By 1975, The Who was set to release the follow up to the critically acclaimed rock opera Quadrophenia. With the release came hype. And by hype, I mean tons of it. It came as no surprise though. Afterall, The Who was on top of the music world. Within the past five years, the band had released Live At Leeds, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia, three of the most recognizable and successful albums of the 1970’s. While most of the band was enjoying their time in the spotlight, The Who had always contained one member that is well, different, to put it in best terms. As the story goes, Pete Townshend was having a tough time grasping the fact that he was one of the most famous musicians of his time. And as most of the loyal Who fans out their know, good ole’ Petey has a very delicate head that cannot
be messed with very often. Townshend’s fury and aggression boiled up inside of him. As a result, the many frustrations of Townshend work their way into The Who By Numbers, making it a dark, sullen album, and not a favorite among the media and the fans of the band.
Right from the get go, it is obvious that The Who has taken a much more disjointed approach to this album than they have done with several of their other albums. One of the things that makes The Who By Numbers one of the utmost confusing Who albums is the instrumental approach the band has taken. On their albums prior to The Who By Numbers, the band use synthesizers and overdubbing as if there is no tomorrow. (Baba O’Reilly, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Love Reign O’er Me, just to name a few examples.) There is a drastic change where the Who By Numbers is concerned. The overdubbing and heavy use of synthesizers are missing. So, what exactly takes the place of these seemingly vital effects? The instrumentation, of course. Townshend’s feedback is a given in most of the songs, as well as Entwistle’s type writer style of playing the bass, two factors that play a huge part in the development of most songs on The Who By Numbers. The piano is thrown in here and there to stir up a more emotional mood in the listener. Where drumming is concerned, we’ve seen more intensity in Moon’s drumming on other albums, but remember, The Who By Numbers is a mellower work than most Who albums. The Who By Numbers is on a much more elementary level, technically speaking, than most of the other Who albums.
Because the instrumentation is arranged so differently, it comes as no surprise that the Who would pull out a few newer sounding tracks out of their bag of odds and sods. These tracks are quite the oddity to be precise, either because the instruments are irregularly layered, or the atmosphere has a more dissident feel. Whatever the case may be, whether the track may be quizzical or an ineptitude of it’s ancestors, the tracks are an extravagance of what is required. The songs that have these specific qualities on The Who By Numbers are most notably Squeeze Box, Success Story and How Many Friends.
And though it seems that all of the old habits of The Who were thrown into the closest garbage can, Slip Kid, the albums first track, quickly deletes this generalization quicker than Pete can destroy one of his prized SG’s. That famous gritty, raw sound that the Who is known for is churned out from each of the instruments right from the very start. Roger’s vocals are at their very best, reaching every note and pitch with grace, and Pete contributes with a harmonious guitar solo, what more can you ask for? And if Slip Kid doesn’t float your boat, Dreaming From The Waist will take you by force. It mixes both the older and newer sound of The Who to create a mirage of stifling instrumentation with a soothing atmospheric feel that any fan of the Who, past or present, will take a great liking to. Then, there are the mind numbingly awesome tracks. Success Story is the only contribution that John Entwistle makes to The Who By Numbers. Townshend experiments with the usage of guitar effects, and Entwistle amazes us yet again with another red hot bass line. What can be said about Blue, Red, and Gray, a truly moving yet so simplistic track that can bring the most loyal fan to tears? Townshend truly hits the nail on the head with every aspect of the song, from the lyrics to the beautifully showcased ukulele line. (which really are the only aspects of the song)
Thus far, this review has been light on an album that has a reputation for being a little to intense, though all of the songs have somewhat of an upbeat tune. In the opening paragraph of this review, I mentioned all the fame and fortune was getting to Townshend’s head, and he didn’t enjoy it one bit. Townshend incorporates the ideas of alienation, violence, alcoholism, depression, etc many a time of The Who By Numbers. Because of this, the lyrics are one of the most important assets the Who by Numbers bears. However Much I Booze takes the idea of alcoholism and runs with it. Pete claims that “However Much I Booze, there ain’t no way out”. Imagine A Man is a bitter song that deals with depression and alienation. The final song, In A Hand Or A Face, ends The Who By Numbers on a pretentious note.
“There's a man going through your dust bin, only this time he's looking for food.
There's a tear in his eye, you don't know him. Oh but you know what he's going through. Ain't it funny that you can't seem to help him. Feelin' sick as he staggers away. Is it weird that you hate a stranger? Can a detail correct your dismay?”
All in all, The Who By Numbers is a somewhat needed change from the usual Who album. Even though it isn’t categorized as one of the “classic” Who albums, remember that The Who By Numbers came after three of the biggest albums of the 1970’s. While it does take the listener through the deranged thoughts and worries of Pete Townshend, the mostly upbeat tunes and elementary instrumentation can make for a quick and easy listen. And though it may not be the most impressive of Who albums for its lack of being consistent and what have you, it sure can be categorized as one of the most enjoyable. From the smash hit Squeeze Box, to the deeply moving Blue, Red, and Gray, The Who By Numbers will always be considered as one of the better albums of the Who discography.