Monday, August 8, 2011

Feed-Back, Metal, Sound, Wire, Wood: The Who: "My Generation"

"The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!"
Mikhail Bakunin, 1842

"The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception."
Gustav Metzger, 1959

First, here is man destroying something inanimate. The man is Gustav Metzger, and he is an artist.

And now this; it's art too; art which in part wouldn't be possible without the above example. Nor would it be really possible without this artist, either.

Gustav Metzger wrote his manifesto Auto-Destructive Art in 1959; a few years later it would become a lecture that turned into a 'happening.' That year was 1964, when The Who formed, drummer Keith Moon asking to join and being accepted when he accidentally smashed up the drum kit during his audition. Townshend famously first destroyed a guitar accidentally as well, but since this got them some renown immediately (could you imagine the Stones or Yardbirds doing such a thing?), the band continued to auto-destruct, drums as well as guitar, for some time. That Townshend would go on to link it to Metzger's manifesto is no pose, as Townshend was an art school grad who knew very well what it meant, politically as well as artistically, to smash up instruments onstage.

But there is another collage here, one that we haven't heard explicitly before - and that is the influence of jazz on UK rock, specifically in drumming. There is no getting away from the fact that Elvin Jones' drumming was IT for Keith Moon (who also loved surf music, which also has a fast and relentless beat). Those who were in theory allergic to the idea of jazz and rock being mixed up together (which reminds me of this old ad, of course) had that notion demolished by this song - which in construction is just as much jazz as it is rock. (Yes, one of the most totemic of rock songs comes out of jazz.) The utter freedom of jazz - to take a simple melody and then just TAKE OFF with it - is just what was needed here, particularly by the Mods, who were fans of modernist jazz (as opposed to trad) and would have understood immediately that it was for them musically as well as lyrically.

That The Who are a precarious balance of elements is obvious with this song - Moon's explosion at the end balanced out by Entwistle's droll bass solo before it, just as Daltrey's nearly-swearing stuttering sneer balances out Townshend's straight-ahead playing, which is, as the song 'ends', literally detuned and then fuzzed up while huge chords bashed out between strings being grated like cheese - this is not a normal band. The Who are taking the idea of a pop band and altering that idea to the point where 'normal' and 'regular' are suddenly quaint notions. Whether the audience thought this was just a good song they could dance to or performance art hiding within a pop tune I don't know. As a song it has persisted way beyond what Townshend's aim was - to give voice to those who didn't fit in to naff, boring society they found themselves in, the kids who liked to go and have FUN, gathering their buds in May instead of sitting around politely, "barely daring to breathe or Achoo*."

The generation gap erupts again and again, but the gap is never between those who are older and younger but those who get it and those who don't. It wasn't a big hit at first in the US, but musicians & their audiences there have taken it as their own, from Patti Smith (who in one much later live version berates her own generation for having produced George W. Bush) to Green Day. In the UK everyone has done it from Iron Maiden to Oasis and The Sweet.

Destruction as art, transforming negative into positive energy, beauty in ugliness; not only are musical styles being mixed up here, but it as if art itself is being remade before our ears and eyes, that pop is symbolically and literally destroying itself in order to continue. The guitar has to be played because it is his instrument, but then it too seems not enough, music itself is not enough. Pop music carried on as usual, only some noticing the violence and different feeling in the air**. This is defence as attack, a "big sensation" which claims to be an ordinary night out, a concrete slab through the window of pop. Mod couldn't last long after this, commercialized and demonized as it was, but The Who made the point of performing this at Monterey, astonishing an audience that had thought it had seen everything. 1966 will prove that 'everything' is a relative concept.

*I should add here that poetry was reaching an apex of sorts in the mid-Sixties, as it also was now a forum for free speech (for those on both sides of the Cold War) and was a way of saying what ordinarily would be almost inexpressible. Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965) was just as sensational at the time as The Who, making its own lasting impact. That Pete Townshend would later work with Ted Hughes makes me wonder if he read it at the time...

** The Beatles listened to and absorbed what The Who were doing, 'accidentally' putting feedback on their '64 Christmas hit "I Feel Fine" and then a year later doing a Mod-speed-rush on "Day Tripper" - one of their toughest songs yet.

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