From the Bible to Oedipus Rex to King Lear, literature has long concerned itself with the difficult relations that sometimes arise between members of different generations. The Fifth Commandment—”Honor thy father and thy mother that you may have a long life in the land which the Eternal, your God, is giving you”—is perhaps the earliest known acknowledgment of the human potential for intergenerational conflict. Yet it seems that every generation of humans has faced this dilemma, and perhaps never more so than during the 1960s, when a demographic time bomb loosed the largest generation of teenagers in history upon an unsuspecting world. With numbers on its side, this generation would set its own terms in the age-old conflict of youth vs. everyone else, and never were those terms more clearly expressed than in the lyrics of “My Generation,” the song that The Who’s Pete Townshend wrote on this day in 1965.
Why don’t you all f-fade awayyy (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)And don’t try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout my generation).
As Townshend has told the story, he wrote those lyrics on a train ride from London to Southampton—a train ride necessitated by the towing away of his 1935 Packard hearse from its parking spot in front of his house on Chesham Place, the road between Clarence House and Buckingham Palace. “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.” This was the great indignity that prompted Townshend to pen the immortal lyric, “Hope I die before I get old.”
But while that lyric may have perfectly captured a youth’s-eye view of the Generation Gap, a more immediate concern for The Who in the spring of 1965 was whether they could survive their own internal conflicts long enough to record “My Generation.” The Who was famous for infighting even then, and lead singer Roger Daltrey was on his way out in a “You’re fired! You can’t fire me because I quit!” dispute until the runaway success of “My Generation” forced the entire band to reconsider the split. As it turned out, the song that Pete Townshend wrote on this day in 1965 is what kept The Who together and set them on a course toward becoming one of the most successful rock bands of the era.