The Who By Numbers was derided when it came out as a disappointing mish-mash of Pete Townshend navel-gazing. Daft punters, as Pete would have said. Barmy reviewers didn’t know what they had, besides a hangover.
Since Who’s Next in 1971, far too many fists had punched the air above throaty cries of “TEENAGE WASTELAND.” It got so loud among Who fans that few people noticed that other songs on that album, and on Quadrophenia in 1973, tried to get a little deeper into this thing called life than your typical rock shout. Indeed, that had been Townshend’s mission since before Tommy in 1969, and I had to scratch my head a bit when critics took him to task for being to self-exploratory, introverted, Platonic, cerebral, you name it.
Well, duh. Why else write songs? And fact is, few songwriters and performers have ever done a better job of combining the electricity and grit of rock with the innermost currents of feeling, desire, and whatever else is going on in there. On By Numbers, Townshend did it by putting himself out there for us all to see. And we could swing the mic cord at the same time.
Right out of the gate, we get grungy Gibson chords and unleashed Keith Moon percussion (I know, redundant) pushing the tension on “Slip Kid,” as good a song to belt while mowing the lawn as I’ve ever come across. “Dreaming From the Waist” is a pretty credible reflection on aging from a guy who had just gone 30, and with a rollicking beat at that. “However Much I Booze” features a nice, clean acoustic intro, some classy bass playing by the late John Entwistle, and by-now familiar angst from Pete on the contradictions of stardom. (No less compelling for that.)
Of course, it’s not all gut school. There’s the standard, “Squeeze Box,” which the band genially acknowledged at concerts as a fun little tossaway. And even in the serious songs, such as “How Many Friends,” some lyrics are good for a grin: “I’m feelin’ so good right now/There’s a handsome boy, tells me how I changed his past/He buys me a brandy/Or could it be he’s really just after my ass?”
Be sure to download the 1996 re-master; it includes bonus live versions of “Squeeze Box,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Dreaming From the Waist.”♦
© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music