There’s a woman in my office who has “Face Dances, Part II” as her ringtone (which I assume means she’s about my age), and even though I hadn’t thought of or heard the song for years, the first time I heard those distinctive and quite pretty opening notes coming from her cellphone, I knew exactly what it was. (If ever a revival of “Name That Tune” gets on the air, I’m totally auditioning.) What I didn’t realize, and what I figured out in trying to find a free download of the song, is that it’s not from the Who’s 1981 album “Face Dances,” as I thought, but a single from Pete Townshend’s 1983 solo album, “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.”
“You Better You Bet,” from “Faces Dances,” was my first real exposure to the Who, and I seem to recall hearing the song often on the portable radio I carried with me more-or-less everywhere I went around my neighborhood as a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old, about the same time I’d often hear “The Pina Colada Song” on the air. (Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey probably wouldn’t thrill to be associated with Rupert Holmes, but they go together in my mind, along with games of two-on-one, after-school football.) I had little knowledge that pop music had a past; I didn’t have a record player and my parents’ collection consisted of 8-track tapes of Slim Whitman, Bobby Vinton, Glen Campbell and the Statler Brothers. This is to say I didn’t think much of what I'd heard, aside from what I'd get from re-runs of the Monkeys and the Partridge Family, both of which I preferred to Boxcar Willie and his ilk. At any rate, back to the Who: I also seem to remember seeing the video for “Eminence Front” (“It’s a put on”) in heavy MTV rotation kind of around this time, and I even recall seeing in a concert video the dumbfounded-looking members of Who standing in the wings of Shea Stadium while the Clash rocked the place as their opening act.
All of this is to say that I began to become acutely aware of pop music right around the time that classic rock was drawing to a close (along with punk) and post-punk/indie music was beginning to emerge in popularity among the people (kids) for whom music meant something. Did it mean something to me? Obviously it did, but at that point of nascent awareness I couldn’t say what, and I never really bothered noticing the difference from one kind to another, at least not in a prohibitive way. What I did notice were the similarities. Having, thanks to that catchy ringtone, rediscovered Pete Townsend and the early-80s, post-Keith Moon version of the Who, I can hear many of the things that first interested me in pop music and still do—melody, a strong hook, harmony, lyricism—qualities that I was hearing just as clearly at the time and soon thereafter in Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, R.E.M., Simple Minds, the Cure, the English Beat, Echo & the Bunnymen, Big Country, the Jam, etc, etc. etc.
Pete Townshend’s “Slit Skirts,” from “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes,” is another song I must have heard hundreds of times on the radio in 1983. I always liked its tune and its dynamic, but I’m absolutely sure I didn’t know what to make of the lyrics, which begin with the announcement, “I was just thirty-four years old,” which must have seemed, like, old. Listing to the song now, when I remember thirty-four as being a not-so-bad age, I’m struck by its honesty, the way it is confessional without being cloying or self-conscious, and the way it just connects with my musical sensibilities. And as if to prove my point, who is that to be seen in Townshend’s rhythm section but the bass player and drummer from Big Country, as if to personify the progression and symbiosis, if you will, of pop music at that particular moment in music history. Maybe if I’d been born five years later I’d think Pete Townshend was a dinosaur and I’d be extolling the virtues of Biggie Smalls or a more revolutionary moment in music history, but I’m grateful to have become aware of rock-and-roll when it was at such an interesting crossroads, as opposed to the edge of a cliff where it seems to be these days.