The Who – By Numbers

After a quadrilogy of highly ambitious albums that would make up the girth of The Who’s golden material, the band was evidently tired from touring, and the obvious strains associated with constantly pushing the musical envelope forward. The band’s seventh album ‘The Who By Numbers’ was a representation of this frustration, and like most bands who reach their artistic potential, they decided to strip down their sound, or ‘unplug’. Quite naturally, this would led to some polarized views of the album, especially among those who favoured the band’s more progressive leanings. Quite ironically however, ‘By Numbers’ is an album that takes quite a bit long to grow and really sink in. Granted, the musical quality is not quite as good as what they had done before, but if the album has anything going for it, it is arguably The Who’s most sincere statement in music.

As with much of The Who’s output, the album is written and fueled mostly by the heart and soul of guitarist Pete Townshend, and as a result, ‘The Who By Numbers’ is very much an album that reflects his attitudes and mindset. As one could likely ascertain from the lyrics alone here, Townshend was certainly not in a good state of mind during this period, and the album works as something of a confessional, in which he writes about the laments of stardom, alcoholism, and just about anything else that was pissing him off at the time. While someone with less conviction and grit to his name could have turned this approach into something saccharine and whiny, Townshend’s problematic existence and the lyrics here are easy to relate to. The bottom line is that The Who was about as far away from the early lyrics of teenage love as they possibly could by this point, and it is the lyrical honesty of ‘By Numbers’ that is the album’s greatest strength.

Speaking musically, there are no complex compositions here, or any form of progressive mentality to the music. Instead, these are straightforward rock songs, doing rock ‘by the numbers’ so to speak. Although they lack the flash and shock of the earlier material, the songs here are quite well-written, they just took a little longer to grow than what I am typically used to from The Who. Upon first listen to the album, I found the songwriting fairly uninviting and bland, but- with the exception of the silly single ‘Squeeze Box’- this is some of the grittiest material that The Who ever released. That can be taken either way, but from a personal stance, the feeling behind these songs makes it well worth the listen, even though there isn’t a track on here that particularly impresses or dazzles me.

‘The Who By Numbers’ may be an alum that continues to polarize fans of The Who, but if a listener gives this record the same open ear that they might give one of the more involved records, there is indeed some great enjoyment and catharsis to be experienced from the music.

Tracklist:

1. Slip Kid (4:32)
2. However Much I Booze (5:03)
3. Squeeze Box (2:42)
4. Dreaming From The Waist (4:09)
5. Imagine a Man (4:04)
6. Success Story (3:24)
7. They’re All In Love (3:03)
8. Blue, Red and Grey (2:50)
9. How Many Friends (4:07)
10. In a Hand or a Face (3:25)

Total Time 37:19

Bonus tracks on 1996 remaster:
11. Squeeze Box (live)* (3:13)
12. Behind Blue Eyes (live)* (4:39)
13. Dreaming From The Waist (live)* (4:57)

Line-up:

* Roger Daltrey – lead vocals, harmonica
* Pete Townshend – guitar, keyboards, ukulele, accordion, banjo, vocals
* John Entwistle – bass guitar, keyboards, vocals
* Keith Moon – drums, percussion
* Nicky Hopkins (guest) – piano, keyboards
* Dave Arbus (guest) – violin

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