The Who‘s last major hit single didn’t sound much like the Who. Instead, “You Better You Bet” was one of the few moments during the early ’80s when Pete Townshend shared a truly great track with the band.
Released on Feb. 27, 1981, “You Better You Bet” would be the Who’s last Top 20 song on the Billboard Hot 100 and their final U.K. Top 10 smash. The tune also topped the Billboard rock-radio chart for five weeks. “A surprise hit single for us,” Townshend later told Rolling Stone. “We even went back on Top of the Pops.”
Much had changed in the interim, not least of which was the death of drummer Keith Moon. “You Better You Bet” advanced Face Dances, which saw the debut of replacement Kenney Jones. He’d contribute to one more Who album before making an unhappy exit.
“I just felt that Keith was such an extraordinary drummer, to try and replace him was just ridiculous,” Roger Daltrey would later admit. “I’m not saying he’s a bad drummer. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. I didn’t dislike the guy, but I just felt he wasn’t the right drummer for the Who. It’s like having a wheel off a Cadillac stuck onto a Rolls Royce. It’s a great wheel, but it’s the wrong one.”
Meanwhile, Townshend’s tandem solo career seemed to have become more of a focus, as albums on either side of Face Dances – 1980’s Empty Glass and 1982’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes – boasted far more consistent material.
The basic musical approach carried over: In many ways, “You Better You Bet” was the most modern of Who singles. An undulating synth points to the influence of new wave; Townshend’s short, sharp verses underscored how punk’s ascension had helped focus his songwriting.
More important, however, was that he briefly rediscovered something that was often missing on Face Dances: how to write for Roger Daltrey.
Watch the Who’s ‘You Better You Bet’ Video
Elsewhere, “Don’t Let Go the Coat” left Daltrey to sort through the teachings of spiritual guru Meher Bab, while “Cache Cache” could feel a bit too angsty. “You Better You Bet,” presented through the eyes of a smitten lover who’s a bit of a mess, was different – especially when Daltrey winks his way through a bit of nostalgia while getting drunk “to the sound of old T. Rex … and Who’s Next.”
Daltrey’s braying turn at the mic grounds everything. There may have been an updated setting, but the narrative drew from an age-old place. He traced the vocal melody, in fact, back to rock’s earliest days. “A wonderful, wonderful song,” Daltrey said in The Who by Numbers: The Story of the Who Through Their Music. “The way the vocal bounces, it always reminds me of Elvis [Presley].”
Reenergized by a new love interest, the song came together quickly for Townshend. “‘You Better You Bet’ was a very spontaneous lyric,” he said in the liner notes for Face Dances. “A fairly spontaneous, peppy song; it’s a pop song, really, it’s just a pop song.”
That’s in keeping with his faster-paced lifestyle at that moment. “I developed [‘You Better You Bet’] over several weeks of clubbing and partying,” Townshend said in The Who by Numbers. “I had gone through a lean period in my marriage and was seeing the daughter of a friend of mine. I wanted it to be a good song, because the girl I wrote it for is one of the best people on the planet.”
It was. Daltrey often calls this one of the bright spots in a difficult and inconsistent era. “‘You Better You Bet,'” he told Rolling Stone, “is still one of my favorite songs of all.”
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