Dirty Work is not a highly regarded Stones album. In fact, it often comes at the very bottom of rankings of Stones albums. Not entirely unfairly.
On the other hand, it does have its (perhaps quirky) fans – for one, eminent music writer, Robert Christgau. And, I would submit, he’s right. Now, big caveat; a considerable fraction of the interest the album accrues only counts if you are a Stones fan. Considered purely on its musical merits (as of course it should be), it is clearly nowhere near the top of the Stones‘ list of achievements. What is interesting, and what Christgau puts his finger on, is that it is the last album the Stones did before they became a nostalgia act — and I say that as someone who saw them on the Voodoo Lounge tour and really likes Blue & Lonesome. Steel Wheels, the next record, was a conscious regrouping and consolidation, partly no doubt brought on by the poor commercial and critical reception Dirty Work got (at least by Stones standards). The Stones needed a success if they were to remain a going concern. Steel Wheels clearly evolved out of Dirty Work, but it has an air of calculation that is pronounced, even by the standards of the Stones, a band known for calculation and cynicism. (Which is not to say Steel Wheels does not have its own charms.) Dirty Work, by contrast, has an air of anger and desperation, which is about as genuine a reflection of where they were at as the Stones ever committed to vinyl — and where they were at was pretty damned messy. The film clip to ‘One hit (to the body)’ shows Jagger and Richards kicking and glaring at each other. The songs have titles like ‘One hit (to the body)’, ‘Fight’, ‘Had it with you’ and ‘Dirty work’. Even the artwork is nasty.<img class="wp-image-3822 size-large" src="https://darrengoossens.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/dwcover.jpeg?w=519" alt="Cassette inlay card from Dirty Work. Pretty dirty itself.” width=”519″ height=”173″ /> Cassette inlay card from Dirty Work. Pretty dirty itself.
So all this is fascinating if you’re into the band. The lyrics of ‘Hold back’, a churning, booming rock number lacking great riffs or a great tune, read exactly like Jagger justifying his studio excursions outside the band (his She’s the Boss came out a year or two before Dirty Work, and Primitive Cool about as much later). ‘If you don’t take chances you won’t make advances’ he yells. ‘Grab opportunity while you’re alive … it’s do or dare … trust your gut reaction.’ It’s Jagger explaining why he went outside the band. ‘Fight’ begins ‘Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises‘ then gets even angrier. ‘Had it with you’ sounds like Keith complaining back at Mick, who’s always ‘shouting out instructions‘, while on ‘Dirty work’ (the song), Mick points out that for a large fraction of the 70s Keith was a passenger while Mick kept the show on the road (‘Living high sitting in the sun, sit on your ass till your work is done…’).
So, great material for the Stones’ group therapy sessions, but what about the tracks themselves? Well, the lyrics having an agenda does help propel the songs, but it is true that the tunes and riffs are weak. ‘One hit’ brings in Jimmy Page to provide the solo (what does that tell us about Ronnie?) and works well as a a latter day Stones rocker. Indeed, its rather a blueprint for Stones rockers ever since. We get ‘Harlem shuffle’ and ‘Too rude’ — 2 covers in 10 tracks; no Stones studio effort had two covers since the much longer Exile … well, I must confess I like ‘em (only one of ’em’s rock’n’roll). ‘Shuffle’ drives along nicely and doesn’t outstay its welcome, and ‘Too rude’ offers a nice change from the growling, thudding rock songs around it — it’s a growling, thudding reggae number. ‘Fight’ is competent. ‘Dirty work’ is ok, but makes a song out of fewer musical ideas than the Stones used to throw away in an outro. ‘Had it with you’ is the same, but the honking guitars, tighter song structure and Charlie’s drumming drive it nicely. On a good album it would be a little, pleasant diversion. On this one, it’s one of the better songs (if only for the focussed lyrics and concision).
The album highlight, for me, is ‘Sleep tonight’, Keith’s closing ballad. Piano-based, lyrically ambivalent but generous, it’s one of those songs that seem to get labelled ‘deep album cuts‘. Keith’s ‘All about you’ (off Emotional Rescue) and ‘How can I stop’ (Bridges to Babylon) are high points on those records. They bring a bit of heart and a change of pace. Even on a strong album, one that does not get dismissed out of hand, ‘Sleep tonight’ would be in the top couple of tracks. Here, it is probably the outstanding composition (as distinct from bunch of riffs) on the record. Maybe it’s for Anita Pallenberg, I don’t know; but it’s a lovely track. I like ‘One hit’ and ‘Sleep tonight’ better than anything on Undercover, the preceding album, and I find myself listening to this record more often than Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge, both far more commercially and critically successful works.
Amidst the desperation and anger and threats, there’s a glimpse of something real and human that all too often the Stones, especially Jagger with his cliché-ridden lyrics, fail to approach.
Plus, it ends with a little of Ian Stewart’s boogie woogie piano. I like that too. Next I’m gonna get Boogie 4 Stu.
It’s the mid 90s. Blur’s last album was Parklife. There’s a press beat-up pitting them against Oasis. The Great Escape first gets rave reviews and then there’s a backlash, some critics even repudiate their earlier laudatory comments. Blah blah blah.
Who cares? Let’s look at the album free of that context. It’s pretty good, but it’s not great. There are some really neat tunes on it — first ‘Country House’ and second ‘Charmless Man’, but they’re not alone. There are some songs that drag. There are quite a few that seem to shout at you between bursts of loud music-y noise. There’s one or two that are kind of touching (‘Yuko and Hiro’, ‘He Thought of Cars’) and a bunch that have a slightly judgemental, superior edge; not that some of the targets don’t earn it (‘Mr Robinson’s Quango’). It’s as if on Parklife Albarn was looking at ‘us (himself included)’ but here he’s looking at ‘them’, except it’s all too easy to be one of ‘them’ from his point of view. It’s witty, it’s tuneful, in some places it’s heartfelt, if sad or disappointed (I do like ‘The Universal’) but there’s a critical distance which gives the lyrical content a jaundiced edge and makes it an odd match for something that was so firmly categorised as pop (Well, Britpop) that it came to embody the term. It sounds like pop music, but the lyrics are not aiming to be popular. They’re not even aiming to be likeable. They are in general admirable (incisive, witty, that sort of thing), but I’m left with the impression of a librettist who’s a bit of a whiner.
Still, I’d not want to be without half a dozen of these tracks. Knocking it back to 10 or 11 tracks might have been a good idea, keeping it a little tighter; but I suspect no two listeners would agree on which 4 or 3 tracks to cut.
Goats Head Soup is a strange album. After what must have felt like eternity putting Exile together in Keith’s basement, who could blame the Stones for retreating to Jamaica and knocking out ten tracks pretty quickly? They were coming off one of the great runs in popular music history, four studio albums and their best live album, a dozen sides that have a permanent pace in rock history. And then it was job done, I reckon, ‘cos this album sure sounds like they weren’t too fussed. It’s all over the place. So much so that the only way to look at it is track by track. So here they are:
1. Dancing With Mr D
2. 100 Years Ago
3. Coming Down Again
4. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
6. Silver Train
7. Hide Your Love
9. Can You Hear the Music
10. Star Star
1. Dancing With Mr D
Starts with a certain slow menace, and then goes on and on and wears out its welcome. When you listen to the opener on Exile, ‘Rocks Off’, there’s just so much music and musicality in the first minute. Here there’s one or two ideas and they’re stretched out to five minutes. Hit the skip button? At least half the time.
2. 100 Years Ago
This one is like they had bits of three or four songs and just concatenated them to make one. It’s not boring. It starts off kind of jaunty and tuneful, then loses me when Mick tells me to call him ‘lazy bones’ before heading into some pretty much unconnected jam. Kind of entertaining, but not really a song as such. I like the bit about ‘bad red wine’. Hit the skip button? When I’m impatient.
3. Coming Down Again
‘Being hungry, it ain’t no crime’, Keith sings. Unless maybe you’re hungry for a hit of smack and your prioritizing of drugs over music is causing you to let your band-mates down… Having said that, he’s not singing about that kind of hunger in that song, and this is one of three pretty good slower tracks on the album. It feels like it was composed rather than flanged together. First track on the album that suggests maybe it’s not going to be a complete waste of time. Hit the skip button? Not usually.
4. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
Groovy funky doo doo doo doo doo etc. First track with a bit of energy, and one of only three on the whole album. A pretty solid second single, and really the only candidate. The menace here is kind of theoretical where on ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘Midnight Rambler’ it was actually felt, but the song comes along just in time to raise the pulse just enough to get you through the next track. Hit the skip button? Rarely if ever.
The big single. I read somewhere this album has sold more than 6 million copies. More than Exile, more than Beggar’s Banquet. And a big #1 hit is exactly (and solely) why. Radio play gets the sales to go beyond the fanbase. ‘Angie’ is a great tune. Not exactly fun. Nothing so far has been lyrically uplifting. Even ‘100 Years Ago’ suggests it’s sometimes wise to not grow up. But the tune is lovely and the vocals a good example of Jagger’s mannered delivery at its best. Hit skip? Rarely.
6. Silver Train
This is like lite imitation of a typical Exile track. ‘All Down the Line’ being the obvious one. The guitars honk away nicely and Jagger slurs his way through lyrics about anonymous sex, good solid Stones subject matter. Vocal hooks, a chunky tune, non-negative subject matter. One of the better ones. Hit skip? Nope.
7. Hide Your Love
I listened to this two days ago and I can hardly remember anything about it except that I was keen for it to end. This is one of (at least) three tracks that seem to have been stuck on to get the track listing up to 10 and the play time up over 40 minutes, the other two being ‘100 Years Ago’ and ‘Can You Hear the Music’. Skip? Yes.
This is the third tuneful, carefully-composed ballad n the album. Nice guitar work from Mick Taylor, well aimed vocal from Jagger. Cheerful? Well, it’s gonna be a long hot summer and the light of love will be burning bright, so it’s not all bad. Skip? Only if you’re after the danceable ones.
9. Can You Hear the Music
Man, what is this crap? Some kind of rehabilitated reject from Satanic Majesties? I can’t hear much music worth hearing on this track. Skip? How fast can I hit the button?
10. Star Star
The famously rude song that is called ‘Starfucker’ on bootlegs. Energy! Riffs! Humour! Good god, are we on the same album? Yes, it’s rude and kind of cheesy, but it’s also a rollicking rock ‘n’ roll song in the Chuck Berry tradition. Skip? Not usually.
So where does that leave us? Three rejects, plus ‘Mr D’ which is on the cusp, and half a dozen solid tracks, half ballads. Of these, ‘Angie’ is the only one in the Stones canon. Stacked up against the previous four albums of course it comes up short. But most albums by most acts would. Tackled 40+ years later, free of context, it’s really not bad. There are flashes of the brilliance of years before, as indeed there have been ever since. It is better than the album after it, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, which probably has fewer dogs on it but is more consistently mediocre. Does anyone but a Stones fan ‘need’ it? (I say ‘need’ in quotes because nobody needs pop songs to live.) No, but it’s worth a listen. I’m rather a fan of Keith’s vocal efforts, and ‘Coming Down Again’ is a good one. I listen to it more than I thought I would. Well, I listen to around 65% of it, anyway.
This album makes it pretty clear that Bill was not churning out a stream of brilliant songs that Jagger and Richards were suppressing to protect their own fragile egos. Having said that, the Stones album nearest in time to this — Undercover — is hardly a masterpiece. None of the songs here would fit well with the tone of that Stones album, but they might improve it for colour and entertainment value.
Bill has pretty much nothing to say, and says it using repetitive, squelchy synthesisers and flat, low-key vocals that at least don’t try to be actual singing. There are some decent tunes and the odd amusing phrase.
In ‘Rio De Janeiro’ we get ‘it’s the gateway to South America’, as if he’s lifted the words straight out of a holiday brochure (which he did — the song says so). ‘Nuclear Reactions’ is a bizarre yet somewhat entertaining litany of cosmology terminology, like he’s done cut-ups but from a physics textbook (‘…quasar, pulsar … neutron star… X-ray source’) (at least he says ‘nuclear’ correctly — ‘new-clear’ not ‘new-cu-lar’. I mean, how do you get that from ‘nuclear’?) while in ‘Come Back Suzanne’ he is either being appallingly sexist — entirely possible — or he’s lost his favourite cleaning lady, as he ‘sings’
‘Cause the kitchen needs cleaning and the dishes in the sink
The clothes need washing and the washer’s broken down…
and on it goes. Every review I have ever read of this album uses the word ‘bizarre’. And of course it all reaches its apotheosis with the chart hit (number 14 in the UK!) ‘(Si Si) Je Suis un Rock Star’. It is a story about picking up a Brazilian woman and trying to get to his villa in the south of France but BEA is on strike and maybe they could take a hovercraft. At one point he notes, ‘They’ll think I’m your dad / And you’re my daughter’. It’s worth a look on You-tube, if nothing else, and if the idea of an album of this plus nine other songs like it but not quite as good is attractive, then this is the album for you.
What is there to say about this album? Contemporary with the Stone Roses making one epochal album and disappearing into legal limbo for six years, the La’s made one epochal album and disappeared completely. Stories abound about front man Lee Mavers and his obsessions with perfection. Did he really insist that he wanted a mixing console with ‘genuine 1960s dust’ on it? I don’t know. Did the band record some of the tracks repeatedly, trying to create the sound Mavers heard in his head? Probably. Is ‘There She Goes’ a drug song? Yes. Is ‘Timeless Melody’ one of the most brilliant tracks ever recorded anywhere by anyone? Yes.
As I understand it it was assembled by Steve Lillywhite from the detritus of numerous recording sessions, none of which were definitive enough for the band. The record company stepped in and insisted that an album be put together, and it was.
The result is an album that is essential for any fan of tuneful guitar pop. There are at least half a dozen great little tunes, and only a couple that drag at all — even if the band apparently complained that they had played badly, possibly on purpose because they did not really want to work with Lillywhite, just so that it would not get released….what a mess it ought to be! I recall a quote — I think it was Eric Temple Bell — who in his book Men of Mathematics said something like, ‘It takes two to make a masterpiece; one to paint it and another to shoot the painter when it is done’. And similarly, a work of art is, Da Vinci apparently said, never finished, only abandoned. Mavers needed help abandoning this album, and quite possibly never wanted it released.
But he’d struck a deal with a record company, and eventually it found its way into the public consciousness. And this is one occasional when I am glad that the creator did not get the final say, because even if this record is not exactly what he wanted it to be, it’s a bloody good listen.
Tony Hancock was a very good comic actor. Galton and Simpson were even more elite in their own field of comedy writing. Time was to show that Hancock needed Galton and Simpson more than they needed him — they went on to even more world-famous successes, like Steptoe and Son (the seed of Sanford and Son in the US), whereas Hancock went on to do some good material, especially on his TV show, but the scripts were not as consistency funny or heartfelt and his career, it might be asserted, started to slip from the time they parted.
This is a recording from the radio show, which pre-dated and then ran alongside his earlier TV work. It is indeed by Galton and Simpson, and it has the more expansive cast of the radio show — with Bill Kerr, the Australian who did not make it onto the TV shows, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams and Sid James. As I recall as Hancock went along he became more and more paranoid about his co-stars betting too much attention, and the cast was slimmed down until we have episodes like ‘The Radio Ham’ which are essentially Hancock in a room.
And what a cast! All of them were leads in their own shows at different times. It’s like a supergroup of radio comedy.
But I have to focus on ‘A Sunday Afternoon at Home’. Except I have mentioned it previously. But I’ll have a rant anyway…
In the US Bob the Builder is dubbed, when the original is in English! I do find this odd. We don’t get Bob saying ‘stone the crows it hot in here today’ in Australia. We get Neil Morrissey. It can’t be that people in the US can’t understand any kind of English that is not ‘American’ English, surely? Or are they troubled by things not their own? And then they cast Hugh Laurie as House in that show, House, and his accent was so good the producer apparently did not even know he was English — Hugh Laurie, a man who had been on TV for more than 10 years before House was made, who had had his own comedy shows on the BBC, co-starred in Black Adder and a bunch of other programs and been in a useful handful of movies. Does the rest of the world not even exist once you go south of Canada? I do not get it. Well, really I do; the USA is so big, so resplendent in its own vast panoply of creative talent, there’s no need to look outside, and what comes in from outside is a small fraction of the total market. It’s easy to be ignorant of the rest of the world when you are the dominant force. It’s actually not unreasonable that the bulk of the population sees the rest of the world as impinging only slightly; but actual TV executive have no such excuse. The raging ignorance of people inside the industry is weird. And even if they did not know Laurie was not a Yank, did they not even look him up? He’s not exactly invisible. Which brings me to Seinfeld. Let me outline what happens in ‘A Sunday Afternoon at Home’ as recorded on the record I am talking about: nothing. It is a show about nothing. Remind you of anything? Yes, except it was made in about 1960. More, you have four essentially self-centred, annoying characters entertaining themselves by being annoying to each other. Remind you of anything? Yes, and yet the people behind Seinfeld have said they knew nothing about Hancock. If they did know they’re lying and if they didn’t they’re insular and parochial.
Anyway, this is funny, both sides and even the copy on the back. It is witty, inventive, and performed with a keen ear for a laugh. It is peak radio Hancock, which is comedy of a high order. Uncle Bert and Auntie Edie would agree.
So far I have avoided covering the same artist twice, but I’m going to have to talk about Let it Bleed now, because I’ve got to talk about something.
This is probably my favourite Stones album. I’m not sure it’s their best, and I’ve grown kind of tired of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, but an album consisting of nothing but ‘Gimme Shelter’ and thirty minutes of white noise would still be better than most of what they’ve put out since Exile, so I’m not complaining. It’s got one of Keith’s best vocals in ‘You Got the Silver’, a classic example of a Stones track that nobody much knows because it was never a single. It’s got ‘Monkey Man’ which is kind of nonsense by is also just wall to wall Keith riff-o-rama, with a guitar that could slice up asphalt. It’s got ‘Country Honk’ which is a kind of hoe-down version of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and might be awful or might not be. The fiddle works beautifully, and indicates the almost magical sense of what would work that they seem to have had at the time. From Merry Clayton’s vocal on ‘Gimme Shelter’, with it’s famous crack in her voice that they were wise enough to keep (the desperation it conveys!) to their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’, their judgement (or Jimmy Miller’s judgement, I don’t know) is almost perfect. It’s funky, it’s dirty, it’s groovy, it’s fearsome (‘Midnight Rambler’ as well as ‘Gimme Shelter’), it’s tuneful, Jagger even writes some lyrics he seems to care about (here and there, anyway); I don’t know if it is their ‘best’ album, but it is the best edition of what the Stones could do. Famously, Brian was on his way out and Mick Taylor not yet come in, and this is the Stones album with Keith playing a lot of lead guitar. And he rips it apart. This is where to go to find out what he could do. Maybe that’s partly because it was near the beginning of his heroin odyssey rather than in the depths of it, I don’t know, but it is one awesome album.
It’s a pity they (Jagger and Richards) then go and do petty things like calling ‘Love in Vain’ “trad., arr. Jager & Richard”, presumably so they don’t have to share royalties with Johnson’s heirs. But then, even that just adds to how in so many ways this album the quintessential, essential Stones.
Get hold of it and turn it up.
Back when the long-lamented independent record label Candle Records was still functioning, punting out great indy-pop by bands like Ruck Rover and the Lucksmiths, the work of The Small Knives found its way onto samplers and Candle’s 10th Anniversary DVD. Here I found The Small Knives, whose understated, tuneful guitar songs were beguiling if at times a little too understated.
Smoke and Ribbons is their second, and to my knowledge last, release. It and its predecessor, Rain on Tin do not differ greatly. They centre on the twin guitars of Phil Romeril and Leo Mullins, supported (on some songs) by a more full band sound.
The songs are tuneful, mostly. Some of them are, to be honest, rather too slow for my liking unless I am in a very relaxed, rather contemplative mood. More up-tempo numbers include ‘Hey!’, ‘Easter Everywhere’ (with distinctly religious overtones), ‘Turnaround’ and to an extent the nostalgic and evocative ‘Summer’; but these are hardly going to induce a rush of adrenaline to the head. They’re mid-tempo themselves, which is as fast as anything gets.
But many of the tunes are beautiful, the instrumentation varied but understated, the lyrics interesting and occasionally arresting. I find that I’m not often in the mood for these records, but when I am feeling like letting some songs wash over me on a quiet afternoon, then nothing else will do quite as well.
Also, the albums are available from Plastic Viking Helmet Records as physical albums and as downloads, and the downloads are pretty cheap compared to iTunes and similar (A$7.00 for the whole record, which is only about US$5.00 at the moment). PVH, run, I vaguely recall, by one the the guys from the Small Knives, is worth a look if you like guitar-y wordy-pop. They host releases from the likes of Rob Clarkson (who was in Ruck Rover for a while and whose Zone One and Shirts and Skins are both worth a listen), Richard Easton, and Anthony Atkinson; and The Guild League, the side-project band formed by Lucksmiths front man Tali White. These are ‘musts’ if you are a Luckys listener.
How good were the Sports? That’s rhetorical; they were brilliant. I completely believe that if they had been English they would have been huge in the late 70s, up there with Elvis Costello and other big new wave acts. Or maybe not, given how their experiences in America worked out (their single ‘Who Listens to the Radio’ made the charts there, but they failed to capitalise…). Anyway, while this album does not have that hit on it, nor ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ which was probably their second most famous song, it is a better album that Don’t Throw Stones, and a must for anyone who likes snappy guitar rock with odd (though not always heartfelt) lyrics and perfect tunes.
The Sports began in Melbourne in the later 70s, growing out of a bunch of Melbourne acts, meaning that every member was already a pub rock pro by the time they started. The initial line-up had Ed Bates on one guitar and Andrew Pendlebury on the other, but after the first album Bates left and Martin Armiger came in; thus formed the definitive version of the Sports. In total the band released four LPs (all excellent, but this one the best, I think) plus a couple of EPs and a belated live album (Missing Your Kissing) which is hard to find.
On the original LP the cover was die-cut, with sort of louvres in it, which always got damaged. That explains the off look of the CD cover, which is pretty ordinary.
‘Strangers on a Train’ is probably the most well-known song here, but the album takes off with disciplined energy right from the start. The band races through a bunch of three minute pop-rock songs as if they’ve got to get the riffs and tunes out before their arms explode. ‘Murmurs’, ‘Go’ and ‘Suddenly’ border on the frenetic. ‘Oh Mama No’ veers into territory similar to the Who’s ‘I’m A Boy’ (‘Everybody knows/Even when I keep my pants on/I’m gonna get arrested some day…No, mama, no, don’t make me wear that dress tonight’), while ‘The Lost and the Lonely’ makes the best use of a theremin in popular music since the Beach Boys. It is an ode to the late night lonely hearts requests radio announcer — ‘there’s a letter from a mother of three, she wants to hear Gene Pitney, she’s got to hear Gene Pitney’. I love the hint of suburban, housebound desperation wrapped up in just that one little lyric — it’s like poetry in how much it packs in . ‘I Tried to Love Her’ (‘but she’s a lunatic’) adds a little more humour. The overall vibe is one of inner city relationships between grown-ups who kind of know each other lie but can take it. So there’s irony, there’s cleverness, there’s a little feeling, but it is anything but confessional.
I can’t list my favourites. The only track I ever even consider skipping is ‘It Hurts’.
This is my number one album when I want to be picked up and forced to enjoy the beat. A tight, professional band playing great, unpretentious tunes with consummate skill, never hanging around long enough top get boring, never indulging themselves. It’s commercial guitar pop/rock at it’s best.
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.