Posts Tagged ‘By Numbers’

Released just over 45 years ago, The Who “By Numbers” has some of Pete Townshend’s most personal and saddest lyrics and is hence a passionate and emotional album with the help of Roger John and Keith. Their last classic album? maybe.

After releasing two of the greatest rock concept albums of all time in Tommy and Quadrophenia, the Who had nowhere to go but down, at least in terms of overweening ambition, anyway. The result released in 1975 The Who by Numbers, proved a critical and commercial triumph in the face of personal adversity.

At the time, the band were battling demons on two fronts. On one hand, they felt somewhat boxed in after setting the template for rock concept records. As singer Roger Daltrey complained, fans and critics expected the band’s albums to come with a certain amount of heft, to the point that they sometimes weren’t willing to give non-concept efforts their proper due. Grumbling that “nobody wanted to listen to what [else] we were doing” after Tommy came out, Daltrey argued  “Who’s Next” holds up much better, but nobody wanted to take it seriously because it was just nine songs.

Further complicating things was the band members’ increasingly critical view of where the Who stood — or should stand in a turbulent musical landscape that had grown to encompass styles that seemed to exist in contrast to the growing complexity and maturity of the band’s own work. For guitarist Pete Townshend, who wrote the bulk of the material, the question proved particularly vexing.

“Before the emergence of punk, the Who were the only band who actually sat round a table to decide ‘Should we go on or not?’ Would we be doing music a favour if we just f—ing stopped? We actually considered that,” Townshend told NME Magazine.

“Around the time of The Who by Numbers we used to have really quite heavy conversations about where music was going to go – particularly in this country – and whether we should be involved in it, and the problem with [drummer Keith Moon] living in America and living that Hollywood lifestyle and whether we should try and force him to come back to England … all those kind of things. Whether our music should change, whether we should let the Who tradition just bash on until it got really boring, whether we should try and force change by starting labels and working with other bands.”

As Who fans are well aware, the band opted to forge ahead with their seventh studio album, The Who by Numbers, which arrived in stores on October. 3rd, 1975 . It was nearly two years after Quadrophenia, and a relative eternity during the speedier release cycle that was the norm at the time. Realizing their rather chaotic state would make recording more of a slog than normal, they enlisted producer Glyn Johns to help wrangle the sessions into shape, and as the weeks dragged into months, Johns earned every penny of his paycheck even though the album’s aesthetics were less intricate and synthesizer-driven than the recordings that had preceded it.

Glyn worked harder on The Who by Numbers than I’ve ever seen him. He had to, not because the tracks were weak or the music poor but because the group was so useless,” Townshend’s quoted as saying in Alan G. Parker and Steve Grantley’s The Who by Numbers. “We played cricket between takes or went to the pub. I personally had never done that before. I felt detached from my own songs, from the whole record. Recording the album seemed to take me nowhere. Roger was angry with the world at the time. Keith seemed as impetuous as ever, on the wagon one minute, off the next. [Bassist John Entwistle] was obviously gathering strength throughout the whole period; the great thing about it was he seemed to know we were going to need him more than ever before in the coming year.”

The end result, unsurprisingly, was a collection of moody, introspective, and fairly dark songs; although tracks like the opening cut “Slip Kid” and double entendre-laden “Squeeze Box” went down easy enough, The Who by Numbers is more strongly defined by self-critical Townshend compositions like “However Much I Booze” and “Dreaming from the Waist”; even the lighter-sounding “Blue, Red and Grey,” which found Townshend strumming a ukulele on top of a brass section overdubbed by Entwistle, was later described by Townshend in a Numbers reissue’s liner notes as “me wanting to kill myself.”

Between the subject matter and the rumors of band strife that pervaded the music press at the time, the popular opinion was that The Who by Numbers offered a sort of grim personal manifesto from Townshend as he approached middle age  and although he’s more or less confirmed that point of view a number of times over the years, he’s also cautioned that listeners shouldn’t try to read too much into the songs, insisting what he was really trying to do was put himself in his audience’s shoes.

“There are a couple of really politically incorrect lines on Quadrophenia, but I thought I could get away with it because I was writing for a character. But on By Numbers, everybody took everything really literally. I don’t know. It’s interesting,” Townshend . “I certainly didn’t feel a lack of friendship and I certainly didn’t feel suicidal. I think I may have been a bit angry occasionally. I think I need to go to the great journalistic psychiatrist and have it explained to me, why I was wrong and they were right.”

Perhaps more importantly, according to Townshend, Daltrey was actually more responsible for the overall theme of the album. “The songs are about being older, feeling lost, losing your way,” Townshend has said. “Changing fashions, being sentimental, looking at the sunrise. What’s that got to do with being a young man? You don’t start looking at the sunrise until you’re dying. But,” he added, “Roger picked those songs from my demos.”

The end result, pointed out Townshend, was an album of songs in which one artist interpreted the words of another  which were themselves interpretations of Townshend’s efforts to put music to what his audience was going through. “Roger’s an actor,” he argued. “I don’t think he realized that what he was doing all the time with my work was interpreting, acting and I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be an actor and he could.”

Daltrey, for his part, still believes the album is more autobiographical than Townshend would perhaps like to admit. “Who by Numbers is very dark because Pete was going through some terrible agonies, but I didn’t realize this at the time,” he told Uncut. “We thought, if he wants space, we’ll give him some space – when what we should have done was been there saying, ‘You all right, Pete?’ But that’s just the way he was and still is. There’s a side to him that is like a stone wall and what he really wants you to do is knock down the f—ing wall and come through it, which takes a lot of effort all the time. I understand it now but I didn’t understand it then. So it led to this brooding, deep, introspective album. He was boozing a lot and I think he was having problems with his marriage, trying to balance that family life with rock’n’roll, ’cause they don’t balance. But I love that album.”

However you take the songs’ meaning, “The Who by Numbers” proved yet another hit for the Who, with “Squeeze Box” entering heavy rotation on both sides of the Atlantic while the album hit the Top 10 in the U.S. and U.K. on its way to RIAA certification for half a million in sales. And while Townshend may have sweated the songwriting during this period, other members of the band seemed perfectly content — including Entwistle, whose hand-drawn album art reflected the record’s scaled-down sensibilities.

“Squeeze Box” is a slang term for an accordion, but it is also slang for the vagina. The band just wanted to see if they could get away with singing about the joys of explicit sex.

In the liner notes to Pete Townshend’s compilation album Scoop, he wrote that he recorded the song for fun one day when he had bought himself an accordion. The accordion gave the song a polka-esque rhythm and the lyrics were “intended as a poorly aimed dirty joke.” Townshend had no thought of it ever becoming a hit.

The song is about an accordion (sort of), but there is hardly any of the instrument in the song. You can hear some in the section about 90 seconds in that goes, “squeeze me, come on and squeeze me,” but the subsequent instrumental section is mostly banjo. Pete Townshend played both instruments.

“The best we’ve done since the last one,” chuckled Entwistle when asked for his thoughts on The Who by Numbers in a 1976 interview with Sounds. “I like the cover. That’s pretty good.”