To call Pete Townshend’s 1982 album All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, difficult is to undersell the concept of difficult. It laughed at difficult. It stuck a secret knife in difficult’s gut. For the longest time, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of most of it. Songs like “Face Dances Pt 2,” “Uniforms” and “Exquisitely Bored” tried to be exquisite, but ended up being boring. And it still amazes me today how he could cover “Girl From The North Country” and completely ignore one the most gorgeous melodies in human history.
That said, I thought “The Sea Refuses No River,” “Somebody Saved Me” and even the dread “Stop Hurting People” (OK, if you say so, Pete) were good songs that were overthought, overlong — or both — but somehow got across because of his singing, which I’d come to love even more than Roger Daltrey’s. I mean, the dread “Stop Hurting People” is just plaine silly for the longest time, but god help me, when he sings “may I be matched with you again?” and his guitar shines like the sun out of a cloudbank of synths, it gets me every time.
And so, while your mileage may vary, that left two indisputable Townshend classics, the first of which I though was called “Stardom in Action” for much much longer than I should have, and the other which I’ll get to tomorrow.
It probably helped that “Stardom in Acton” was the probably the hookiest thing on the record: leading with a choir of Townshends quietly singing “Stardom in Acton, that’s all they got” over a backwards beat, glistening synth (all of the synths on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes glistened so much you almost had to wear sunglasses to listen to it) And hey, is that album title problematic? Cos it felt kinda problematic even in 1982.
Anyways, “Stardom in Acton” eventually finds its momentum — driven by some primo Townshend rhythm guitar — and while the verses are fine, it’s the chorus that kills me.
I want a hit
Want my tan, want my cash, want my innocence
I want a script
Want my band, want my stash, want omnipotence
Check out the way Pete wraps his voice around “in-o-sennnnnnnnnnse” and “om-nip-o-tennnnnnce.” It’s playful and fun, qualities otherwise sorely lacking on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. I mean, dinging it for being pretentious is silly: this is a guy who wrote a “mini-opera” for their second album and styled their third as a pirate radio broadcast. But dinging it for being no fun I think is a fair cop. And, as he got older — or maybe after Keith Moon died — I think Pete Townshend started forgetting to take the piss out of himself and/or stopped bringing the fun/funny that made his youth so amazing.
I’m literally just now having this thought as I’m writing this post — kinda shocked that I have a new Pete Townshend theory — so my apologies for the derailment, but maybe that’s why things like Psychodelerict or The Iron Man never connected with me, but one of the reasons I loved Empty Glass was that it had songs like “Gonna Get Ya” or “Cat’s in the Cupboard” that may or may not have been great, but they sounded like he was at least having fun. And outside of “Stardom in Acton,” I didn’t get that from All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, or — moving forward — White City: A Novel (which will have at least one post), or The Iron Man: The Musical By Pete Townshend (I mean, c’mon!) and Psychoderelict (which won’t).
And in fact, I’ll confess right now that I’ve tried recently to listen to those last two, and just still get nothing, but by the late 80s, I’d pretty much turned on Pete Townshend — right around the time The Who started touring again, not coincidentally — so it might be me. Probably is.
Meanwhile, back in “Stardom in Acton,” there’s a second iteration of the chorus that might be better than the first, and leads to the best moment of the whole song.
Born in a trunk
Got my home, got my car, got stability
But I’m Hollywood’s son
All alone don’t admire anonymity
It’s once again in his singing: “sta-billl-a-teeee” is good enough, but at the end the long hold on “an-nom-im-a-teeeeeeeeee” is just awesome, especially when it goes instantly into the heavenly choir of Petes from the intro singing “Stardom in Acton, that’s all they got” over and over and over, eventually just shortening it to “Stardom!” as the song fades.
“Stardom in Acton”
“Stardom in Acton” official video
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