97. You Better You Bet by The Who

In 1985, Keith Richards stoked one of the disgruntlements which had led to The Who splitting up two years earlier when he told a journalist that ‘in actual fact, Pete [Townshend] made better Who records than The Who’: ‘He used to go [to the studio] with the album already finished and the rest would simply come up with some dubs, but his was ten times better than the finished product. It was a matter of them imitating what Peter had already laid out, kinda Hitchcockish.’

From the mid-1980s onwards, Pete Townshend released his famed, often home-recorded demos, on which he played all the instruments, as the Scoop series of albums. Inventive and intricate, they seemed to support Richards’ theory, as well as Who’s Next producer Glyn Johns’ assertion that by 1978 and Who Are You – the album on which Johns was replaced with Jon Astley after Roger Daltrey punched him for adding strings to Had Enough – Townshend’s demos had moved beyond the point where they were readily reproducible by the band. (The reason The Music Must Change has footsteps as percussion is that Keith Moon couldn’t master the 6/8 time signature.)

My single of You Better You Bet, bought from WH Smith in Newbury in 1981. Look closely and you can see where, when I was ten, I scratched 'EMI' next to the Polydor logo because I liked the idea of The Who being on EMI like The Beatles. Weird child.

My single of You Better You Bet, bought from WH Smith in Newbury in 1981. Look closely and you can see where, when I was ten, I scratched ‘EMI’ next to the Polydor logo because I liked the idea of The Who being on EMI like The Beatles. Weird child.

 

Townshend’s demo of The Who’s last Top Ten single You Better You Bet is a case in point. All the key elements are present: the falsetto backing vocals, sharp against a gauzy backdrop of fingerpicked Rickenbacker; the boogie-woogie piano; the beautifully structured middle section with its jazzy Andy Summers chords; the basic, metronomic drumming… Townshend sings in a strained yelp – probably, as one YouTube commenter has suggested, to show Daltrey where to place emphasis. Or he might just have been drunk.

Bassist John Entwistle’s response to Richards’ slur was blistering; horribly revealing, too, about the level of mistrust within the band. He accused Townshend of encouraging the impression that he and Moon had contributed little by going back and doctoring his demos so that they resembled the finished recordings:

[He] made them even better, so it sounded like we’d copied what he’d done. You have to realise that Keith and me, as individuals, were each at the top of his instrument, so there’s no way we’d have just copied the demo. That’s what used to irritate me about [Richards’ accusation]. Complete bullshit. Roger changed bits of melody line and stuff. Songs would end up co-written but the Townshend, he wouldn’t split it between us. Maybe if The Who had taken an equal cut of the publishing, the group might still be together. But hey, some people don’t have to work and some people do.

Actually, Entwistle’s contribution to You Better You Bet is significant. I can’t find any footage of him that isolates the bass enough to convey the detail in his playing, but the guy in this clip copies him very faithfully, though without the tapping power that inspired Entwistle’s nickname, Thunderfingers…

You Better You Bet is barely a Who song at all, more a gesture in the direction of New Wave; closer in sound and spirit to Townshend’s first solo album Empty Glass, which Keith Moon’s replacement Kenney Jones had played on, and the more synth-driven conceits on its follow-up All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes than to anything The Who had recorded before.

Its function was to repurpose The Who for the 1980s as a radio-friendly pop band and make the best of such hole-in-one downers as Moon’s death in 1978 from an overdose of the anti-alcoholism drug Heminevrin; the Cincinnati stadium stampede that killed 11 Who fans in December 1979; Townshend’s addictions to alcohol, cocaine and heroin; and his and Entwistle’s collapsing marriages.

But could The Who be repurposed? In their mid-thirties but looking older (though not as paunchy and haggard as 32-year-old Moon had looked in the months before his death), they were, in pre-Live Aid ’80s-rock terms, middle-aged, and struggling to reconcile the competing demands of old fans who wanted Who’s Next Part Two and the latter-day mods who had discovered them via The Jam and Franc Roddam’s film of Quadrophenia.

Photos from this period (1980-83) show Townshend trying out a variety of post-punk looks – Stray Cat, Blitz Kid, neckerchief’d rock gypsy. This sartorial uncertainty became a running theme in songs like Daily Records, Slit Skirts and Uniforms (Corp d’Esprit). In his memoir, Who I Am, Townshend talks about his obsession with The Clash, who he would join on stage at Brighton Centre in January 1980 and who supported The Who on their ‘final’ US tour in 1982:

I thought The Clash were spectacular… I took to wearing baggy suits and brothel-creepers, piling my thinning hair on top of my head like a rocker. Always a pretty good dancer, I stopped idiot-dancing and danced like Mick Jones and Paul Simenon… At 34 I was still just about young enough to pull it off.

If Townshend was seduced by the idea of The Clash as a happy gang, he certainly had no interest in replicating their scrappy sound. He had, after all, put up with enough scrappy playing during the making of Who Are You, when Moon’s drumming was ‘so uneven that recording was almost impossible’. In Kenney Jones he had found the anti-Moon, a ‘fundamental backbone drummer’ whose ability to keep time was more important than his inability to do flashy rolls. (Literary critic James Wood’s smirking devaluation of Jones’ playing is all very well, but his ‘little eunuch toms’ served a purpose.)

You Better You Bet comes on like a would-be New Wave anthem – Elvis Costello must have been an influence: John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick’s flamboyant piano lines certainly give Steve Nieve a run for his money – but without the stompy, speedy belligerence that makes so much of Stiff’s output sound so dated and boring and sonically half-baked. Its author obviously wanted it (and its host album Face Dances) to sound tidy and polished – to have something of the glacial beauty of Steely Dan’s Gaucho, which had come out the year before and set a new standard for obsessive studio perfectionism. In this way The Who became for Townshend a ‘new opportunity, one I could never have taken had Keith lived on’.

The producer Townshend approached to work on Face Dances reflected this New Professionalism. Bill Szymczyk was a one-time sonar operator in the US Navy whose work with The Eagles had helped to define the clean, dry sound of 1970s West Coast rock.

Like Glyn Johns, Szymczyk had started out as an engineer. Johns had helped the squabbling Beatles assemble the album that became Let It Be. Szymczyk was house engineer at the Hit Factory on Seventh Avenue, working with producer Jerry Ragavoy on records by Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick. His connection to The Eagles was via Joe Walsh, who he had produced since Walsh was in The James Gang and who shared a manager with The Eagles (Irving Azoff). He joined the team for On The Border, replacing Glyn Johns, and stayed for the duration.

Different producers have different ways of recording drums. The Glyn Johns Method – it’s actually known as this – involved using four microphones: two overhead mics, one kick mic and one snare mic. This results in a fat, balanced sound with a fair amount of room ambience – Johns used it to record both Moon and John Bonham. The Bill Szymczyk Method uses a whopping eight microphones, which Don Henley preferred because it catches more detail while cutting room ambience to a minimum.

Szymczyk was also a big fan of what’s known as ‘comping’ – recording multiple versions of a performance, then editing together the best bits. As Szymczyk pointed out to Sound On Sound:

Remember, this was before the days of build-a-record, where you start with a click track and then do things piece by piece. We may have gone back and replaced a guitar or keyboard part, but my way of doing things was to record numerous takes, select the five or six best ones and use the very best parts from all that. So I did a lot of two-inch tape editing, and I know for sure that on Hotel California there were 33 edits on the two-inch master… At this stage in their career, The Eagles were pursuing perfection… This might refer to replacing one drum fill with another fill that was a little better… the stuff people now do in Pro Tools every day.

With The Eagles, Szymczyk would do five takes of a lead vocal, then go through them picking out lines, phrases and even single words. Background and harmony vocals were recorded ensemble around a single microphone on to two or three tracks, then subtly panned in the mix to give depth. Sometimes he would have them sing the same phrase for three hours to get it right.

Bill Szymczyk with Kenney Jones during the recording of Face Dances

Bill Szymczyk with Kenney Jones during the recording of Face Dances

Did these methods work for The Who? Up to a point. Face Dances has a dry, bright feel quite unlike any other Who record, and personally I love the sound he got from Entwistle. But it doesn’t rock. The guitar is polite, restrained, often mixed way back. The drums are too clean. And a lot of the time Daltrey doesn’t sound like himself, possibly because of the way Szymczyk has recorded his voice, possibly because he’s finding the songs’ subject matter hard to buy into. (More on this later.)

Bill Szymczyk: ‘Face Dances was the first album that I had made outside the US. Everything [about The Who] was new [ie new drummer, new label in the US] so they wanted a new producer, and Pete and I had hinted to each other over the years that we would like to make a record together. One of his favourite albums is Hotel California, and really, that’s what got me the job with them, that album. Your reputation goes before you, and it’s like, “You hear the way that sounds? Do that to me.” But I felt like I’d crawled into the forest and couldn’t see the trees.’

John Entwistle: ‘We’d do the backing tracks in groups of three. We’d do three and then take a break and then do three more of the same thing. I think that the backing tracks took us ages for that album. Then he’d take a group of three of the best ones and cut them to little pieces and stick them back together again. I mean, the tape would go round and it would be stripped, editing bits out. It was kind of a strange way of doing it for The Who… We were doing stuff like, “I prefer that bit because of the bass and there’s a good drum break there. I want that bit.” It just seemed an incomplete way of recording.’

Roger Daltrey: ‘Listen to the drums on that album and you tell me if they’re any fucking good.’

Kenney Jones: ‘The chemistry of the band and producer wasn’t right. The sound was too laid-back, like rubber.’

Townshend seems to have been in a terrible state around this time. Dramatic stories about his drug use abound. In September 1981, six months after Face Dances came out, he collapsed in Club For Heroes from a heroin overdose while drinking with Paul Weller and Steve Strange: ‘When they carried me into the hospital, I was dark blue. The nurse actually had to rip off my shirt outside the hospital and beat me back to life.’

Fed up, his wife Karen had kicked him out of the family home. He was living in hotels and private members’ clubs and having affairs, some of which he chronicled in songs. You Better You Bet is about his relationship with a woman called Jackie Vickers: ‘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…’ (Athena, the flop lead single from 1982’s It’s Hard, is about his deranged-sounding obsession with the actress Theresa Russell. The demo is actually called Theresa.)

It must have been tough for his family, hearing these songs. The most heartbreaking bit in Who I Am is when Townshend prints a card that his daughter Minta sent him: ‘I miss you very much and I wish you would come home… I heard You Better You Bet on the radio and I like it. It’s not fair! Everybody else has got a dad who comes home at night.’

It must have been weird, too, for Roger Daltrey, being the mouthpiece for songs so personal they often seem to be written in a private code, or at least to refer to specific incidents that the songs fail to universalise. (‘I showed up late one night with a neon light for a visa…’ Eh?)

The Who work best when Daltrey is able to channel Townshend’s lyrics successfully, making them his own as he does on Who’s Next, Tommy and Quadrophenia. The wheels started to come off around 1975’s The Who By Numbers. On Face Dances, Daltrey sounds thoroughly confused as he works his way through songs about identifying with flashers (How Can You Do It Alone), being so drunk that you wake up hungover in a zoo (Cache Cache), being so drunk that someone steals all your money (Did You Steal My Money) and the terrible impact of touring on his marriage (Daily Records): ‘And they say it’s just a stage in life/But I know by now the problem is a stage…’

On You Better You Bet, though, it all comes briefly together. Tight and fluent, but with enough jagged edges to keep it interesting, it’s by far the best track on Face Dances, arguably better than anything on the undeservedly loathed It’s Hard, and on March 7 1981 it entered the UK Top 40 where it would peak at Number 9.

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