It’s the early 1960’s somewhere in west London, and the legendary rock band, the Who, are still trying to find their legs. Under different leadership, they suffer a brief stint as a “mod” rock group in which members, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon, become so frustrated they practice a soon to be Who-ritual of smashing their musical instruments to bits on stage. Perhaps, someday they will even dabble in pyrotechnics, but this is still some time before performing live on television. For now, the Who, then called The High Numbers, struggle to create enough original material to cut their first LP. Finally, in December 1965, their talent is pressed into glossy, black vinyl and released with the title, “My Generation” in the U.K. On the album, exactly at its middle, sits a song that many have named one of the most important classic rock songs of our time, titled after its record, “My Generation”.
This isn’t a song that captures the imagination or is revered for its complexity, but it is a song that finds relevance more than 50 years after its debut. The classic has been covered many times by a number of popular rock outfits, including Green Day, Patti Smith, Oasis, and Iron Maiden, which shows the song’s ability to mature without losing relevance.
Understanding the power and unwavering pertinence of the song My Generation requires a look at the depth of its message and discussing the legacy it continues to inherit, generation to generation.
The Magic’s in the Message
At first glance, analyzing the lyrics to one of the Who’s most popular songs seems like a simple task; after all, the phrase “my generation” is repeated more than 40 times during the song’s duration of a little over three minutes. True to the nature and beauty of rock ‘n’ roll, the song wasn’t written to camouflage its message behind flowery metaphors; it was written simplistically which is where most of its magic lives. The song was never assumed to become a generational anthem, but acted more as a telling diary entry of what it meant to be young and misunderstood. However, since the song’s 1965 debut, youthful misunderstood-generations have been blasting “My Generation” on their records, 8-tracks, CD’s, iPods, and playlists ever since.
The angst chant touts a possessiveness of its generation; its repeated line of “my generation” could more accurately be heard as, “mine, not yours”. Distinguishing between two groups, as the song so rigidly does, magnifies differences, conflict and contrast. It isn’t just knowing one generation is different from the next, but being proud of the difference: most noted in the line “I hope I die before I get old.” The song also dismisses its opposition (referred to only a few times as “people” and “you”) for their inability to understand the Who’s generation, figuratively patting them on their naive heads for even trying.
A great bit of trivia and a wonderful addition to the discussion of this classic track is that the quintessential stutter that Roger Daltrey took on was unintentionally intentional. Having had a minor struggle with a stutter, Daltrey accidentally stuttered while recording the track, but when attempting to re-record was suggested to keep it and add it in on multiple other lines. The artistic choice’s main objective was for Daltrey to sound hopped up on drugs, a judgmental factor many of the older generations commonly accredited to London youth (although it may have often been based on fact).
The creative choice took the song to a whole new level and is now one of the most famous rock songs cited for its stuttering. Of course, many others along the years have utilized this phonetic utilization (“Changes” by David Bowie, “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys, and “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John, just to name a few) but the choice for a stutter is intentional in these cases, usually chosen by the artist or band as a way to add interest or syllables to a word or phrase. (The only other notable rock song that a stutter was chosen on accident was with American rock band, Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”, in which the lead singer didn’t intend to release the song that way, but only to poke fun at his brother’s stuttering problem).
Most important of all to note, is that My Generation was written during a time during the ride of a significant counter-culture: a number of young, trendy individuals called mods.
The Mod Movement
The song acts as a precursor to one of the Who’s most popular tracks, “Baba O’Riley.” While the 1971 release “Baba O’Riley” shares imagery of the urban decay London experienced even into the late ‘60’s as an after effect of World War II and what it meant to many locals, such as the members of the Who, to grow up in a “teenage wasteland”, the song My Generation was less about the exodus of youth from broken childhood to the brink of adulthood and more about the youth culture scene in London in the 1960’s.
Much like the term hipster has transformed itself from label to lifestyle and counter-culture, this was also the case for the term mod. Mods were resistant of their parents or former generations’ ideas and hopes for the future; they found refuge from feeling absurdly different by experimenting with drugs and dancing in London clubs to popular soul and Motown music. Mods were not punks – a London sub-culture that would see its time almost ten years later- mods were nearly the exact opposite of what punk rock’s major ideological pillars of anti-capitalism, set forth by one of its founding fathers, Joe Strummer of The Clash.
In truth, these predominantly white, moderately wealthy young men were styling themselves after modern jazz icons, such as Miles Davis, with clean-lined suits and polished dress shoes. Girls took on short hair styles, mini-dresses, and dark eye liner (think fashion icon, Twiggy). The Who weren’t a mod band, in that sense of the term, but they were a band that many non-Mods of the time would have called mod due to their early years dressing in suits, being clean-cut and well-groomed.
In the early 1960’s, the track served as a cathartic experience for the young Townshend as he wrote it from his experience with youth culture in London at the time. There was a definitive sense of difference between the old and new generations during the 1960’s in many countries, but the generational gap in the U.K., particularly in London, was less a gap and perhaps more of a chasm.
The aftermath of World War II left the ally nation in rough economic standing. Neighborhoods of London ridden with ghosts of war were inherited by blue-collar workers and former-farmers whose children would grow to see the rebirth of London’s economy. Eventually the economy and wages improved, which was the catalyst for the birth of the Mod sub-culture. Families no longer relied on all members of the family to work in order to keep them afloat and thus teenagers found themselves free to spend less time working and more time dancing at clubs or enjoying a ride on a Vespa. This carefree lifestyle had former generations both scratching and shaking their heads.
In many ways, the Who, a rock band just starting out wrote, perhaps accidentally, a mod anthem: a song that simply said “We don’t care about anyone’s opinion of us.” This distinctly angst filled message is vague enough that it can be inherited again and again by generations to come.
“My Generation” is a simple rock track, made up of some of the most classic, simplistic elements of rock music, particularly in its time of the 1960’s: two verses that are repeated interchangeably, a hook that listeners can easily chant along to and back-up vocals that mimic the popular “call back” method of many blues, soul and Motown songs of the time. It’s in its simplicity that the song My Generation finds a brilliant legacy. Both timeless and timely, the clear message of the song – our generations are different and we like it that way – resonates with Millennials today as much as it did with mods in the ‘60’s.
The differences between the young and old will always exist; each generation witnesses different disasters, overcomes obstacles unique to their decade, and therefore comes to care about different social and political agendas. Generations X, Y and Z create a fascinating spectrum to look though, in which priorities, hopes, politics, and structures of thought vary and change as we all navigate time. The one thing that may never change is how powerful music can be and how we utilize it to express ourselves.
Many older generations write off Millennials, labeling them as a generation that cares more about likes on their Instagram account than what’s going on in the world around them. Whether or not this is true from individual to individual, unpredictable elements of everyday life – such as social media or cell phones – have come to not only define a generation, but consequently pigeonhole it. (Just as the Vespas and exquisitely greased hair-styles of the mods had them labeled as apathetic and pompous.)
My Generation was a favorite of our teenage-aged grandparents and then our teenage-aged parents, today it expresses the same message but to a different set of ears. We may change and mature, but classic songs, such as My Generation are comfortingly always the same.