I was talking with a friend this weekend about the phenomenon of lavishly expensive, deluxe sets of ordinary albums—in this case, the “End of the World” edition of Ryan Adams’ new album Prisoner, which spreads the albums’ 12 songs across 12 different pieces of 7-inch colored vinyl, with unreleased B-sides on the flipsides and a big box that folds out into a mini-stage, complete with stand-up action figures so you can make your own diorama of a Ryan Adams concert.
That’s taking the idea to ridiculous lengths—fan bait at its most excessive and cynical, if you’re of that mindset. To be sure, the new My Generation box set, in its most complete incarnation, is prohibitively expensive: the 5-CD set includes all the available tracks and has the book, but retails for a whopping $140. But the 3-LP mono version on vinyl—while still not exactly a bargain at $60—is really all you need if you’ve got a turntable. The first disc is the original album in all its glory, while the second is all the loose ends, singles, B-sides, and such that came out around the same period, and the third is a newly released album of Pete Townshend’s demos from the era. The tracks not included are inessential stereo remixes of recent vintage and subtly different alternate takes. My Generation’s three-tier release is a conundrum for hardcore Who fans who absolutely must have everything, but I'll make it simpler for people who just want clean copies of the best versions of all the tunes: Stick to the 3-LP vinyl and you’re good. (What's more, all the extraneous stuff is still stream-able on Spotify.)
The original album, taking up the first LP, speaks for itself. It’s almost wall-to-wall classics, spaced out by a few cover songs (two by James Brown, one by Bo Diddley) that were more or less mandatory for albums of the period. What’s immediately clear, even from this early stage, is how much better the band’s guitarist, Pete Townshend, was at writing songs for the band than anyone else in the world. “My Generation” and “The Kids Are Alright” are the well-worn hits that everyone knows, but just as much their equal are the fist-fight of an opening track “Out in the Street” and the bubblegum-with-broken-glass sound of “La-La-La-Lies.” Following the original UK track listing, the album closes with two more knockouts: the country-and-western pastiche of “A Legal Matter” and the Surfaris-meets-apocalypse sound of the instrumental track “The Ox,” which showcased bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon at their most insistently ferocious.
The second LP contains the Who’s early singles and some stray tracks that date from the same sessions. When those odds and sods include “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” and “Circles,” these are more than mere bonus tracks. They’re rounded out by some fun covers of Motown and other American R&B songs, which are the closest we can get to those early live Who shows, where their patented “Maximum R&B” energized the young, rambunctious mods who made up their fan base. A throwaway track, “Instant Party Mixture,” points the way to the sharp English humor that would characterize 1967’s The Who Sell Out.
Album three collects Pete Townshend’s demos from the period; the thoroughness of his demo recordings has been well documented on all kinds of archival releases, notably his Scoop series—but for those new to them, these are not mere acoustic-guitar-and-vocal takes hastily set down on noisy, lo-fi tape. These are often complete recordings in and of themselves, with overdubs, intricate harmonies, and even bass lines. (Townshend didn’t start including drum tracks on his demos until a little later on, but several of these early ones feature him banging on pieces of percussion). The demo LP, subtitled Primal Scoop, plays like a lost, lovely piece of ’60s pop, with terrific songwriting (including the unheard “As Children We Grew” and the superb “My Own Love”), slender but adequate production, and a folksy vibe that belies Townshend's joy in spontaneous music-making.
All told, the deluxe reissue of My Generation isn’t a Who-ly grail (like their expanded Live at Leeds reissue) or even a particularly effective reframing of very familiar material (like the Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy singles collection). The Who’s catalog is notoriously difficult to grapple with; re-releases, alternate takes, incomplete tapes, newly done remixes, and haphazard release structures across varying formats have characterized their discography across the board, not just with this particular album. The good news is that the 3-LP set is a more than adequate enhancement of the original My Generation album (the stereo versions are not just inessential, they’re anachronistic, as none of this stuff was originally released in stereo at the time). The even better news is that no matter how you gussy it up, My Generation is still a great rock ’n’ roll record.