I just love this song. Pete Townshend’s musical exploration of his probable bisexuality is also one of the great Rock songs, period. Like much of Townshend’s ouvre, “Rough Boys” is also an angry song. There’s no room for tenderness here. This is about a quick hook up in a back room or an alley. As a result, it also feeds into some nasty stereotypes about homosexual behavior, but I don’t think that was Pete’s intention. There’s a particular perspective to this song, a point of view born not only from Townshend’s sexuality but also from his rage.
I don’t know if he ever actually fooled around with any guys, but Townshend himself has admitted bisexual feelings. And there’s really no denying the content of the song. “Tough boys, come over here. I wanna bite and kiss you” isn’t exactly subtle. Of course, there’s also a couple of references to a “her,” so it could also be from the perspective of a woman picking up some rough trade. Yeah, I’m not buying it either. The woman referenced is probably the wife or girlfriend of the male character in the song, who is ignorant of her man’s desire to fuck other men. I kind of hate using the word “fuck” here, but that’s what the song is about. Remember, there’s no room for tenderness in this hook up.
This is actually a pretty provocative song. Released on 1980’s Empty Glass, it was a pretty bold choice as both a track and a single (it failed to make the Top Forty, however). This was not the kind of thing mainstream Rock stars sang about. Heck, Rob Halford of Judas Priest hadn’t even come out yet. The video is also provocative, but much more sly about the sexual innuendo. There’s a lot of glancing and pushing and aggressive/suggestive pool cue wielding. It’s very smartly done, keeping the spirit of the song alive without directly offending any sensibilities.
Another interesting possibility raised by “Rough Boys” is the fact that on the album’s liner notes, Townshend dedicated the song to both the Sex Pistols and his children. I get the Sex Pistols. If anyone could’ve been called rough boys, they could’ve. I’m not quite sure how his two daughters fit into it. (His son Joseph wasn’t born until 1990.) But the dedication raises the idea that it’s more of a generational thing. Which makes it a song about a creepy middle-aged guy, probably married, picking up some young dude(s) in a bar for some extracurricular activities.