Sunday, February 19, 2017

SONGS #182- #190: The Who By Numbers (Whole Album)

The Who, The Who By Numbers, 1975

OK— since I published the blog below about “How Many Friends” (#179), several folks whose opinions on music I cherish emerged and revealed that I had done short shrift to The Who By Numbers as an album.  In trying to write snottily about narcissism, I’d tapped into an album that has a lot more to say than just “Look at me!”  (Those records are usually called “Billy Joel” records: see Blog #149-150.  Rim shot!)

So let’s go back to this wonderful, weird Who album from 1975, a collection of observations about turning thirty, falling out of love with rock ’n’ roll, falling out of love with yourself, facing the “cliched-ridden notions”** of middle age and depression, all while holding on to the possibility of redemption.

There’s a separate blog to be written in general about albums like The Who By Numbers, records by huge bands that most people have never explored.  They usually have massive cult followings within the fan base, but never register with the larger zeitgeist.  This album became The Who’s most obscure 70s record primarily, I think, because of its modesty.  It came out after the bizarre film version of Tommy, and was the opposite of that film’s technicolor camp.  Even Numbers’ cover is DIY simplicity.  The band had been off the road for two years, and its last three albums had been high-art, synthesizer-heavy concept art.  This record is a stripped-down rock ’n’ roll album, even bordering on some kind of “heavy-country” approach in places.  Most significantly, Townshend is focused here not on teenage unrest, but middle-aged malaise.  Those hoping for more outward-looking anthems celebrating rebellious youth must have found this record to be a tremendous letdown.  Its ambitions are startlingly scaled back for The Who.

Other critics have called this record a suicide note, or a concept album about not being a concept album, or even a brilliant recalibration of the group as a trio after Quadrophenia’s bombast.  I don’t disagree with any of those ideas, but it’s always sounded to me like something else.  Townshend was unquestionably rock’s most ambitious composer in the 70s.  Who’s Next is his failed attempt to write the “unifying” note, for crying out loud.  The Who By Numbers sounds to me like the work of an artist who, after hitting his creative, physical and emotional limit, rediscovers the original simplicity and intent of his art.  The album most parallel to The Who By Numbers in the band’s catalog is their debut, My Generation.  That’s an album about being twenty where you can hear a young composer discover his craft.  After trying to re-invent rock music as an art form and spending a decade writing for everyone, Townshend, exhausted and burnt out but now a master of his craft, writes a bunch of songs for himself about being thirty.  Then, because the machinery is all in place, those songs become a Who album and a tour and etc etc etc.  But I’ve always heard it as Townshend’s first real solo album, accidentally recorded by the band instead of by just himself, and forever blurring for him the distinction between a potential solo career (which never quite got going) and the band’s career (which can’t seem to end no matter how much the band compromises its legacy).

Pete at 20.

Pete at 30.

The record really only has one great “Who” song on it— the first track, “Slip Kid”— and it feels different from the rest of the record because it’s a leftover from 1971’s Who’s Next.  I think it is the most underrated song in the band’s catalog.  It’s a fantastic song about resisting and resenting responsibility with a infectious mid-tempo groove and a brilliant percussive backing track. It’s not as well-known because the band is terrible at playing it live— they’ve only tried it a few dozen times, and they butcher it at every go.  I’m way more of a Pete fan than a Roger fan, but I feel Daltrey’s frustration on this one; it’s not THAT hard, but Pete can’t bothered to figure out the bridge.  

And then the record takes a pretty wild left turn with “However Much I Booze.”  Sung by Townshend because Daltrey refused to sing lyrics that personal, it establishes both the sound of the rest of the record (country power trio) and the depths of Pete’s breakdown “I see myself on TV / I’m a faker, a paper clown.”  The sunny melody and downright jaunty choruses don’t match the singer’s desperation (“I’m nothing but a well-f*cked sailor”) and it’s unnerving.  It’s also incredibly catchy and features one of Pete’s great non-solos (during which drummer Keith Moon starts soloing incomprehensibly) into a beautiful bridge.

After the regrettable “Squeeze Box” comes “Dreaming From The Waist,” a song with terrific playing and one of the weirdest “hooks” I’ve ever heard. There’s just something about the word “waist” that’s so clinical— so close to where Pete is putting his attention, and yet so far.  The song became one of the highlights of the 1975-76 tour because bassist John Entwistle used it as a platform to play 7,000,000 notes over the course of the tune.  His performance on the album is borderline unhinged, and live, he shows no shame whatsoever.  It was also, apparently, a sticking point in the set:

Here’s John losing his mind live if you have a minute or two:

Side One closes with the ballad “Imagine A Man,” another in a series of quiet songs where the band didn’t know what to do with Moon, so they let him rumble through the choruses.  It’s a pretty schizophrenic track, but has its moments (the melody behind the choruses, Pete’s acoustic guitar playing).

Side Two is much more scattershot— “They Are All In Love” and “In A Hand Or A Face” don’t even sound completely finished to me.  They sound like rough mixes that the band gave up on and released anyway.  Two other songs are worth mentioning, though.  The side begins with Entwistle’s one contribution to the record called “Success Story.”  During the recording of Quadrophenia, John brought in a song that he thought said everything in three minutes that Pete had taken 80 minutes to say.  The same thing happens here— “Success Story” is about all the same themes as the rest of the record, but plumbs the malaise for dark comedy instead.  The band, famous and bored and now stuck on the road and in the studio, is on “Take 276— you know, this used to be fun.”  The fact that the track is on the album speaks to the tensions in the band.  John is openly mocking the hand that feeds him, but he gets his one song regardless.  It’s a fine track, but it’s truly the one thing that’s not like the other; in retrospect, the beginning of the end of The Who starts here.

And I have to say a few words about “Blue Red and Grey,” a Pete ukulele song that producer Glyn Johns insisted be on the record.  I love this song, as do the rest of my fellow Who fanatics— unlike the rest of the record, this song is sweetness and light, a song about trying to find and retain joy.  It’s forgiving where the rest of the album is accusatory, and refreshingly simple in its goals.  The song’s refrain, “I like every minute of the day,” is not a bad life motto.  If nothing else, check out this tune before you move on.

OK— I think that does it.  Next up, a polarizing band.  Getting my critic helmet ready.

* Pete Townshend, “Brilliant Blues,” 1985

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