An album a week #10: “The Who By Numbers” by The Who
Pete Townshend himself once (in his autobiography, I think) declared Quadrophenia the last great Who album. Since (apart from the semirandom B-sides and rarities collection Odds & Sods) The Who By Numbers was the very next Who album, that clearly makes it less than great. Well, I guess if you like your Who to be bombastic stadium rock (like Quad and Who’s Next) then that is true. No, that’s not fair; it’s true anyway. This is not a great album. But it is an interesting and oddly beguiling one.
Townshend is responsible for nine of the ten tracks, Entwistle for ‘Success Story’ which, despite some rather ‘first world problems’ whining about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (‘Away for the weekend/We gotta play some one night stands/Six for the tax man and one for the band’ and ‘Back in the studio to make our latest number 1/Take 276, you know is used to be fun’) ends up as one of the more affirmatory tracks on the disc.
Townshend veers all over the place. Self-flagellation and paranoia (‘However Much I Booze’, ‘How Many Friends’, ‘In a Hand or a Face’, ‘Dreaming From the Waist’), tuneful dirty jokes (‘Squeezebox’) and middle aged ennui (though Townshend was only 30 at the time, he’d already done his nostalgia trip on Quad, so in the accelerated world of the jaded pop star was embarking on his mid-life crisis) (‘Imagine a Man’ and to some extent ‘Slip Kid’).
Despite the weird mix of teenagerish angst and mid-life crisis in the lyrics, the sense of someone who knows they should be on top of the world but has not become who they wanted to be, the album works for me and I think it is because of the music. ‘Slip Kid’ is a part of the Lifehouse jigsaw puzzle that never came together, and is as good as most of Who’s Next and decidedly less pompous than some of it. ‘Dreaming From the Waist’ ends with an Entwistle bass solo that shows why his playing was and is so highly regarded. Acoustic guitars, crunchy electric guitars, lead bass, that Entwistle sound on ‘Success Story’ that sounds like a truck, piano-y ballads, it’s all here, and the tunes are top-notch, so the album has a nice varied texture. We get the ukulele-driven ‘Blue, Red and Grey’ which is a tiny masterpiece that could be about enjoying the little things but might be someone reflecting on life before the jump off a bridge. Daltrey was at his peak; having stretched himself in unexpected ways on his solo albums, be brought that lightness of touch to songs like ‘Imagine a Man’, whose vocal sound follows on from Daltrey more than from any Who album.
The cover — I vaguely recall an interview with Entwistle where he said that the cover for Quadrophenia, with its booklet of B&W pictures, text, clever reflections in the scooter’s mirrors and so on, has cost something like £30,000 (I wonder what a house cost in 1973), whereas By Numbers cost about 30 quid. Along with Shilo by Neil Diamond, I am guessing it is the most scribbled-on album cover in history.
So what we have is a somewhat depressed mishmash of an album, lit by flashes of unexpected humour and instrumentation, and still interesting because the four people at the middle of it all were so brilliant together despite themselves. But I rather suspect it is also one for the fans rather than the casual listener…
If you’ve tasted The Who and found them bombastic and blokish, this album might be interesting. If you don’t like the more confessional, self-medicating style of song writing, it is definitely not for you. If you like The Who but have skipped this one because it has on it none of their more famous tracks, give it a go.