Certain Songs #1525: Pete Townshend – “Rough Boys”

Album: Empty Glass
Year: 1980

In between the time that Keith Moon died in the summer of 1978 and the time Empty Glass was released in the spring of 1980, The Who had become my favorite band. Yeah, I loved The Clash and proselytized them to my classmates to little or no avail, but The Who were it for me.

They were also dead.

OK, well that’s harsh: technically, it was only Keith Moon who was dead, and in fact, part of what made The Who my favorite band at the time was the well-timed history-diggings of The Kids are Alright and Quadrophenia films, not to mention that they were soldiering on without Keith.

But a young person wants new music from their favorite artists; they want said artists to continue to surprise and challenge them. Or at least I did. Or thought I did. All of this is a long-winded way to try to get you, gentle reader, to understand why Pete Townshend’s first pure solo album of brand-new material, Empty Glass, had such an incredible effect on me: all of the love I had stored up for his band was transferred to that record.

And, in fact, I obviously didn’t know it at the time, but Empty Glass was the beginning of the most publicly prolific period of Pete’s life: four albums released in 2 1/2 years — two solo & two Who — that grappled with his grief, his feelings about fame, his sexuality, and his fears about growing older, all kicking off with the incandescent “Rough Boys,” a song that blew me away from the very start.

And I mean from the very start: that opening guitar-or-is-it-a-synth-no-it’s-a-guitar fanfare that slips into a buzzing build build build and suddenly snare whack! and

Tough boys, running the streets
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) Come a little closer
Rough toys, under the sheets
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) Nobody knows her
Rough boys, don’t walk away
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh)I very nearly missed you
Tough boys come over here
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) I wanna bite and kiss you

Obviously, even at 17 — no, especially at 17 — it was impossible to ignore the homoerotic nature of “Rough Boys,” but “Rough Boys” got me at the first “ooooooh-oooooooh-ooooooh,” and kept me when Pete Townshend crammed a whole bunch guitar in my ear while biting and kissing me.

I mean, the guitar on “Rough Boys!” With a rhythm section of Kenney Jones and Tony Butler, “Rough Boys” had more momentum than any Townshend song since “I’ve Had Enough,” and Pete himself put on a clinic of rhythm guitar, especially as he effortlessly morphed into quick spidery leads in a way that literally only Pete Townshend has been able to do before or since.

Meanwhile, “Rough Boys” speeds on, like a goddamn runaway truck.

I wanna see what I can find

Tough kids, take a bottle of wine
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) When your deal is broken
Ten quid, she’s so easy to find
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) Not a word is spoken
Rough boys, don’t walk away
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) I’m still pretty blissed here
Tough boy, I’m gonna carry you home
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) You got pretty pissed dear

Not fooling anyone, Townshend tried to distance himself a bit from “Rough Boys” by dedicating it to both the Sex Pistols and his daughters. But there was absolutely zero distance between the man singing the song and the words he was singing. That was the other thing about Empty Glass: it’s where I fell in love with Pete Townshend as a singer. Sure, he sang a lot, a lot, on all of those Who records I loved, but “Rough Boys” it seemed like he truly came into his own. He wasn’t trading off vocals with the front guy. He was the front guy.

Rough boys, don’t walk away
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) I wanna buy you leather
Make noise, try and talk me away
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) We can’t be seen together
Tough kids, what can I do?
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) I’m so pale and weedy
Rough fits, in my Hush Puppy shoes
(Ooooooh-ooooooh-oooooh) But I’m still pleadin’

Except for a couple of breakdowns — one for the bridge where he declares “Gonna get inside you / Gonna get inside your bitter mind“, and another after the third verse — “Rough Boys” not only keeps the momentum going, it actually accelerates at the end, as he brings in a brass section to bounce his guitar from, and the whole thing is so totally and utterly Who-like, it’s amazing that he didn’t save it for Face Dances, where it would easily have been the best song. Not that he probably could have gotten Daltrey to sing it, because who would believe that Roger Daltrey was pale & weedy?

As for me, on the verge of graduating from high school, not sure about the future, Empty Glass — along with London Calling & Pretenders — was in the heaviest of rotations: hell, I even bought the cassette just to be able to listen to “Rough Boys,” rewind the tape, and listen to it again.

Naturally, the great rock public didn’t agree with me: released as a single in the U.S. in the wake of the surprising success of “Let My Love Open The Door,” it didn’t go anywhere, despite a terrific video which visually reinforced the song’s lyrical themes. Of course, we were still a year out from MTV, where it was one of the earliest videos played, long after there was any chance that the song would become a hit.

“Rough Boys”

“Rough Boys” official music video (mono sound)

“Rough Boys” performed live (w/ David Gilmour), 1986

“Rough Boys” live on the Late Show /w David Letterman, 1996

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