Monday, 16 January 2017

Number 5
13 October 1965
The Who have a fifth go at detonating the atom bomb

Excitement in music

There were exciting records before The Who recorded "My Generation". Records whose sole purpose is to generate excitement. Earlier I discussed "Roll 'Em Pete". Jazz musicians have for a long time experimented with atonality and squeeks and squonks in pursuit of a rising fever. The early recordings of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are based on beat and enthusiasm. Not to mention Elvis and his "let's get real gone for a change". "Crawdaddy Simone" by The Syndicats is a meaningless song rescued by a raucous finale sounding like the band are attacking their instruments with hammers and throwing them down the stairs (The Syndicats were Steve Howe's first group and I was happy under the delusion that it was this most gifted and precise of players who took part in this aural destruction but unfortunately it was recorded after he had left the group). What was needed now was a group that would literally attack their instruments and throw them down the stairs.

The song

"My Generation" is a clean break with the past because, in my view, it is a song which only has meaning in its performance, in its deployment of electricity. Earlier songs had used electricity to enhance them, to give them additional power and impact, to embellish and emphasise or merely to give additional novelty. The Beatles put feedback at the start of "I Feel Fine" because they could. "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks generates much (though not all) of its thrill from the sound of the guitar - the actual thrill comes from the key changes creating tension leading to a final resolution. "My Generation" has key changes but they are an adornment rather than an intrinsic part of the song. The song would work just as well without them. In fact, I am not sure that I altogether like them. I cannot think of any song before "My Generation" which could not reasonably be performed solely on acoustic instruments. "My Generation" is a song that is created for electric performance.

I do not know but I imagine that Pete Townshend created "My Generation" out of his longstanding fascination with the works of Mose Allison. Allison was a stylist, creating laidback piano jazz alongside the projection of a cool, detached demeanor.
Mose Allison, yesterday
The Who were later to cover his "Young Man Blues" in a decidedly non-detached manner. It is typical of Townshend to want to ape Allison's style. A lot of Townshend's art comes from his expression of his desire to be something he is not and of the ensuing frustration at the realisation that his desires exceed his personality. He wants to be the smooth hipster who comments on the world but is not a part of it. It is hard to think of a more engaged artist than Townshend operating in music. He is passionate and excitable. He wants to be the hard man who lives an unexamined life and responds intuitively to his experiences and who is attractive to women (or is what he perceives as attractive to women). Yet he is conscious of the fact that he is not even the hardest man in his own band and that he cannot stop himself from examining his own experiences and is beset with doubts and questioning. He wants to win admiration with his fists but realises that he is too intelligent. He is an intellectual who wants to slum it with the hoi polloi. He wants to be the ace face but lacks the requisite charisma.

Part of Townshend's genius lies in realising his own shortcomings in achieving his desires and also in recognising that, through his fellow musicians, he can give expression to exactly these sentiments. He cannot be Daltrey, the hard-case sheet metal worker with the confidence and the swagger, but he can put his words into Daltrey's mouth and undercut the hard man swagger with otherwise unexpressed uncertainties and conflicts. He was also to come to realise that Daltrey was a far more sensitive soul than others recognised, Daltrey included. Daltrey's beautiful delivery of Townshend's later material prove this. Like "Being John Malkovich", Townshend enters into the hard man's head and makes the hard man consider the world he is in and his responses to it.

Initially, that response was of frustration that the character lacks the means to give expression to his thoughts and feelings. Delightfully, Townshend's first fully fledged artistic work was called "I Can't Explain" and the themes of inarticulateness and confusion have remained the cornerstones of Townshend's art. Inarticulation is most famously expressed through the speech impediment built into the lyrics of "My Generation". The voice of the song is in a rage, he is furious about something which remains unexpressed (unlike, say, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" where Jagger proceeds to list things that he is dissatisfied with before revealing that ultimately it is because he cannot get a shag). The rage in "My Generation", although ostensibly aimed at older people, is in fact directionless, purposeless. It is an existential rage aimed at the condition of being young and powerless. It is purposelessness itself that the rage is directed at.

This purposeless rage is suitably mirrored by the music. The band take a fairly standard blues form and amp it up to the ninth. The slow menace of blues, the mature threat of hoping some schoolboy wants to start a fight, is replaced by the adrenaline excitement of the schoolboy wanting to fight. The riff is hammered out as fast and as loud and as aggressively as they can manage. The variations are subtle and slight and add to, rather than detract from, the main thrust of the backing track.

The form

The song follows the form of a two note riff combined with a blues shuffle on the "talkin' 'bout my generation" refrain and with pauses to give impact to the lyrics. Following a repetition of the riff, the first stanza of the lyrics is accompanied by a repeat of the riff by the bass guitar only along with syncopated handclaps. The rhythm is slightly different between the band playing the riff and the solo bass part. The band play the riff in 4/4 time while the bass is in (I think) 5/4. The second stanza is sung over just the handclaps and without the bass. The remaining stanzas are sung without any accompaniment. After the pause while the lyrics are sung, the instruments are reintroduced usually preceded by a single beat of the snare drum. Occasionally, there are two skipping beats played on the snare; and after the final section of the bass solo and the third stanza of the verses after the first key change the drums crash in with no metre or rhythm at all before they are rejoined by the rest of the instruments. As noted above, there are three key changes during the song ending with a coda comprising a free-form noise section over the top of two chord changes and then a reiteration of the "talkin' 'bout my generation" refrain.

The instrumentation

The bass carries the weight of the song supplying both the rhythm and a good part of the melody. It is also the reason for the four previous failed attempts to record this song. Apparently, John Entwistle wanted to use a Danelectro bass
Danelectro bass
for this recording as this guitar used thinner strings and enabled the player to move around the neck more easily. Clearly, Entwistle was aiming for a really flashy solo. However, the combination of thin strings and Entwistle's aggressive playing style proved incompatible and he kept breaking the strings. Spare strings for this instrument were apparently difficult to source and Entwistle found it easier to just buy another guitar. After three failed attempts (and three Danelectro bass purchases) Entwistle opted to use a Fender Jazz bass.
Fender Jazz bass
The bass plays the main riff with the band and the syncopated parts identified above. The exception is the bass solo and also one point where the bass mimics the blues shuffle part. I assume that during the coda part of the song the bass maintains the two note riff but it is difficult to tell what the bass is playing during this part of the song.

The lead and rhythm guitar parts blur into each other. Initially, the guitar plays the riff and blues shuffle parts but then moves to playing lead lines over these elements using standard blues phrasing. Sometimes the guitar plays the riff by descending two frets and sometimes by ascending two frets moving from G to F, the first time using E shape chords, the second using an E shape and then a D shape for the F chord. This gives variation to the riff and added excitement to the music.

It is the drums that are the lead instrument in this recording. They are not tethered to any set metre or rhythm beyond stopping and starting in the right places. Unlike many other drummers, Keith Moon tends not often to use cymbals as emphasis but rather as part of the overall sound. The ringing of the cymbals at the end of each riff and being faded by Moon's hands is part of the overall ambience of the recording. During the coda he plays quick, repetitive rounds of all the drums for the duration providing a rolling undertone to the electronic score.

The vocal performance is not one of my favourites by Daltrey. The initial impassioned yelp of "People" in the "People try to put us down" line is effective but the delivery of some of the other lines are overly shouty for my taste. The most important parts of the delivery are in the stutter and in the pauses. Both of these are well judged and well delivered. There is speculation about what led to the decision to include a stutter - whether it was a conscious artistic decision, a spur of the moment affectation by Daltrey, or simply a trick effect to make old folks think the "Why don't you all f-f-f-f" line was going to end in something other than "fade away". In fact, Townshend's demo recordings show the stutter was always an intrinsic part of the song. It serves to heighten the tension of the performance by cutting against the otherwise steamroller rhythm of the rest of the band.

The lyrics

I do not want to spend too long on the lyrics as this is a piece about performances rather than songwriting. But it is noticeable, as implied above, that the target of the singer's ire is never given specific form. Although apparently the song was inspired by the Queen Mother demanding that Townshend's car be towed away, there is nothing quite so specific in the song, giving it an everyman appeal. Significantly, the other major contemporary UK youth protest song "Satisfaction" (recorded a few months before "My Generation") identifies the dissatisfaction with a sole individual ("I can't get no satisfaction") as befits the arch-individualist and egotist Jagger, whereas the collectivist Townshend from the off identifies his experience with that of his peers ("People try to put us down"). It is only with the song's most famous line that Townshend introduces the first person in order to give impact to the singer's conclusion after having testified to the bad experiences of his generation ("I hope I die before I get old").

The rest of the lyric I find somewhat prosaic. The singer complains that people put us down just because we get around. This is songwriting by numbers and is surprising coming from this most unusual and surprising of lyricists. Compare the by-rote stanzas of "My Generation" ("things they do look awful cold" is not how British people speak) with the more inventive, specific and colloquial lyrics of "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and "Substitute" - the singles that respectively preceded and succeeded "My Generation". In these songs Townshend comes up with original descriptions of the condition of British youth. But that is, I think, part of the point. Townshend deliberately uses hackneyed, archaic blues cliches to tie in with the blues musical stylings of the song but he deploys them archly. Whereas such lyrics would usually be accompanied by a stylised, musically accomplished performance highlighting the performers' skill in deploying blues variations, Townshend has the band play a manic, simplistic two chord thrash.

The Atom Bomb

That is why this recording is the musical equivalent of the detonation of the atom bomb. The combination of old styles and aggressive performance changes everything and says away with the old and welcome to the brave new world. Townshend wants to destroy everything - not just cold, old people but anyone who is not engaged, anyone who wants merely to watch in a cool, detached manner. The sort of people who want to observe the world instead of trying to change it.   

Like the big bang, "My Generation" starts and then immediately accelerates producing an impactful and accessible rise of excitement. The lingering patina across the whole sound is the buzz of electricity. The instruments breathe and moan and creak and crash under the attack of the musicians. At the end of one of the riffs Entwistle lets his hand slide down the bass strings to produce a sighing, moaning, dying effect. The sound becomes a composite, blending all elements into one. At one point, during a key change, the combination of instruments and vocals produce a cocktail party effect where I can hear my name being called. So clear is this that in the past I have turned the track off at this point and shouted out to whoever I thought was calling me. There is a gorgeous accumulated sustained feedback over part of the coda that never comes fully to the fore.

The lyrics have no sophistication, they are a raw howl from the bowels of the earth and the accompanying barely controlled racket stays just the ordered side of chaos. This is important. The song never lapses into the complete breakdown that is the end of "Crawdaddy Simone" nor does it effort the free-form instrumental break in The Who's own "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere". It is the potential for chaos that sustains the excitement to the end. An abandonment of form would not last. Instead the hammer hits the nail.  
Hear the bomb go off here.


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