The Who By Numbers
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/24/2006
When it comes right down to it, The Who were pretentious as hell. Here was a band that quite possibly could have been the greatest of all time yet saw fit to indulge themselves in massive projects like Tommy and Quadrophenia.
Let the record state I enjoy Quadrophenia and most of Tommy. However, in my eyes, the ultimate Who record is Who’s Next. That album encapsulated what Daltrey and Co. were all about. Why they didn’t see fit to just record albums like that boggles the mind; yes, there is something to be said for progression as an artist, but to me The Who never really explored what the potential Who’s Next provided.
The Who By Numbers tends to be one of those forgotten Who records, released right in between Quadrophenia and the last album with Keith Moon, Who Are You. That is a shame, because this one ranks up there with the best, due in no small part to a straightforward approach to the material.
First, let’s just get “Squeeze Box” out of the way. Rock is juvenile at the core, so the lyrics shouldn’t shock anyone. Besides, they are genuinely funny; I had never heard “squeeze box” used as this particular euphemism before. Furthermore, the music is probably the pop side of The Who at their best. How many Who songs have banjo and accordion in them?
That was the hit, but it is nowhere close to being the best track. The pounding “Slip Kid” actually captures what I think Zeppelin tried to do with In Through The Out Door. The jaunty, acoustic flavored “However Much I Booze” is the quickest five minutes you’ll ever hear, and Townshend actually delivers an effective rock vocal performance, a rarity since his voice doesn’t exactly command attention like Daltrey’s.
“Imagine A Man” is a classic Who, demonstrating the group's ability to shift gears on a dime. The track fluctuates between a gentle, rolling ballad and thunderous climaxes, punctuated by Moon’s brilliant fills. In fact, Who By Numbers is some of Moon’s best work, because it is restrained yet powerful. The man can play, “The Ox” proved that. But there’s a difference between banging away and playing.
The songwriting on Who By Numbers is the opposite of Tommy. I enjoy that, especially because Townshend didn’t feel the need to gussy up his ideas in the form of a complex rock opera; he just let his feelings play out straight. “How Many Friends,” beneath the bravado of Daltrey’s vocals and the arrangement, contains quite a touching sentiment on being a rock star.
If you want to listen to The Who at their most experimental, put on Quadrophenia. If you want to hear them at their pinnacle, put on Who’s Next. If you want to listen to The Who just play, pick up The Who By Numbers.