Album Review: The Who – Who By Numbers (1975)

“I see myself on T.V., I’m a faker, a paper clown.”

The_who_by_numbers_cover (1)Rating: 9/10

According to rumours, Who’s guitarist/main song-writer/conceptual leader, Pete Townshend, was flirting with the idea of dissolving the band sometime in 1974. In a way, I can understand that. I mean, how is one supposed to follow the all-around incredible masterwork that was Quadrophenia? The man basically gave it all – he succeeded in pushing his artistic vision at an all-time high, and more importantly, completing it the way he wanted. True heroes never give up though and it came as a big, pleasant surprise to find out that he’d managed to find a solution.

‘Who by Numbers’, as it was named, came out in 1975 and is a different album in many aspects. Trying to outdo ‘Quadrophenia’ – meaning, coming up with an ever more ambitious concept – would’ve probably failed. So this album doesn’t even set out to do that, marking a return to the basic “unrelated songs” ideology. Reprises and instrumentals? Nope, no such thing here. Layers of synthesizers and dozens of hours spent in studio? Not at all. Just songs. Some great, some good, and some decent enough. So what makes this album stand above the majority of its contemporary records?

Well, ‘Who By Numbers’ is a very personal record. But I bet you already knew that. So let me take it one step further: there are moments here of such fragile, introspective beauty that even the manliest of men won’t be able to not get a bit emotional. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the chorus of ‘Imagine a Man’ – featuring Pete and Roger singing in close harmony, going higher and higher over a set of lyrics that are supposed to be optimistic, but sound more hopeless than anything. It’s simply gorgeous. And so is ‘How Many Friends’ – a song that I’ve always thought to express a certain inability to rock. Again, when analyzing the chorus, it’s trying to be spitful and resentful (“How many friends have I really got?”) but, within seconds, gives up that intention by becoming tender and contemplative (“…that love me, that want me, that’ll take me as I am”). You see, the protagonist wants to “rock” his problems away, but realizes he hasn’t got the physical strength to do so. Hmm, it’s probably just me reading too much into it, though. What I do know is that Keith Moon cried when Pete first played the song to him, so that may be enough of a proof that there’s plenty of emotion attached to it.

Nothing beats the piano-driven ‘They Are All In Love’ though, which features the famous “Hey, goodbye all you punks/Stay young and stay high/Hand me my checkbook /And I’ll crawl off to die” lyrics. Townshend’s obsession with staying “hip” within the contemporary musical scene is perfectly captured here (though the Sex Pistols story might work as well). Also, come on Pete, how can you call yourself “recycling trash” while coming up with something so gosh darn pretty?! And finally, there’s ‘Blue, Red and Grey’ – a small ray of optimism expressed through an arrangement that’s as stripped-down as The Who ever got (just Pete singing along with a ukulele and some atmospheric synths in the background). And it works perfectly, reflecting an incredible amount of that fragile beauty I was talking about earlier.

Still, this album is no Pet Sounds – there are some fun rockers as well for those who might find Pete’s confessions tedious (I’d suggest those people to also avoid Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, if you get my drift). Entwistle’s ‘Success Story’ has a catchy riff, ‘Squeeze Box’ is funny in that particular dirty way, while ‘Slip Kid’ is just The Who doing what they know best. Funnily enough, ‘In A Hand Or A Face’ is the only song here that I’d call “Who-by-the-numbers”, because it’s simply forgettable.

So, is ‘Who By Numbers’ different than any other album put out by the band before? Definitely. But does it belong among them in the legacy that will help us remember The Who as one of the legends of rock ‘n’ roll? It will, in my opinion, as it represents both a very interesting chapter in the band’s story, and also the last time they offered us something truly excellent.

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5 replies

  1. Really one of the most important “late season” Who albums … maybe the last one where Townsend was making profound statements about his place in music, and in life itself. By Numbers is the last truly great Who album.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another good album. Book ended by ‘Slip Kid’ and ‘How Many Friends’. It’s the Who man. I’m a fan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Everyone dumps on IN A HAND OR FACE. Sue me but I like the track! It reuses the chords from WASP MAN but the lyrics are brutal and powerful. That’s what set The Who apart from their peers. They put their guts on the line,unable to pretend the Rock And Roll party was all glitter. They took shit for it but that honesty and willingness to say,”We’re fucked and that’s how it is” make them the greatest to me. All that was my soundtrack and it got me through a lot of ups and downs. They didn’t give us what we wanted. They gave us what they HAD. All of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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