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Music Review: The Who – The Who By Numbers

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My holy trinity plus two of Who albums are Who’s Next, Live At Leeds, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Quadrophenia and Tommy. For me and for many other people The Who By Numbers remains an afterthought in their catalog.

Pete Townshend seems to have been undergoing a crisis of aging and fame. He and The Who had just produced a series of critically acclaimed and very popular albums. They now ranked as one of the premier rock bands in the world. Townshend, who had issued a call to a generation, was now growing older himself. In this state of mind he would be responsible for producing a mature, thoughtful, depressing and moody group of songs. He would also strip the group’s sound back to basics similar to their early days prior to Tommy.

In many ways it’s like being on the receiving end in a confessional. Songs such as “However Much I Booze”, “In A Hand Or A Face”, “How Many Friends” and “Blue, Red and Grey” all show Townshend’s state of mind. I have always found it interesting that despite the personal lyrics, the melodies were some of the best he would produce.

On a lighter note, “Squeeze Box” was released as a single despite the focus on breasts and the joys of sex. This tongue in cheek song certainly forms a nice pair when matched with “Pictures Of Lily”. “Slip Kid” was also less serious despite trying to hang on to a rebellious attitude. Also “Dreaming From The Waist” contains a terrific vocal by Roger Daltrey which is cloaked in some classic rock.

John Entwistle contributed one of his better creations. “Success Story" is an autobiographical story and a defense of rock ‘n’ roll itself and forms a nice counterpoint to Townshend’s depressive statements.

The Who By Numbers may be a difficult album to listen too on a regular basis but it still contains some fine music. It may not come to mind very often, but it remains an important stop in the Who's history.

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About David Bowling

  • Nice, if somewhat cursory overview here David.

    What’s lacking here is depth, baby, depth.

    By Numbers was a transition album for Townshend as a songwriter. It is an album where he was really coming to terms with who he was as a rock and roll superstar, as opposed to who he was a human being, and the songs show it…especially “How many Friends” (and its key line, “I can count em’ on the one hand”).

    Townshend was always, for better or worse, a thinker. And this album was the point where he really began to rethink who he was as a songwriter, and as a human being. I would go so far as to say it is a pivotal album in the career of the Who. The band as we had known it up to this point, basically died after this record…long (well, not that long) before the group’s real foundation (Keith Moon) was gone.

    By Numbers ain’t Whos Next, not by a longshot. But it is an important record in as much as it was really the begining of the Who, and Townshend’s transition from rock and roll brats to the real world. For that reason alone, By Numbers is an absolutely pivotal record in this band’s evolution.


  • Sure, Glen, it’s everything you say it is: pivotal, transitional, essential – but the sad fact is, for most people, it’s also unlistenable.

  • I’m not sure it is actually possible to be both “pivotal, transitional, essential” and “unlistenable”, so I’d have to go with the latter.

    The Who had been one of the most exciting bands on the planet in their heyday but, like many bands of their generation, have rapidly descended into being their own tribute band.

    I was just reading through their history on Wikipedia and was a little surprised to learn that Daltrey was a lead guitarist himself prior to recruiting John Entwistle and Pete Townshend into The Detours.

  • Well, Christopher, you may be right, but I guess what I’m saying is though I understand Townsend’s personal outburst in “how many friends,” the fact is, I have my own problems to worry about, and his songs here simply doesn’t resonate with me. I never did like songs where some whiner sings about how hard it is to be a successful rock star. If listeners can’t find something of themselves in a song with which to identify, they just won’t care.

  • I totally agree with you, Skeeter.

  • Chris

    Well, interestingly enough I’ve found that this album has become more and more important to me as I’ve got older. Indeed, that can be said for a lot of Townshend’s writing from this period onwards right up to the present day, which speaks to me far more than the youth orientated writing of the early years.

    I’m quite sure I’m relatively unusual in that, but it does mean that I actually rather treasure By Numbers. It’s almost a window into the soul of the writer – he even directly addresses that with the line “You at home can easily/decide what’s right/by glancing very briefly/at the songs I write”.

    It isn’t Quadrophenia or Who’s Next, of course not. It’s low key and understated, but I do feel it quite possibly is one of those albums you come to love much later on – for some of us, anyway

  • Interesting, for sure – that’s the way I feel about Townsend/Lane’s Rough Mix.

  • Super Amanda

    May I please recommend three or four good books about the Who to counteract your inadvertent historical inaccuracy??

    ‘who had issued a call to a generation, was now growing older himself. In this state of mind he would be responsible for producing a mature, thoughtful, depressing and moody group of songs.”


    You can write something a bit more original than that! How about mentioning that unlike Quadrophenia the production is nice and sparse not surrounded by synths which shows how incredibly versatile they are as a band AND a bit about what each song was actually about.

    You wrote:
    “Also “Dreaming From The Waist” contains a terrific vocal by Roger Daltey which is cloaked in some classic rock.”

    What about that song, along with “Hand or Face”, containing one Entwistle’s most astonishing bass solos which means that’s pretty f*cking astonishing! Something akin to a Sherman tank popping about!

    “The people on the hill they say I’m lazy but when they sleep I sing and dance” from Blue Red and Gray was a jape about Ronnie Wood who lived up the hill from Pete and he could always hear the parties.
    Sorry, Who By Numbers is a crown jewel in The Who crown and any TRUE WHO FAN is going to rate it in the top three. True Whoheads just leave the hits to the static fans, actual true Who addicts just know better. We like rareities, demos and obscure live and solo stuff. Apart from “Live at Leeds” your choices of favourite Who discs is the “X-Factor selection.” All the hits that “everyone knows.”
    there is just miles and miles of “more” to The Who.

    I’ve covered the entire WBN disc with fellow Who fans , playing it live at open mics and small gigs, for You Tube and in the home studio. The Who album works very nicely all the way through especially with Slip Kid as an opener and Squeeze Box as closer (which by the way is not just about big tits, Pete had just bought an accordion etc etc)

    Who By Numbers is insanely great, it’s second only to Who Are You and then The Who Sings My Generation, all plus A Quick One and Sell Out make me happy Jack.

  • It’s also important to note that the paranoia of songs like “Imagine a Man” , “Hand or Face” and “How Many Friends” have never been more apt given the signs of the times.

  • Unlistenable? Afterthought? Are you people out your minds? This is a GREAT record. See that Brother Bowling says dismissively that these were some of Townshend’s best melodies. Hell, man, that’s the main meat of a song. Best melodies pretty much equals best songs.

    And these songs are not THAT depressing. I suppose I’ll give you “However Much I Booze” on that count, but this is the Who and they are exhilirating.

    Those who speak dismissively of this classic set of songs will face the lash of revolutionary re-education.

  • The best song on the record is Red Blue and Grey – a nice, simple tune iwth a melody that stands on its own with no need of explanation, unlike many of the others on this album. If you have to explain the song with a biographical footnote, then the song itself didn’t explain itself well, or make an emotional connection of any sort with the listener, did it?

    Some say it’s Townsend at his most confessional – perhaps: but he had already set the bar high and had written better before and has since.

  • Al, of all the people who need some musical re-education, you are the most deserving!

  • I’m gonna side with Glen, “Super Amanda,” and Barger – By Numbers is friggin’ GREAT. When a song like “Squeezebox” is the low-point of the album, you’ve got your hands on a really strong album, and that’s what this is. As others have pointed out, it’s not Who’s Next or some other stadium anthem filled album, it’s a meditation on transition and “growing up.” The unfortunate fact is that fans rarely like to see their artists change but that’s what happens, and Pete Townsend did so in a very graceful, intelligent way. I have found, as I’ve gotten older, that the earlier Who material is great for those moments when I want to get my blood moving, but I spend a lot more time with the “middle period” albums – Quad, By Numbers, and Who Are You – than any others because there’s a maturity there that mirrors my own.

    Has everyone seen the scene from the great, short-lived NBC show Freaks And Geeks where the main characters’ parents listen to “Squeezebox”? “I think it’s about an accordion. It’s nice.”

  • Doug

    This has always been my favorite Who album. First, I don’t see it as whiny, I see it as Pete’s first album written from the perspective of an adult. Second, I think this & Quad was the period they were at the top of their game as musicians – in terms of the original line up, anyway.
    Plus, for whatever it’s worth, I just read an interview with Pete in which he said that for the first time he agrees with Roger in calling this his favorite Who album.

  • Paul

    Townshend seemed to abandon attempts to write “hits” when “I Can See For Miles” failed to make #1 in the universe. So Townshend began writing rock-operas. Apparently, Daltrey and Entwistle weren’t too thrilled with Lifehouse or Quadrophenia, and wanted Townshend to write more hits. Townshend responded with what were basically singer/songwriter songs, resulting in a very good Pete Townshend album which was, understandably, disappointing to many Who fans. The incredible string of terrific albums, Tommy (1969), Live at Leeds (1970), Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (1971), Who’s Next (1971), and Quadrophenia (1973) came to an end with an album that was merely very good. Still, By Numbers is a very important album in the career of one of rock’s very finest composers and an enjoyable listening experience to boot.