Even if The Who hadn’t become a superstar group and their only hit single was My Generation (1965), it’d still have a colossal influence on society.
But My Generation remains the band’s most identifiable song. It’s a classic charged with youthful hedonism and a rebellious spirit. And we’re going to explore that, so let’s hurry up and die before we get old!
The History of My Generation
Remember what it was like being 16? Well, that’s 21 years ago for us now. The time bloody flies, doesn’t it?
We remember listening to The Who’s My Generation for the first time around 2000 when we were 16 year olds. We were emerging from our Sex Pistols rebellious phase and discovering more advanced and challenging music.
Yet My Generation frightened us far more than The Sex Pistols.
The song just has a certain energy. It’s out of control with its confidence, swagger, hedonism, mania, Keith Moon’s terrifying drumming etc.
Townshend was 20 when he wrote the song.
The band had already enjoyed some success with I Can’t Explain, which launched in January 1965 in the UK and was Townshend’s first single. It actually launched in December 1964 in the US.
It was also the band’s second single, the first under The Who (having previously been called The High Numbers). It peaked at #17 in the charts in April.
My Generation was recorded between April and November 1965, with many takes on the final version available. It was released as a single on 3rd December 1965 (Substitute followed in March 1966—Townshend was on a roll!).
But where did the song come from? The legend goes that Townshend wrote the lyrics whilst on a train.
Apparently, he was inspired to do so because of the Queen Mother. Allegedly, she’d had Townshend’s 1935 Packard hearse towed from his home in London.
Why? As she was offended by the sight of it.
Suitably inspired by this injustice, Townshend decided to pen some lyrics about the post-WWII generation and the affronts they faced from those who battled the Nazis.
Other bands were doing similar things. The Beatles had already managed it, which was displayed in the film Hard Day’s Night (1964). The counterculture Swinging Sixties approach to life—a more liberated era.
And in Germany, the experimental band Can was actively doing its best to show the country’s creative abilities following on from the war years.
Townshend’s approach was much more in-your-face, a precursor to the anarchy of punk music a decade later.
And the results for The Who were significant! A #2 placing in the UK charts and spots on many TV shows of the day.
It put the band on the map, paving the way for international superstardom.
About That John Entwistle My Generation Bass Guitar Solo
John Entwistle died 20 years ago in June 2002, whilst touring with the band in the US.
His bass guitar solo is the stuff of legend now. Arguably the greatest bass riff in all of history!
He had a three finger picking style of playing the bass, which led him to described as “thunder fingers”. And he had an unusual fanning motion with his string picking.
You can watch The Who’s live performances and, unlike the rest of the band, he’d stand absolutely still.
But the complexity of his playing was ridiculous—incredibly complex, innovative, and free-flowing. We really can’t think of any other bassists on his level.
And for his work on My Generation… well, that came out of his brain.
It’s very unusual. It has a sardonic quality, as if the bass is mocking the establishment in its bopping way.
Entwistle had a reputation for being the “quiet” member of the group, but he was just very sardonic and was constantly involved in Keith Moon’s berserk off-stage antics.
Much-missed as a talent. Entwistle truly was a one-off.
My Generation’s Lyrical Analysis: “I hope I die before I get old”
The most famous line from My Generation is the highest moment of youthful hedonism—wanting to go out in a blaze of youthful glory and be forever young.
You can see Townshend briefly discuss that when a young lady in the audience asks him about it. That’s at the 1:45 mark.
However, the real Townshend had rejected these lyrics by the early 1970s.
In documentary film The Kids Are Alright (1978), he’s asked about the lyrics in ’78 and drops a humorous “EH!?” about the nature of his lyrics.
He was around 20 when he wrote the song so, naturally, as he moved into proper adulthood he came to embrace life thoroughly. He turns 77 in May and is still highly creative, having written a debut novel recently.
In 2006 he had this to say about the topic:
“I now find myself thinking, and sometimes even singing, ‘I hope I die before I get old.’ This time I am not being ironic. I am 61. I hope I die before I get old. I hope I die while I still feel this alive, this young, this healthy, this happy, and this fulfilled. But that may not happen. I may get creaky, cranky, and get cancer, and die in some hospice with a massive resentment against everyone I leave behind. That’s being old, for some people, and probably none of us who don’t die accidentally can escape being exposed to it. But I am not old yet. If getting older means I continue to cherish the lessons every passing day brings, more and more, then whatever happens, I think I’ll be happy to die before I get old, or after I get old, or any time in between.
Death is not what is important in life, it is life itself. If you’re young and reading this, let me pass on to you the words of my teacher and master since 1967 Avatar Meher Baba, these are words that were beyond my comprehension when I was 24 years old: ‘Don’t worry, be happy. Do your best and leave the results to God.’
I think I understood the second part, because I thought then I knew what God was, or was not. But the first part? Don’t worry? Be happy? How do you do that? Get drunk? Take drugs? Meditate? Be a hippy? Go live in a cave? Laugh when someone beats you up and steals your bag? How is that possible? If you are 24, you have plenty of time to work it out. Trust me, in the end it becomes possible.”
But cutting back to the young Townshend in London, fresh from his art degree at university, and you can see his state of mind in the early ’60s below.
Interesting to note tensions in the group at the time. Apparently, they just hated each other and did not get on.
It was only until around the late ’60s that they smoothed over their differences and started working together well as a unit.
In fact, the chaotic nature of My Generation’s end was intended to mimic the band’s auto-destructive equipment destroying of the time.
And through it all, Townshend was the lyrical genius guiding the band.
The Who’s Best Live Performances of My Generation
Naturally, the song became a huge moment for The Who’s live performances. Especially during the phase when they were trashing their equipment at the end of gigs.
The best recorded footage of this is from Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Despite dressing in psychedelic gear, the band hated the style and were Mods.
Moon, in particular, detested the hippy movement. But he still put in an otherworldly performance—his drumming was remarkable.
There’s also a legendary appearance by The Who on the Smothers Brothers show. That was in 1967. The band recorded the version earlier in the studio, then mimed it for the “live” performance.
Carnage commences at 4:35 and Moon’s over stashed kit explodes shortly afterward. Behold!
The explosion actually cut the live transmission for a brief moment, whilst an actress waiting on the side of the set fainted. Pete Townshend’s hearing loss was also apparently triggered by the incident.
The band soon phased out the destructive behaviour as it was expensive, but also annoying them as it was overshadowing the progression of their music.
By 1969 you can see (and hear) how quickly the band was advancing.
At the Woodstock ’69 festival, and with Tommy launched in 1968, Townshend was merging his rock opera into the end of My Generation.
That was to replace all the chaotic equipment destroying antics instead.
The song has (as you’d expect) remained arguably the most loved addition to the band’s set ever since.
The Who do still tour! But as they approach their 80s, Townshend and Daltrey (the two surviving members of the original line-up) can’t keep this up forever!
But at at some point soon, My Generation will be played live by the band for the final time. That’ll be an era ending moment, for sure.