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A handful of elements combine to distinguish "My Generation" from other songs, musically speaking. A pulsing introduction quickly gives way to a series of call and response vocals. Toward the middle of the song John Entwistle and Pete Townsend engage in their own instrumental call and response on bass and guitar. And at the end of the song Townsend makes liberal use of power chords and feedback to bring it to a thunderous, somewhat chaotic close.
These elements combine to make the song what it is, but they also reflect a great deal about the band. There was a rhythm and blues foundation to the Who's earliest music, and their first album included several R&B covers.
That influence is reflected in the call and response vocals drawn from that background. Entwistle's bass was highlighted because he was the band's strongest technical musician. With his distinctive "typewriter" style of play, "Thunderfingers" is considered one of the great rock bassists. Townshend is also a legendary guitarist, but he is recognized more for his innovative use of the power chord and feedback than for his technical mastery. In fact, some have argued that he used feedback and volume to disguise his limited technical skills.
All of this song's elements are relatively simple. The Who and rock and roll would grow more complex in the next few years. But for many punk bands, Who songs like "My Generation" represent the sort of stripped down, no frills rock and roll that rock should never have abandoned. Thematically, the song also resonates with punk in its contempt for age and disdain for tradition without any sort of mitigating or alternative idealism. The song's most famous line—"I hope I die before I get old"—anticipated the more apocalyptic nihilism expressed by the Sex Pistols in their declaration of "no future" in "God Save the Queen."
Pete Townshend's anthem may have been embraced broadly, but it was primarily local in its inspirations.
The immediate inspiration was an event that occurred outside his London home: the towing of his prized 1935 Packard Hearse. He explains, "One day I came back and it was gone. It turned out that [the Queen Mother] had it moved, because her husband had been buried in a similar vehicle and it reminded her of him. When I went to collect it, they wanted two hundred and fifty quid. I'd only paid thirty for it in the first place." (Source)
Townshend's broader inspiration was a distinctive youth culture that emerged in London in the late 1950s. Aggressively cosmopolitan, this culture fused European, American, and Caribbean influences to craft a distinctively modernist, or "mod," style and music. From Italy and France they borrowed tailored suits and pointed-toe shoes, from the U.S. they borrowed R&B, from the Caribbean they borrowed ska.
The mods' drug of choice—amphetamines—summed up their philosophy, which was a high speed pursuit of entertainment and experience. Marijuana was the anti-mod drug. And "rockers" were the anti-mod cultural alternative. Dressed in jeans and leather, they contemptuously viewed the mods as fancy-dressing dandies. The mods returned their contempt. Generally more urban, the mods saw the rockers as unsophisticated thugs.
For the most part, the conflicts between the two youth cultures were contained. But during the May Day Bank Holiday of 1964, mods and rockers clashed at several seaside resorts. The worst of these confrontations occurred at Brighton.
Pete Townshend, as a member of the London mod scene, later explained that the widespread discontent felt by these young people helped motivate him to write "My Generation" in 1965. Several years later, he drew upon the Brighton riots in writing his second rock opera, Quadrophenia.