Friday, November 21, 2008

Who 11: By Numbers

As the seventies rolled on, Pete slaved over the Tommy soundtrack, began losing his hair and—gasp!—turned 30. These were all pretty traumatic events, so he was pretty pissed off. He wrote a pile of songs that clearly illustrated his frustration with his station in life. The Who took the best of them and turned what could have been a Townshend solo album into their last good album, The Who By Numbers.
“Slip Kid” is apparently a Lifehouse demo with lyrics that sound like Quadrophenia’s Jimmy is still wandering the railway platform. “Squeeze Box” was a joke that, to Pete’s horror, the band took as their own and the public made a hit. “However Much I Booze” is an overt statement of pointlessness from its author, while “Dreaming From The Waist” takes the same basic structure but has a bit more going for it to get the frustration across. “Imagine A Man” works on several levels—apocalyptic, personal, pleading. What it actually means is vague, but Roger puts just enough into it to make it compelling.
John starts side two with “Success Story”, another sardonic look at the pitfalls of fame that fits perfectly with the themes of the rest of the album. This goes into the pretty-on-the-surface “They Are All In Love”; when you dig in you find a nasty song about said pitfalls. “Blue Red And Grey” takes Pete out on the terraces with his ukulele before wondering “How Many Friends” he’s really got. “In A Hand Or A Face” takes a riff heard earlier on the idiotic B-side “Wasp Man” and takes us down and down the drain.
It may be hard to relate to a good deal of The Who By Numbers if you can’t figure what’s made Pete so mad. But it’s a grower, with fantastic performances all around, not to mention excellent, timeless production by Glyn Johns and good old Nicky Hopkins on piano. Plus, it’s got that great cover art. After all that came later, this was a pinnacle the band has never been able to scale again. (Apparently there were no studio outtakes, so the reissued CD adds some live tracks from the era. The band still had their moments, but with Keith’s decline they couldn’t maintain the grandeur they’d enjoyed years before.)

The Who The Who By Numbers (1975)—4
1996 remaster: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks

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