|Day 30: The Who (You Better You Bet)
May 26, 2020
Pete Townsend has said he has been deaf, at least partially, since Keith Moon blew up his drum set on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. How accurate this is has been famously debated for decades. If you have seen the video, poor Pete is playing with his right ear after the smoke clears. As many have also pointed out, he probably didn't help his hearing by playing with the loudest band on the planet for 40+ years.
I like to assume the Moon Bomb started the problem, after all it is hard to believe it didn't do some damage. What is interesting to me is that, up until 1971, The Who had a few interesting songs but nothing that I particularly loved. Tommy is a milestone album for rock and roll, but, for me, also seems too tied to its concept to be a great album. With Who's Next in 1971 The Who produced the first of many fantastic songs and albums, all mostly defined by Townsend's appreciation of the synthesizer as part of a song's rhythm section, which was pretty ballsy given that he already had the greatest bass player of all time, John Entwistle, and a pretty creative drummer in Keith Moon.
Townsend's autobiography, Who I Am, reinforces that his obsession with Lifehouse, the unfinished concept sci-fi album he wanted to make, was all about hearing a single ("the perfect") musical note. He talks about how fascinated he was by the manual that came with his first EMS synthesizer: "with a simple description of how sound is made, how it travels through the air and how it is reproduced electronically" (p. 206). Even with Lifehouse abandoned, Who's Next presented a signature sound, through Townsend's programmed synthesizers, as unique as any band's sound ever.
Did the synthesizer somehow reach parts of Townsend's hearing that might be missed through other instruments? Did all the knobs representing varieties of options for oscillation, amplification and pitch impact Townsend's song-writing ear in ways it wasn't impacting others? I have no idea and don't pretend to go into musical theory or anatomical discussion to prove it. I just find it fascinating that so many of the best-known Who songs after 1971 have a rhythmic synth loop that provides the skeleton for the song that the band works around, knowing the loop will always bring them back to a set point.
While "Baba O'Reilly," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Love Reign O'er Me," and "Who Are You" all create this uniquely Who sound in extraodinary ways, I have always had a special place in my heart for "You Better, You Bet," often dismissed in part because some poor stupid bastard had the unfortunate luck to sit in Moon's seat after Keith died (it ended up being Kenney Jones). The album "You Better, You Bet" appeared on, Face Dances, has also been unfairly ridiculed. It's not a 5-star album by any measure, but "Don't Let Go The Coat," "Daily Records," "Another Tricky Day," and Entwistle's "The Quiet One" follow up "You Better You Bet" nicely.
More than most of the other great 1970's Who hits, Townsend's guitars in "You Better You Bet" seem gentler, more strummed than slashed, as he was so famous for doing; even the solo before the last verse seems more controlled. The intricacies of the guitar work dance along with the synthesizer loop, allowing John Entwistle's bass to serve as the lead instrument at times. Listen to the way Entwistle goes up the neck about 25 seconds in, right before Roger Daltrey starts singing. Then when the song gets to the end of the first verse, Entwistle shifts from 4th gear back into 2nd gear, revving it back up for the chorus. It flirts with us like intense foreplay, building us up, taking us down, and building us up again and again.
Entwistle's flirtatious bass fits the playful lyrics, some of Townsend's finest, enhanced by Daltrey's singing. "I call you on the telephone/my voice too rough with cigarettes" is as enticing an open line as one can get for a song. Never one to miss a chance to name drop his own band, after mentioning he and his paramour "listening to old T. Rex," he adds, almost as an afterthought, "and 'Who's Next.'" Later, the lover has welcomed him "with open arms and open legs/I know only fools show needs/but this one never begs." Post-coitus, the playfulness continues, "I lay on the bed with you/we could make some book of records/your dog keeps licking my nose/and chewing up all those letters." Daltrey's vocals are never better, especially every time he has to say "better."
By the end, the synthesizer line is almost non-existent as one gets swept up by Daltrey's singing, Townsend's guitar, and Entwistle's ever present bass. "You Better You Bet" may not have produced the single note Townsend had sought for 10 years at that point. Some fans would argue that it wasn't even close, but even a little is alright.
"You Better You Bet." Face Dances. The Who. Polydor. 1981. Link here.
Townsend, Pete. Who I Am. Harper Collins. 2012.
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Day 31: Eurythmics "17 Again." ->
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