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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Under the Big Top # 20: “Tug of War”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “The Kids Are Alright”
Album: My Generation
Release Date: December, 1965

Of the eleven original studio albums the Who have produced, there was only one that I never really gave a good listen to until this year, that being the very first, 1965’s My Generation.  The one solid memory I have of this album is related to a show Mac and I went to in Boston several nights after John Entwistle died, when one of the bands paying tribute to the Ox performed My Generation from beginning to end.   Other than that singular flashback, these blog insights and musings into my favorite band start off with a pretty vacant black hole in terms of my connecting with the Who’s discography, which is darn right mortifying to admit.

And yet, this actually falls right in line with my track record (no pun intended given the name of the record company which the Who’s managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert founded subsequent to breaking from Decca not long after My Generation was released; that being “Track Records”).  As with all great 60s bands, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and even Bob Dylan, I tend to shy away from the earliest albums, which were typically out of the musician’s artistic control (read:  At the mercy of the record labels and their “under assistant West Coast promotion men”).  I also have a tendency to squirrel away a nugget or two for future reference, no matter the hobby or interest, content in the knowledge that there is always a treasure to dig up somewhere.  This is no longer the case with the Who:  All eleven chests of gemstones, pearls and nuggets have now been unearthed. 

This up-till-now omission in my immersion into the Who’s discography has allowed for at least some song discovery this year, which is refreshing (the same can be said for my Stepping Stones and Forever Young series’).  And I have to say that listening to the Who’s inaugural studio album this week was definitely a more enjoyable experience than listening to inaugural studio albums of those other prior mentioned 60s musicians.  Many critics think so too, as My Generation has made its way onto a handful of ‘top’ rock-album lists over the years (another reason to be embarrassed), which can’t be said for the others.

It would be easy to say this album is top heavy with two long-time Who classics “The Kids are Alright” and “My Generation”.  These songs do sound quite different and significantly more cutting edge when compared to the rest of the record, but we are not talking here about a quantum leap in quality from the top to the bottom of this oft-critiqued track list.  Most of the album is old-sound rhythm and blues, including two James Brown covers, which fit Roger Daltrey’s tastes in those days, he being the undisputable band leader in the early years.  But there is flow here that gives you a tiny bit of confidence that the record company knew what they were doing, and gives you even more confidence in the Who themselves, regardless of the fact that the band had yet to find their true sound on a consistent basis.

A number of Who ingredients are there on My Generation however, albeit in germination form, including their pop sensibilities (“Legal Matter”, “La-La-La-Lies”) their jam extensions (“The Ox”), bass propulsion (including the first-ever rock bass solo on “My Generation”, which would be Spinal Tap silly if this were not John Entwistle), drum propulsion (“The Ox”, “The Kids Are Alright”) punk (the title track – see the last blog entry), and the aforementioned rhythm and blues (most everything else).  There is even a hint of the otherwise unique sound of their third album, The Who Sell Out, which was released two years later at the heart of the psychedelic period (“Circles”).  With all this, one could make the argument that My Generation is the Who at their most diverse. 

Oh there is one other ingredient: Concept, or more accurately the foundation of concept, in “The Kids Are Alright”.  There is a lot going on here.  “The Kids Are Alright” cuts to the very core of the Who’s connection with their fan base. It is also the ground floor for their seminal 1973 album Quadrophenia (see Big Top # 9: “A Symphony of Four”), actually appearing briefly on that album as the intro to “Is It in My Head?”.  Additionally, it’s the title of their unparalleled 1979 rocumentary, which is what hooked me with this band in the first place (see Big Top # 2: “The Awakening”).  The key reason for such prominence in the Who’s story (and ultimately their legacy) is that “The Kids Are Alright” anticipates the band’s longevity through blood-brother-like loyalty and camaraderie.  As such it is the mustard seed to all they would become.  The rest of this entry will try to flesh all this out.

On the surface, the lyrics to “The Kids Are Alright” might just sound like a need to break free, on occasion, from family life; a night on the town with your buddies.  But try to find a consistent meaning to this song on websites like SongMeanings and Songfacts, and you will find opinions all over the map.  One says it’s about Roger Daltrey’s fragile marital status at the time.  Another says it is an ode to the Who’s Mod following.  Another says it’s about our children.  The list goes on.  To complicate matters even further, Pete Townshend has added even more lyrics on recent tours.  I’ve seen and heard them, which included a number of touching verses added in remembrance to John Entwistle only weeks after his sudden death.  And he has also tied in the crowd with other lyrics, pointing out the family relationships we all have and our connection with the Who as a sort-of family. The fact of the matter is that “The Kids Are Alright” is an open-palette of a song about dealing with life, which evolves and expands with time.  And so, in some ways, everyone is correct.

The notion of “The Kids Are Alright” anticipating the Who’s longevity is a fascinating one to me, not only because it appears to envision the future at the beginning of their collaboration, but also because it acts as a counterpoint to the title track.  “My Generation” is a declaration in the moment: “I hope I die before I get old” Roger Daltrey sneers, while stuttering in high-strung, pill-popping Mod fashion throughout the song (pretty impressive in its own write, considering Daltrey was the relative teetotaler of the bunch).  Teenagers and young adults in general can relate to all of this.  Heck, a very good friend used to exclaim back in the ‘love lost so live fast and die young’ day that he would be dead before he turned 30.  Thankfully that prediction did not play out. 

Most future punk bands would stick a fork in it right there, but not the Who.  Where this band closes side one with that youthful abandon in “My Generation” they open side two with “The Kids Are Alright”; the title alone suggesting a yearning for survival.  What we see here are the two extreme ends of the Who paradigm.  It’s almost as if Pete Townshend is saying “ok, yes we are going recklessly all out here, but make no doubt we are committed to making this work”.  It’s a conviction he shares with Neil Young, but in Townshend’s case he’s trying to take his band and his fans along for the ride.  Unfortunately Keith Moon, John Entwistle and many of those fans would ultimately overdo it with the “My Generation” approach to life.  But Pete Townshend himself has overcome the Rock & Roll lifestyle odds (as has Roger Daltrey in a different way, seeing as loyalty and dedication are key factors to his personal rock and roll story that cannot be ignored)… or so one would be lead to believe, unless you take this early anthem “The Kids Are Alright” into account.

Pete Townshend is a unique soul.  He is a loner, a solo artist at heart, who unconventionally ended up in a gang that happened to be a band.  And he not only adopted this situation, he glorified it.  I have no solid basis for the following, but the more I listened to “The Kids Are Alright” this week, the more I could envision Townshend breaking down each verse to the individual members of the Who and their personal commitment to both the band and their own loved ones at the time.   Toss into the mix that prior-mentioned interpretation of the song as a dedication to their Mod followers in 1965, and I can see how there could have been a very natural progression for Pete Townshend when it came to conceptualizing Quadrophenia (which hits on both these storylines). 

This tug-of-war between punk immediacy and the type of responsibility that comes with longevity plays out so wonderfully in the rocumentary The Kids Are Alright too, which may explain why this is my all-time favorite movie.  When I watch it I get hit from two directions:  Capturing the moment on one hand and loyalty/longevity on the other. Isn’t this balance what you hope to pull off with your friends?  The times I remember watching this movie were all with great friends:  That first viewing in North Adams with the “TH1-ers” (Big Top # 2) was later followed by multiple viewings with the Franklin crew; renting the video, along with other rock classics, to watch in friend Pete’s attic.  And then there was the midnight Ottawa theatre viewing with Bob and other friends in ’82.  I vividly recall walking out of that theatre in the early morning as the closing number “Long Live Rock” blared in the background.  In all these cases, the memories are surreal.  I felt as if my friends and I were at the center of the universe, fully understanding the meaning of camaraderie like no one before us or since.  Yes, I believe I covered the gambit with my personal kids-are-alright moments. 

So I sit here in my Pepperell home on a rainy Friday nite, not sure if I’ve even come close to articulating the meaning of “The Kids Are Alright” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afam2nIae4o ).  Then again, I don’t think anyone has, including Pete Townshend, and I don’t think anyone ever will.  I will close with this reflection: If there is a ‘give’ in this two song tug-of-war, it’s on the “My Generation” side.  I have always interpreted the lyrics “I hope I die before I get old” to mean getting old mentally, not physically.  And so in my mind “My Generation” is a sheep in wolfs clothing.  With this denouement “The Kids Are Alright” wins, and explains how the overall story of the Who has played itself out, in spite of their losses along the way, rather than the alternative version, which has played out all too often with others.

Pete

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