious label of “filler.”
“A Legal Matter” is an entertainingly detestable story of a man breaking off his engagement because he’s bored. The lyrics do an amusing job fleshing out the horrific hero and are aided by a catchy melody and decent vocals from Pete.
The album closes with “Instant Party (Circles)”, which is alright, but not especially remarkable. The melody is fantastic, especially in the chorus, but the playing is too sluggish for it to be as fun as it potentially could be. It’s still a completely serviceable closer, though.
And that’s a new generation of music. Though marred by those atrocious covers, this is nonetheless a fantastic effort of an album, a worthy career debut and genre forerunner. Almost everything here is enjoyable, if not unassailable. Sadly, The Who turned away from this sound on their studio albums immediately afterward, reserving and refining these techniques for their live shows. But hey, breaking out of this box led to some of the greatest studio albums of all time, so I’m cool.
Music: 4/5 One point off for the covers. The sound is rough and the melodies are lean.
Themes: 5/5 Something something roots of punk.
Lyricism: 3/5 Pete hasn’t quite brought his way with words up to his way with notes, but there’s still effective attitude, humor, and even traditional resonance.
Diversity: 4/5 Varied tones and styles all around: garage rock, power pop, RnB for what it’s worth…
Resonance: 3/5 WOULD be a 4/5, but one point off for the covers. The Who make reasonably convincing punks, but I can’t help but be reminded of how they later used a similar sound to sell themselves as rockers, an image that fit them much more.
EXPERIENCE: Hanging out with the only friendly guys in a biker gang, who don’t oppose the system as a whole and are probably small business owners to maintain those stupid pollution machines of theirs. Rebellious aggressiveness balanced by enthusiastic professionalism.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10 Catchy melodies, historical importance, tonal diversity, and a couple all-time classics. What else do you need?
Recommended Listening: The Kids Are Alright, My Generation, It’s Not True, The Ox, Out In The Street, The Good’s Gone