“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 Numbers‘ terrace 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).