Friday, 4 July 2008
The Who "By Numbers" (1975) (Revised Review 2016)
On which an inspired and inventive Pete Townshend tells us how uninspired and washed up he feels…
Track Listing: Slip Kid/ However Much I Booze/ Squeeze Box/ Dreaming From The Waist/ Imagine A Man// Success Story/ They’re All In Love/ Blue, Red and Grey/ How Many Friends?/ In A Hand Or A Face
'Repeat after me: no easy way to be free, no easy way to be free, no easy way to be free, no easy way to be free..."
'Hope I die before I get old’ – a throwaway line that seemed to go well with a riff a twenty-year-old Pete Townshend was writing in the back of a taxi going to a recording session that he probably didn't think about much. I mean, pop music was a young man's game - Pete wasn't planning too hard to reach middle age anyway and if he did he certainly wouldn't be playing that song; he'd be writing operas, or retired on a beach somewhere, or visiting Roger Daltrey in prison or Keith Moon in his special surfer's hut for retired drummers. Time went so slowly at that age too - ten years was half a lifetime and a million hit singles away. The idea that anyone in music would still be making pop music at that age to feel the repercussions from a throwaway line like that was laughable, so into the song the line went, to be immortalised forever as a warning and statement of intent: that everyone over a certain age was no longer to be trusted and was doomed to be part of society's problems, not the solution. Of course none of The Who did die young, unlike Brian Jones or Jimi Hendrix, say – even Keith Moon was a balding and portly thirty-two when he set off to meet his maker just three years after this album came out. What to do, then, when you've just celebrated/commiserated over your 30th birthday and that phrase still continues to be the single most famous thing you've ever written? Get drunk seems to be the answer, with 'Who By Numbers' one long angry snarling dark tea-time of the soul that tries to answer the fact that Pete and his band-members are now the age they feared, that they haven't changed the world and that, yes, somewhere down the line they sold out. The Who were now facing the very same stereotyping and weariness that they’d complained about in older artists back in the 1960s, with bands a decade younger snapping at their heels and declaring that The Who's music no longer spoke to them as disenfranchised working class youths. Pete had learnt long ago that his best bet was to reflect his audience – but somewhere he felt that he had lost them. The poor reviews of 'Quadrophenia', Pete's biggest work yet, didn’t help and destroyed his confidence which as already shaky in the wake of the aborted‘Lifehouse’ (the kids and younger critics of 1973 couldn't even remember the mods v rockers riots, which was a shock given how large they loomed in the lives of Pete's generation). Nor did the interminable film shoots for 'Tommy', which Pete attended every day as 'musical director' and grew more and more fed up with, losing his vision of the story to director Ken Russell. With the decidedly non-teenage film, 1964-set recent album and their sheer age working against them too, the general mood among record buyers was that The Who were for older adults now.
Added to the mix is that The Who have at last parted ways with their managers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, often a symbolic gesture in the lives of bands who go from being boys to men (or girls to women) when this happens. The loss of Kit was particularly cruel: oddly in retrospect given the similarities both projects shared with ‘Tommy’ Kit dismissed 'Lifehouse' and disliked 'Quadrophenia' with Pete feeling isolated, no longer having anyone on his 'team' encouraging him and asking for more. The Who too all had other fish to fry besides a new band record: films and solo albums for Roger, solo albums and tours for John and a solo record in the works and whatever-the-hell-he-could-get-away-with for Keith. For a time in 1975 it seemed like no one cared if The Who ever made another record again: not the band, not the fans, mot the critics and certainly not the nations' youngsters who Pete had always vowed to speak up for and represent. Asked to make another record by the label anyway, 'Who By Numbers' was never going to be a barrel of laughs (even if it does have two of the band's funniest songs on it). Instead it's a bitter, angry, self-indulgent collection of boozy hangovers and worries turned into song by a songwriter who didn't want to write for a band who didn't want to record for a public who didn't want to hear it. It ought to be terrible, from its cynical know-all sell-out-title down. Instead it's a most wonderful and under-rated work of staggering genius from a songwriter, band and fanbase too good to deliver anything less than the whole brave truth as gloriously as The Who knew how.
Figuring that nobody was listening anyway, Pete cleverly changes who The Who are on this album. There aren't many of the band’s usual trademarks on this album: only four songs out of the ten comes close to being rockers, there's none of the spiritualism/Meher Baba influences of 'Tommy' and 'Who's Next' and - probably deliberately after the relatively cool response to 'Quadrophenia' – there is nothing 'mod' about this album whatsoever. 'By Numbers' is also the first Who project not to have been originally based around a 'concept' or tell a 'story' using characters in nine years. Above all, though, it's the confidence that's missing in 'Who By Numbers', which even on the few tracks when it is being powered by a full-on angry Who backing a screaming Daltrey sounds fragile and weak, likely to snap into a sobbing mess the second the power stops and the songs end. The only thing that fans of the twenty-year-old Pete Townshend might recognize in the thirty-year-old Townshend's songwriting is the cynicism and bitterness, which hasn't indeed been this direct since 'My Generation' ten years before, trempered as it has been by beauty, hope and utopias. But this time the target is different: instead of a cocksure bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings demanding change, Pete is turning in on himself and his own failings, angry that he isn't the man he always dreamed of being all those years before - that he let his younger self down in some way. The Pete of 1965 was going to change the world and himself into the bargain: he'd just got engaged to teenage sweetheart Karen Astley, The Who were at the top of the charts and he was going to do good and change the world for everyone making it a better brighter happier more equal place. Instead his dreams have come to nothing and he feels a fraud, in a fractious marriage that’s falling apart in a band who have all drifted apart and in a world that’s as cruel and fake as ever. Back in 1965 Pete’s characters could  go anyway, go anywhere, anyhow and the world was at their feet – but by 1975 these character’s worlds are narrow and limited, that anger and power that once used to destroy the old corrupt regimes turned inward on the self. Various songs paint Pete (or at least Roger, his spokesperson, who does a great job at singing songs that really weren't written for him to sing) as an alcoholic, as a lonely soul whose never really known what love is or as a reclusive rockstar millionaire unable and unwilling to help the tramp digging through his dustbins for a basic meal, a visual reminder of the people he couldn't save. Worse yet, he has to live with the fact that he has become one of the 'sell outs' he always hoped he'd die before he became - 'They're All In Love' actually states that where The Who once stood for something, now they're just like everyone else, 'recycling trash', the songwriter's confidence, the singer's ego and the drummer's health all contributing to the fact that in 1975 The Who weren't a band to emulate anymore - they were a warning sign of what not to become. The old Who would have found a way out, some spiritual happy ending or some comic escape route but not here: the album ends with the wicked line 'ain't it funny how they all fire the pistol at the wrong end of the race?', with Pete imagining a future where it's all been downhill since writing his most famous song at the start of his career, while other songs repeat the refrains of being trapped: that 'there's no easy way to be free' that 'I don't care what you say there ain't no way out!', that 'you will see the end, oh yeah!'
Not the first or last time, though, Pete Townshend was being way too hard on himself. Most of the problems he'd taken upon himself weren't his to solve (the tramp going through his garbage for food owes a far bigger debt to the empty rhetoric of the era's pop makers than the deeper musical thinkers who at least tried to make the world a better place and gave far more to good causes than they ever let on) and Pete was equally powerless to stop the rise of Roger (who was so in demand for film work The Who were on hiatus for a time) or the decline and fall of Moon (whose addictions seemed to double with every passing year and who really starts visibly and audibly struggling to keep up from this year onwards). Few writers of their early songs truly imagine that they'll still be singing them in their 'old age', even as time-sensitive a song as  'My Generation' - fewer still ever think they'll make such a great age. A greater travesty would have been to still be writing the same songs at twenty as you did at thirty, but Pete has changed his style, updating it to reflect what he’s learnt along the way –if his songs are unrecognisable a decade on then that’s progress, not stagnation. Most bands that get tired and go on this long truly sell out; they stick out a greatest hits and a live LP, repeat themselves for a few years and then go on fifteen ‘final tours’ until they stop making money and don't think twice about it. By the late 1980s John’s financial precariousness means that The Who do in fact become exactly that band. But not here, not yet. Making a confessional album like 'Who By Numbers' was the only way forward that didn't involve repeating what had come before when Pete really didn't feel like re-writing the mod history or offering spiritual guidance when he himself felt so empty (and drunk): though many fans wonder why 'Who By Numbers' exists at all, in fact it was the only album that could have been made in the circumstances that would have still felt 'real' rather than a big fat con from a band in middle-age as Pete weeps for the person he used to be and which he can never be again.
This wasn't a normal Who project, with the happiness and optimism of a 'Tommy' or a 'Quadrophenia', with sessions broken up by no less than three separate solo albums, the 'Lisztomania' film and endless sessions of cricket, which the band ran off to play whenever the sessions started breaking down (which they did, a lot). Roger didn't understand the songs and has a notablty deeper, gruffer voice after singing orchestral ballads in his down time. Keith barely understood what was going on at all (this was the era when his long-suffering wife Kim finally had enough and walked out, leaving her ex to an extending drink 'n' drugs session that lasted almost until he died, bar a few valiant attempts to sort himself out and sober up; a recent Who concert had seen him pass out on the second song after an overdose of animal tranquilisers). John as always tried to help, providing the rather brilliant 'Success Story' which, as so often happened on Who albums, laughed at the epic worldly concerns of his bandmate and pointing out the insecurity and helplessness of being in a young band trying to make it like The Who once were, plus an even more brilliant album cover that took the album title and ran with it: the band have never looked better than they do here, in dot-to-dot form. The playful and throwaway drawing style fits Townshend’s nobody-cares compositions perfectly and is a good example of The Who’s penchant for self-mockery and the facial expressions especially are spot-on, capturing Roger's inner rock-God, Pete's party animal, Keith's just-woken-up look and his own sighing demeanour perfectly (even if, as he admitted later, he got distracted and ending up giving Roger an extra arm by mistake). John said it cost the band £32 for the pens and paper for him to make the cover - in contrast to Pete's album cover for 'Quadrophenia' with the four-faces-in-a-scooter which cost hundreds; the band were agreeing to take it in turns to organise the covers, with Roger's pal shooting the sleeve for 'Who Are You', though sadly Keith died before the chance to do one of his.
However it's probably fair to say that Pete's health was the biggest talking point of the sessions. Pete remembered later writing this album in his living room under duress, while stoned and crying his eyes out and trying to avoid his family, band and manager and feeling strangely detached from his writing, as if safe in the knowledge that no one else would see it. The day he showed his new songs to the others for the first time must have been an interesting day indeed and Roger wasn't slow to speak his mind that they were awful (which makes his pretty supportive vocals, which always nail the mixed statements his colleague is trying to make, all the more amazing - along with 'Tommy' and parts of 'Who's Next' and 'Quadrophenia', 'Who By Numbers' is where Roger really proves his worth as a singer). The recording wasn't without its dramas either, especially when a confused and depressed Townshend tried to jump out of a 24th story window (before Kit Lambert's secretary stopped him: Pete says he was after some 'fresh air' and in his sozzled state had simply forgotten he was upstairs, or was this something more desperate?) Pete has since denied that he was close to suicide when he made this album and that this album really isn't a suicide note, honest, despite what people like me think (even that window jumping was a misunderstanding). However even if it isn't, it's a pretty bleak cry for help with Pete sharing his 'lows' with his beloved audience he felt so close to, to go along his past 'h0ighs'.
Only the beauty and hope of 'Red, Blue and Grey' points a way 'out', as Pete tried one last time to reach out to his understanding of the prophet Meher Baba and celebrate the fact that he's alive, that even his current misery is a ‘bargain’ because at least he is still alive. One of The Who's greatest songs nobody seems to know, Pete didn't even want this song on the album and was surprised when Glynn Johns 'borrowed' it from a tape of demos and fragments, urging his pal to cut the song properly. One of only two songs Pete sings on this album (even an interpreter as good as Roger could never have sung 'However Much I Booze' in the first person), it's a moving moment as Pete somehow claws back from the ledge and out of the darkness and finds some reason for being alive after all. Suddenly all the protests that people make about life - they don't like the darkness, or the time of day, or they don't like Mondays - suddenly don't apply. If Pete (and by association 'us', as Who songs are always about the listener really) are to embrace life then we have to embrace all of life, even the bits we don't like. A spiritual speck of light on an album that comes with a black cloud of thunder, 'Red Blue and Grey' always sounded like one of The Who's greatest ballads away from the album but within the album it offers just enough hope and light to prevent 'Who By Numbers' becoming one long self-indulgent moan. Along with Entwistle's dry self-puncturing 'Success Story', this also breaths extra life into 'Who By Numbers' which makes it the best of the handful of 'privileged rockstar talking about his problems' kind of albums as well.
Pete has surely never been more courageous than on this album and his writing strengths have rarely been stronger, as he breaks with practically every single thing Who fans have come to expect from their inspirer and instead of hiding behind characters writes from the heart instead, however bleak or angry the result. And an important element of ‘Who By Numbers’, often overlooked, is that it is The Who’s most beautiful album. Far from being uninspired and 'recycling trash', 'Who By Numbers' is arguably the richest Who record in terms of pure melody (richest for a single album anyway): 'They're All In Love' and 'Blue Red and Grey' are amongst Pete's prettiest, most ear-pleasing tunes. The more Who like songs 'Slip Kid' and 'Dreaming From The Waist' come with extras we’ve never really had before: the additional angry zinging rhythm guitar that plays throughout this album in addition to Pete's usual lead or the stomping thumping percussion that's actually quite an unusual sound for The Who (and a clever way of getting round the fact that Keith is slowing down). Most of all, though, it's the lyrics: never was a braver cry for help written than 'However Much I Booze', which after years of a band trying to give love to fans actively pleads for the audience to send their love back at one stage before Pete wearily admits even our 'see me, feel me' style love won't get him out of this mess; 'How Many Friends?' rips through the fame and money to ask how many people actually like Pete's  'real' me'; 'Imagine A Man' is a gorgeous song in the third person but clearly about Pete as he wrestles with just how monstrous the world is and his great fear that he's contributed to it in some way; and then there's 'In A Hand Or Face', one last bitter laugh that we're all fooling ourselves in a world of illusion, the Meher Baba speak working in reverse as we're all trapped behind our allotted mirrors with no one there to help us out. There’s a voyeuristic quality to many of Pete’s songs from the second half of the 1970s which it feels as if we shouldn’t be looking at, as if we’ve broken into an office and read his psychiatric notes. The real difference between the Pete of 1965 and 1975 is that you would cross the road to avoid the first one, but go out of your way to give the second a hug when he clearly needs one.
The fact that Pete the victim gives these words to Roger the bully to sing, as per a long-standing tradition, somehow makes this worse, as if Pete is finally giving the go ahead to the person who used to scare him to go ahead and verbally punch him. Roger, for his part, felt deepkly uncomfortable singing these songs (he was a practical person who hated whinging and who stayed sober for the health of his voice – he even asked not to sing a tenth revealing song intended for this album ‘I Am An Animal’, the only time – as far as I know – he refused to sing one of his colleagues’ songs). The pair also had their only big fight past the mid-1960s during the making of this album; now leading very different lives a pressured Townshend snapped over something minor and lunged at Roger with his guitar; the sober muscly singer was too much of a match for the inebriated guitarist and felled him in one punch. The pair then spent the next few weeks uncomfortably calling a truce and working together, while sounding off in the music press about how difficult the other was to work with; unusually John and Keith were stuck in the position of peace-makers. However John wasn’t that keen on the new emotionally naked songs either (sending Pete up the way he always did on his album contribution ‘Success Story’, about a band who haven’t made it and woukld love the luxury of wrestling with some of Pete’s problems), while Keith’s solution to problems caused partly through drink was to get drunker. In terms of The Who as a band, then, the biggest difference between 1965 and 1975 was that in their early days this was a band of brothers who may have rubbed each other up the wrong way but would also have done anything for the other; by 1975 their relationships are strained and coming apart at the seams. More than one onlooker assumed that this would be the last Who album and for three long years (an eternity in the music world of the 1970s) it was.
Musically on this album too it is as if the theme of ‘Quadrophenia’ has come wickedly to life. There are now at least four Pete Townshends competing for our attention on this record: the young snarling rocker who still believes he can change the world and is still primally screaming to drop all pretense of being civilised, the old and weary middle-aged star whose given up trying and is all too aware of his declining influence over rock fans, the melodicist who still has the ability and the talent to wow us with his beautifully crafted songs and the experimenter who wants to break away from all that and shock us whenever he can. ‘Who By Numbers’ is one of those records where you’re never quite sure what’s coming next: the bare-bones rocker (‘Dreaming From The Waist’ and ‘Slip Kid’ being two of the tightest, tautest Who songs), the orchestral worry song (‘Imagine A Man’ pushes to a whole new extreme of conceptual philosophical ballad), the most haunting love song (‘They’re All In Love’, which is a jealous and bitter re-write of where The Who left off with ‘Love Reign O’er Me’) and a novelty song full of double entendres that’s basically ‘Carry On Accordion’ (‘Squeeze Box’). Musically, too, Pete seems to split himself in at least two across this record. Until now The Who have always been a power-trio-plus vocalist. They've never had two guitarists, with the sole exceptions of the overdub fest  'I Can See For Miles' and the aborted New York sessions for ‘Who’s Next’ with Leslie West playing some mighty fine guitar. Here, though, Pete overdubs a second guitar part over everything - perhaps because he was the only band member to show up every day, to demonstrate how closely the material matches his feelings rather than the band's, or perhaps to reveal his own mixed feelings about this album as he effectively ‘comments’ on it. The sound of 'Who By Numbers' in a microcosm is the moment on 'Dreaming From The Waist', the nearest thing to a traditional Who song here (it's a sort of inverse  'I'm Free' where the narrator is desperate to lose his inhibitions and go truly mad, but can't quite bring himself to do it). Pete's lead guitar soars along the way it always did in the right channel, breezy and hopeful as it ever was. However on the left Pete's rhythm guitar just, well, scowls: he plays the same chord over and over across the song as if going 'ha, yeah right - you're never going to do it you know!' 'Slip Kid' too is a song so 'trapped' as the narrator groaningly admits that he's still fighting the battles in middle age he thought he'd have won by now in his teens that it needs two guitars to 'box' Roger in (this may also reflect what Pete wanted to do in real life at the time!) Then there's 'In A Hand Or A Facer', which is so flipping mad the anger spills over into two guitar parts that chase each other's tail as the song and the singer goes 'round and round', unable to escape the hamster wheel they're caught on. For one album only The Who are a five piece band and that changes the style quite a lot compared to the days of old too.
Many fans feel that The Who stopped writing concepts with ‘Quadrophenia’. However in some ways 'Who By Numbers' is their ultimate concept record and one this band were always waiting to make - albeit one they had to wait until they felt that no one was listening to before they were brave enough to release. It might seem obvious to newcomers to say that a band named ‘The Who’ have a fixation with songs where narrators try in vain to work out their true identity, but it’s a point missed by several reviewers down the years who can’t see past Roger Daltrey’s cocksure vocals, Pete Townshend’s fiery guitar-work or Keith Moon’s dazzling displays of showmanship with drumsticks, all of which seem on first hearing to exude confidence and cocksureness. But an underlying vulnerability and sense of un-fulfillment is there nevertheless in Pete’s songs from the very beginnings, as his characters tell us variously that they are hiding behind personalities that aren’t theirs ( ‘Substitute’), are made to become people they were never meant to be by the pressures of other people ( ‘I’m A Boy’) or look deeper into themselves as they become spiritually deaf, dumb and blind (most of ‘Tommy’). Who By Numbers is perhaps the greatest example of this quest, however, as Pete finally drops the characters that inhabit most of his Who songs and reveals that actually, yes, all that confusion stems from his own feelings and trying to work out who he is and what he stands for (even if Roger still takes most of the vocals on this album) and Who By Numbers is the band at their most questioning and nervous. After thinking he was leading us similarly disaffected listeners somewhere, Pete now admits that he’s wrong – he hasn’t got a clue anymore. Until now Daltrey's self-confidence has allowed The Who to seem big whatever it was they played, even when Pete is admitting something gentle or small, like the romantic middle eight on  'Bargain' or the many 'by the way' passages he sings on 'Quadrophenia', the school victim peeking behind the school bully to say a few words about what he really means. The 'clues' that Pete's narrators are speaking in a whisper, even when Roger is yelling, have been there since the first album but they really take over here, with a weary Pete unable to write or have any sympathies for a character who thinks he understands how the world works any longer. Roger gets to sing these words of disdain and despair, bringing out the cynical side of these songs, but really they're just sad and slightly worn-out, upset that a dream of a better future that was once so real has become so unlikely thanks to human stupidity, the corruption that goes along with being a rockstar in any band in any age and mind-numbing repetition (its always amazed me how this band, who started off at each other’s throats and split roughly once after every LP in the 1960s outlasted more ‘pally’ and peaceful groups—perhaps they all got out their feelings towards each other in the sheer screaming value of their music?) As we've said, Roger is superb singing songs he wouldn't normally be seen singing, but 'By Numbers' should really have been a Pete Townshend solo album full of his fragility, edginess and self-doubt. The album works better when heard as a long string of those middle eights heard on previous Who LPs rather than just another Who album sung by the usual Who characters.
What this album isn't, then, is 'The Who By Numbers' at all: in fact it's the only album released under The Who name that doesn't sound anything like them, or people's traditional ideas of what they sound like. That album title, like many of the songs herein, pokes fun at the idea of a load of old rockers still thinking they can find anything new to write about and several of these songs contain references to being uninspired, tired, old and fed up of both the music business and life in general. No longer the enfant terribles of rock, The Who had matured into a terribly rounded, deep-thinking unit by the mid 1970s and while The Who could have gone backwards and returned to their older sound (as indeed they will for 'Who Are You', their even more delayed follow-up to this record) it is to their credit that they didn’t. For all the head-shaking going on, for all of Roger’s curt dismissals and John’s more hidden annoyances with the material, The Who pull together behind their leader here and do him proud. For all of their many differences The Who are still a gang and they do what gangs always should – sound as if they belong together. The easiest thing to do on an album that claims its worthless is not to care. Even the album’s hit single ‘Squeeze Box’ – always a chance for Pete to show off his craftsmanship skills – seems almost deliberately empty, an aping of the sort of songs people assume the Who have always written. However the record is too good and made by musicians far too bright to just give up and give in.. Brave and honest in a way no other Who album is, ‘Numbers’ is the dark horse in the Who catalogue, an often beautiful, frequently pioneering record that bemoans the fact that it can’t keep up with all its competitors and then thrashes them all anyway without even really trying. Far from being 'past it', Pete has never been more self-aware about what a come-down it would be to just make a 'normal' Who LP for his 30th birthday and all his hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities rattle in this album. 'Quadrophenia' may be the most rounded Who album and 'Who's Next' may contain the best songs, while 'Who Sell Out' makes the best use of the studio and the full-Tommy length version of 'Live At Leeds' the best use of the stage. But 'Who By Numbers' is nonetheless perhaps The Who's most special LP, full of pathos, complexity and soul in every single song (bar perhaps 'Squeeze Box' and even that song is good fun). Even though it's shorter than most Who projects, quieter and more self-effacing, ‘By Numbers’ is not the start of the come-down that many fans take it to be – it is instead the hangover from The Who’s peak when they were just too good to be anything less than brilliant.
The Who have no time to waste in their soon-to-be-middle-age. Perhaps the last great rather than great-considering performance by Keith comes right at the start with the crisp stereo beat to  Slip Kid while Pete leaves his sardonic count in of ‘1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8’ in That’s apt as it happens given that this song, more than any other in The Who’s arsenal is about how age is just a number. Only not in a good way: poor Slip Kid is them and you and me and all of us likely to be listening to a Who record, running off to school aged thirteen working out how to tear the existing old world down and make it better now aged thirty and realising that at aged thirty it is a never-ending job he’ll still be grappling with at ‘sixty-three’. The title makes him a slip of a kid, too weak and vulnerable to ever do anything (the reason Pete was often picked on at school) but he’s also someone who slipped through the cracks of a collosolly huge society that he can’t possibly fight alone. This song sounds on first hearing like The Who of old; a brow-beating marching anthem with the narrator angrily taking on anything the world can throw at him, the youngster a soldier ready to fight for what he believes in, but it’s all a mirage: there is no hope of victory in this song as Pete resigns himself to the fact his fight is unwinnable. The schoolbooks and uniform have been slowly switched to a thermos flask and the hope has turned to fury with ‘the realisation: there’s no easy way to be free’. What most fans heard first time out was Roger roaring in the most obvious sequel to  ‘My Generation’ yet to ‘keep away old man, you won’t rule me – you and your history won’t rule me!’ However it is with a shock that you realise it is his younger self screaming it at his older self: ‘You might have been a soldier but admit you failed!’ Once again this is a Who song about identity, but after three double albums of concept records (foru if you count the pirate radio of ‘Who Sell Out’) the ‘characters’ struggling with their identity are the band themselves and the thought that, if even The Who know that they can’t tackle these monsters and bring them to rights, then what good are they? What use can they possibly have as a band? Even so, still they fight, because someone has to, the band brought into line by the quick-stepping discipline of Moon, their most wayeward member, a fact that sounds like a deliberate joke from Townshend (maybe yhe was already considering how badly his rhythm section friends would suffer financially and personally if he split the band up?) The highlight though is surely Roger: on an album he doesn’t often understand he ‘gets’ this character, who is just his younger self writ large, suffering a dash of cold water frustration on the side and has great fun spoofing his younger self. There’s a particularly poignant moment on this song when The Who even stop for a rest, all puffed out, pausing simply to revel in the primal beat of what is by their recent standards a terribly simple song. Pete’s pedal steel floats hanging in the air, crying big heavy tears that on an albums like ‘Lifehouse’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ the sheer roar of the band would keep away, but when they all join in again it is only to emphasise the sudden run down the chords that sounds like the narrator losing his grip on the world and his hope. The odd thing is, though, this is still easily the (second) happiest song on the album, with the chorus chant ‘there’s no easy way to be free’ the only moment on the Who performances on the album where there is any way out at all.
However, the band seemed to change their mind when they recorded the next track,  However Much I Booze where the chorus runs ‘there is no way out!’ A full-on self-hating song with Pete on vocals talking about how he’s sold out, covered up his true feelings for money, lies to his friends and band-mates and how all his early promise has burnt out and left him a raging alcoholic, However Much I Booze should be a self-indulgent whinge. But somehow the song sounds anything but worn out and washed up, with an effortlessly bouncy and fun riff matched by Pete singing with all of the jaunty, forced fun he says he’s been putting us on with for the past decade. A remarkably revealing song, this one seems to prove that Pete could have written hit singles in his sleep if he wanted to, but he’s too authentic for that. Instead he admits to how he became an alcoholic in a devastating lyric: its to shut up the feelings of inadequacy, of being a ‘paper clown’, who admits to ‘exaggeration’ and a big ego ‘that’s going to up and use me’, of ‘the phone and the conscience going on at me and on at me’. It doesn’t sound like he’s laughing at us for being fooled by his false voice the way a lesser writer would either; its just that he’s so worn out and disillusioned by his troubles that he can no longer bring himself to act happy anymore. Anyone who wants to know why Pete should suddenly have brushed aside ten years of rebel anthems for the self-doubting songs in this period need only read some of these lyrics to understand the toll the Who were taking on their guitarist (‘I lose so many nights of sleep worrying about my responsibilities’). The life of wild abandon has stopped becoming fun for Pete, always one of the more serious musicians on the 1960s music scene, as he tells us in unsparing detail about just how far from grace he feels he has fallen. And yet he hasn’t: ‘Booze’ may be a harrowing song but it is every way as brave as the anthems he used to write in his sleep. It’s also every bit as powerful musically – yes the tempo is just sloe enough to play that Keith doesn’t trip over himself quite so often and everything is now piano-based with an extra sound, but the twin attack of Entwistle’s bass and Townshend’s guitar is still a force to be reckoned with. By their thirties many bands were writing drunken songs about liquor – John for one, with ‘Booze’ sounding as if Pete has been paying close attention to his friend’s solo career which feature quite a lot of songs about heavy drinking (how fun it would be if Pete took one of John’s songs and re-wrote it from his perspective for a change; it is so usually the other way around!) However this is no wahey rock and roll stars getting-drunk-to-look-cool song or even a black comedy but a cry for help from an alcoholic who doesn’t have the self-worth to stop: Pete admits he uses booze as self defence and to cover up what he sees as his weaknesses and nothing more, telling us that he knows ‘there is no way out’ no matter how much he tries to escape from life by pretending he is having a good time.
You really feel for Pete, who can’t even bring himself to write the forced ending he seems to be going with. We seem to be fading out before Pete comes back again, too many demons still following him for comfort, as if he’s taken time off from writing the song in the daytime and returned to it at night, which he describes ‘like a cell door closing’ as he retuns to ‘the bottle and my head a-floating’, a haunting image indeed. The quite brilliant demo-with-guest-stars for this song included on ‘Scoop 3’ goes a stage further, with another false ending and a return to this false ending a second time with a first draft of what will become the lyric for  ‘Who Are You?’ Pete walks into a club and to his horror ‘no one seems to know me’ – they are all too young to identify with him. He’s lost his target audience and without them he is nothing; he has no one to see, hear or feel anymore. ‘I have to tell the story of my life to save me from being thrown out right there and then’ he sighs, ‘Can’t face the fact that once you open up for real you become ambivalent’, admitting that he’s scared his audience away (they want hope and miracles, not the cold hard truth – but by maintaining that façade you sell out your vow to your audience to be truthful, the debate at the very heart of this album). And so we leave Pete screaming for the ‘key’ out of his booze-locked cell, unable to help him, in his walls ‘scratched and clawed as if by someone insane’ who realises the next morning what he has done and ‘humbly detaches myself’ before doing it all over again, denying there was ever a problem. If we were the AA rather than the AAA we would be round to help like a shot – the wonder is that the guitarist came through it all alive the way so many (moony included) never could. Like much of the album, this is a hard song to sit through, but it is such a brave and beautifully crafted track that it rewards the listener for their patience well, admirably brave despite or perhaps because of being incredibly drunk.
Wisely Pete realises he can’t follow Booze in honesty terms, so the band back off slowly with hit single  Squeeze Box, one of their oddest ideas. My guess is that Pete was trying to go back where he left off in the years before concept albums and ‘Tommy’ and figured that as The Who hadn’t had a hit single in a long time he would deliberately set out to write a quirky one the way he did in 1966. However the innuendo-driven ‘Squeeze Box’ is different to, say,  ‘I’m A Boy’ or  ‘Pictures Of Lily’ because it’s hard to imagine any other band writing those songs and yet any amount of bands have a ‘Squeeze Box’ in their catalogue. Roger positively growls his way through the track’s silly idea of a husband driven mad by his wife’s accordion-playingand milks the noise being made by her ‘in and out’ action for all he’s worth. Simple and unassuming as it is, the song somehow fits the album too as this is also a song about being driven mad by a form of music and covers the ideas of escape and fantasy and dereliction of duty to the ones you love, it’s just a bit, well, jollier than the other songs on this album and the narrator’s mock-exasperation at his spouse playing all night suddenly sounds like quite a nice thing to be exasperated over given the wells of despair on some of this album’s other lyrics. Another great band performance and a classy arrangement helps an otherwise average song sound like something special, on one hearing at least (listen to the banjo-less dirge on Pete’s Scoop Three collection of demos to hear why the fine band arrangement makes such a difference to the song). The result was clever and catchy enough to scrape into the UK top ten for the first time since  ‘Join Together’, which was after all the idea, but if I know my Who they would have been slightly disappointed that their novelty hit song in the end reached the exact same peak in the charts as the much more ambitious  ‘I Can See For Miles’ eight years before, a single they all truly believed in. This track is just a B-side that was accidentally written by Pete rather than John and so got a place on the A-side and tie-in album instead. There’s one mystery though: why is there no accordion on this track, given that this is the whole point of the song?!
 Dreaming From The Waist is the most traditional Who-sounding song on the album and Pete sounds on the surface like he’s got some of his old fight back – this is an angry track well suited to Roger’s best rock and roll tonsils, Entwistle’s multi-octave spanning bass runs and Pete’s windmilling slashed guitar chords scowl throughout the song (typically Who, there’s very little traditional lead guitar playing on this track and it still sounds as if there’s a HUGE band playing on this song, not just a power trio and a singer). However, even this piece of snarling bile about the world at large isn’t as simple as it appears to be. Till now more or less every Who song has centred around the idea of a teenager or child becoming a man. It doesn’t happen, as the band themselves once sang, when you ‘hit twenty-one’ automatically (see ). Instead it happens after growth or overcoming some kind of obstacle, like those Tommy, Jimmy and the Lifehouse characters go through. This song, though, has Pete longing to go back the other way, to un-learn everything he’s experienced so far and lose his temper irrationally, to strip back the veneer of responsibility and awareness of others he had learnt to gain as an adult and become a purely emotional soul. Instead an older Pete can only dream of devolving back to his younger self, of ‘the day I can’t control myself’, of running out on his children, of thumbing through dirty magazines without I sulting his wife, of giving way to the lustful primal desires he still feels pounding within him. As he puts it at one point thirty is ‘too old to give up and too young to rest’ (and dreaming of the day when he takes a ‘cold shower’ purely for his heaslth and not to cool his libido) and so he pushes on, searching for something just out of his grasp, temporaily stung it might be in his past not his future. The riff reflects this too, staying at the high note, ducking down for a quick look through some lower chords and ending up back where he begun, nothing changed. Fittingly the performance has one Pete playing with all the passion of his older self and the other representing his newer self, scowling away on one chord like a mother-in-law with folded arms and a roller pin. What’s more she ‘wins’: by the last verse Pete admits that he can’t keep it up, that ‘here comes the morning, here comes the yawning demented clown’ (a line Roger uncharacteristically gabbles so that it is hard to hear) and even cools his heels with the final verse ‘but its all hot air…think I’ll get back to that rocking chair’, admitting that he is now too ‘old’ to lose his temper like he did in the past and that he ought to get out of the way for the second ‘my generation’ following in his wake. The thing is though The Who still sound mighty good like this and there was more mileage in their old sound for now: Roger suddenly sounds ten years younger and audibly relishes the chance to revisit his earlier rocky persona, while John hasn’t had this much space for pure spontaneous show-offy playing for a long time and really lets loose on the big finale. Only Keith sounds anything less than his best and even this has been cleverly disguised with a simplified part he simply plays hard in small bursts and some deliberately distracting cymbals.Anyone who still thinks The Who couldn’t play for toffee and were showmen without substance should listen to this track, perhaps the greatest studio example of their amazing band telepathy in the 1970s. In truth this song should have been the single: it’s a much better reflection of the band’s old sound which would have pleased fans without the need to sell out.
 Imagine A Man is another highly important song that always seems to get overlooked, probably because it is so different to The Who’s usual style. Fragile and gentle, but still clearly overloaded with the problems of the world, it features just Pete and Roger together for the most part, the school bully and his victim uniting on a song of escapism. Pete is by now worn down by three long concept albums and after ‘Quadrophenia’ feels he has to change his style. So he tries to imagine to imagine a man that isn’t fighting a cause but is just like himself, ordinary and ‘tied up in life’, too overwhelmed by everyday problems to think too deeply. Unable to connect to an audience the way he always used to (because he’s clearly not giving people what they want to hear anymore) Pete ends up imagining himself as others must see him (‘you know your invention is you’), wasting time as he ‘struts, parading and fading, ignoring his wife’ and so ancient he walks a ‘road so long looking backwards you can’t see where you really began’. You could read the song as a snarling put down of younger rockers (‘not a man of revolt, but a man of today feeling new’), but the band’s mature controlled performance doesn’t fit that interpretation, sounding more as if Pete is yearning for the days when he could rock to nonsense lyrics and didn’t feel the pressure of coming up with something bigger and deeper each time he sits down to write. Pete is so small and the load he carries and the things he worries about so huge ‘that against it a man is an ant’. He laughs at himself for daring to think so stupidly big, imagiing the everyday events that are totally out of the control of the utopi he imagines ‘like a shooting or raping’, the fence he has built around himself for protection and ‘a past you wish you had lived, full of heroes and villains and fools’ instead of which Pete is just a washed-up has been, a soul ‘so old it is broken’ and it can never be healed. He clearly feels much older than just a decade on from  ‘My Generation’, far older than his twenty-year-old self ever realised he would become in more ways than chronological age, having seen and done too much. Telling us that if we imagined life this way we would struggle to carry on too, Pete takes over from Roger for the pained suicidal chorus; ‘And you will see the end’. Roger the bully seems to have won at all and yet he isn’t laughing or mocking the way a lesser writer would have written this song. Instead Roger sings beautifully on one of his greatest vocals, Pete clearly writing this song for the ‘new’ voice he’s heard Roger use on his orchestral solo albums, a sweet tenor full of such longing and yearning and empathy. At the end Pete knows he is such a hopeless case that even the school bully pities him.Built to reflect  ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ it is like that song in reverse, the tough singer offering hope to the fragile writer as opposed to the sensitive writer acknowledging the depths of the singer. Everything about this poignant song is perfectly placed: the half Who rise-and-fall where John and Keith enter for a few seconds only to wearily cry off, the haunting harmony vocals, the slow unfurling of the acoustic guitar, the chorus of ascending notes that musically climb the srtairs to Heaven, the slow melody that tries to reach out to us for help as in  ‘See Me Feel Me’ but which no longer has the energy to see beyond its own nose. The result is a quite remarkable song, unlike anything else The Who ever did but greater than all but the very best of their work.
Side two takes an abrupt shift with the grungy attack of John Entwistle’s  Success Story and, just like the Ox’s songs on Tommy, it’s a witty and earthy song that perfectly complements the poetic musings of Townshend’s songs. Focusing on a wannabe rocker who hasn’t made it yet, jealous of writers like Pete who moan about the pressures of life now they are at a distance from the nasty real world, John’s narrator would give anything to have the life-style that Pete moans about because he’s hit life’s rock bottom and just needs to hit pay day. Pointed and defensive, with a riff that sounds like it’s arms are folded, there may be a cutting subtext to this as John struggled even this early on to pay his bills while as The Who’s chief writer Pete always took more. To put it bluntly, John couldn’t afford financially for The Who to end or for his friend to have a nervous breakdown – he needed the regular gigging to sustain his rockstar homelife (Keith too to some extent). Pete doesn’t seem to mind though, adding some mock angelic harmony vocals with glee as he sings about rock and roll being ‘the new religion’. Like many an Entwistle song, this track reveals a dry wit despite tackling quite a dark and serious subject – the few people out there who do become stars compared to the large numbers of people out there who try and fail – but this song is even darker than the Ox’s usual fare, matching Townshend for cynicism when the rocker finally becomes a success in the last two verses. In an obvious parallel of Townshend’s difficulties, Entwistle moans about how the inspiration and fire of his early days has turned to boredom and repetitiveness (‘Take 276 – you know this used to be fun’) even though he makes it quite clear that being a ‘rock star’ is still better than living a hard, ‘ordinary’ life (‘they ought to make work a crime’). He also watches on TV how celebrities he is deeply jealous of won’t settle: the rockstar wants to be a preacher and the preacher a rockstar, with no one really having the ‘answers’ at all. A wicked middle eight witches from Roger’s aggressive bark to John himself smashing up his guitar in Carnegie Halll as is ‘fairy manager’ rescues him from a life of drudgery in a clear knowing nod to what really happened to The Who. Roger relishes the chance to sing some ‘fun’ lyrics for once and Entwistle’s multi-tracked basses boom nicely out of the speakers, full of desperate built-up longing before they’re finally released in the song’s cathartic middle eight. Hilarious but highly revealing too, this is a typically undervalued and overlooked Entwistle song (his first on a Who album since  My Wife) that makes for a welcome reminder of how ‘ordinary people’ would love to have the luxury of Pete’s cerebral problems. One of The Ox’s greatest songs and notably a far greater song than anything he had been steadily releasing on his solo LPs with Roger better suited to this parody of himself than Entwistle’s later Who songs.
 They’re All In Love is another devastatingly beautiful song that’s often misunderstood. Pete could have chosen to be a romantic writer if he’d wanted to – he has the right sesnsitive feel for sensitive songs like this one. However, like Jimmy on  ‘Love Reign O’er Me’, he’s reaching out for love without really knowing what it is. He sees this unconditional love everywhere he goes: when summer is in the air, in the audience at gigs, when the sun shines. But like Tommy he doesn’t feel it and feels cut off from it, seemingly the only person who doesn’t know what it feels like. Bittersweet in the extreme, this is a half-beautiful, half-ugly mutant that does its best to tell us how the narrator doesn’t care for love and doesn’t think he really needs it —and yet love is there in every not of this song, which wistfully stares back at everybody else and wishing that things could be different. You can just imagine a sad Townshend walking round on Valentine’s Day all alone and wondering what other people might feel like. He doesn’t feel wanted at all, he appears on ‘oldie’ magazines about aging rockers not the hip new music mags anymore, feels out of place and unmarketable with ‘mud in your eye and a passion for gin’ and in the song’s most quoted line where he once saw magic and pain ‘now I’m recycling trash’. Recycling trash?!? Fra from it: the great irony of this song is that much as Roger bays and taunts how low he has become Pete also comes up with a melody that’s one of the greatest things he ever wrote, one which floats like a butterfly but in true Who fashion still stings like a bee with a taser. A final appearance by Nicky Hopkins on piano is beautifully cast, the floral quality hidden on The Who’s debut album now very much to the fore as if it hads finally surfaced through all that cynical noise to be the true romantic The Who’s general narrator always wanted to be. Even here though, ten years on from ‘My Generation’, he is no nearer to knowing what true love actually is. I wonder too if this is Pete looking on jealously not at other lovers but other rockers, wondering where his audience went and why younger bands are now being treated as special the way he once was. Pete is unwillingly giving way to younger stars who now have the ‘magic touch’ and cross that The Who are losing the looks and style that they used to have in their youth. Pete needn’t have worried – Pete and Roger are in their seventies now and as loved as they will ever be, but that’s easy to say nowadays when rock is no longer a young man’s prerogative and is actually done tones better and with more meaning by stars with a bus pass these days. You can tell, though, that Pete didn’t think the band had a future at all back in 1975, with even the glam rock and prog rock stars being dismissed as ‘dinosaurs’ never mind stars from the 1960s. The love he speaks about in this song, then, is probably the love of an audience, a theme that always brought out the best in Pete going right back to the beginning of his career: there’s only us, the Stones and the Kinks left from the 60s, says Pete, and unlike the other two the Who had always refused to take the mainstream path (until 1979 that is). The audience is tempted to say, well, 10 years of success isn’t a bad innings for a period when most new groups only last 10 minutes – and yet there’s something so overwhelmingly mournful in that chorus, which dolefully finds the narrator staring at all the people around him in the street who all seem to be deeply loved and cared for, which makes you melt into a sea of pity. Pete makes it clear he feels like nothing without his writing to keep him going and he feels that he no longer has anything to offer his audience and that he has lost a magic glow becoming ‘like a woman in childbirth, grown ugly in a flash’ and he may as well take his cheque book and run, leaving the music business up to the ‘punks’ (a second use of that word before it was in common use in music, two years before punk’s ‘year zero’ and again affiliating himself with the ‘Modfathers’ as per ).This is a painful admission which is all the more ironic because the music is so downright gorgeous that you know it is not true. One of the most moving passages of any Who song, this hypnotizing line which seeps through the rest of the song like a dripping tap, is well complemented by some ghostly band harmonies that haunt the song as if we are listening to a band that is now extinct. So there we leave Pete, dreaming about the Who’s beautiful past which the guitarist never actually had time to enjoy while it was happening, singing with pure bitterness of being replaced and dismissed by younger concert-goers. Another most under-rated song.
By this point on the album you’re ready to cry out to Pete ‘enough already! If things are that bad, split up the group, go solo, change your style, retire to the outer Hebrides next to your mum’s bgungalow and enjoy your money if you have to, at least do something!’ But then, spiraling out of the sudden end of ‘Love’ comes the most lovely lilting banjo lick and one of the greatest life-affirming songs ever written.  Red, Blue and Grey makes it clear that Pete isn’t quite done yet, returning to  ‘Bargain’ with the idea that, however ugly it might become, the gift of life is valuable and still better than the alternative.This sweet song is Pete nearly on his own on a ukulele, with just Entwistle’s gentle brass overdubs for accompaniment, backing up his old school friend and musical partner superbly once more. The story goes that Pete tagged his (so far unheard) demo of this track onto a bunch of odds and ends he submitted to album producer Glyn Johns more for safe-keeping than anything else – and forgot about it. Glynn, though, considered it the best of Pete’s new compositions and considered it the central track on the new album. Rather embarrassed that one of his friends had heard what was (for Pete) such a naïve and simplistic song, Townshend fought against its inclusion – but was over-ruled once his bandmates heard it too and told him they had to use it. Good on the band for noticing the qualities of this song, which is surely one of the most sorely neglected of all Who classics and again, like much of this album, is so different to the usual Who fare. It is hard, actually, to imagine ‘Who By Numbers’ without this track – we need it here to remind us of the cycles of life and it’s presence near the end of the album single-handedly turns it around, not just in a clichéd I-didn’t-mean-it-really-way but in a life-can-be-tough-but-I’m-tougher kind of way. Other people understand life only when they’re happy, sings Pete, but not me – I love every hour of the day, even when its raining, even if my band’s disintegrating, even if I can’t be inventive anymore, even if everything’s going wrong, I’m still here and I’m still proud of my past even if I have no future. While his friends enjoy the Summer sunshine of the South of France, get up early to watch sunrises or enjoy cocktails in the evening while the sky turns red, blue and grey, Pete simply loves every experience life has to offer him, good and bad, even if the misery means he forgets that at times, as ‘the pleasure seems to balance out the pain’. This sounds like it should be another Meher Baba text, the guru who is noticeably absent from this album as pete felt ‘unwporthy’ despite a pilgimrage to see his tomb in India since making ‘Quadrophenia’ (where Pete says he felt something like an ‘electric shock’ as if his body was being updated for a new spiritual quest but one which never seemed to come and left him feeling disappointed – he didn’t feel it on any of his return trips either). With Pete offering by far and away his best vocal on a Who album, subtle and edgy but undeniably warm, this track is more downright gorgeous stuff from The Who and completely puts into context the ‘moaning’ songs either side of it. Classic, classy material; even in the depths of despair Pete knows what he’s doing and even when he thinks he can’t write anything of value anymore, this track proves overwhelmingly that he can.
You almost expect the album to end there, but it can’t: Who By Numbers is not that type of album and having an easy way to be free would be a cop out. As if that short illumination of his inner soul had never happened, Pete is back turning the screws round again with his most uncomfortable song  How Many Friends? With verses dedicated to the narrator’s most besotted fans, some unidentified lover and even fellow band members and managers, it mixes a really moving optimistic verse of hope and naiveté when Pete was young (and, ironically, being excploited for writing cynical songs that sold) that turns into a downright growl of despair when the narrator finds out he’s been taken for a ride yet again. We don’t know who the ‘handsome boy’ chatting Pete up with brandy is, but it’s noticaebale how easily he is flattered while hating himself for it, so desperate is the narrator to feel he is somebody special. Unable to find true love Pete next reaches out to a prostitute saying that ‘it’s nice to find a women who will stay on late’, but of course she’s paid to be there – she’s not there out of love. Next pete turns on a manager, reportedly Kit, claiming ‘when we first contract it was more than a handshake then….but it’s a plain fact we talk so much shit behind each other’s backs’. Roger really struggles with the tongue-twister of a couplet about ‘soft gut souls’ which is in turn The Who’s audience leaving in droves and the music critics who ‘can sum us up without suffering’ what they have. Pete, then, is a mess. Just take the chorus which like ‘Imagine A Man’ and ‘Thy’re All In Love’ yearns for unconditional love where the narrator doesn’t have to keep proving himself all the time: ‘How many friends have I really got, that will love me, will want me, will take me as I am?’ Roger isn’t really one for moaning but somehow he suits this song more than some others on this album, angrily turning on the world for betraying him and the degradingness of being befriended by people who care more for the state of your bank balance than your health. Keith Moon, never a man for opoen displays of emotion, reportedly cried his eyes out after hearing Pete’s demo of this song (alas unheard in the world at large as yet) – both in sympathy to his friends’ pain and – perhaps – because of what he saw of himself in the song (after all, Keith had far more hangers-on saying ‘yes’ to him than Pete ever did; Townshend felt more comfortable being around ‘no men’ who kept him on his toes). Caustic, angry and bitter, this is the Who at their snarling provocative best. And yet, reading between the lines, it seems that Pete is really angry at himself in this song – he’s angry at those around him for not knowing how to stop him from getting into the mess he’s in, it’s true, but he’s really really really angry at himself for getting into the messes in the first place when he should have known better. Now he doesn’t know who to trust anymore. As with much of this album there’s a terrific middle eight that just swipes the song down a minor key, turning up the screws as he does what he usually does in Who songs to feel better: he reaches out to his fanbase and gathers together a community as per  ‘Join Together’. But no: he is now afraid of them, scared which ones might be using him. Pete’s most paranoid song, this is another impressively honest soul-searching song, perfect for playing to your mean flatmates when they’re annoying the hell out of you (err, so I’m told!) The Who and especially Roger’s acerbic vocal do Pete proud by the way, so at least that’s one thing he can cut off his list – it would be nice if naïve to think that they are the four friends Prete can ‘count on the fingers of one hand’, especially in this troubled period, but nevertheless they somehow turn this most un-Who like song into one of their most traditional on the album. Another most undervalued song that is tough to hear but sounds way tougher to have to live.
The album then wraps itself up with  In A Hand In A Face (no, I don’t know what that title means either). Most reviewers don’t seem to like this album usually, seeing it as some sort of self-indulgent deviation from the Who’s grand masterplan of accessible bouncy edgyness (fair enough to a degree – it just happens to be an relentless hard-going LP done with enough skill and finesse to overcome these problems), but for some reason reviewers really really don’t like this closing song. The problem lies with what Pete really meant by his line at the end of the first verse: ‘Ain’t it funny how they all fire the pistol at the wrong end of a race?’ A clever but horrifying line given its context in this album, this is often referred to as Pete’s ‘suicide’ song (meaning that an artist has no option but to end it all if he wants to stop repeating himself for the rest of his career) and that life is like an athletic race in reverse: no one tells us when to start so artists begin at different ages and after different experiences—but they sure know when to stop because some idiot of a trend-setter decides that certain things are ‘old hat’ at a given time. Answering his own battle cry of ‘why don’t you all f-f-f-ade away?’, Pete isn’t dismissing his old battle cry as an ignorant and youthful outburst – he still agrees with its sentiments whole-heartedly and wants to get out now that he has nothing left to say. And yet this track proves once and for all that The Who still had plenty to say. The lyrics may be about repetitiveness and loss of inspiration (witness the ‘I am going round and round’ chorus which whirls round the song like water going down a plughole), but even for the Who this is a killer rock song, inventive and restless, sweeping from one section into another in the blink of an eye (or a face). Dark and sulky even compared to the rest of ‘By Numbers’ it has the band pushed well past their usual selves with Roger enjoying himself going back to being a bully, mocking Pete as a washed-up has-been. The lines reflect how far Pete has fallen: ‘Funny how they’re all Cleopatra’ he sneers to himself as everyone dismisses him for being past it when they too have been around as long as he has. Another particularly revealing line comes in the second verse where a tramp goes through the narrator’s dustbins, only this time rather than looking out for juicy stories and memorabilia ‘this time he’s looking for food’ and Pete is just one more sucker who got sucked into the rock and roll trap without helping those better off than himself when he got into music rfor all the right reasons, to change the world to be more equal so people like him wouldn’t have to hunt for food. Pete then revealingly tells us that he is scared of the very persecuted people he’s always been singing about helping all these years - mainly because ‘you don’t know him – but you know what he’s going through’. Now he hides from the person he vowed to help, cowering in case he is found out for the rich fraud he fears he is. No wonder so many people hate this song: in ‘reply’ to the last song it is Pete turning on his audience with a betrayal of everything we expect from The Who: it doesn’t unite us it divides us, it doesn’t rock so much as holds itself on a simple heavy metal style riff spring ready to pounce, it kicks away everything the band ever stood for by admitting fraud and worst of all sucks away all possible hope. There isn’t even a full ending, the song hanging in mid-air on Keith’s half-speed cymbal, as if Pete couldn’t be bothered to write one. For all that though this is a phenomenal song for exactly all of those reasons: much as The Who complain of ‘going round and round’ the fact is that they have never ever sounded like this before and never will do again. This is an important song in The Who canon, deliberately written to be as cynical and depressing as it can be – which in its own way makes it the only possible sequel to  ‘My Generation’ that the band could possibly have written for their tenth birthday without selling out everything they meant in that song.
We have indeed gone round full circle and you don’t need to know this album’s birthsign (a sensitive water sign, with some added Leo drama with a hint of Taurean stubborness) to recognise it as a record that’s decidedly out of kilter with every other Who album in their run. That is a fact that scares many fans off who tend to like their Who to come with relateable characters, broad concepts and enough hope to get them through their own difficult lives. However there is was and always will be a place in rock and roll for bravery and ‘Who By Numbers’ is one of the most courageous albums out there, telling the truth as it sees it in all its paranoid fury. The dark horse of The Who catalogue, you don’t listen to this album for pleasure but then you’re not meant to – just as its chief author was going through hell in the making of this record, so this is an album that will help you through yours too, its cynical bite cutting through the sugariness of other albums that are just too saccharine for your tastes when you are in a really dark mood. Not surprisingly, Who By Numbers was all but ignored by fans and critics when it came out, less marketable than ‘Quadrophenia’ and even moe out of step with the generally up-pop of its day (when, ironically, high-falluting prog concept albums were briefly back in fashion too). Single aside, none of these tracks have ever featured on a ‘best of’ compilation and precious little of this album is on the Who box-set 30 Years Of Maximum R and B’. Ironically, the Who were even dismissed in the music papers for recycling ideas on some of the songs (which is exactly the sort of things the lyrics are rallying against) by cloth-eared people who didn’t realise that this is an imnspired album masquerading as a tired cynical one, not the other way around. Ignore this album’s reputation, though, I implore you; ‘Who By Numbers’ isn’t a routine albulm at all but a brave, under-rated battle cry that really is pioneering and leaking inspiration in every note, whatever the clever, honest and witty lyrics say about going through the motions. Educational and harrowing, Who By Numbers is thoughtful music at its best. Happy belated birthday Pete from all at Alan’s Album Archives and, err, many happier returns – thankfully there are much happier returns on the next run of albums and Pete will never again sink quite this low emotionally.