The Who – The Who By Numbers

The Who By Numbers (1975)


1. Slip Kid 2. However Much I Booze 3. Squeeze Box 4. Dreaming From The Waist 5. Imagine A Man 6. Success Story 7. They Are All In Love 8. Blue, Red And Grey 9. How Many Friends 10. In A Hand Or A Face


Well, in 1975, it had been ten years since Pete Townshend penned the line he is probably most remembered by: “Hope I die before I get old.” And he wasn’t dead yet. But he sure as hell sounded like he wished he was. Geez, Pete, is turning 30 really as awful as you make it sound? Do you automatically become a balding, sexually impotent, alcoholic fucknose who hates everybody, including yourself? Thank golly I still have my youth and boyish good looks (evidence here). I’ve still got a few good years left before I end up like stinky old Pete, who for the past 37 years has been angrily windmilling his fist in the direction of the the retirement home nurses who forget to mash up his meatloaf in the food processor before they give it to him. You can’t blame him – he’s had to gum all his food down since all his teeth started to rot following the release of the “Substitute” single!

Aw, I shouldn’t be so flippant. Pete is, of course, neurotic as hell, and has suffered at least one nervous breakdown in his life, and it’s understandable that turning the big three-oh could have triggered an emotional crisis. He was the (more or less self-appointed) Voice of the Disaffected Youth, after all, and the realization that he was getting older and maybe losing touch with his original source of inspiration must have been pretty scary for the guy. Maybe these are the reasons why, in the case of By Numbers, listening to a rich, pampered rock star bitch and moan about how much his life sucks for 45 minutes isn’t an insufferable practice. In fact, said bitching and moaning is hard hitting and, surprisingly, endearing.

By Numbers sees Pete stripping himself absolutely bare – and not just lyrically, but musically, too. He’s ditched the synths completely, leaving the Who to forge on almost exclusively with only the standard guitar/bass/drums/vocals instrumentation for the first time since the pre-Tommy days. There’s lotsa Nicky Hopkins piano, too, which is always a treat – there are a couple of ballads on here where Nicky practically singlehandedly saves the arrangements from total dullness (I’m thinking of “They Are All In Love” and “Imagine A Man”). Don’t worry, the band still sounds great. John’s playing, as always, rules my ass; Roger’s singing remains strong; drug and alcohol abuse are clearly starting to take their toll on Keith but he still provides a few thrilling fills; and Pete’s guitar work is crisp and splendid – on most of these songs, he combines his usual rubber-wristed acoustic strumming with the most dextrous lead guitar lines of his career. You know, like, traditional classic rock lead guitar closer to something Eric Clapton would play than Pete’s usual rhythm-based power chording. It certainly sets By Numbers apart from any other Who album from a guitar standpoint. But the band’s newly adopted absolutely no frills arrangement approach makes it pretty clear that Pete’s riffs are sounding more and more like retreads, and his melodies are getting less and less creative (Pete’s own assessment is that he’s “recycling trash”). This becomes fairly evident on tunes like the uptempo “Dreaming From The Waist” (which admittedly has a very pretty chorus) and “How Many Friends,” which barely have a distinguishable riff or vocal hook between them. This assures that the central focus is on the lyrics, which are almost all about what it’s like to be a depressed rock star.

However, the album starts out–one could say misleadingly–with the Lifehouse leftover “Slip Kid.” With its strutting rhythm in eight, its tight, pounding piano riff, and its typically Who-ish lyrics about the generational divide, the songs sees the band sounding like their usual confident, brash selves. That is, until the song recedes into a softer, resigned sounding coda: “no easy way to be free.” That’s barely a taste of what’s to come. And what’s to come becomes clearly evident a few seconds later when the next song, “However Much I Booze,” starts up and Pete embarks on five minutes of brutal self-flagellation (Roger, understandably, refused to sing it). Paradoxically set to a bouncy, giddy rhythm and abetted by a super catchy country jig-type guitar lick, lines like “I see myself on TV, I’m a faker/A paper clown/It’s clear to all my friends that I habitually lie/I just bring them down” and  “I just can’t face my failure/I’m nothing but a well-fucked sailor” cut uncomfortably and provocatively close to the bone. And it sure as hell doesn’t end there. “They Are All In Love,” like “Booze,” boasts a severe, and interesting, contrast between the music and lyrics – ballads as stately and lilting as this one don’t often feature lyrics as raw as, “Hey, goodbye all you punks, stay young and stay high/Hand me my checkbook, and I’ll crawl off to die” (not to mention the best line on the album: “Where do you fit in PFFFT magazine/Where the past is the hero and the present a queen?” Haha. Nicely done, Rog).

Certainly, Pete’s writing in these songs is personal to the point of total narcissism. There’s absolutely no filter here. I mean, in “How Many Friends,” he writes a line about how the other members of the Who piss him off, and then has Roger sing it: “When I first signed a contract/It was more than a handshake then, I know it still is/But here’s a plain fact/We talk so much shit behind each other’s backs, I get the willies.” So what exactly separates By Numbers from a 14-year old’s diary? Basically, just the fact that Pete Townshend wrote it. And that’s more than enough for me. Few of us are able to be as honest with ourselves as Pete is here about the distinctly adult issues he’s dealing with. Even fewer of us are able to verbalize them in a way that feels human and real. Not that I’m going to argue that Pete’s privileged whining is totally relatable to the average JoeBob PlumberPants, but… yeah, I am. Who, in our lowest moments, hasn’t felt like “they are all in love” except us, hasn’t lamented, “I don’t care what you say, boy/There ain’t no way out,” hasn’t wondered, “How many friends have I really got/You can count ‘em on one hand.” I’ve always felt a particular affinity for Pete in “Dreaming From The Waist,” in which he fantasizes about letting his id loose, before admitting that “I know it’s all hot air/I’ll get back to that rocking chair.” Maybe I didn’t “break out of the house” as much as I could have when I was younger. Well, shit, I still have another year left of college. That’s more than enough time to stock up on crazy memories.

Unfortunately, all this sad sack shit was never going to fly on the radio, so of course the hit single was “Squeeze Box,” a really stupid pop song about, um… an accordion (it’s not actually about an accordion). It’s also catchy as balls. It was also made roughly 50 times better by its hilarious appearance on Freaks And Geeks (“I think that’s… in and out!”). Most people hate this song, but lighten the fuck up, most people. True to form, John also injects a sense of humor into the proceedings with his sarcastic rocker “Success Story,” which manages to be both wicked funny and to fit right in with the “bitter old rock star” POV that Pete’s shilling on the rest of the album: “Back in the studio to make our latest number one/Take two-hundred and seventy-six, you know this used to be fun.”

But the album’s most stunning anomaly comes in much more subdued form. “Blue, Red And Grey” is an obvious departure from usual Who fare musically – it’s just Pete strumming a ukulele and crooning sweetly as an ethereal brass section plays softly in background, seemingly bleeding through from a far off New Orleans funeral. But it also stands in stark contrast to Pete’s lyrical themes on the rest of the album – it’s nothing more then a simple ode to how gosh darn nice it is just to be alive. “I love every minute of the day?” Since when? But its placement on this album just makes it all the more effective. Life is beautiful, no matter how bad it sometimes gets. Or something. And the song is without a doubt one of the loveliest Pete has ever written. And, honestly, one of the loveliest songs anyone has ever written. Even though there’s no oxford comma in the title. That’s some grammatical bullshit.

One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    Jack used to think it was “squeak box” until I informed him that it was “squeeze box” and that it meant vagina.

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