Joining the dots....
The Who had established themselves as a number of key identities by this stage, they had been dubbed, spokesmen of their generation, and in Tommy and Quadrophenia set immensely challenging benchmarks for themselves to follow. The who never ever made it easy for themselves, which in one sense was always the admirable thing about them, and yet that left them open to greeting of disappointment with each new release.
Yet Townshend, for all his eternal worries about The Who and himself becoming
an outdated parody, (probably in itself putting years on the poor fellow), it
was precisely this kind of pressure that brought the best out in his song-writing.
There were two obvious ways he could attempt to parallel Quadrophenia even
if he could never hope to top it. He could attempt another fully fledged
story album that buffeted the listener from start to finish, or as he perhaps
shrewdly opted for, he could make his statements more concise and his songs more
personal, heaven knows, he had plenty to write about.
And so The Who shunned the more materialistic approach of their past armed with
a cropful of songs that boasted less than 45 minutes in length. Subtlety was
still clearly off-menu, but the scaled back Who sound was a delight to
rediscover, it had all the energy of their past and the know-how of experience,
this ageing lark that Townshend so feared actually became the real selling point
of 'The Who by numbers' and the songs aren't in the least compromised for
getting back to basics.
Here laid bare with striking frankness are the frustrations, the
demon wrestling, and the ever-present disillusionment that each of the group
were feeling at the time. 'However much I booze' is an uptempo song with a sting
in the tail and Townshend slurs with sobering articulation, the perils of his
alcoholism. John Entwistle sinks his teeth in too with 'Success story' which is
basically a three minute autobiography of The Who. Then there are extrodinary ballads which really is an advancement in Townshend's song-writing credentials.
The haunting 'Imagine a man' is painful, beautiful and a revelation. 'Blue,Red and Grey' is also remarkable, bold and imploring, it truly makes you smile listening to it. And the punch of 'How Many Friends' again harks back to another of Townshend's reoccurring themes, paranoia and distrust. Lighter moments include the splendid 'Squeeze box', typically Who, yet totally original. And a special mention is in order to Daltery's vocal performance. After years of tearing his throat out in Rock Operas of huge magnitude, it was no mean feat that the diminutive singer adapting his style to meet the requirements.
As sure as getting dirt under your nails whilst handling mud, this album will spin round in your mind long after you hear it. In fact freed of the chunkier strains of music in The Who's grander albums, a lot of the songs are there after one listen and will remain with you indefinitely.
Aiming to reincorporate an old Who sound could have been going over old ground, but it beckoned to pastures new for the old timers. With the sad departure of Keith on the horizon not all would endure many more albums, but Townshend at least should have got some consolation and cleansing out of The Who by numbers, his ageing and revelance complexes if on the surface threatened to destroy him, this album gave both complexes cause for concern. In the face of great obstacles, they would hit the grave long before Townshend's career.