NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hi! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and once in awhile that’s a good thing to know.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
For today’s trivia question, this is where Rock and Roll meets art. Many bands have a piece of art that represents them, and which will appear on their albums, or on the T-shirts you can buy, or on stickers or whatever. And that art lets other people know that you’re part of the KISS Army, or a Dead Head, or whatever. You get the idea. So there’s one band whose logo incorporates symbols representing each member’s zodiac sign. So, for instance, if it were the Beatles, their logo would include a set of scales representing John Lennon, a fish for George Harrison and so on. So clearly I’m not talking about The Beatles, OR KISS, or the Grateful Dead. But what band am I talking about?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.
It’s been ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as the 11th greatest song of all time—in fact, it appears near the top of a lot of music lists—it’s considered a concert staple and is instantly recognizable, but as a single it wasn’t a hit in the United States even though it was their biggest hit in their home country.
“My Generation” was written by Pete Townshend in 1965 because of an argument he’d had with his parents. According to Townshend’s brother, Pete’s parents weren’t thrilled with his efforts to remodel his apartment into a recording studio. This turned into a huge argument when the remodeling job started to affect the structural integrity of the rest of the building, and Townshend was kicked out. He wound up sharing an apartment with record producer Kit Lambert in a very wealthy district of London.
[I CAN’T EXPLAIN]
While The Who had experienced some success at that point, they still weren’t quite at that stage of wealth, so he pretty much stood out. Townshend has related a couple of different stories about how he was treated badly while he was in that neighborhood, including one incident where his car had been towed by the staff at nearby Buckingham Palace at the request of the Queen Mother.
So Townshend channeled that anger into a couple of things. One of them was the basic drive to be bigger and richer than they were. In a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, he said it was all about the vengeance. He said “I’m afraid I’ve done it out of a great sickness. I talk to people I really do respect from that way of life now, and I say to them, ‘Do you realize why it is I’m so driven to operate within the Establishment? It’s a vengeance.’”
The other was pouring his liver out into the writing of “My Generation”, which he wrote on his birthday, May 19, while riding a train. And I swear to god this is a coincidence, but I happen to be recording and releasing this episode on May 19, Pete Townshend’s birthday. And since I brought up the topic earlier, that makes Pete a Taurus. And no, that’s not a hint to the trivia question. Now, nobody will deny that this is a very hard-hitting song, especially in the UK in 1965. While it’s definitely got a Mod sound to it, I think it could easily be classified as one of the forefathers of the Punk sound. That’s the way we know it now, but it’s not the way the song started out.
The early incarnations of the song were much slower and had a bluesy feel. It was Kit Lambert’s idea to speed it up, and at one point it had a bunch of key changes and handclaps in it. Have a listen to this, it’s one of the earlier demos. Now, this clip comes from a flexi-disc that came as a freebie in Richard Barnes’ biography of the band from 1983, so you may hear some surface noises:
[DEMO] into [STUTTERING BLUES]
So at this point there’s still a lot of echo standing in for the cacohpany that ensues in later takes, and you may also notice that Roger Daltrey’s stuttering is almost completely absent.
And the story behind the stuttering was pretty interesting to me, if only because I noticed that in many of The Who’s more notable songs, the central character has some kind of defect. In “I Can’t Explain” the narrator can’t express himself because he’s on Dexedrine. In “Happy Jack” they’re singing about a homeless man. Tommy was deaf, dumb and blind because of a traumatic childhood incident. And, of course, our narrator in “My Generation” has a stutter. Now, Townshend has said that John Lee Hooker’s “Stuttering Blues”—what you’re hearing now—was one of his influences, but it still wasn’t meant to be part of Townshend’s vision of the song
The stuttering, like several other changes to the song was Kit Lambert’s idea, and it came late in the process. In a 2001 interview with Uncut Magazine, Daltrey confessed that he personally DOES have a stutter, which he has since learned to control. And, as with many people with communication disorders, Daltrey would stutter when he spoke but not necessarily when he sang. So after a couple of takes, Lambert told Daltrey that he should stutter when he sings the song, to make him sound like a kid on speed. He said that the drawn out F’s on the word f-f-f-fade were always in there, but the rest was largely improvisation. The stutter created a little bit of an airplay problem for the band at first, since the BBC wouldn’t air it, thinking it was making fun of stutterers, but as the record began to sell, they finally caved and added it to their playlists. Ultimately the song went to Number Two in the UK, making it their biggest single even up to today.
Meanwhile, over in the United States, The Who was still largely an unknown quantity, and the song peaked at Number 73 on the Billboard chart. When the album finally came out, the US title was The Who Sings My Generation, because they were still relative unknowns on this side of the pond.
The one line throughout the song that Daltrey DOESN’T stutter on is its most iconic: “Hope I die before I get old”. When asked about the line at that time, a 21-year old Daltrey said in interviews that he stood by the lyric, and that he’d probably kill himself before reaching 30 because he didn’t want to get old. Go figure, about ten years later when people were calling him on it, he backtracked and noted that “getting old” is more of an attitude than a physical condition. In the meantime, Townshend has always maintained that it was an attitude thing, though he tempered it by saying it was an attitude that came from being very wealthy.
[BASS TO END]
One of the more notable components of this track is the bass solo, which was still pretty rare for a rock and roll record. John Entwhistle wanted to use his new Danelectro bass, but his problem was that the guitar was so new that he couldn’t get replacement strings for it because they were still so tough to find. There are stories that he actually went out and bought new Deanelectros so he could use that guitar on the record, but he kept breaking strings, so he finally gave up and used his Fender Jazz Bass, which meant that he had to simplify his solo. And, like the rest of the record, the solo has the same aggressive call-and-response pattern where he plays something, the rest of the band responds with an instrumental version of “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” and so on.
In live shows, the song’s ending usually serves as an introduction to some extended jamming, but the original record ends with lots of mayhem: Keith Moon is just hammering away on anything in reach, Townshend is flipping switches randomly on his guitar pickups, and he and Daltrey are vocally stepping on each other, making the whole thing extra chaotic until they reach that closing chord. Visually, it was pretty stunning, as this would be the point where you’d see those iconic images of them destroying their instruments at the end of the song. In one instance it actually got kind of dangerous: when they performed on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September of 1967, Keith Moon had set his drums to explode, not knowing that the show’s technical crew had already arranged for the explosion. If you watch the video—and I’ll provide a clip on the website—I think you’ll be amazed that Pete Townshend wasn’t more badly injured. As it was, his hair was burned and it was the beginning of his hearing loss. What’s not entirely clear in that clip is that The Who really hated the idea of lip synching lyrics and pantomiming playing, so oftentimes when you see them on American TV shows, they’ll purposely do stuff that won’t be heard, such as Keith Moon knocking over his cymbal. It’s a lot like the Mamas and the Papas, where Michelle Phillips will be standing there eating a banana instead of pretending to sing.
As far as covers of the song, there are a bunch of them. Some of them are pretty faithful, like the Count Five, who recorded it later that same year for their Psychotic Reaction album. Green Day did their version on their 1992 album Kerplunk, which starts off typical and then wakes up in the second half:
Here’s one from the “Oh Hell No” Category: Hilary Duff did a cover in 2004 that’s genuinely cringeworthy. I get the feeling that she was trying to appeal to her Disney-based fans, right down to the key line:
Everyone—EVERYONE—I know, argues that she’s completely subverted the point of the song. So let me play for you a little palate cleanser. For sheer anger and urgency, Patti Smith’s 1976 cover from her debut album Horses is probably one of the best that’s out there:
And…you can also check out some not-bad covers by Iron Maiden and Oasis. And if you want to hear another especially bad one, check out the 2002 recording by the band Apologetix—that’s ending in X, not CS.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to name the band whose logo incorporates a symbol for each member, that represents their individual astrological signs.
That band would be Queen.
Take a look at their logo, which I’ll put up on the How Good It Is Dot Com website, hidden under a spoiler tag, and you can see that, among other things, their rather complicated logo has two lions, for John Deacon and Roger Taylor, who were born under the sign of Leo, a crab for Brian May, who was born in mid-July, making him a Cancer, and a pair of fairies, which represent Freddie Mercury, who was a Virgo. I admit that this makes the question a little bit unfair, but that was Mercury’s reasoning when he designed the artwork. Also in the artwork are a large Q that the lions are embracing, which has a crown inside of it, and the whole thing is topped by a Phoenix. And it’s all meant to evoke the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. Queen’s first album had a simple line drawing of the logo on the back cover, and subsequent appearances of the artwork were a little more detailed and in full color.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is, to be a Boxer.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.