Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Worst Songs Ever: The Who’s “You Better You Bet”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #18 in May 1981.
About fifteen years ago over drinks with a friend I coined a subgenre: the Heaving Sleazo, after the aging white guy huffing and puffing about sex and drinking when nobody believes him anymore. I had Robert Palmer in mind, the Palmer who in the Power Station’s “Some Like It Hot” sang “We want to multiply/Are we gonna do it?” and in his own “Simply Irresistible” came up with polysyllabic ways of saying “I want your sex” (“She’s a craze you’d endorse/She’s a powerful force,” as if “she” were a Williams Sonoma blender). Think Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” or “Crazy About Her.” In essence, these dudes were too old to be showing their dicks; they sounded ridiculous. Leonard Cohen and Bryan Ferry escaped this curse because their physical limitations confined them to a synth-comforted minimalism.
The Who’s penultimate American top forty hit predates this material, and it’s a prime example. At this point it’s a truism that MTV, starved for content in its early years, played videos from decidedly un-telegenic boomer-era stars. In 1981, fresh off a more successful than expected solo project called Empty Glass — it managed a top ten in “Let My Love Open the Door,” which The Who hadn’t managed in more than a decade — a drug-addled and reluctant Pete Townshend, devastated by the sordid death of drummer Keith Moon, reassembled his band for Face Dances. As usual the album did better than its attendant singles, and Kenney Jones, while no Moon, proved adequate. A few years ago I listened to it and, to my surprise, it held up. Concise and smart about balancing words and music, Face Dances would’ve been a decent epitaph had the band ended then, even without Moon, who played drums as if they were lead guitar.
But The Who didn’t release “Don’t Let Go the Coat,” “Another Tricky Day,” or “How Can You Do It Alone” ahead of “You Better You Bet.” Things start promisingly, a fabulous salvo: piano bang straight out of “A Day in the Life,” sequencer, guitar arpeggio, and multitracked Townshend-John Entwhistle harmonies singing the title hook. Townshend’s piano provides the momentum, aware that Jones will keep time and that’s about it. “I call you on the phone, my voice too rough from cigarettes,” Roger Daltrey rasps, and I believe him. So far so good. But the song, despite its attractive elements, falls apart. Daltrey is too rough — from cigarettes, from age, I don’t know. He can’t keep up. There is no ghastlier delivery and lyric in the Heaving Sleazo genre than when Daltrey and Townshend come up with, “You come to me with open arms/And open legs.” I mean, Daltrey inserts a pause between “arms” and “and” like a comedian expecting a drum roll. “Mortality catches up with pretty boys faster than with the rest of us,” Robert Christgau lamented in an otherwise complimentary review of Face Dances. And it gets worse. “I been wearing crazy clothes and I look pretty crappy sometimes,” Daltrey sings through what sounds like an emphysemic condition — the sixties icon approaching middle aged forced into wearing skinny pink ties. His delivery of “sometimes” makes you hate rock singing.
Although I haven’t heard It’s Hard, I doubt anyone else has either. “Athena” became the band’s last top forty beach head, but “Eminence Front” has instead become one of their perennials: a synthesized crawl through the hippie tropes in which Townshend and Daltrey are experts. “You Better You Bet” was a staple on album rock radio for most of my youth; I wonder if “Eminence Front” has replaced it. Having nothing in mind except keeping a groove and mangling a Dylan line as mantra, it eschews open arms, open legs, and the sound of old T. Rex. The Who I like advocates for an obscurantic self-reliance; Townshend, whose queer tendencies he has had a mixed record in accepting, wrote, I suspect, from the point of view of his decidedly heterosexual lead singer on “You Better You Bet.” I can hear the strain and see the flop sweat.