Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: The Who 'My Generation' Super Deluxe Edition

The nineties saw a well-intentioned but essentially misguided attempt to snazz-up The Who’s back catalogue with radical remixes that regularly sacrificed key instruments or even replaced them with alternate or newly recorded parts. Jon Astley told me he remixed these classics just to give the fans something a bit different and interesting, which is fine, but the novelty of such things wears off quickly, and the definitive original mixes were allowed to go out of print for years. Many of them are still out of print in the U.S. and UK.

That reissue campaign that began over twenty years ago basically wrapped up in 2002 with the very first stereo mix of The Who’s raging debut, My Generation. As was the case with the other remixes, the novelty was ample, but it wore off real quickly as we lamented the loss of ferocious guitar tracks in “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” and came to the realization that this noise-fest demanded the unified power of mono to knock our knee caps off the way it was meant to.

The original mono mix soon became available in Japan, a big audiophile market, but it has taken fourteen years for My Generation to return to its proper mono origins on physical media in the west. It arrives in another in The Who’s series of big Super Deluxe box sets that also saw reissues of Live at Leeds, Tommy, and Quadrophenia (of which, only Tommy was included in its original mix).

The latest remaster is very comparable to the Astley’s excellent one released in Japan in 2008, so if you’ve never heard My Generation as it must be heard, this Super Deluxe is a fine place to start.

A recent stereo remix put out on iTunes a couple of years ago is distinctly wider than the 2002 stereo remix, which tended to center everything except for one guitar track shoved off to the left channel. That means it takes advantage of stereo better, but is even less powerful than the 2002 version. One very interesting development of these 2014 mixes is the reinsertion of those missing parts from “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” with newly recorded guitar from Townshend, who used vintage, authentic equipment. They don’t sound exactly the same as the ’65 originals, but they do sound a hell of a lot better than those hollow 2002 versions. There are also some neat new vocal touches on “My Generation”.

The rest of the set is filled out with lots of alternate versions, alternate mixes, singles and period outtakes such as “Lubie (Come Back Home)”, “Instant Party Mixture”, and the definitive Who version of “Heat Wave”. Some of these are superior to the 2002 mixes too, as Entwistle’s French horn returns to the stereo “Circles” and the tambourine clatters once again on the stereo “I Can’t Explain”. 

However, the real gem of these extras is Disc Five, which gathers together eleven Townshend demos from his initial writing days. One of these had been released on Townshend’s Scoop comp and a few have made the bootleg circuit, but they never sounded this good (and it's interesting to note how central a role “Mary Ann with the Shaky Hand”-style Latin percussion plays on these recordings). A demo of “Sunrise”, which would not get the official Who treatment until 1967, has more of a languid Antonio Carlos Jobim feel than the flushed version that ended up on The Who Sell Out.

The big surprise is several previously unheard Townshend songs that make their debut here. There’s a bluesy rocker called “The Girls I Could’ve Had”, which may spark conspiracy theories that Elvis Costello somehow got his hands on this rarity before he wrote “Tokyo Storm Warning”. There are also a couple of tracks that were probably among those that made Roger Daltrey conclude that Townshend’s early songs were too sweet for him: the Quick One-like “As Children We Grew” and the unusually romantic “My Own Love”.

The big question whenever one of these massive boxes comes out is: “Is it worth it?” There is certainly a degree of excess here. The music on these five discs could have fit on three. The set comes with an 80-page book, replica posters, flyers, and cards, none of which were included in the review package I received, so I can’t comment on them. The bottom line is if you dig fancy packaging, a fine remaster of the mono album, a better crop of alternate mixes and version than were included on the 2002 edition, and some terrific demos— and you’ve got the money to burn— you’ll likely be happy.
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