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The Who - By Numbers CD (album) cover


The Who



3.51 | 196 ratings

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4 stars By the time a man gets to be in my age bracket surprises come fewer and farther between. But finally discovering how good "The Who by Numbers" is after all these decades is not only a surprise but a shocking revelation for this Who fan. Allow me to explain. In the mid 70s I conceitedly thought my taste in music had grown to be so sophisticated that rock groups of this ilk (that I once adored) were beneath me and only spectacular, flashy bands like The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were worth my notice. What a snobbish, idiotic dolt I had become! The truth is that right under my upturned nose this talented foursome was continuing to challenge themselves and their audience with involved songs that were introspective and relevant not only in terms of their own lives, but also in the life of the generation they heralded. So don't make the mistake that I made for entirely too long and wrongly identify this album solely with "Squeeze Box," the overplayed piece of pop fluff that became its vanguard. Inside its cartoon wrapper lays a wealth of treasure. It contains strong tunes that rank right up there with their best and proggers would be just as foolish as I was to overlook it. There's a lot of prog going on here, just not the kind that you're used to hearing.

The opener, "Slip Kid," sports an undeniably infectious groove built atop a unique percussion loop and features a sharp, dynamic arrangement to die for. Guest Nicky Hopkins' piano, Roger Daltrey's boisterous vocal performance and Pete Townshend's intricate guitar work (including some tasteful controlled feedback) make this a stellar track all the way through. Lyrically Pete is preaching to the younger rock & rollers following in his footsteps, doling out unsolicited advice about how "There's no easy way to be free" but the slap in the face comes on the bridge when they answer him with a curt "Keep away, old man/you won't fool me/you and your history won't rule me/you might have been a fighter/but admit you failed/I'm not affected by your blackmail..." Townshend candidly acknowledges his feelings of irrelevance here and this naked, humbling self-appraisal is a harbinger of what the tone of most of the album will be.

"However Much I Booze" is a case in point. Never before had The Who painted a song canvas with more contrast as the cheerful, uplifting music stands in stark opposition to the dark harshness of the words being sung. Pete's light, happy finger-picking belies the gut-punch impact of his emotion-filled vocal, especially during the brilliant middle eight section when he confesses ".the night comes down like a cell door closing/suddenly I realize that I'm right now/I'm on the scene/while sitting here all alone with a bottle/and a head a-floating/far away from the phone/and the conscience going on at me." (Maybe it's just as well that I didn't buy this record in 1975 because lines like that would have struck unbelievably close to home, I'm afraid. Every aspect of my life was in shambles that year and this LP would've never left my turntable.) It's a fantastic tune about your soul being pitted in a cage match with your ego and dealing with the fact that "there ain't no way out."

"Squeeze Box" follows and, while it doesn't make me cringe, there's no doubt that it's their shallowest ditty since the silly "Magic Bus" and hardly fits in with the deep, psychological themes being presented on either side of it. But, since it cracked the top 20 singles chart and eventually became a mainstay of classic rock radio, it fulfilled its intent. Next is the intriguing "Dreaming from the Waist," a song that just wouldn't work without Keith Moon's unique drum rumblings stalking in the background and John Entwistle's fluid bass lines twining around the main melody. Here Pete poetically describes the never- ending battle raging between his spiritual side that gallantly aspires for enlightenment and his animal, pleasure-hungry id. "I've got that numb-to-a-thumb, overdubbed feeling/social when the world is sleeping/the plot starts to thicken/then I sicken and I feel I'm cemented down/I'm so juiced that the whorey lady's sad, sad story/has me quietly weeping/but here comes the morning/here comes the yawning, demented clown." Roger sings.

The mood drastically changes on the poignant "Imagine a Man," an acoustic guitar and piano-based ballad where Daltrey shines like a star on the vocal. There's not a regular drum track but Keith's subdued, tympani-like additions give the song some needed tension on the choruses. The words describe Townshend's yearning for a simpler, plain existence where he can clearly see the the eventual end of his earthly journey. "Imagine a road so long looking backwards/you can't see where it really began" and "Imagine a man, not a child of any revolt/but a man of today feeling new." Roger wistfully relates. It's a beautiful four minutes to spend. However, I can't say the same for what comes next, the forgettable "Success Story" written by Entwistle. Moon has always had a tendency to play behind the beat but here he just drags the number down to a slog through the muck. The Ox penned some fine tunes during his career but this isn't one of them.

"They Are All in Love" is yet another splendid example of artistic dichotomy. The lovely lilt of the melody augmented from below by Hopkins' flowing piano acts as a soft underbelly for the rough, scaly texture of the acrid words that literally spew viciously from Daltrey's mouth. "Hey, all you punks/stay young and stay high/hand me my checkbook/and I'll crawl out to die/like a woman in childbirth/grown ugly in a flash/I've seen magic and fame/now I'm recycling trash." he snarls. It seems that Pete resents the world going on as usual despite his sarcastic, deprecating observations. I spoke of surprises earlier and none show up any more unexpectedly than at this juncture in the form of the quaint "Blue, Red and Grey." Townshend's Dr. Jekyll personality suddenly emerges to perform solo on a tune brimming with universal love and optimism over a lone ukulele and a subtle brass section. The great thing is that it works, due in no small measure to Pete's admission that he's ".completely crazy/I even shun the south of France/the people on the hill, they say I'm lazy/but when they sleep I sing and dance/some people have to have the sultry evenings/cocktails in the blue, red and grey/but I like every minute of the day." It's a side of the man's genius that he rarely reveals and it is wholly refreshing when he does.

The apex of the album is the magnificent "How Many Friends," a dramatic and devastatingly frank number that every person on the planet can relate to at one time or another. Everyone in the studio for that session is amazing on this track. Nicky's understated piano, John's deft bass runs, Keith's unfettered ferocity, Roger's spirited singing and Townshend's inspired guitar lines all add up to create a supercharged atmosphere that only the great ones achieve. The words are as true today as they were then. "People know nothing about their own soft gut/so how come they can sum us up/without suffering all the hype we've known/how come they bum us up?" Daltrey inquires. And who among us hasn't sulked on the throne of despair and disillusionment and asked "How many friends have I really got?/that love me, that want me, that'll take me as I am?..." If you haven't, then consider yourself fortunate. The final song, "In a Hand or a Face," is a throwback to a sound when the band was younger and wielded a keener edge and it's very effective. Pete pokes tongue-in-cheek fun at the then-popular belief in reincarnation with clipped lines like "Ain't it funny how they're all Cleopatra/when you gaze into their past/when you find out about their birth signs/you realize there was no need to have asked." But he also seriously wants to know if we're, indeed, trapped in a cycle of futility whether we approve or not. "I am going round and round." the chorus endlessly repeats without resolution. And so it goes.

The trio of live bonus tracks on the reissue is a nice perk. While "Squeeze Box" is nothing more than a straightforward rendition of the tune Townshend once referred to as being "devastatingly simple," the versions of "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Dreaming From the Waist" (where Entwistle blazes like a wildfire through the ending) are both entertaining and technically well-recorded snapshots of the original group in concert, complete with humorous stage patter being carried on between the members on and off the microphones.

If not for a blatantly commercial detour and a sub-par inclusion from Mr. Entwistle, this would be a masterpiece on the same level as "Who's Next." But what really blows me away is the intimacy of the lyrics on display here. While their previous endeavors presented stories of generational isolation and/or defiant, rebellious rantings against society and its outdated traditions, "The Who by Numbers" is a startling portrait of a man who has realized that he may not die before he grows old, after all. It's about human frailty and moral weaknesses. It's about owning up to personal responsibility. It's about confronting one's own significance or lack thereof. Combine those weighty themes with music that's highly creative, full of imagination and virtuoso performances and definitely not run-of-the mill and you have an album that stands the test of time. 4.4 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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