The ‘60s are often dubbed rock music’s Golden Age, but if you think about it, the ‘70s have made more of a lasting impact for classic album lovers. It’s the likes of Rumours, Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin IV and Who’s Next, that still hoovers up all the airplay, pop culture references and bedroom posters. When people talk about albums from the '60s, they’re usually not even discussing the whole decade – well-known landmark records are virtually non-existent ‘til 1965, and it’s only from 1967 on that you start to consistently notice them.
On one level, people’s selective ‘60s-love makes sense: rock ‘n’ roll spent the first half of the decade “growing up”, and the era’s best bands all took varying amounts of time to reach full maturity. On the other hand, rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t designed to be “mature” music in the first place. And those who ignore the hidden glories of 1963 through to 1966 are really missing out. All the ‘70s albums I just mentioned were brought out by bands who released far less remembered debuts in the ‘60s. Led Zeppelin I gets all the kudos today, but it’s arguably 1965’s My Generation that took more risks and broke more rules. In fact, it’s one of the most groundbreaking albums of the decade.
This is the record that brought all The Who’s previous innovations - the crunch of “I’m the Face”, the anarchic noise of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, the all-out chaos of the title track - together in one LP, a format that was already well on the way to becoming rock ‘n’ roll’s version of a novel or a feature-length film. It was one of the first albums to feature the power chord, which went on to become the building-block of basically all classic rock and punk (turns out the two halves of the ‘70s have something in common after all).
It’s also the first album to show off what feedback could really do – yes, The Beatles technically beat the Londoners to the punch with “I Feel Fine”, but there’s no comparison between the Fabs’ five seconds of toe-dipping and the no-holds-barred wildness of “The Ox". It became the inspiration for The Velvet Underground and Nico, Hendrix's Are You Experienced, and all guitar music that eschews traditional soloing in favour of dissonance and noise.
If the album revolutionises guitar music, it’s no less groundbreaking in its approach to the rhythm section. The title track features rock’s first – and perhaps best – bass solo, but bassist, John Entwistle, shines on every cut, playing fat, slinky lines that are mixed about as high as contemporary recording equipment can take. Then there’s that pummelling, pounding, bashing, battering percussion. Drummer, Keith Moon’s incessant jungle-like tom-tom-fills serve as maximum Rhythm and Blues. Nicky Hopkins’ stellar piano work also deserves a shout out. OK, he isn’t technically a member of the band, but as one of rock’s great session players he always manages to give each song exactly what it needs. Since rock ‘n’ roll never sounded quite like this before, it follows that the piano never sounded quite like this either. Listen to the balls-to-the-wall aggression of the introduction to “It’s Not True”, or the viciousness of “The Ox”. These parts are the precursor to the atonal battering of The Velvet Underground’s coda to “Waiting for the Man”.
Lead vocalist Roger Daltrey was still several years and many opera lessons away from the holler he’d perfect by 1971, but his vocals in 1965 are actually more innovative. By taking the arrogant sneer pioneered by Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan and adding a healthy dose of street thuggishness (unlike the other two, this guy could actually knock you out cold), he invents punk singing ten years before punk. Throw in the power chords and the angry generation-gap lyrics of “My Generation” and you’ve got yourself a recipe that the Pistols were to inherit ready-made. This said, calling My Generation the “first punk album” doesn’t do it justice. It has a lot more going for it than that. Take “La-La-La-Lies” and the gorgeous “The Kids Are Alright”, among the first examples of power pop and the power ballad respectively. It’s as if the band vowed to see The Beatles' “It Won’t Be Long” and “Any Time At All” and raise them a couple of ferocious midsections and an insane drummer. Or “The Good’s Gone”, which takes the ominous drone of “Ticket to Ride” and adds more ominousness and droning - the song’s almost psychedelic.
The album’s diversity doesn’t always work in its favour. The James Brown covers prove that soul and Daltrey’s voice don’t have much to do with each other, and his delivery is equally awkward on “I’m a Man” – although it’s worth suffering through his vocals to get to the second half of the song, where the musicians forget the blues and tear it up Who-style. These are small complaints. For most of the album the band knows exactly what it’s doing, and practically all the major Who elements are already in place here: memorable riffs, melodic beauty, group jamming, gorgeous harmonies, and those streetwise, funny lyrics, which are already as jaded as they would ever be:
"I don't mind other guys dancing with my girl / that's fine, I know them all pretty well / but I know sometimes I must get out in the light / better leave her behind with the kids, they're alright / the kids are alright."
Along with other lyrical greats of the time like Dylan, Lennon and Ray Davies, Townshend projected the world-weariness of an eighty-year-old drifter in his early twenties. But there’s nothing weary about the music. If one thing sums up My Generation, it is the energy: the unhinged, catchy, heavy, poppy, infectious energy.