Talkin’ ’bout The Who’s generation?

The Who back in their rip-snorting heyday. Courtesy Die Zeit

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation!”

What generation are we talking about? It seemed very clear back when The Who’s Pete Townsend wrote and sang his strutting, archetypal ’60’s song of generational defiance, “My Generation.”

But now that Townsend himself is 73, and the band’s demonically brilliant drummer Keith Moon has been dead nearly 40 years, the question’s fair to ask.

Singer Roger Daltrey and songwriter-guitarist Pete Townsend, the only surviving members of The Who, recently took a stab at plugging back into their glory days. Courtesy the Boston Globe

The maker of the ensuing YouTube video asks the question implicitly in hilariously inspired fashion by having a group of British retirement-home residents sing Townsend’s song, a seeming act of blasphemy, even for a songwriter who seemed to sneer at any sense of the sacred.

The video starts by being very upfront about its relative contrivance of having put the creaky “lead singer” up to this, as he admits this is the first time he has done this. He then proceeds to read the proto-punk lyrics – along to a rockin’ young band playing the music.

The old coot even takes a stab at Townsend’s adolescent stutter: “I’m just talkin’ ’bout my ge-genera-shun.”

The rest of the elders sing and clap to the ongoing refrain “talkin’ ’bout my generation” with an almost loving embrace of a defiance that some of them probably bridled at, or even condemned, when their children played and sang along to the song, long ago.
So is this simply unabashed generational co-opting? To hear this, you see aspects of parody – an old woman doing Townsend’s rock-god “windmill” power-chord strumming, etc. –- but something more than parody is going on here. In the elders’ apparent joy, there’s a surprising sense of shared identity, that connects generations that might seem fatally at odds.

And that’s what makes this delicious joke also so satisfying and gratifying, even life affirming instead of a cynical diss. You sense that these old folks secretly envied their rebellious offspring, especially because “The Greatest Generation” grew up in the post-World War II era, in which a sort of bracing, patriotic conformity upheld much of their  passions. Not that that was all bad, at all. But it was perhaps inevitable that a strain of that patriotism would stagnate into a conservatism that would try to stifle ensuing American democratic life from growing and mutating in a natural, quirky, even paradoxical (think of the Altamont murder, the early death of the ’60s) manner.

As ’60s prophet Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.) Next time you find yourself doing something unusual or contradictory that surprises other people or yourself, remember that you contain multitudes. Sometimes that contradiction is a sign of progress.”

So the lesson here is that the multitudes contained potentially spans generations. Townsend was a more encompassing avatar than he perhaps realized, at the time.

But enough reflection, let’s get on with it! The video’s been out there for quite a while, but thanks to the wonderful Madison jazz guitarist Cliff Frederiksen for, as we said in the ’60s, finally turning me onto it:

2 thoughts on “Talkin’ ’bout The Who’s generation?

  1. That is a great video! I interpreted it to be that Townsend’s “Generation” is now that old, yet can still rock out, and perhaps it is today’s younger generations that are more conformist. After all, the average age of the members of The Rolling Stones is older than that of the members of the Supreme Court.

    • Anna,
      Interesting interpretation. It’s heartening to know that elder Americans still possess such renewable vibrancy. I won’t knock the the millennials at this point. I’ve been impressed by them, as my previous two blogs suggest. But I won’t hold my breath for the current Supreme Court — or at least its conservative majority — to do anything but remain entombed in musty spiritual oppressiveness.
      Thanks for the comment, pal.

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