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The Who - By Numbers CD (album) cover


The Who



3.51 | 220 ratings

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4 stars I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity (Tom Stoppard)

We should perhaps be eternally thankful that the young Pete Townshend overreached himself so spectacularly on both Tommy and Quadrophenia as the Who's legacy, richer in so many other neglected areas, rests stubbornly upon these two deeply flawed but prescient documents.

In 1975 Pete was 30, wealthier than beyond the wildest dreams of avarice, adored and loathed in equal measure by millions as the quintessential angry young man of British rock, (he wouldn't have wished it any other way, as up to that point, Townshend was always colour blind to shades of grey)

But inside By Numbers we meet a reluctant maturity being wedded to his habitual arrogant scorn for all things venerable and unchanging. Rock's enfant terrible had now grown out of all his smashed toys, was married, had responsibilities, suffered from a crippling self doubt and had a drink problem the size of Lance Armstrong's medicine cabinet. His cohorts in the Who by this stage had succumbed to the posturing adopted by those with nothing more to offer than appeasing the confirmation bias of their most sceptical critics. The three 'artisans' in the band had appeared as cartoon characters long before Entwistle contributed his caricature artwork to the sleeve or their guest appearance in the Simpsons.

Daltrey - Rock's strutting stud stallion, a prototype 'bono vox' that despite a golden mane of curls above a torso resembling that of Palitoy's 'Action Man', did not appear capable of coaxing a single creative thought from that lantern jawed orifice of his. A fine singer nevertheless, but Roger's contribution was tantamount to textural only.

Entwistle - A very gifted bass player whose style and sound, if removed from their output, would certainly diminish the uniqueness of the Who. He also penned the odd decent comedic song from time to time e.g Boris the Spider and My Wife but judging by his wretched solo career, I suspect he was really a closet metal fan all the time.

Moon - The back seat passenger who chucks his cookies over the front seat of everyone's car. Keith was a professional eccentric first and a very sloppy drummer second. His whole pitiful existence appears to be entirely apocryphal, with it's only justification being the number of stories his survivors could milk from his sad and increasingly desperate cries for help. Although still capable of some decent timekeeping and grooves in 1975, his contribution thereafter strayed perilously close to the self parody of Animal in the Muppets.

Townshend called a halt to the Who's touring activities in 1974 and when they reconvened to Shepperton Studios to record this album, the results were not quite what everyone was expecting. Gone were the huge gestures and sweeping rhetoric of the earlier concept works and replaced with a much humbler and introspective sonic landscape which alienated many Who fans at the time. The grandiose plots and boyish blasphemies were conspicuous by their absence and the band sounded leaner and considerably more circumspect than their previous stellar success would give anyone sufficient cause to anticipate

As a self-proclaimed 'successfull young man' Pete Townshend was learning that in life, all is not black and white and that despite his material success, his own sense of worth was consumed by loneliness, despair, guilt, paranoia and self-loathing:

Now the walls are all clawed and scratched Like by some soul insane In the morning I humbly detach myself I take no blame I just can't face my failure I'm nothing but a well f*cked sailor

Just like the rest of us, even aging rock stars struggle to forge meaningful romantic relationships and the ravages of time do not sanction any armistice for the great, the good and the balding:

I know the girls that I pass, they just ain't impressed I'm too old to give up, but too young to rest

Synchronicity is a curious thing to be sure, as we have here a songwriter at one of his creative peaks while his own personal cosmos was crumbling around his brandy addled head. Even if Townshend does believe in a cosmic architect in the form of his guru Meher Baba, even Pete must concede that the latter has a hell of a dry sense of humour.

Imagine the sand Running out as he struts parading and fading ignoring his wife

Take one part paranoia, two parts self-loathing and mix with brandy (serve chilled)

He likes the clothes I wear He says he likes a man who's dressed in season But no-one else ever stares, he's being so kind, what's the reason?

What we have here are ten beautifully crafted and executed songs that illustrate it was possible for rock's 1st generation fledgling adults to surmount their flagging youth and take an art form into middle age and beyond with their dignity and credibility intact. Compare this record with To Hell and Back (In the First Class Compartment) offerings from the likes of the gothic 'Punch', Alice Cooper, and you can readily appreciate that Townshend shares with perhaps only Ray Davies, that rare intuition to recognise the right time to hand over the torch to the next generation of six string nay-sayers. The breast beating is over, the calls to arms went unheeded (We were fooled again and again and again....Where Have All the Good Times Gone?)

The Golden Rule - Those who have the gold, make the rules. T'was ever thus......

Perhaps the two most attractive features on first acquaintance with this record are the unfailingly inspired guitar work of Pete Townshend throughout and the piano contributions of Nicky Hopkins. Those of you old enough to remember his delicious ivory work on the Stones Beggars Banquet album will testify to Hopkins abilities as a player. On Slip Kid there is a wonderful trilling motif underneath the sung title that is both haunting and unnerving. As far as 'Prog' goes, this number is probably the one that will be of most interest to visitors to this site, as the structure and instrumentation is quite complex in comparison to the normal Who fare. Despite that, there is a wealth of great playing, singing and sounds to enjoy throughout this record, and of all the 'bread and butter' Who albums available, this is surely the strongest and most even.

From the beautiful acoustic ballad Imagine a Man (an elder and wiser sibling to Behind Blue Eyes) through the strident and declamatory How Many Friends via the ukulele and brass band whimsy of Blue Red and Grey Townshend exhibits an unwavering command of all manner of songwriting styles and even Entwistle's slight but entertaining Success Story is worth some of your time. There are even those amongst us who profess to loathe the single Squeezebox but as a slice of British 'nudge nudge wink wink' tomfoolery, I love it to bits and let's face it, even Brain Salad Surgery had Benny the Bouncer innit?

Hope that I Get Old Before I Die (They Might Be Giants)

ExittheLemming | 4/5 |


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