Published on January 15th, 2017 | by Andy Sedlak
Pete Townshend – ‘All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes’ 
Summary: Pete Townshend’s third solo album is a vanity project in the fullest, loaded with question marks and exclamation points. Don’t take it at face value — it’ll only dampen the listening experience.
Released: June 14, 1982
Producer: Chris Thomas
Peak Chart Position: 26
Top 40 Singles: 0
There are vanity projects, and then there is All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.
Can’t wrap your head around the title? Let Pete Townshend explain.
“Basically, it’s about the fact that you can’t hide what you’re really like,” he told Rolling Stone in 1982. “I just had this image of the average American hero – somebody like a Clint Eastwood or a John Wayne. Somebody with eyes like slits, who was basically capable of anything – you know, any kind of murderous act or whatever to get what was required – to get, let’s say, his people to safety. And yet, to those people he’s saving, he’s a great hero, a knight in shining armor – forget the fact that he cut off fifty people’s heads to get them home safely.”
“Then I thought about the Russians and the Chinese and the Arab communities and the South Americans,” he continued. “You’ve got these different ethnic groups, and each has this central image of every other political or national faction as being, in some way, the evil ones. And I’ve taken this a little bit further – because I spent so much of my time in society, high society, last year – to comment on stardom and power and drug use and decadence, and how there’s a strange parallel, in a way, between the misuse of power and responsibility by inept politicians and the misuse of power and responsibility by people who are heroes.”
Got that? No? Well, screw you.
You’ve just entered into an ambition-first world. Sometimes ambition is substantiated, and sometimes it’s not. All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes slaps you with a heady, full-throttle listening experience that insists you suspend logic. Don’t get caught up in connecting dots. It’s symbiotic in its absurdity, and just when you think you know where Townshend’s coming from, he’ll hit you with a line like “Briolette tears drip from frozen masks.”
From “Face Dances (Part 2):”
I can’t be distracted
By the stuttering of the kids
I just sit enraptured
By your fluttering eye lids
Want to connect with Pete? Know that All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes practically goes out of its way to keep you at arm’s length, and the only thing you can do is take the music as your own. The listening experience won’t begin until you do.
Again, it’s ambition first. Narrative cohesiveness comes somewhere down the line.
As you may have suspected, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes didn’t exactly set the marketplace on fire. The album peaked at No. 26 in 1982 and it contained no hit singles. A few writers adored it. Rolling Stone gave it four stars and it currently holds a score of four-and-a-half stars at AllMusic.com. Others loathed it. The Village Voice gave it a D+. The Encyclopedia of Modern Music awarded it only two stars out of five.
It’s not for everyone.
Listening to All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes takes you to a weird, early ‘80s subculture where extraordinary intellect is only matched by extraordinary levels of cocaine. Or delusion. Or fantasy. Or something. Real smart babble kicks in early. Maybe there’s something to it. Maybe there’s not.
All I know is that it holds my attention. And, for some reason, it stuck with me.
“Stop Hurting People,” an aristocratic spoken-word dirge about unrequited romance, among other things. “Without your match, there is no flame,” Townshend sings toward the song’s conclusion.
The classically stylized New Wave folk of “The Sea Refuses No River” bleeds into the majestic “Prelude” ahead of “Face Dances (Part 2).” The honking funk piece is one of the album’s showcases and the theater-y tune follows The Who’s Face Dances album released the year before.
Townshend is on record saying the song centers on the alienation he felt from both then-wife Karen Astley and his bandmates. Whatever point he’s making, he sounds like he means it.
From “Face Dances (Part 2):”
Your eyes explain a story that never had a start
Your brow reveals that’s hidden in your heart
If you take anything from All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, it’s that Pete Townshend’s spent a lot of time awake at night. Loneliness is a constant throughout. It rears its irritable head again in the solitary “Exquisitely Bored,” about an aging rocker (or anyone) alienated by the status quo. It’s simultaneously snobby and earthy. Townshend again opts for drama by speaking his verses before taking off on a turbo-jet chorus.
“Stardom in Action” is possibly the only song on the album that would fit with the Who’s repertoire. It’s flamboyant muscle would’ve taken a record like 1982’s It’s Hard to more interesting depths.
The Who released It’s Hard three months after Townshend put out All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. By this point, all of the surviving members of The Who had released solo projects. Bassist John Entwistle had released five solo albums by 1982. Roger Daltrey had released four.
This record was Townshend’s third solo effort. It was produced by Chris Thomas, who had worked with everyone from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols. He contributed to many of Elton John’s albums in the ‘80s and later produced The Lion King soundtrack. In spite of high profile contributions and public accolades (Rolling Stone and Billboard have each named him “Producer of the Year”), Thomas’s name isn’t one casually thrown around by music fans.
Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, Pulp, the Pretenders, INXS, U2. All have utilized Thomas’s skills. Read about him and you’ll see he’s one of the few producers who began in the 1960s, evolved through the 1980s and 1990s and was still at the top of his game in the 2000s when he produced U2’s 2004 hit “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.”
An old-school soul who’s not afraid to modernize probably seemed like the perfect choice for Townshend’s 1982 vanity project (although one wonders if this was a project to satisfy not only Townshend’s indulgences, but Thomas’s too).
The indulgences get out of hand on the more-than-a-little annoying “Communication.” Repeated listens don’t clarify things either. Its meaning and angles swirl constantly, and if you’re obsessed with figuring the song out, then your theories will change right along with them.
Embrace the absurdity, friends. And if “Communication” sounds like a revved up version of Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” you’re not the only one to hold that opinion.
Use the words like flowing river touches
Embraces parting hard steel surfaces revealing pages
Beneath the water skin broken like ice flows
Smashed by iron bows on the back of a whale
Townshend and Thomas quickly reject any suspicion of cohesiveness on the back half of the album with the politically abuzz prog rock of “Uniforms (Corp D’Esprit).”
From “Uniform (Corp D’Esprit):”
We are marching as to war
But we are really fighting for
Unbelievably, a radio-ready reworking of the traditional “North Country Girl” comes next. At this point in the record, nothing feels more unexpected than a song that would fit on radio.
Alas, at only 2.5 minutes in length, it ultimately feels like an intro – a brief respite – before “Somebody Saved Me.”
From “Somebody Saved Me:”
You would have thought that I’d have learned
Twenty years ago or more
A beautiful girl raised her mouth and yearned
But I didn’t know what lips were for
The song rises and recedes like many others on the record. Townshend, of course, is in control of this. He handles all guitar and keyboard playing on the album, which dominate.
Interestingly, Virginia Astley, the younger sister of Townshend’s wife and an accomplished musician in her own right, plays piano.
All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes ends with a blast sunlight in “Slit Skirts.”
From “Slit Skirts:”
No one respects the flame
Quite like the fool who’s badly burned
“Slit Skirts” seems to represent the album’s autobiographical hight point. Townshend laments the assumption he had a “divine right to the blues” and feels “unfulfilled” as he approaches middle age. It’s a theme explored earlier in the album, particularly on “Exquisitely Bored.”
But with Townshend, you never know. All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes is an album full of question marks and exclamation points. It comes at you fast – catch whatever you can. Then get back in line.
I can’t tell you quite where you’ll end up, but it’s a hell of a ride. And that’s good enough for me.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: Hear All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes free below from Spotify.