Sunday, 27 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #32: The Who By Numbers (1975)

The Who make their fifth entry on the chart with The Who By Numbers, described by one critic of the time as "Pete Townshend's suicide note".¹
Following the release of their second rock opera, Quadrophenia (1973), The Who embarked on a lengthy tour of the States to promote it. The tour went badly, marred by the complexity of the quadrophonic tapes which had become central to the band's set. Keith Moon's health was also becoming an issue - during a show at The Cow Palace, San Francisco in November, he collapsed on stage after taking an overdose of horse tranquilisers. With live performances rapidly curtailed, the band spent the bulk of 1974 working with Ken Russell in adapting Tommy (1969) for the big screen, this absence being interspersed with the release of the rarities album Odds And Sods, compiled by John Entwistle. As he battled with Roger Daltrey through the British press, Townshend constantly questioned The Who's continuing relevance within rock. The occassional live performances didn't help - the May euphoria of Charlton Football Ground was soon replaced with the June depression of Madison Square Garden. With rock entering a mid-life crisis and Tommy scheduled for release, Townshend went back to the drawing board in a desperate bid for reinvention.

'Slip Kid' kicks the album off, and within seconds you have cottoned on to the difference in sound. The opening is complex, with its offset cowbell and the melody which smashes through the middle of the phrase. The melody, contrary to a lot of previous Who material, has a tried-and-tested feel to it; it's not quite formulaic, but there is more emphasis put on refinement and precision and less on raw energy and power. This is perhaps reflected is Daltrey's voice which, as a result of filming Tommy, is more finely tuned, more operatic in nature. This is still a very good song, but the choice of subject matter means that it can hardly be considered a classic.

The next song, on the other hand, most certainly can. 'However Much I Booze' is sung by Townshend himself, and chronicles his helpless struggle with alcoholism. A very close subject, but don't think for a moment that this is some simpering, Cat Stevens acoustic slush. It may begin with an acoustic guitar, but the riff is jagged, and before you know what's going on Moon comes storming through the mix on the drums, supported by Entwistle's percolating bass. From then on in, this song fluctuates from the self-effacing, acrid verses to the frenzied chorus; Townshend tears into himself, the faker, the paper clown, only to consistently conclude that There ain't no way out. You don't even notice the absence of Daltrey, something which under normal circumstances would be sacrilege. Here though, Townshend manages to take a dark, eerie subject and convey precisely what he means without resorting to impossible concepts or mainstream mediocrity (a great achievement for most artists, even moreso for him).

Alas, this wave of brilliance does not last. Along comes 'Squeeze Box' and spoils everything. With its oh-so jaunty melody and tiresome, innuendo-laden lyrics, it manages to throw the whole album off course and out of kiltre. This is at heart, a run-of-the-mill 1970s pop song - cheeky, garish, ever so slightly vulgar and lacking any of the hard substance which The Who brought to rock. And of course, the banjo solo will drive you up the wall.

'Dreaming From The Waist' is more soul-searching from Townshend, this time on the subject of sex. As before, we get a fair bit of aggressive acoustic work, and as before Keith delivers with a subtly apt opening salvo. From then on in, Moon and Daltrey are duelling for dominion - Daltrey leads from the front with a swagger but Moon teasingly plays over his lines in the second half of the verses. The choruses are more subdued, but do wonders in the way of contrast. This is good stuff from The Who.

Which is more than can be said for 'Imagine A Man'. The main problem with this is that it is trying to be like the quieter sections of Tommy ('Amazing Journey', for instance). It's trying too hard, coming across as subdued, weak and overcooked whatever the good intentions surrounding it. It's a shame that a Pete Townshend song about religious belief in the face of adversity could come across as coy and twee - but that's the way it is, without any doubt.

'Success Story' is Entwistle's only contribution to this album and makes no apologies for being an old-fashioned Who song. This has none of Townshend's present self-doubt, conceptual drive or primitive urges about it; instead it is an inward-facing commentary on the band as it approached its 10th birthday. This has a real kick to it, so far matched only by 'However Much I Booze'. The lyrics are self-referencing in extremis, but amazingly, this does not scan as being self-indulgent or pretentious. Entwistle's dark humour and love of parody rescues it, turning a theoretically poor choice of subject into a starkly honest summary of the band's standings. Certainly the lines Back in the studio to make our latest number one/ Take 276, you know this used to be fun are right on the button.

'They Are All In Love' begins with the bright, airy piano of Nicky Hopkins, who also played on Who's Next (1971). But as before, the opening is deceptive, and the first verse appears harmless for reasons which soon become clear. Even the slowest student of lyrics will have cottoned on to the rich sense of irony running through this 3-minute piece - making Daltrey's disgusting raspberry all the more unnecessary. This is Townshend's self-fulfilling retort to punk, Goodbye all you punks, stay young and stay high/ Hand me my cheque book, and I'll crawl off to die. While it may seem quaint now, at the time it was an expression of Townshend's fear that 'the Who myth' would soon be assimilated by those who could not comprehend it.

'Blue, Red And Grey' is without question the strangest song on the album. It's Townshend all on his own, with only a ukelele for company, singing a song about how he likes every minute of the day - so on paper it should be rubbish. But it isn't. Somehow, Townshend has got away with a song which, under normal circumstances, would be too anodyne in its subject matter and too silkly in its execution to suit his tastes. As a result, this is not a thoroughbred Who song by any standards, but it is compelling. The lyrics may be backed by George Formby's preferred instrument of torture, but they flow so beautifully, especially when the horns come in.

'How Many Friends', in a nutshell, is the best track on the album. And it does that by offering something for everyone who has ever loved The Who. For Moon fans, the king of the drummers delivers a series of fills and flams which will resonate around your skull for weeks on end. Daltrey devotees get a commanding performance from the great man; in the verses he is tender and sensitive, perfectly capturing Townshend's self-doubt and curiosity, and in the choruses he is a prancing horse, rearing in the face of extreme paranoia and pure self-hate. Entwistle's bass burbles modestly compared to the other instruments, but turn the dial up to 11 and the man's genius is all there to reward you. And Townshend? Well, we get his most honest set of lyrics to date, coupled with a brilliant rhythm guitar part which grounds the whole piece. This is The Who as they were in their prime - raw, honest, unpredictable and therefore a wonder to behold.

The album closes with 'In A Hand Or A Face', and it's a pretty good choice. Both Moon and Entwistle are on fine form here, the former with a series of tom-tom workouts which completely fill the mix, the latter with a deep, resounding bass line which sends tingles up your spine. In the midst of the tom-toms and the tingling, Daltrey captures Townshend's bizarre ambivalence towards life and music, conveying a mix of inward-facing fear and outward-facing ferocity. In the last 45 seconds, the plughole is pulled and the band slowly fall down the drain into the heart of Townshend's despair.

That is not quite the end, though. The 1996 remaster contains three live tracks from the 'Who Put The Boot In' concert at Swansea Football Ground, recorded on June 12th 1976. Despite this being one of the high points of The Who's live career, the tracks feel tamed and compressed - you can hear every word, and every beat, but the whole thing is a bit hollow. 'Squeeze Box' features some first-rate banter from Moon - in full aristocrat mood - but there are little else which can redeem it. 'Behind Blue Eyes' is better, having been tried and tested on tour since 1971. Daltrey is in fine voice and while the guitar starts headily, eventually the whole band girds its loins and sets off on another great trek. 'Dreaming From The Waist' barely differentiates from the studio version, and feels completely unforced, so you come away feeling a bit cheated. But only a bit - it still sounds great.

The Who By Numbers is somewhere between the rock of a classic, solid Who album and the hard place of a Townshend suicide note. It is not simply the self-pitying whines of a once-great guitarist turning 30 and being mocked by his own words, I hope I die before I get old. Townshend's fear and self-hatred leach through in his lyrics, but he is clever enough not to let his personal qualms overwhelm and override the Who's own particular kind of music. Far from being a resignation and admission of obsolescence, this is a Townshend war cry, an attempt to connect with the new generation while consistently pointing out their fatal flaws. None of the macho, loud-as-jackhammers songs come across as fake, forced or impotent to any great degree. However, it is not a perfect Who album because, on a number of occassions, this ulterior motive, this secret desire of Townshend's to be relevant creeps in and corrupts the nature of the band, 'Squeeze Box' being the ideal example. Like all Townshend's later work, it is frustrating, but there are enough glimpses of brilliance on here to make this record a must-have.

3.92 out of 5

¹ John Swenson, 'The Who By Numbers Liner Notes' (London: Polydor Ltd., 1996), p.9.

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