In the ’70s, music was characterized by an inner conflict that tore at ideals and hurled them against the blackest confines of the human psyche. As a seeker of truth, Pete Townshend surely would have a lot to say. The Who was always – always – there in times of need. The album The Who were to release after Quadrophenia was to expose Pete’s vulnerabilities like nothing else. It was him who needed someone. And the horrible realization that he was not finding that person or people within his band was what listeners were to come across on “The Who By Numbers”.
The setting in which the album was conceived was as troublesome as the ones in which “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia” came to the world. This time, Roger and Pete were playing verbal ping pong on the press, and their views on The Who (as entertainers and as artists) were never painted in such black and white terms before or since.
Pete’s already-manifested impression that the band was caricaturing itself had entrenched by this point. His new set of songs dealt with that in a tortured way. The one jovial tune on offer was to be “Squeeze Box”. It was to become a Top 20 hit, in fact. That was certainly disheartening – something truly akin to another brick in the wall of vacuity.
A sense of futility populates the album: Pete questions the relationships with his fans and friends at every turn, and the facades he always studied were becoming far, far too brittle. Everybody could see through disguises by this point.
A very ductile song which is found among the mire of introspective flagellation is “Imagine A Man” – it might as well be the one example of positive introspection within range here. The song also has one of Keith’s final compelling performances on a Who record.
As far as John went, he contributed a song which stood alongside Pete’s compositions so minutely that if felt deliberate. The song was called “Success Story” and narrated the life of a weary rock & roller that sang “I might go far/If I smash my guitar”. The song also explored the almost imperceptible distance separating music from religion, and it was notable instrumentally since it was John’s recorded debut on 8-string bass.
Other song that did stand out was “Dreaming From The Waist” a number about sexual desire and the way musicians have a experience of their own when it comes to carnality, an experience we all imagine yet could never fully understand. And the set opener was “Slip Kid”, a song that reflected Pete’s disillusionment at the realization that problems do not go away as one ages but rather stay for as long as one could imagine.
Pete was to take the lead twice: on “However Much I Booze” (a song Daltrey refused to sing as he didn’t have a drinking habit) and the ukelele-driven “Blue, Red & Grey” (with John on horns). That song had a genuine sentiment if you ask me, but there was a very noticeable aura of bitterness that was somehow left unresolved.
The most succinct assessment of the new material came from critic Simon Fritz. He simply termed the record “Pete Townshend’s suicide note”. That was something horrible. But it was the exact truth of it. The record was produced by veteran Glyn Johns, and his professional hand made everything somehow more palatable.
Careful if you buy this album. Pondering on life is mostly fine, but pondering on life, death, uselessness and frustration at the same time is not. It’s just too much too handle. As a fan, I find “By Numbers” appealing because it does sound good and I find it invaluable to see how Pete’s artistic vision was evolving. But non-fans won’t be that thrilled. Not at all.