Because You’re Young

Because I’m Young (early studio take).
Because You’re Young.
Because You’re Young (tour rehearsal, 1987).

“Townshend’s coming in today.” Bowie and Tony Visconti waited in the studio, with some dread.

Bowie and Pete Townshend had met in Bournemouth in 1965, when Bowie was 18 and Townshend 20. It was a minor humiliation for Bowie. Townshend watched Bowie play his just-issued single “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” then noted sharply that it sounded like a rip-off of one of his songs (it was). Townshend went off to help write the Sixties, a decade where Bowie was a footnote.

Now 15 years later, Townshend, after laboring to immortalize the Mods with Quadrophenia—a 2-LP monument for a mayfly—had weakened. His subject became decline, both his own (creatively, spiritually, bodily) and his band’s. The Who By Numbersterrace singalongs were crowded out by midlife agonies (“How Many Friends,”However Much I Booze”); Who Are You was just a long slog, worsened by the ailing Keith Moon. I write the same old song with a few new lines, and everybody wants to cheer it: the record started with a sad, wry boast; the title track, based on Townshend’s drunken self-flagellating night with half of the Sex Pistols (“I remember throwing punches around and preaching from my chair”), was a hungover man talking to the mirror. It got worse: Moon died at 32, looking 20 years older; 11 kids were trampled to death at a Who concert in Cincinnati.

Drinking heavily and trapped in his image, trashing hotel rooms as though required by his contract, Townshend tried to write himself out, saving his better songs for his solo albums. Before Bowie asked him to play, Townshend had just finished Empty Glass, which had a pop hit on it, along with “Jools and Jim,” a still-fun piss-take on Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, and “I Am an Animal,” a strange rant that hung between grandiosity and amazing self-loathing.

Townshend showed up in a “foul, laconic” mood, Visconti recalled, and drank some red wine (“there’s no such thing as white wine!” he had snapped when Visconti offered him a choice of bottles). After the small talk ebbed, there was nothing else to do but record. It’s worth quoting Visconti at length here:

[Townshend] asked what we wanted him to do on this track. David looked at me kind of puzzled and asked, “chords?” Townshend asked, “What kind of chords?” I think both David and I were a little afraid to state the obvious but I finally offered, “er, Pete Townshend chords.” Townshend shrugged, “oh, windmills,” and did a perfect windmill on his guitar.

So Townshend, the great dervish of the Sixties, was asked to play like his trademark self, and dutifully went along with it. It’s as though he was auditioning for a musical adaptation of his life. And the fast chording Townshend put down, jolting back and forth from E minor to C, is a strangely anonymous performance—it could have been Carlos Alomar, it could have been any hired studio gun.

The song Townshend guested on, “Because You’re Young,” was thematically suited for him—an older man watching young lovers make mistakes, saddened by what’s to come for them, longing for the freedom to be just as foolish. Shame it’s a dud, the weakest track on Scary Monsters, despite the band’s efforts (especially George Murray’s frenetic, octave-vaulting bassline). One flaw is that the most interesting bits, melodically, are the opening lines of the verses, the extended stepwise rise and fall of “psychodelicate* girl, come out to play,”, with a triplet pushing to the highest note. As the song builds, ever so lengthily, towards its 18-bar chorus, it grows duller and the payoffs—the multi-tracked title phrase and the ending refrain “a million dreeeeams, a million scahhhhrs“—don’t seem worth the effort.

Bowie had tried to salvage the song at the overdub stage, scrapping an earlier lyric with a first-person teenager POV in favor of an older, removed perspective—as he said on a promo disc, “I guess I’ve adopted the role of a sort of old roué in that one, looking down on these two young mad things and knowing that it’s all gonna fizzle out. God, I’m a depressive person!” (He also recycled the original opening lines “look in my eyes, nobody home!” into “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”.) Andy Clark’s synthesizer fills all the open spaces in the mix, leaving “Because You’re Young” with no room to breathe.

Recorded February 1980 at the Power Station, NYC, and April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Issued as the B-side of “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”

* It’s possible this sparked the idea for Townshend’s ’90s album title Psychoderelict, though it’s just as likely Townshend’s never listened to “Because You’re Young” in his life.

Top:  “Pink Party,” Athens, Ga., 1980. (ciao manhattan).

27 Responses to Because You’re Young

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    Yeah it is the weakest track on the album and it is a shame. There is no room to breath on this song – a good way of putting it. There are some nice parts in the arrangement however. I like “it’s all back to front and no sides (like I say)” part for some reason. Because I listen to this album on vinyl I never skip it and therefore it has grown on me over the years.

  2. diamond dog says:

    It is the weakest track but as the previous commentor said I too have grown used to it over the years. I think it never gets over the opening by Townshend ….you do paint him as a sad figure in the piece but he steps up to the mark here , he shines I think and I for one can tell its no session man. The song is less than its sum of parts the mix is again poor ,Townshend should crackle and boom but the mix let’s him down. Visconti has done better work but its a throw away piece not worthy of Townshend. He was struggling with his own demons at the time yes but his perfomance is the best thing on it!

  3. ethan says:

    At first I was like, “weakest track? no way!” but then I realized that all I could even think of in the song offhand was the nicely chaotic way the vocals fall into the chorus–which I still think is excellent, but apparently it’s made me overrate the track. I still like it quite a bit, but it doesn’t live up to its surroundings.

  4. ofer says:

    Not the weakest track. Not the strongest, but still a pretty good song. “Kingdom Come” is the skip-it for.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Actually, I really like that track. Looks like we’re all going to be arguing about which is the best of the weaker tracks. “I won’t go breaking no rocks”

  5. diamond dog says:

    Scary monsters A side is filled with so many perfect pop songs I will forgive him the 3 weak songs which to my ears sound like Bowie had run dry remember this period he was looking backwards with the covers of his own space oddity and lest we forget the useless panic in detroit. Kingdom come is at least a good romp, though covers to me are lazy unless you make em your own. Because your young is messy and never comes together very well.

  6. Maj says:

    agree with “ofer”, it definitely isn’t the weakest song on the album, for me, but it’s also not my favourite. I like the guitar a lot, it’s the best thing abt the song. I guess “Kingdom…” or “Up the Hill..” are closest to skip tracks for me but I still like the songs. I just really like this album a lot!🙂

  7. This is not only my favorite song on the whole Scary Monsters album, but one of my top ten or twenty favorite Bowie songs.
    I love the aggressive guitar work, the wobbling synths, Bowie’s strong call-and-response vocals, the band’s momentum, the climb the shifts give the whole piece, and the transcendent call of “Because you’re young… you’ll meet a stranger some night…”

  8. It’s a generic David Bowie song, of a perfectly harmless variety. No one screams, is being savaged by dogs, crashing in a car, scoring smack, writing awful things on rugs, cross-dressing or thanking Ma’am after whamming and bamming (bibbedity-bop). Bland and boring, really.
    Side 2: “Teenage Wildlife”, ok. “Scream Like a Baby”, hmm. Uh oh, a Tom Verlaine cover? Really, David? NOBODY covers Tom Verlaine, for good reason. (I like the guy myself, don’t get me wrong.)
    Pete Townshend, checked-out session guitarist? The (original) version of “It’s No Game,” sung like a man reciting unfamiliar lines from a sheet without affect or interest… and the scratchy fade-out sounds like the closing of a crypt.
    I like the album, but it really ends badly for all concerned, Bowie, his soon-to-be-former collaborators, and listeners alike. And yet it’s better than anything he did afterwards.

  9. Gnomemansland says:

    For me the songs on this LP run into one another (in my memory if not on the actual vinyl) and as such Because You’re Young flows in and out of It’s No Game,Teenage Wildlife etc etc…

  10. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I’m just gonna use this space to say that John Entwistle’s solo work is incredible and I actually like Smash Your Head Against The Wall much more than the contemporary work by The Who. It’s a shame Townshend hogged the recording mic, Entwistle could have made those later period who albums a lot more interesting if more of his ideas had gone through.

  11. diamond dog says:

    Agree with pinstripe as Townshend was not giving his best within the confines of the who in the 80,s he was saving better material to his own solo albums. He seems to have spent the decade trying to move as far from the who as he could, The who was a spent force without moon it should have ended with who are you.

  12. Vulpine says:

    Many years later Townshend atoned for this performance-by-numbers with his solo on Heathen’s Slow Burn – some of his best work in years in the opinion of many…

  13. David L says:

    Something I’ve always wondered about, maybe someone could shed some light on this … when you get some “pal” (like Townshend, or Lennon, etc.) to play on your record, how does that work business-wise? Do you have the two buddies tacitly agree to do it, then their lawyers call each other? Or is there a set fee? What if Townshend agrees to do it, but then their lawyers can’t agree on the fee? Or what if he does the recording, then later they realize his “quote” exceeded the record’s budget?

    • col1234 says:

      it’s a good question, one I’m curious to know more about too. I think there’s a big gap between the “secret guest starring” (like George Harrison appearing under a pseudonym on Cream’s Goodbye) and the typical “X appears courtesy of Island Records” you see in most liner notes, which I imagine means a decent sum of money has been exchanged (at least to lawyers/record companies).

      • David L says:

        I’m guessing there’s some kind of a royalty-type arrangement for each song, where each player is entitled to a certain cut. I originally thought that only applied to the writers, but perhaps the players also. But then you run into the problem you identified: if you’re Eric Clapton, cranking out a lead for While My Guitar Gently Weeps, should you be paid the same as the guy who did the maracas? (not that there are maracas on that tune, but if there were …)

  14. Brian Busby says:

    Not having listened to the song in some time – vinyl in storage, you’ll understand – I was a bit taken aback by how little I liked the song. Back in 1980, it vied with “It’s No Game (Part 1)”, as my favourite track. I wonder, could this have been because I was young? I’m not being flippant here. I well remember being caught up in the line “Because you’re young/ You’ll meet a stranger some day”. So much promise. Three decades years later, I find Andy Clark’s synth grates. What sounded contemporary then, now seems like a blatant attempt to ride the New Wave. It’s the Cars, it’s the Attractions, it’s irritating.

    A final observation: Bowie’s vocals on the opening line remind me of the style that, I think, marred much of his work in the ‘eighties. Could this have been the beginning? Probably not… but to these ears it’s there.

  15. mike says:

    i love BYY! always have. what the hell is wrong with me?😀

  16. Freddy Freeloader says:

    I think you’re a bit mean to PT here – the guitar is unmistakably him, and if “it could have been Carlos Alomar, it could have been any hired studio gun” then it would have had to be Alomar or hired gun consciously doing a Townshend.

    Also, Quadrophenia as “monument for a mayfly” – all operas have daft plots about silly ephemeral subjects, the point is that through those daft plots they address universal issues, in this case (among others) the alienation of youth. It speaks to me, and I was never a mod. The other point of operas, of course, is the music, and here it’s unmatched before or since, a monument hewn from a single vast chunk of marble. Also something of a parallel for Scary Monsters (and John Wesley Harding) in its position within Townshend’s career – the last great thrust, going beyond any of its predecessors in reach, perfection and internal coherence, before the artist’s descent into a prolonged fallow period.

    My humble opinion, anyway.

  17. Vinnie says:

    The oscillating synth line under the “Because You’re Young” lyric is one of my favorite parts on the whole record. I’ve spent much of the summer listening to Scary Monsters en loop in my car. Lovely, just lovely.

  18. Bb says:

    “Because You’re Young” is NOT the weakest song in the album, but the best one. Considering the album contains “Kingdom Come”, it’s obvious you know nothing about musuic.

  19. Thomas says:

    Gorgeous song. I’d put it just behind Teenage Wildlife as the best song on the album.

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