Over the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve noticed one telltale feature in the music criticism dished out by the big names in the field.
It is loaded with testosterone.
One data point in support of that theory is the curious truth that the vast majority of music critics are men, employed by competitive, for-profit enterprises. That combination by itself would lend street-level credibility to the theory that there’s a lot of virtual dick-waving going on in the field of music criticism, but it’s only a tantalizing clue that would never meet the standards of proof required by any credible legal system on earth.
Due to my insatiable sexual appetite and the desire to become the best fuck in bisexual history, I keep up on the scientific literature having to do with sexuality, including the impact of both estrogen or testosterone on the sex drive. When it comes to testosterone, there are several common beliefs that qualify as complete bullshit, particularly the notion that too much testosterone automatically results in toxic masculinity or chest-thumping syndrome. A relatively recent scientific study published by PNAS provides ample evidence that the manifestation of testosterone has less to do with uncontrolled aggression and more to do with seeking status in the pack: “These findings are inconsistent with a simple relationship between testosterone and aggression and provide causal evidence for a more complex role for testosterone in driving status-enhancing behaviors in males.”
There’s plenty of evidence of status-seeking behaviors in the work of male music critics: exaggerated language designed to anger or delight the reader, depending on the reader’s opinion of the music; the arrogant dismissal of contrary opinions; and, above all, the overuse of superlatives and absolutes. The critical response to The Who Sings My Generation is typical:
- “The hardest rock in history” (Christgau)
- “The most ferociously powerful guitars and drums yet captured on a rock record” (Unterberger)
- “The Who Sings My Generation became the blueprint for much of the subsequent garage rock, heavy metal, and punk.” (Kemp)
Mr. Christgau, How do you measure “hardest?” If you have access to an ultrasound machine, you can measure the hardness of a dick, but what’s the objective measurement of “hardest” in music? And where’s your evidence to support the claim of “the hardest rock in history?” Did you test all the rock records in history for hardness? On what scale? And Richie, where’s your measurement model concerning “ferocious power?” And Mr. Kemp, can you cite any evidence at all that shows that garage rock, heavy metal and punk bands first listened to The Who Sings My Generation before stepping on stage or into the studio? If not, why use the term “blueprint?” One would have to assume that the critics in question had instant recall of all the relevant rock albums when they generated this bullshit, a highly questionable premise indeed.
Fact: The Who Sings My Generation establishes the blueprint for 69% of The Who’s subsequent work. You’ll hear Keith Moon’s manic drumming, power rock enhanced by melody and harmony, Townshend’s aggressive guitar style, John Entwistle’s championship-level bass and evidence of Roger Daltrey’s immense potential. What’s missing from the album is Pete Townshend’s misguided yearning to create grand statements through full-length and mini-operas, making The Who Sings My Generation one of their least pretentious works. As debut albums go, it’s certainly top-tier, but like all debut albums, there are songs that work and songs that are pure album filler. The lyrics range from decent to pretty darned awful (Townshend gets songwriting credit but tried to pin the lyrical shortcomings on manager Kit Lambert). You can hardly hear John Entwistle at times, particularly on the original mono recordings (except for the title track), and The Who ain’t exactly The Who without a healthy dose of Entwistle.
Consider this: The Who Sings My Generation “was later dismissed by the band as something of a rush job that did not accurately represent their stage performance of the time” (Wikipedia). Couple that with another annoying piece of data that the album was out of print in the U. K. for twenty-two years. Townshend and Daltrey didn’t embrace the album until a series of remixes appeared beginning in 2002 after they started fretting about whether or not they’d saved enough money for retirement. So, let’s cut the testosterone-driven hyperbole, ignore the boring male bluster about greatest, best and biggest, and explore what The Who Sings My Generation is all about.
If you’re looking for proof that this is one of the greatest début albums of all time, you’ll be sadly relieved of that delusion after listening to the first three tracks. All three could have fit nicely into the go-go scenes from any Austin Powers movie, which is as backhanded a compliment you’ll ever see. “Out in the Street” is a pepped-up traditional blues number delivered in a hip mod tempo with decent girl group harmonies and avant-garde guitar from Townshend (they’ll appropriate the shimmery strummed intro for the later release “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”). Roger Daltrey sounds completely out of his league on the James Brown tune “I Don’t Mind,” and its only a warmup for a greater sacrilege later in our program. “The Good’s Gone” opens with the so-1960’s jangle of a Rickenbacker and moseys along at an unexciting pace with a poorly double-tracked vocal from Daltrey dripping with forced attitude. The go-go-dancers of the period would have danced mindlessly to all these songs (after all, they were paid to do that), so I suppose they have period value . . . but opening an album with three of your weakest offerings isn’t the best way to build the fan base. The first two songs do remind us that The Who had a solid grounding in blues and R&B, an essential education for any serious rockers. That foundation enabled The Who to become one of the great power rock bands, ensuring that their music was rooted in the erotic component of R&B and blues.
But what placed The Who in the upper echelons of rock music is that they weren’t a one-trick pony. They were one of the few bands to really master two forms of rock: power rock and melodic rock. Later they would meld the two in dramatic fashion in songs like “Behind Blue Eyes,” but at this stage, they were just beginning to explore and expand their melodic skills. The first song demonstrating this talent is the simple but catchy tune, “La-La-La Lies.” The song itself is pretty straightforward pop song that The Who take to another level through Keith Moon’s choice to emphasize the toms in a shuffle pattern that sounds like slowed-down skiffle with a Motown kick. While Moon is holding up his end of the bargain, Townshend and Entwistle combine for some luscious choral harmonies in the chorus and finale, and Daltrey sounds perfectly comfortable in the role of earnest, frustrated lover.
“Much Too Much” is a song that isn’t sure which direction it wants to take, in large part due to Daltrey applying too much tough-guy attitude over a background of sweet harmonies. I tend to tune him out and focus on the rhythm section, where Keith Moon holds things together with restrained (for him) tom and cymbal work. Though later in the timeline he would sometimes become a parody of himself and eschew structural support for bursts of madness, on My Generation you can appreciate his remarkable talent and stunning range of attack.
The title track comes next, and when I originally reviewed “My Generation” on Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, most of my commentary had to do with the utter stupidity of famous line, “Hope I die before I get old.” Well, I still think it’s a fucking stupid sentiment on multiple levels, but let’s put that aside and focus on the music. Roger Daltrey’s stuttering vocal is one of the most compelling vocals I’ve ever heard, capturing the uncertain rebel rejecting adult rules and regulations while having no solutions to the conflict other than a childish wish that the old farts would just fade away—James Dean’s angst set to rock music. And then there’s Entwistle’s bass emerging from the limitations of mid-60’s recording technology, earning himself the big solo after flattening us with some incredibly nimble bass runs. And though you may not pay much notice to it with Daltrey and Entwistle garnering most of the attention and Keith Moon letting loose, Pete Townshend should win the best supporting actor award for serving as the rough glue that holds it all together through his no-bullshit rhythm guitar attack.
That first power rock masterpiece is followed by their first melodic rock masterpiece, “The Kids Are Alright.” I reviewed this previously as well, and I am absolutely sticking to my original perspective: “Another melodic rock classic, this story of mild teenage angst is sheer delight. Validating The Count Basie Effect that tells us that the simplest choices are often the best, the opening chord—a pretty run-of-the-mill D5—was voted the second most distinctive opening chord after (duh) “A Hard Day’s Night” on Rock Town Hall. The melody moves beautifully and gracefully through the scale, and the harmonies sound so good they almost put me into a waking dream state of pure ecstasy. Keith Moon’s relentless attack gives the arrangement rock song credibility by tempering the sweetness, and Townsend’s supporting guitar gets right to the edge of lead guitar orgasm without crossing the line into explosion, leaving that pleasure for the listeners. And where did this diamond land on the US Charts? #106. Shee-it.”
Right when things are beginning to move along swimmingly, The Who completely, utterly and unreservedly blow it by giving us another cover of James Brown—and not just any cover, but the ultimate James Brown melodramatic masterpiece, “Please, Please, Please.” Daltrey is so far out of his league here, it’s embarrassing—kind of like pitting the Boston Red Sox against the local Pee Wee League team. In every film I’ve seen of the Godfather of Soul performing “Please, Please, Please,” the audience is in a state of rapture, uncontrollably screaming in orgasmic delight. The only screaming I can imagine coming from the audience in response to The Who’s version is “We want our fucking money back!” Without a doubt, this is one of the worst examples of white guys trying to go black and failing miserably.
In protest of this appalling act of musical debasement, I give you the real “Please, Please, Please.”
The Who return to sanity with “It’s Not True,” a bouncy little number with provocative lyrics desperately in need of a punch line. The first two verses give us a series of outrageous accusations made against the narrator, giving us the impression that valuable insight lies ahead:
You say I’ve been in prison
You say I’ve got a wife
You say I’ve had help doing
Everything throughout my life
I haven’t got eleven kids
I weren’t born in Baghdad
I’m not half-Chinese either
And I didn’t kill my dad
Nice set-up, but the deflating conclusion is that narrator denies all the rumors and reminds us that spreading gossip isn’t a very nice thing to do. Thanks for the tip and thanks for nuthin’!
Skipping lyrical challenges entirely, “The Ox” is a hyper-speed romp where Townshend, Moon and Nicky Hopkins take a simple blues progression and deliver an exciting performance with faintly ominous overtones. I can understand why The Who rarely played this tune live (it’s just your standard three-chord progression) but the sounds they created in this piece served as a scratch pad for musical ideas that will manifest themselves in later works. The stop-time segment where Nicky Hopkins’ piano takes over presages the more dramatic passages in “Baby O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Townshend’s mastery of the lower strings is on full display here, and he will go on to use that talent to strengthen the bottom of Who classics like “I Can See for Miles” and “Summertime Blues.”
That blast of energy is followed by the only Townshend lead vocal on the album, “A Legal Matter,” a song I covered in the MBB&B review. In short: melodically similar to The Stones’ “The Last Time,” ludicrously sexist, but I find no flaws in Townshend’s vocal and guitar work. And speaking of legal matters, the closing track “Instant Party (Circles)” wound up in High Court, the center of a copyright dispute between producer Shel Talmy and the band. As it’s not much of a song in the first place, I think this is a classic example of misguided male aggressiveness, where men fight about trivial things like who’s the best quarterback in history or which team’s cheerleaders have the biggest tits. Who gives a fuck? Who’s the judge? Those cheerleaders are never going to fuck you, so what’s the point?
All which brings us neatly back to where we started. I think part of the reason many (not all) male critics engage in hyperbole is because men are generally uncomfortable of expressing emotions other than anger and the thrill of victory. Instead of telling us how the music made them feel (which is what music does—makes us feel) they have to filter those emotions through the testosterone factory in their nuts to retain membership in the pack.
I’ll tell you how I feel about The Who Sings My Generation: I was excited to pick up so many clues of their future direction in the music, absolutely enthralled by their unique sound, deeply impressed by the potential on display, thrilled by their melodic and harmonic flights, wet and sassy when they kicked ass, and I’m still fucking pissed off about “Please, Please, Please.”
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Note to my readers: This is one of several albums I reviewed in my first year as a blogger that I’ve been dying to rewrite. When I first started the blog, I listened to expert advice to keep my posts short and sweet, and that was a mistake. After a while, I felt that I was cheating both artists and readers with presentations of superficial mediocrity. In preparation for my upcoming collection of reviews, I have rewritten nearly all the reviews from that first year, including the bulk of The Beatles’ catalog and several iconic albums. These reviews will appear here and on 50thirdand3rd over the next few months.
Pete Townshend always had great pretensions. Striving to be rock’s version of Verdi, he penned two rock operas (Tommy and Quadrophenia). Tommy combines a flash or two of musical brilliance with peculiar views on enlightenment and a twisted, overwrought narrative (even Entwistle admitted he didn’t know what the fuck it was about). At the center of the story is a thoroughly loathsome main character who fails to garner any sympathy despite his status as a victim of child abuse. Quadrophenia dies early in a flood of amateur pop-psychoanalysis based on a misinterpretation of schizophrenia as “split-personality syndrome” (Dissociative Identity Disorder is another thing entirely). Townsend used “quadro” because he wanted to capitalize on the dead-on-arrival emergence of quadrophonic sound and the fact that The Who consisted of four band members. When the structure of your lead character’s personality is based on how many people are in your group, your libretto is on pretty flimsy ground. The only thing on the two-disc production that qualifies as memorable is John Entwistle’s bass part on “The Real Me.”
Between the two failed opuses, Townsend worked on a multimedia project entitled Lifehouse with an equally twisted premise. The combination of logistical complexity and a confused vision put Townsend on the edge of a nervous breakdown and the band on the verge of a break-up. The project was canceled.
When you fail, the best thing you can do is learn from the experience and let it go, and that’s exactly what The Who did. They took the best pieces from Lifehouse, added a few more numbers, gave free rein to engineer Glyn Johns to create the best sound possible (novel thought!) and the result was Who’s Next, one of the truly great recordings in rock ‘n’ roll history and certainly the best thing The Who ever did.
There are few opening tracks that command your attention as completely as “Baba O’Riley,” with its mesmerizing synthetic pattern (courtesy of a Lowrie home organ), majestic rhythm and crashing power chords. The title is a melding of the names of two of Townsend’s mentors, but that information is only relevant if you’re playing Trivial Pursuit. What is more important is Townsend’s claim that the subject matter of the song is the teenage population attending the Woodstock festival. While the claim is only partially supported by the lyrics themselves, there’s no doubt that the closing verse describes a scene that bears more than a passing resemblance to the muddy madness of Woodstock. Instead of seeing Woodstock as the grand festival of peace, love and happiness, Townsend saw it for what it was: a bunch of wiped out imbeciles doing their absolute best to achieve permanent brain damage through psychedelic experimentation:
Teenage wasteland, it’s only teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland, oh yeah
They’re all wasted!
The lyrics are enhanced a millionfold by Roger Daltrey’s commanding delivery. I’ve always considered Daltrey one of the greatest lead singers in rock because of his exceptional interpretive ability. It’s not easy finding the right tone, phrasing and emotional level for a song written by someone else, especially when the person who wrote the lyrics is standing next to you in the studio waiting for you to fuck things up. As thousands of crappy covers of Beatle songs have proven, song interpretation is a challenging art all by itself, and Daltrey’s diverse performances on Who’s Next verify his mastery of the craft.
In “Baba O’Riley,” two moments stand out for me. The first is the delivery of the line, “I don’t need to be forgiven,” which he delivers with slightly more intensity, following it with the self-affirming repeated utterances of “yeah.” It sounds as if he’s been trying to express something inside for years and has finally found the right words—a joyful and liberating experience. The second is the way he delivers the catchphrase “teenage wasteland” immediately after the synthesizer passage. He could have chosen to scream those words; instead, he holds back and delivers them in an almost sweet, plaintive voice. The scream will come later with the disgust expressed in “They’re all wasted!” but here it’s like he’s shaking his head in sadness as he watches his generation united in mutually-assured self-destruction.
Tough song to follow! “Bargain” was a pretty good choice for that role, as it shifts tonal gears and allows Daltrey the opportunity to grind out the vocals. Townshend’s guitar licks are excellent and Keith Moon stays focused enough for a few minutes to provide the appropriate thump. Townsend claims this is about losing one’s ego and giving oneself over to one’s guru, yeah, yeah, yeah. If he’s telling the truth, the man doesn’t need a guru—he needs therapy:
I’d pay any price just to get you
I’d work all my life and I will
To win you I’d stand naked, stoned and stabbed
The rest of the lyrics are classic love song masochism, so I call bullshit on Townsend . . . but I still like the song anyway.
“Love Ain’t for Keeping” is a nice break from the intensity of the first two songs and makes for a nice lead-in to Entwistle’s humorous ode to the spouse, “My Wife.” Entwistle couldn’t sing worth shit, but his low-key sincerity works here. Side 1 ends with “The Song is Over,” featuring alternating Townsend-Daltrey vocals. This is probably the most pretentious song on the album, and the line “I’ll sing my song to the wide open spaces” always calls up images of Julie Andrews shattering eardrums in The Sound of Music.
Happily flipping the disc, “Getting in Tune” is one of the strongest arrangements on the record, highlighted by John Entwistle’s delightfully melodic and lively bass counterpoint. Pompous ass Robert Christgau pronounced the lines, “I’m singing this note ’cause it fits in well with the chords I’m playing/I can’t pretend there’s any meaning here or in the things I’m saying” the “real theme” of Who’s Next, a classic example of a critic looking for a tidbit in an album to justify a pre-conceived notion. To me, those lines reflect a phase in the development of a song that many songwriters have experienced: you have a lovely melody and need some words but all you’re capable of in the moment is gibberish. McCartney’s “Yesterday” began life as “Scrambled Eggs,” so the phenomenon is not unusual. Sometimes the gibberish stays in a song because you’ve accidentally stumbled onto a string of words that happen to work (“the movement you need is on your shoulder” in “Hey Jude,” for example). Townsend is describing the process of “getting in tune” with oneself in the process of creation, a theme that appears nowhere else on Who’s Next.
I think there is a much stronger theme on Who’s Next . . . but I’ll get to that later.
“Going Mobile” is another Entwistle bass masterpiece surrounded by a song that describes the joys of living in a mobile home. What the fuck? The only people who can really relate to this song are old farts puttering around in their Winnebagos, a demographic that would not become The Who’s target audience for forty or so years. Perhaps Townsend was a visionary after all! Silly premise aside, it’s a bouncy little number, thanks to the rhythm section of Entwistle and Moon.
“Behind Blue Eyes,” is the dramatic monologue of an anti-social character where Daltrey displays better acting skills than he revealed in any of his film efforts. The character is a loser, and the dynamic of a loser is a self-fulfilling, other-validating cycle:
No one knows what it’s like
To be the bad man, to be the sad man
Behind blue eyes
No one knows what it’s like
To be hated, to be fated
To telling only lies
But my dreams, they aren’t as empty
As my conscience seems to be
I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance that’s never free
Our anti-hero yearns for empathy, feels he doesn’t deserve empathy and projects his bitterness onto those who fail to empathize, triggering a repulsion in others that reinforces the negative self-image. He is a victim; he is the cause of his victimization—a human paradox. Daltrey manages to capture the deep sadness, the desperate wish for recognition of his common humanity and his barely-under-the-surface anger that comes out in bursts (“And I blame YOU!”).
The arrangement is a masterpiece in itself, and a gorgeous piece of engineering. In the quiet segment, the acoustic guitar is perfectly placed in the far right channel, providing soothing background throughout. Entwistle’s bass is placed on the opposite channel, though slightly closer to center—a perfect placement that captures the subtle bottom and the supporting melody. Daltrey’s voice is placed slightly off-center with the harmonies slightly below his voice, which has the interesting effect of further highlighting the isolation of the acoustic guitar, which forms the foundation in the absence of a complete rhythm section. The tones are crystal clear and clean, with just the right amount of echo and reverb to enhance the sound without compromising the intimacy. The build to the bash section is perfect, and Keith Moon balances his typical freneticism with enough discipline so that the transition back to quiet is smooth and clean. “Behind Blue Eyes” is The Who at their best, a piece where everyone gets to show their talents in a clearly collaborative effort.
Who’s Next ends with a generational anthem of greater depth and insight than the regrettable cheekiness of “My Generation,” the majestic “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Musically and thematically linked to “Baba O’Riley,” the song exposes the astonishingly naïve idealism driving the various and sundry calls for revolution that sprung up with predictable regularity during the 1960’s and early 70’s. Like “Baba O’Riley,” the song opens synthetically, with a Lowrie TBO-1 patched fed into a synthesizer, again creating a mesmerizing, tantalizing introduction.
The narrator is a prototypical member of the new generation with a more nuanced perspective of the situation than most of his peers. Sure, he’d love things to change, but from the start he casts serious doubt on the results of his generation’s change efforts:
We’ll be fighting in the streets with our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song
The radicals of this period (and any other period you care to name) were characterized by dogmatic thought and a strong desire to weed out the heretics . . . “to sit in judgment of all wrong.” So while the narrator is open to a new world order, history tells him to balance hope with skepticism:
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
In addition to the dig, “Smile and grin at the change all around,” the narrator takes a second swipe at the mass conformity of non-conformist hippies in the brilliant line, “Though I know that the hypnotized never lie.” Our hero also realizes that all the noise, all the demonstrations and all the slogans have changed very little except the superficial and fashionable:
There’s nothing in the street looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left is now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight
The music up to this point has been The Who at their rocking best with strong contributions all around. The band takes a minute or so to have a good solid jam, then Daltrey returns with the final verse and chorus. At this point, it appears we’ve run out of lyrics with three minutes left to go! What now?
Now they’re going to take this sucker to a whole ‘nother level.
The band launches into another jam, this one with more bottom and more frenetic thumping from Keith Moon. The synthesizer is placed in deep background for several bars, gradually asserting its presence as the band plays out the string. The absolute stillness surrounding the synth pattern heightens our sense of anticipation—then suddenly the melodic pattern collapses into a single, quickly-repeated note communicating tremendous urgency. Keith Moon drops in with a series of stuttering rolls in rhythmic counterpoint to the synth pattern, all building up to the greatest fucking scream in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Baseline rhythm restored, Daltrey delivers the clincher, a powerful couplet that says it all:
Meet the new boss:
Same as the old boss.
There are very few moments in rock history as thrilling as the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and it gives me the chills every time I hear it.
While Tommy seems terribly dated, Who’s Next retains its freshness forty-five years after its release. This is The Who at their best, coming together after a period of deep frustration and letting it rip. And despite its origin as something pieced together from the rubble, Who’s Next winds up having a stronger unifying theme than either Tommy or Quadrophenia, captured in a pithy, punchy phrase:
“Get fucking real, people!”