My Old Man, He’s Really Alright: Trad Jazz in “My Generation” and the Early Music of the Who

Hello, readers! This is an academic paper I’ve spent the last few weeks researching and writing. Check it out! You might learn a few things about the Who you never knew before! All musical transcriptions are my work, so don’t steal them, I guess.


We’ve all been told the story of how rock ‘n roll was born. The seed was planted in the history-soaked cotton fields of the American South. From there, the work chants of ancient sharecroppers begat the guttural rusty-knife Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, who begat the urban post-war rumble of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who begat Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard – the beginning of rock ‘n roll. According to this tale, “the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n roll” – rock music began as nothing more than a direct offshoot of the blues; a white man’s take on decades of black music.

This pervasive narrative is by no means totally false. Rock ‘n roll is indebted to the rich tradition of American blues in innumerable, undeniable musical and cultural ways that have been well-documented for the past half-century or more. In less formal terms, honkys from all over the world have gotten an incredible amount of mileage out of imitating old black guys from Mississippi. But that’s not the whole story. The British Invasion of the early-mid 1960s, spearheaded by iconic bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, was a cultural and musical phenomenon, and had a dominating effect on a high percentage of the rock ‘n roll that has been made since. And while it’s true that the blues heavily influenced most, if not all, of the invading Brit bands, a number of other factors went into spawning their celebrated styles. Perhaps the least recognized of these influences is a 1950s British takeoff on early 20th Century American Dixieland jazz, termed trad jazz by its fans. Trad jazz enjoyed a surge of popularity in Britain while a number of soon-to-be British rock luminaries like John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton were in adolescence. Summarily, they absorbed its lessons alongside those of their more frequently acknowledged influences like blues, skiffle, and the early rock ‘n roll of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly (among others). Trad jazz’s influence provides a missing musical link to the British Invasion. This can be heard most prominently in the early music of the Who and the band’s guitarist, primary songwriter, and leader, Pete Townshend.

Townshend, along with many of his fellow countrymen and future rock stars, was born in the midst of World War II, which was an unsurprisingly tumultuous time to live in Britain. Frequent German bombing raids turned entire neighborhoods into rubble, while air raid sirens and food lines dominated civilian life. Townshend was not born until May 19, 1945, less than three months before Japan’s surrender and the subsequent end of the war, but he still claims to have been affected by the era of “total war” in Britain. In an open letter written on his website in 2007, he retrospectively speculated that he was inspired to “turn my guitar up to emulate the bombers.”[1] Though this is a point well-taken by anyone who has ever heard the thunderous guitar sound he employed in the Who, he was more than likely trying to make a conceptual more than a literal point, as he also wrote in the same letter that “60s loud and aggressive rock rose from the unique post-war mood of denial in the older generation” – his parents’ generation. That may be true, but although it may be convenient for Mr. “Hope I Die Before I Get Old” Townshend to assert that his music is the result of pure teenage rebellion, his indebtedness to music that grew directly out of the style of jazz that defined “the older generation” is more obvious than he would likely care to admit.

Townshend’s links to 1940s and 50s British jazz are far from tenuous. His father, Cliff Townshend was, in fact, a saxophonist for one of Britain’s most popular musical outfits: the RAF Dance Orchestra, better known as the Squadronaires. The band was originally conceived with the purpose of entertaining the troops during the war—which it did—but its Benny Goodman-style big band jazz also became nationally famous on the strength of broadcasted performances on the BBC and studio recordings released on Decca Records. The Squadronaires continued their success after the war, and maintained a rigorous touring schedule until disbanding in 1964 after experiencing a deflation in popularity (which, un-coincidentally, coincided directly with the start of the British Invasion). This meant that the elder Townshend—along with his wife, Betty, who worked as a singer—spent much of Pete’s childhood on the road, leaving their son at home in the West London suburb of Acton with his grandmother. Thus, needing something to pass the time with, the junior Townshend began playing the guitar at age 11 (he had originally intended to take up the saxophone like his old man, but soon found that “I couldn’t blow a note so [my dad] suggested the guitar”[2]). After experiencing some difficulty with playing the instrument, he switched over to the banjo.

Two musical genres that had gained widespread popularity by 1956, the year Townshend turned eleven, inspired the budding musician to take up the banjo. One was the curious phenomenon that was the British skiffle craze of the 1950s. Before then, skiffle was an obscure, homespun subgenre of American folk music characterized by lively tempos and the use of homemade instruments like the upright tea-chest bass and washboard, used as percussion. It was not well known until the mid-50s, when British singer, guitarist, and banjoist Lonnie Donegan popularized it with several hits. Donegan’s records were mostly skiffle-ized American folk songs by the likes of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, et al. His biggest hit was his first single, a cover of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” which hit number 8 on the UK Singles Chart in 1956. “Rock Island Line” (fig. 1) exemplifies skiffle’s limited melodic range, basic chord sequences, and extremely brisk tempos. But skiffle’s appeal lay directly in its simplicity – specifically the fact that anyone who could learn a couple of basic major chords on guitar—or anyone, failing even that much musical acumen, who could learn how to bang on a household object in time to a beat—could play it. This amateur appeal is what inspired many British teenagers of the era to pick up a guitar for the first time, including many who later became pioneering rock musicians in the 60s. In 1957, a 13-year old Jimmy Page appeared with his skiffle band on the Hew Wheldon Show, a BBC television program. And perhaps the most famous skiffle band of all time is one that never made a record: the Quarrymen, the group John Lennon formed in 1956 that eventually evolved into a fine little rock ‘n roll act known as the Beatles.

Fig. 1 (Rock Island Line)

Lonnie Donegan’s rendition of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” epitomizes skiffle’s extremely basic musical content.


Skiffle’s influence on 1960s British rock has been widely acknowledged. But Lonnie Donegan’s impact on the future stars of the British invasion extends even beyond his hit skiffle records. Donegan began his musical career playing banjo in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, a trad jazz ensemble led by trombonist Chris Barber and the band’s eponymous trumpeter (the band was named after Colyer to capitalize the cult hero status he enjoyed after having been jailed in New Orleans due to a visa problem). Popular trad jazz outfits of the era often featured rhythm banjo players, and Townshend, in 1990, credited their influence for inspiring him to begin playing the banjo: “…the players I looked at were the guys with Acker Bilk, Ken Collier [sic] and Kenny Ball. English banjo players really were a law unto themselves – you don’t find that kind of brisk banjo playing on the original Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke records.”[3]

Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, despite only existing for two years, managed not only to record a number of popular trad jazz records, but also served as a platform for Lonnie Donegan to launch his skiffle career. In fact, Donegan’s first public skiffle performances came during interludes in Jazzmen sets. But his banjo playing on the trad jazz material during the main sets turned out to be just as influential on Pete Townshend as his singing and guitar playing.

Fig. 2 (Tiger Rag)

A trumpet solo section about 1:30 into “Tiger Rag” by Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, featuring distinctive rhythm banjo playing by Lonnie Donegan.


“Tiger Rag,” cut by the Jazzmen in 1953 with Donegan, Barber, and Colyer, as well as Monty Sunshine on clarinet, Jim Bray on bass, and Ron Bowden on drums, is an exemplary performance from the early part of the British trad jazz revival (fig. 2). As is typical of this type of jazz arrangement, the banjo, the main rhythm instrument, sticks to playing chords while the brass and wind instruments supply the melody and solos. The banjo is what gives this tune its distinct, driving rhythm. By hitting a downstroke on every quarter note beat, Donegan places a rhythmic emphasis on each one of those beats, which endows “Tiger Rag” with a very square but insistent rhythm. Compare this with, say, a seminal American blues performance from the 1950s: Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” (fig. 3). Here, the primary rhythm instrument, the drums, emphasizes only the two and four beats with a snare hit on each, and as a result the song settles into a looser, more relaxed groove than “Tiger Rag.” Rock ‘n roll absorbed both these rhythmic schemes into its palette. And although the blues and its glorious primordial American groove get most of the glory, for Pete Townshend, the trad jazz rhythm was there first and made an even bigger impact.

Fig. 3 (Smokestack Lightnin’)

The drums during the first verse of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’” create a relaxed groove typical of the blues that is apparently conducive to selling Viagra.

Indeed, just as the embryonic Beatles began as a skiffle band, the Who started out playing trad jazz before they became the Who. By 1958, many future British rockers like John Lennon and Keith Richards had gone off to art school and, having outgrown skiffle and trad jazz, were saturating their ears with blues and jazz of a more modern variety than Chris Barber’s repertoire. But Townshend was only thirteen at the time and, having gained a couple of years of banjo playing experience, remained eager to play trad jazz. Accordingly, he joined a group of schoolmates and acquaintances called the Confederates, which he remembers as “quite a good trad band – we even had a tuba player.”[4] The Confederates’ trumpet player was named John Entwistle, a stoic but sardonic character who would later go on to stand stage right, play bass guitar, and write a few wickedly funny hits like “Boris The Spider” and “My Wife” for the Who. The Confederates never ended up playing in front of an audience very much—a few gigs at the local youth church club was all they managed—and Townshend’s stint in the band was brief – he was pushed out after getting into a fight with the band’s drummer. But the band’s significance to the Who’s musical history remains. Through the Confederates, two future members of the Who, Townshend and Entwistle, established not only a friendship, but also particular musical roles that they would carry over to their electric instruments in the Who. Townshend, on the banjo, would have provided the square trad jazz rhythm in the Confederates, just like Lonnie Donegan did in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. And Entwistle, on trumpet, would have been playing melody lines. Later, I will examine how Townshend and Entwistle brought this particular chemistry outside the realm of trad jazz and used it to subvert the musical expectations of rock ‘n roll in the 60s.

Townshend responded to getting booted from the Confederates by giving up the banjo and returning to the guitar. Still only 14, Townshend had more luck with the instrument this time around and began playing rock ‘n roll. He continued to play, on occasion, with Entwistle, which led to the two of them joining another band together in 1961. The Detours were a local rock band with a lead guitarist named Roger Daltrey, a blue-collar tough guy with a notoriously volatile temperament who then worked in a sheet metal factory and would later become the Who’s fringe jacket-sporting golden god frontman. Entwistle joined the band first, as a bass guitarist, and a short time later convinced Townshend to join as the band’s rhythm guitarist as well after luring his former Confederates bandmate by promising him access to the brand new Vox amplifier that the Detours owned. 1961 was also the year that the 16-year old Townshend finished grammar school and went off to Ealing Art School in the borough of Ealing, located, like Acton, in the western part of the Greater London area. Townshend later hypothesized that “It was probably the terrible noise I used to make on my first electric guitar that made my father suggest that I go to art school and concentrate on the graphic rather than the musical areas of education.”[5] Little did Cliff Townshend know that, in the late 50s and early 60s, British art colleges were veritable rock star factories. At Ealing alone, Townshend could count among his classmates future Faces and Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood and future Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Indeed, art colleges all over Britain produced rock icon alumni; this can be attributed to their permissive social atmospheres, experimental curricula, and developed musical culture among their student bodies. Said artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin in 2000 about the students that populated these schools, “What you often saw were extremely bright students who had failed in the conventional education system… One of the reasons for them going into other fields, including pop music, was that there was nowhere for them to have a career in Britain.”[6] Many students may have attended these schools to study art, but these schools were environments for students who were not necessarily aspiring artists to rebel publically, perhaps for the first time, against the conservative values of their parents’ generation. Essentially, they were breeding grounds for future followers of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle.

However, British art colleges were not only significant because they provided atmospheres where future rock stars could wear leather jackets and smoke cigarettes freely. Music itself was also a huge part of art college life. It was at these schools that many British rockers were first exposed to music that would become crucial influences during their own careers. Townshend, for instance, was introduced to a rich treasure trove of American blues and R&B in the form of a classmate’s extensive record collection. The blues would not have as large a tangible musical impact on Townshend as it did on his peers like the Rolling Stones, but he did absorb it. He became especially interested in the rhythm and groove-heavy work of John Lee Hooker, of whom he later said: “Hooker’s chord work convinced that pinning down a precise and solid chordal structure was far more important for me than learning by rote the solos of virtuosos like B.B. King or Buddy Guy.”[7] This appreciation of Hooker’s chord-based guitar work only reinforced what he had learned listening to and playing trad jazz on the banjo, and would later reflect itself in his guitar work with the Who. Townshend’s exposure to the blues also began to manifest itself in the Detours’ live sets, which included covers of blues staples like Muddy Waters’ “I’m A Man” and Howlin’ Wolf’s aforementioned “Smokestack Lightning.” These types of songs were well suited to the vocal capabilities and musical preferences of Roger Daltrey, who had taken over frontman duties after showboating singer Colin Dawson got booted out of the band. Significantly, this left Townshend as the Detours’ only guitarist.

The presence of these new influences did not negate the Detours’/the Who’s roots in trad jazz. In fact, they remained prevalent even when the band played the blues. Case in point: their first single, “I’m The Face,” which they released under the name the High Numbers in July 1964. A lot changed for Townshend and his bandmates between Colin Dawson’s ouster from the group and that single’s release. The Detours became a formidable live act, and scored a gig opening for the Rolling Stones in December 1963 (it was at this show that Townshend noticed Keith Richards warming up before going on stage by swinging his right arm in a windmill motion across his guitar; Townshend proceeded to adopt an exaggerated version of this gesture as his signature stage move). In early 1964, the Detours changed their name to the Who, and in April of that year, replaced their drummer, Doug Sandom, with Keith Moon, a 17-year old surf rock-lover who sat in with the band during a gig and impressed them by drumming with such force that he nearly destroyed his kit. The Who also acquired a new manager and publicist, Peter Meaden. Meaden was interested in the culture of the Mods, a fashion-obsessed segment of Britain’s teenage population that had grown significantly in prominence by mid-1964. In general, the Mods were more interested in cool haircuts, stylish clothes, and pill popping than anything else, but they did have a particular musical taste that centered around the American blues and R&B music that Townshend had been soaking up at Ealing. Meaden thought he could remake the Who in a Mod image (falsely, of course, since none of the members of the band were actually Mods). This marketing scheme necessitated that the Who get haircuts, new clothes, and change their name to something more Mod-friendly. They settled on the High Numbers, Mod slang that essentially meant “cool guys.”

Meaden and the band’s attempts to court a Mod audience were not only image-based – they extended into the musical realm as well. The High Numbers gathered in a London studio to record their first single in June 1964, less than two months after Keith Moon had joined the band. They laid down renditions of two Peter Meaden compositions: “Zoot Suit” and “I’m The Face.” “I’m The Face” could hardly be called an original, however – the song is essentially a cover of Louisiana bluesman Slim Harpo’s 1957 classic “Got Love If You Want It” with new, Meaden-penned lyrics that comprise one line of outdated Mod lingo after another (fig. 4 and 5 demonstrate the two songs’ virtually identical melodies). However, the Who/High Numbers’ treatment of the tune bears little resemblance to the reverent manner in which bands like the Rolling Stones covered material similar to “Got Love If You Want It” around the same time (the Stones covered Harpo’s “I’m A King Bee” on their 1964 debut album England’s Newest Hitmakers). In fact, “I’m The Face,” in some ways, sounds as if it owes more to trumpeter and clarinetist Humphrey Lyttelton, a pillar of the British trad jazz movement, than it does to Slim Harpo.

Fig. 4 (I’m The Face)

Fig. 5 (Got Love If You Want It)

Peter Meaden actually had the gall to give himself songwriting credit for “I’m The Face.” Somebody sue that guy.


Indeed, Lyttelton was probably the most well known performer to come out of British trad jazz. Some rock fans may be familiar with his name thanks to the Beatles’ 1968 hit “Lady Madonna,” which Paul McCartney has admitted he wrote based around the piano riff from Lyttelton’s biggest hit, 1956’s “Bad Penny Blues.” “I’m The Face” (fig. 6) does not borrow quite so brazenly from Lyttelton, but trad jazz’s influence on the song is undeniable. “I’m The Face” is a 12-bar blues (unsurprising, since, again, it is, from a compositional standpoint, the same song as “Got Love If You Want It”), which is not an unusual structure for a trad jazz tune (in fact, one prominent example is “Bad Penny Blues”). And rather than adopting the shambling, relaxed groove of the Harpo original, the High Numbers create a sharply emphasized syncopated rhythm that can also be heard in the beginning of Lyttelton’s 1954 cut “Coffee Grinder” (fig. 7). In both songs, the primary rhythm instrument (in “I’m The Face,” it’s Entwistle’s bass; in “Coffee Grinder,” it’s the trumpet and trombone playing harmonized intervals) plays a single quarter note beat followed by an eighth rest, followed by another quarter note. In both cases, a melodic instrument sits on top of this rhythmic pattern (in “I’m The Face,” it’s Daltrey’s bluesy harmonica; in “Coffee Grinder,” it’s a clarinet). Townshend’s guitar sits mostly in the background for the duration of “I’m The Face,” excepting a mid-song guitar break with a distinctive tone unlike any Townshend has used with the Who since. Possessing neither the noisy, banging Rickenbacker-via-Vox amp sound of the early Who or the Gibson-via-Marshall stack crunch of the later era, Townshend’s solo on “I’m The Face” is very much jazzy in tone.

The particular syncopated rhythm that drives both “I’m The Face” and Lyttelton’s “Coffee Grinder” can also be found on the 1965 Who track “La La La Lies” (fig. 8). This song’s conventional I-IV-V major guitar chord sequence distinguishes it from Townshend’s innovative, and more frequent, use of power chords, which I will discuss later, and this ties it closely with trad jazz’s harmonic, and not just its rhythmic, language.

Fig. 6 (I’m The Face – Intro)

Fig, 7 (Coffee Grinder)

This section comes about ten seconds into “Coffee Grinder.”

Fig. 8 (La La La Lies)

“I’m The Face,” “Coffee Grinder” and “La La La Lies” feature very similar syncopated rhythms. They all also have pretty amusing song titles.


The combination of the High Numbers’ trad jazz-inflected style and Meaden’s blues-based songwriting turned out to be an odd and stilted combination. Not only does “I’m The Face” sound far less natural and loose than blues covers from the same time period by the likes of the Rolling Stones, but it doesn’t sound like the Who either. The instrumental trademarks Who fans are familiar with—Daltrey impetuously snarling over Townshend’s verge-of-cacophony power chording, Entwistle’s thunderous and dexterous bass playing, and Moon’s unhinged bashing—are not yet present. Thus, it is not surprising that the single flopped. The band responded to this failure my hiring a new management team—Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp—and changing their name back to the Who. Most importantly, Townshend began writing songs himself – songs that allowed the Who’s now well-established musical identity to emerge and flourish. Townshend was only twenty in 1965, the year the Who stormed the pop charts for the first time (Keith Moon was younger still at eighteen) but still produced an impressive stream of classic singles: “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “The Kids Are Alright,” and the career-defining “My Generation,” released as a single in late October 1965. The way skiffle spoke to a pre-teen Townshend through “the sound of strumming guitars; such a glorious sound,”[8] “My Generation” spoke to the defiant attitude of 60s youth, and remains perhaps rock music’s ultimate anthem of youthful rebellion. This is largely because of the lyrics: “hope I die before I get old,” Daltrey famously declares as he stutters his vocals, an effect meant to mimic the effects of being hopped on amphetamines – a far more effective nod to the Who’s Mod audience than the contrived lyrics of “I’m The Face.” But there’s a rebellious, almost revolutionary quality to the raw, chaotic energy of the performance itself, and epitomizes the Who’s early sound. It encapsulates the anxious “fuck you” attitude that Townshend sought to portray as the defining trait of “his generation.”

Fig. 9 (My Generation)

The first twelve bars of “My Generation” basically tell you everything you need to know about the Who’s early work. Which is convenient for me.


However, as important and daring a milestone as the song was for rock music, when analyzed, “My Generation,” in many ways, begins to sound like the result of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen being given electric instruments, a healthy dose of uppers, and being told to play their usual shtick. Or, perhaps, more accurately, the Confederates undergoing that same transformation. There is undoubtedly an identifiable connection between “My Generation” and the fact that Townshend and Entwistle played banjo and trumpet, respectively, in a trad jazz band during their adolescent days. In the Confederates, Townshend supplied a basic rhythm on a chordal instrument while Entwistle supplied a more rhythmically complex melodic line. The two bandmates carried this dichotomy over into the Who, as evidenced by “My Generation” (fig. 9). This particular contrast between Townshend’s guitar part and Entwistle’s bass is idiosyncratic to the Who and a peculiarity in rock music, where, most of the time, the electric guitar is the lead melodic instrument while the bass supplies a steady, basic rhythm. But if it weren’t for his distinctive power chord voicings, it would seem that, rhythmically speaking, during the verses of “My Generation,” Townshend seems to think he’s still an 11-year old banjoist. Just as Lonnie Donegan did in “Tiger Rag,” Townshend plays on-the-beat quarter note chords (only two of them – a G power chord and G power chord with an F in the bass) directly on every beat, giving “My Generation” the same square, insistent rhythm that Donegan gave “Tiger Rag.” It sounds different on a noisy electric guitar than it did on the banjo, of course, in a vital way – the guitar playing here epitomizes and symbolizes the pubescent aggression Townshend sought to portray by writing the song in the first place. It would not have this effect if endowed with the looser “Smokestack Lightnin’” bluesy rhythm, where only the two and four beats are emphasized. Meanwhile, Entwistle’s bassline is full of running eighth notes and melodic variations, as if he were still playing the trumpet. He even plays a solo during a stop-time break reminiscent of the clarinet solo in “Tiger Rag” (fig. 10 and 11).

Fig. 10 (Tiger Rag – clarinet solo)

This section comes about thirty seconds into “Tiger Rag.”

Fig. 11 (My Generation – bass solo)

Fig. 11 shows the first eight bars of John Entwistle’s famous “My Generation” bass solo. Being in the Who didn’t totally destroy Entwistle’s trad jazz dreams; he can be heard playing trumpet and French horn on several later Who tracks like “Someone’s Coming,” “My Wife” and “Helpless Dancer.”


The melody and song structure, on the other hand, are more rooted in Townshend’s blues and skiffle influences. Trad jazz melodies, as in most jazz, are usually ranging and at times improvisatory, with extended structures that don’t always repeat. The melody of “My Generation,” as with most pop music, is based on cyclical, compact hooks that repeat frequently in a verse-chorus structure and do not typically feature a huge amount of variation. The most prominent example in the song are the repeated backing vocals: “Talkin’ ‘bout my generation.” On the other hand, compared to, say, the trumpet line in “Tiger Rag,” the compact, repetitious melodies of “Rock Island Line” (fig. 1) or “Smokestack Lightnin’” (fig. 3) belie the origins of “My Generation,” melody-wise. Note, in fig. 9, which depicts part of the first verse of “My Generation,” the vocal melody repeats; in fig. 2, a comparable 12-bar section of “Tiger Rag,” there is no such repetition in the trumpet melody, which progresses and wanders with support from Donegan’s straight banjo chords. Or compare both to “Rock Island Line,” whose entire musical structure consists of an identical verse section repeated four times, with the only thing distinguishing them from each other being that the tempo gets progressively faster with each repeat. So it could, perhaps, be said that “My Generation” is the result of a marriage between trad jazz musical sensibilities and a skiffle and blues-influenced vocal melody. But there is one factor that distinguishes this rock classic from any of the Who’s influences: Townshend’s chord voicings. Townshend was a pioneer of power chords – triadic guitar chords with only root notes and fifths contained in them; the thirds are removed. This act of stripping a chord down to its core essentials is a frequent tool rock guitarists use to add an aggressive oomph to their playing. Townshend’s early practice of this technique is the second primary ingredient making “My Generation” sound so hard-hitting. Trad jazz banjo players like Lonnie Donegan may have inspired Townshend’s insistent rhythmic scheme on “My Generation,” but Townshend’s playing sure doesn’t sound like a trad jazz banjo, thanks to his power chords. These two factors—the trad jazz rhythm and power chords—combine to make the guitar playing on “My Generation” continue to sound so powerful even to this day, over 45 years after the song was recorded.

The Who followed up the “My Generation” single with their first full length LP, The Who Sings My Generation, in December 1965. Aside from an instrumental, “The Ox,” composed by the whole band, and two weak James Brown covers whelpishly warbled by a still-developing Daltrey, every track on the album is a Pete Townshend original. This, in contrast with debut albums by the Beatles, whose Please Please Me in 1963 was fifty percent pop and Motown covers, and the Rolling Stones, whose England’s Newest Hitmakers featured only two original songs, the rest of the running time being dedicated to covers of Chuck Berry and the band’s Chicago blues heroes. As a result, the Who and Townshend demonstrate a more well-developed musical and songwriting identity on Sings My Generation than the Beatles, Stones, or any of their other British Invasion peers did on their debut records. And it doesn’t really sound anything like any of those other analogous debut albums of its era. Part of the reason is, of course, the trad jazz influence. But one of Sings My Generation’s other distinctive factors is the prevalent auxiliary piano by session stalwart Nicky Hopkins, who went on to make crucial contributions to a variety of classic rock records in the 60s and 70s. Hopkins’ piano playing on the album seems to draw on the style of Mose Allison, an American blues-jazz pianist, singer and songwriter. Townshend discovered Allison while at Ealing Art School, and the Mississippian became one of his biggest influences – the Who did an electrified version of his song “Young Man Blues” on their classic 1970 live album Live At Leeds. Allison’s musical style is distinct from the guitar-driven Chicago blues that influenced the Rolling Stones and other British Invasion stars, which is why Hopkins’ approximation of his piano work adds to Sings My Generation’s unique flavor. Allison’s piano style is perhaps best heard on his biggest hit, 1958’s “Parchman Farm” (fig. 12), the song’s title references a popular term for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which was then a hard labor prison. (One notable British Invasion band—John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers—covered the song on their classic self-titled 1966 album, which features Eric Clapton on lead guitar) I believe Allison’s rhythmic pattern of triads—a root chord on the second beat of a measure, a triad on the third beat where the middle third changes to a fourth, and then back to the root chord for the fourth beat—is essentially copied by Hopkins on Sings My Generation tracks like “A Legal Matter.” (Unfortunately, Hopkins’ piano part is somewhat buried in the song’s (mono) mix, and is more complex and syncopated than Allison’s piano on “Parchman Farm,” which prevents me from making an accurate transcription of it). Hopkins’ piano style on “A Legal Matter” and other Sings My Generation tracks is noticeably different from the more classically-oriented style he later perfected and used on two tracks from the Who’s classic 1971 album Who’s Next. It is impossible to determine if Townshend instructed Hopkins to play in a Mose Allison-influenced style on Sings My Generation, or if Townshend’s early compositions suggested, to Hopkins’ ear, a place for that type of piano playing organically. Either way, Hopkins’ playing fits the songs, which says all you need to know.

Fig. 12 (Parchman Farm)

“Parchman Farm” also would appear to have had some influence on the compositional structure of “My Generation” (the song). In fact, the two songs are almost identical in their treatment of key and modulation. Neither song is based on the traditional I-IV-V chord changes that drive the Delta blues (not to mention much of the 50s trad jazz material) but instead remain static in their chosen keys. “Parchman Farm” does this most obviously; fig. 12 reveals that the musical content of the song’s first verse consists of a single piano line in D repeated exactly over and over again, with only a single quick change to a V chord at the end of each verse. Likewise, “My Generation” never leaves the root of its established key (which is, at first G), even as Townshend uses several chord variations in the simplified versions available to him in his power chord arsenal – a slash chord with an F in the bass, a 6th, chord, a 7th chord, and sus chords. Thus, for variation, both songs are forced to modulate, which they do – three times each, up the scale. “Parchman Farm” starts in D, modulates to Eb for the second verse and piano solo, then to E for the third verse, and finally to F for the final section. Similarly, “My Generation,” begins in G, modulates to A after the bass solo for the third verse, then to Bb for the fourth verse, and finally to C for the chaotic, feedback-drenched outro section. Given that Townshend was and is an avowed Allison fan, I believe its safe to infer that the key structure of “Parchman Farm” informed the way the guitarist wrote “My Generation.”

As the Who progressed, their music became less blatantly trad jazz influenced. Though the unique rhythm guitar/lead bass relationship between Townshend and Entwistle remained intact as a major factor in the band’s sound, more or less, until Entwistle’s death in 2002, the Who became less and less like the Confederates as the years went on. Townshend, forced to compete with psychedelic rock guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, beefed up his guitar sound and technique, which became increasingly less banjo-like. His songwriting also became more bombastic to match the heft of his ambitious rock operas and concept albums. There are snatches of trad jazz influence in some later material – for instance, Townshend turned back the clock and played a banjo part on the band’s 1975 single “Squeeze Box.” But the earliest Who records demonstrate the strongest ties to trad jazz – the missing link in the evolution that  led to the British Invasion and changed popular music forever.

[1] “Pete Townshend: ‘Modern music is gentle,’” (11 January 2007)

[2] Mark Ian Wilkerson, Amazing Journey: the life of Pete Townshend (Louisville, KY: Bad News Press, 2006), p. 8

[3] Op. cit., Wilkerson, p. 10

[4] Op. cit., Wilkerson, p. 10

[5] Op. cit., Wilkerson, p. 13

[6] Op. cit., Wilkerson, p. 15

[7] Ibid, p. 16

[8] Op. cit., Wilkerson, p. 10


  1. victoid wrote:

    Thanks for opening my eyes and ears to trad jazz Mr. Etc. I was previously unaware of this musical genre, as I’m sure are most music fans outside the UK. Your detailed explication (with bonus fun charts!) makes the hitherto unknown obvious in regard to The Who’s music, particularly to this doddering old rocker whose very first band played My Generation and Can’t Explain waaayy back in ’66. A veritable epiphany!

    (The following is kinda off-topic, but you started it.)
    I was further floored by your off-road, freewheelin swerve to Nicky Hopkins and the influence of the immortal Mose Allison. I had heard summa Mose’s work on sixties radio, but never got to really know and adore his music until I befriended Michael Franks (of Popsicle Toes renown) in the mid 70’s.
    Michael, although a guitarist, plays and sings just like Mose (mini-Mose?). Over a period of months he played me Mose’s complete ouevre, and his reverence for and commitment to the Master consumed him. He got us comps to a Mose Allison show at The Paradise in Boston, and I was transfixed by the performance. That fluid, opiate Nawlins piano sound combined with a voice like a muted trumpet was unlike anything I experienced live before or since. What genius emanated from the stage. Though restrained, the power of the music was underwhelmingly overwhelming (or some such). Many tunes I instantly recognized as I had heard them covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison and Tom Waits, among others. I may have blurted out loud something like “Hey, I know this dude..I know these tunes!” Mose deserves major accolades and recognition from any sensate music aficionado.

    This article from the 80’s is an excellent short recounting of his genius and many disciples, and includes an interview with Mose in which he praises the benefits of barroom/lounge performing.

  2. Thanks for an excellent article. I was researching for Mose Allison’s Parchman Farm and wandered into this amazing article that I will certainly re-read and refer to others.

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