The Who’s Generation

Essential Question

How did the Who represent “My Generation” in mid-1960s England?

Overview

One of the most important bands of the British Invasion, the Who had a remarkable voice for expressing generational rage and an explosive performance style to match it. While neither the Beatles nor the Rolling Stones appeared at either of the most iconic 1960s music festivals—Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969—the Who delivered signature performances at both. Through their songs, which expressed the visceral frustrations of adolescence and young adulthood, and their concerts, which set standards for a new kind of showmanship, the Who established a reputation as one of the toughest, most articulate, most influential bands in Rock and Roll.

This lesson centers on the Who’s 1965 song “My Generation.” The band’s second hit single (after “I Can’t Explain”), it has become perhaps its best-known record, an anthem for the youth of the 1960s that still resonates today. “My Generation” captures the spirit of the Who as well as, if not better than, anything the group recorded over its long career: confrontational lyrics that are simultaneously full of angst and defiance, stuttering vocals that evoke frustration and confusion, and a performance that at times feels on the edge of collapse.

In this lesson, students will evaluate live performances of “My Generation,” focusing on the one from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and analyze the lyrics and sonic character of the song. Finally, they will examine their own generational identity, and, following the Who’s lead, compose new lyrics for a new generation.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will

  1. Know (Knowledge):
    • The importance of the Who as a leader of the “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s
    • The role of the song “My Generation” in giving voice to disaffected young people in the 1960s
    • The influence of the Who’s signature live act, which introduced the destruction of instruments into the lexicon of Rock and Roll performance
  2. Be able to (Skills):
    • Extrapolate arguments about music by assessing sound, mood, tone, instrumentation
    • Draw connections among various print, audio and visual texts
    • Write creatively for personal and/or small group expression
    • Compare and contrast texts, arguments and ideas
    • Common Core: Students will closely read a text (song lyrics) for explicit and implicit arguments, including attention to multiple audiences, and to determine multiple meanings of key words and phrases (CCSS Reading 4; CCSS Reading 8; CCSS Language 4; CCSS Language 5)
    • Common Core: Students will cite evidence and engage in a wide range of writing and speaking exercises intended for varied audiences (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Writing 4; CCSS Writing 5; CCSS Writing 10; CCSS Speaking and Listening 6)

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Show two versions of the Who performing “My Generation”: first, a live perfomance from 1965, and second, the final moments of their 1967 Monterey Pop Festival appearance. Have students list five words that come to mind as they watch the second video.
  2. Compare the performances and discuss how the Monterey Pop example adds power to the song because the Who reinforce the song’s message with a particular performance style. Touch on the following questions in the discussion:
  • In the Monterey Pop Festival performance, what happens at the end of the song? What do the performers do?
  • Why do you think the performers are doing this? Are they making some kind of statement? If so, what is it?
  • How old do the performers appear to be? Does their age have anything to do with the way they are acting? (Note: Members of the Who were between the ages of 20 and 23 during this performance.)
  • How does the audience seem to react? How do you imagine parents of people in the audience would have reacted?
  • Do the performers’ actions remind you of any other performers you have seen? (Note: Different from the Beatles, the Who based their band identity not just on songs and recordings; they wanted their live act to be something entirely new. In effect, to fully understand the band you had to understand what they did in performance.)

Procedure:

  1. Divide students into pairs. Distribute Handout 1: The Who, “My Generation.” Inform students that they will work together to analyze “My Generation,” the song the Who performs in these videos, and one of the songs most closely associated with the band.
  2. Have students work together to complete the activities on the handout, as described below. If they have access to their own computers, they will view the biography of the Who from this site and view the interview clip with Pete Townsend, the writer of “My Generation.”
  3. Students will complete Part 1 of the handout, which asks them to define basic terms used in the lesson and discuss the following questions:
    • What is a “generation”?
    • Do you think of yourself as a member of a particular generation? If so, what title would you give that generation and how would you define it? If not, why do you think being part of a generation is not important to you?
    • Who do you consider to be in your generation? Who is not in your generation? How do you feel about people who are not part of your generation?
  4. Students will read this site’s biography of the Who and discuss the following questions:
    • When and where were the Who formed?
    • What type of music was the band best known for?
    • According to the biography, was what you just saw in the video typical for the Who?
  5. Students will review the short clip of “My Generation” drawn from a 1965 U.S. television appearance. Instruct students to follow along with the lyrics, underlining key words and phrases and taking additional notes as they listen. They should then discuss the following questions:
    • Whom is the singer speaking to? (Who is “you”?) What is his message to them?
    • Who is the singer speaking for? (Who is “we”?) What is his message on their behalf?
    • When the singer says, “I hope I die before I get old,” what do you think he means? Do you think he means this literally? Or might there be a figurative meaning? Does “old” represent a physical age, a state of mind, or perhaps something else?
    • Why do you think this particular lyric has become widely known? Do you think it was in any way irresponsible of the Who to sing this song to young people?
    • How does the music reflect the lyrics? What instruments do you hear? What is the overall mood and tone of the music? How does the band use music to emphasize the message of the lyrics?
    • Why do you think the singer stutters on certain words? What message might he be trying to convey?
    • Who do you think was the intended audience for this song?
    • Remember that the video you saw at the beginning of the lesson came at the end of a performance of this song. Do the actions in the video reflect the message of the song? If so, in what way?
    • Based on what you know about what was happening in the mid- to late-1960s, why do you think this song resonated with so many young people?
  6. Students will read the background information on the song on Part IV of the handout and discuss the following:
    • According to Townsend, did “old” mean physical age? According to these interviews, was the song from his perspective about age or about acceptance? Have students look at the interview clip with Townsend, considering what he says about young people, fashion, and teenagers “all becoming one.”
    • Does Townsend’s explanation of the song change your understanding of it? Why or why not? Why do you think the concept of youth is so important to him?
    • How might one’s feelings about the song change as one gets older? Can the song still have meaning for those who are not teenagers or in their early 20s?
    • Working in pairs, have students compose new, updated lyrics for “My Generation,” reflecting their views about their generation in today’s America.
  7. Each pair will present its lyrics to the class, and discuss the following:
    • In what ways do your lyrics focus on key events, ideas, complaints, or concerns related to your generation? Be specific, and quote your work.
    • What are the intended audiences for your version of the song? What message are you sending to those audiences? Again, be specific and quote your work.

Summary Activity:

Have the class compare and contrast the Who’s lyrics with the students’ lyrics. Discuss:

  • In what ways are the lyrics similar?
  • In what ways are they different?
  • What do you imagine Pete Townshend would say about the your lyrics?

Homework/Assessment:

Assign one or more of the following:

  • Record your version of the song, using instruments or with a digital recording application.
  • Design and create cover art for a single of your version of the song.
  • Research at least five significant news events during the period 1960-1965 that might have inspired Pete Townsend when he was writing the lyrics to “My Generation.”

Writing Prompt:

How did the Who’s “My Generation” give voice to the attitudes and concerns of young people in the mid-1960s?

Extensions:

  1. Have students analyze the song “Substitute,” considering the ways in which it captures the confusion and searching of youth.
  2. Further research the Who’s groundbreaking live performances, especially at the Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (1969) festivals. What set these performances apart from those of the other acts? In what ways did the performances echo the sentiments articulated in “My Generation”?
  3. Have students research later developments in the career of the Who, including the production of their two rock opera albums, Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973), and their critically-acclaimed 1971 album, Who’s Next.
  4. Ask students to research the influence of the Who on the Punk Rock movement of the late 1970s. With their expressions of adolescent angst; aggressive, loose live performances; and their destruction of instruments and stage sets, the Who have been called “the first Punk band.” Does their research support this statement?
  5. In 2009, The Pew Research Center published a research report on the defining characteristics of the “Millenials,” the generation of Americans born approximatley between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. According to the article, what are the key characteristics of “my generation” for today’s teenagers? To what extent do the points in the article reflect students’ own experiences?

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Reading 8: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Writing 5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  • Writing 10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.