Friday, July 25, 2008

Who 1: My Generation

The Who’s recording career began tentatively, but took off with their first real single, “I Can’t Explain”. Of course, neither it, its B-side nor its immediate follow-ups were included on the eventual debut album, with the exception of the title track. Like most British Invasion albums, My Generation—already an odd mix of earlier R&B covers and a batch of newer power pop compositions—was tampered with before it got to the US, where Decca tried unsuccessfully to push the band as heartthrobs and titled their version the unwieldy The Who Sings My Generation. And like most of the band’s albums, it doesn’t sound like anything else that came after it.
“Out In The Street” starts with a riff very similar to that of the earlier single “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”. The rest of the song isn’t carried so much by the words as by the insistence of the playing. “I Don’t Mind” is one of several James Brown covers in this period; unfortunately no one told Roger Daltrey he didn’t sound like James Brown. “The Good’s Gone” is the first real Pete Townshend song here, using clever wordplay and undercut by a clean, snaky single-string riff. “La-La-La-Lies” is a nice Motown pastiche, but unfortunately Keith Moon plays this all on the tom-toms, resulting in a sound not unlike what basement musicians used to get from empty Quaker Oats containers. “Much Too Much” attempts to show off the harmonies the band could occasionally muster, but the title song follows to win the side.
“The Kids Are Alright” starts side two, though the US version was missing a chunk of the feedback solo in the middle. It’s still one of Pete’s best songs for its time and an excellent recording with good use of dynamics. “Please Please Please” is another James Brown song, though one can’t imagine the boys throwing a cape on Roger. “It’s Not True” is a novelty tune, extending the idea from “La-La-La-Lies” to something more humorous (“I’m not half-Chinese either and I didn’t kill my dad”). “A Legal Matter” sports a ringing guitar intro like an alarm, then goes into an almost country stomp with Pete singing effectively. “The Ox” is a breakneck duel between Nicky Hopkins on piano and Keith on the biscuit tins, with Pete and John Entwistle interrupting with all kinds of hideous noises, not common sounds for pop albums in 1966. “Circles” was added onto the US album (mistakenly titled “Instant Party”), and lucky for us Pete’s writing improved with every single. The performance here is also a leap forward.
My Generation was a tough, snotty album for its time, but legal issues kept it outside the 1990s reissue program for the better part of seven years, leaving it somewhat detached from the canon. When it finally appeared, it was in a “Deluxe Edition” that set out to include all of the disparate extra tracks from this period. “I Can’t Explain” is in stereo for the first time and it is tremendous. “Bald Headed Woman” was the obligatory B-side designed to make producer Shel Talmy even more dough; he’d already forced the Kinks to record it. (John said his favorite part was when Roger put the harmonica in his mouth the wrong way around.) “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” is included in an alternate version with a hideous lead vocal that had snuck out on a French EP. The UK B-side was “Daddy Rolling Stone”—a good one—while the US got “Anytime You Want Me”, showing Roger’s improved comfort with slower, more tender sentiments. “Shout And Shimmy” was another B-side in the UK, done better by so many other people, most notably Otis Day and the Knights. “I’m A Man”, left off the US album, showcases Roger’s toughness and the guitar solo is close enough for jazz.
As we will see, while the compilers get high marks for effort, the current Who CD catalog is not without its faults. In this case, the My Generation Deluxe Edition totals barely 90 minutes on two discs, so here’s our suggestion for a single-disc version: the whole UK album as is, with some substitutes (full-length “I Don’t Mind” and “The Good’s Gone” as heard on the second disc, and the mono mixes of “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” with all the overdubs). “Circles” should stay at the end, followed by the proper singles and B-sides, and any outtakes that will fit without being redundant.
But this century is all about more, not less, so the next time My Generation was updated, it was expanded to four hours on five discs: the mono UK sequence; a “new” stereo remix of the same sequence; bonus tracks in mono; bonus tracks in stereo; Pete’s demos. The first two discs could easily fit on one, and the stereo remix entailed contemporary overdubs “using the same guitars, amps and microphone”, cueing much slapping of foreheads, despite having snuck out on iTunes a few years earlier, along with some of the stereo bonus tracks. Everything sounds terrific, and mild variations abound between all the different versions, though somehow the a cappella mix of “Anytime You Want Me” fell out of favor. But the biggest surprises are on the demos disc, with six of them released for the first time (including “Sunrise”!) plus three never-before-heard songs. “The Girls I Could’ve Had” and “As Children We Grew” would have sounded strange on the first Who album, though “My Own Love” is more pop, and could have been sold to somebody else. The demos disc is only half an hour, yet still makes us wish Pete would make all of his demos available for scrutiny.

The Who The Who Sings My Generation (1966)—
2002 My Generation Deluxe Edition: same as 1966, plus 18 extra tracks
2016 My Generation Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2002, plus 49 extra tracks (and minus 1 track)

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