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Pete Townshend All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982)


This is Townshend’s own custom-built version of Quadrophenia: that big bloated pretentious kind of thingie that no-one but Townshend himself really can dig into, but sounds enthralling all the same.

What is really amazing about this record is the very fact that it exists. If you happen to be familiar with that bit of early Eighties’ Who history, you might probably have heard it was one of the worst moments in Pete’s life. He was torn between the Who, his own solo projects, his family, his drinking, and God knows what else. He was, in fact, a total wreck – at one point, he nearly followed Keith Moon into the grave with a heroin overdose and was saved by the hospital nurse in the nick of time (some say there’s an indirect hint at this in ‘Somebody Saved Me’).

And with all these perturbances, he made easily the most complex record of his entire career – where ‘complex’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘best’ (even if it is the best solo Townshend record), but it sure means a lot of work went into it. The lyrics on the album amount to a whole new level of artistic ambition; heck, even the liner notes open with the following lines: ‘There have always been times like these. The multi-coloured spheres crash and collide, the triangle expands and explodes; eventually there is nothing’. At times I wonder if Neil Peart had been involved in the project. There’s no use in trying to even begin deciphering all the complex imagery of these lyrics.

My personal belief is that this is definitely not a put-on and that these lyrics actually meant a lot to Pete himself; after all, he was never known for spewing out phoney pseudo-poetic bullshit in the past. And in fact, I’m actually relieved that Cowboys isn’t Empty Glass Vol. 2, neither musically nor lyrically; with a couple notable exceptions like ‘Somebody Saved Me’ (which, not coincidentally, is the album’s weakest tune), Townshend never wastes much time on whining about his personal problems – yet the album is still introspective in nature. Pete isn’t in true “confession mode” on here – he’s arranged for battle, and just a brief comparison of the album cover with the one of Empty Glass is enough to prove that.

As for the music, it ventures further and further away from the Who prototype – even if an album like Who Are You had already pretty much demolished that prototype four years ago. It actually doesn’t sound much like Empty Glass either, with a continuing reliance on synthesizers and less and less reliance on guitars. Yet Pete proves himself to be in total control over these things, and most of the melodies are pretty well concentrated and sometimes even hook-filled. One thing Cowboys does not offer is a couple or so of timeless outstanding hits like ‘A Little Is Enough’ or ‘Rough Boys’; it yields no mammoth classics to be immensely treasured by the average Who fan. Instead, it’s just consistent, diverse, and often thought- and emotion-provoking.

Not all the songs on here are equally good, but there’s nary a true misstep. And believe me, I was seriously put off by the record at first – the hooks took some time to sink in, and so did the emotional content; it’s yet another one of those albums that can be easily put down with just one move of your little finger, but before you do that, ask yourself if you really need to mock this guy in this particular situation. Because you don’t. Yes, so ‘Stop Hurting People’ is introduced by Pete speaking instead of singing, and what’s that he speaks? ‘A love born once must soon be born again’? Is this a treatise on reincarnation? But it only gets better and better with every next second, and at the present time it has reached the point where I’m nearly moved to tears at hearing the ‘people, stop hurting people’ refrain and that majestic synthesizer riff – don’t tell me it isn’t Quadrophenia-quality, because it is. Maybe the song would be better if Pete bothered to sing his lyrics. Maybe it wouldn’t. Whatever. It’s a wonderful number either way.

‘The Sea Refuses No River’ is one of Pete’s best ballads, and this one really brings out all the vulnerable beauty of his voice. I guess it’s the sharp contrast between the pretentious lyrics and the thin, pleading, humble voice that neutralizes the worst sides of both and brings out the best – because the melody itself isn’t all that memorable, it’s the unique power of the whole combo that drives the song forward. But somehow I still end up preferring Townshend’s ‘poppier’ material, like the unstoppable groove of ‘Face Dances Part Two’, a song that’s better than at least a good half of the actual Face Dances album combined. There’s an aura of mystery and romance to this technically ‘ordinary’ synth-and-guitar-driven upbeat pop composition that can’t be beat, and both the ‘face dances tonight, fate chances moonlight’ chorus and the ‘I can only stare, you make me feel like I don’t care’ “post-chorus” bit just won’t leave my head.

Maybe it takes time to really dig into this whole shenanigan, well, I had all this time, and now I keep spotting groovy little bits everywhere – the nervous insecure acoustic picking at the beginning of ‘Exquisitely Bored’ is a perfect match for the song’s depressed, pessimistic chorus; the little “rappy” bit in ‘Communication’ (the one that goes ‘comma comma comma commi commi commi… communicate!’) is hilarious and does a lot to push away the depression induced by ‘Exquisitely Bored’; ‘Stardom In Action’ is not a highlight, but the chorus is unforgettable anyway; ‘Uniforms’ is endearingly “boppy”; the inclusion of the traditional folk song ‘North Country Girl’ is a pleasantly shocking surprise; ‘Somebody Saved Me’ is kind of a boring go-nowhere ballad but is at least hardly worse than your average confessional song on Empty Glass; and only a complete Townshend-hating idiot will remain unmoved by ‘Slit Skirts’, a song that’s said to be inspired by Pete’s sister-in-law’s Virginia Astley’s disdain for said thing – except that the main lyrical message here is having to gracefully accept the new realities of middle-age, hence ‘I don’t ever wear no ripped shirts, can’t pretend that growing older never hurts’. Boy is that chorus ever beautiful.

All in all, I think in the end it all depends on whether you’re willing to accept Pete’s charisma or not; Cowboys is very dependent on that. Yes, it’s ambitious and overblown, but it never sounds like Pete is forcing that ambition and pretention on you. Maybe it’s just because he wasn’t “blessed” with a Greg Lake type of voice, and so in his hands even something like ‘Epitaph’ would have sounded unpretentious. Maybe it’s the fact that for the most part, he is able to evade obvious cliches and truisms even in the most puffed-up locations. Add to this the bunch of really catchy melodies (about half of the songs), and there you have it – an album that’s actually deeper than Empty Glass, if less accessible. And miles and miles ahead of the unlucky It’s Hard, which really gives the impression of a vastly inferior outtakes collection from Cowboys.

May 25, 2013 - Posted by | Pete Townshend All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes |

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