The album took forever to complete. Townshend was depressed about the state of his career, disgusted with the music industry, suffering from writer’s block and feeling over-the-hill at the ripe old age of thirty, as if “Hope I die before I get old” had come back to haunt him. Daltrey was pissed off at the state of the world. Keith Moon was Keith Moon—predictably unpredictable, reliably unreliable. The only guy who had his shit together was Entwistle, about whom Townshend observed, “John was obviously gaining 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.” Even with Entwistle’s ballast, progress was slow, with the band spending as much time playing cricket and hanging out at the local pubs as they did in the studio. Producer Glyn Johns “worked harder on The Who By Numbers than I’ve ever seen him . . . not because the tracks were weak or the music poor but because the group was so useless,” claimed Townshend in the book The Who By Numbers: The Story of The Who Through Their Music. Critical response was mixed, with “Squeeze Box” dismissed as silly and several other songs labeled “depressing.”
Well, y’all know how I hate to deviate from the consensus, but sometimes I can’t stop myself. What I hear in The Who By Numbers are excellent arrangements, first-rate production, fresh instrumentation, strong vocals and beautiful harmonies. Whether it was Glyn Johns pushing the envelope or the latent professionalism of the players coming to the fore when it was time to record, the end result is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience (though there are a couple of missed opportunities at the end of the album). As for the criticism that The Who By Numbers is “depressing,” I know there are many music fans who only want to hear happy songs that they can dance and sing along to, and yes, it’s nice to enjoy lighter music from time to time (A Hard Day’s Night is one of my go-to Beatles albums). But if all you want out of music is something that helps you pack up your troubles in your own kit bag, you’ve closed yourself off to the empathy great songwriters can generate when singing about their troubles (and you probably avoid the blues like the plague). I don’t find Townshend’s lyrics on The Who By Numbers “depressing,” but insightful and likely cathartic—for Townshend and for anyone else who’s had similar experiences or feelings.
Most of the critics approved of “Slip Kid,” though it’s pretty obvious they had no idea what the song was about. If you research interpretations of “Slip Kid” on the net, you’ll find that Townshend originally wrote the song as a warning to young people to avoid the music business at all costs. Some lazy asses out there have used that tidbit to declare that the song is indeed about Pete’s dissatisfaction with the industry, offering no evidence whatsoever except for the line “No easy way to be free.”
Well, shee-it, that line could apply to everyone and anything! It applies to every wage slave on the planet, famous people hounded by paparazzi, couples in unhappy marriages and yes, it applies to musicians who don’t have creative control over their music and have to do what the label tells them to do. Hey! Here’s an idea! Let’s see what the lyrics actually say!
- First verse: Thirteen-year-old kid describes himself as a “slip kid,” a soldier off to a civil war and “second generation.”
- Second verse: Sixty-three-year-old man who is very forgetful also describes the kid as “second generation” and admits that he’s a soldier, too, in an attempt to buddy up with the kid.
- Bridge: Kid doesn’t want anything to do with the old fart, saying “You and your history won’t rule me/You might have been a fighter but admit you failed.”
- Third Verse: Somewhat ambiguous, but the line “You’re slidin’ down the hill like me” followed by “No easy way to be free” appears to be a warning from the old guy to the slip kid that he’s in over his head.
- So . . . we have a civil war in the present (1975) and a civil war in the past that the kid defines as a failure. Hmm. It seems like there were lots of civil wars and disturbances in the 70s . . . hey, wait a minute! My grandfather told me that the updated version of the IRA recruited teen boys in the ’70s and trained them to be soldiers! And the “slip” in “slip kid” could refer to the Irish jig known as a “slip jig” (in 9/8 time).
- And man, there was no easy way for anyone to be free during The Troubles.
Townshend offered a more modern take on “Slip Kid” a few years back that validates the IRA interpretation: “You could put it into the voice of some young Islamic student who decides to go fight in Syria and ends up in ISIS being forced to chop people’s heads off, and it would fit.”
Though the lyrics may be on the grim side, the music is anything but. I haven’t heard of a genre called “salsa rock” (though there is a song with that title), but with the help of an uncredited percussionist, The Who managed to create a solid rocker with a syncopated Latin kick. The music in the instrumental passages combines sparse instrumental phrasing and bright piano from Glyn Johns to create a reflective space in the composition that allows listeners to let the key phrase “no easy way to be free” sink in and consider how it applies to their own lives. All in all, “Slip Kid” is a superb opener that certainly doesn’t sound like it came from a band that had checked out.
After the revelations about the abuse Townshend suffered as a child became public, it was obvious that he had frequently chosen not to deal with those traumatic experiences directly but through substitutes and allegories—a completely understandable choice given that child abuse was not a subject for polite company in the 60s and 70s. The songs on Tommy that dealt most vividly with abuse were both written by Entwistle: “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About.” “Behind Blue Eyes” certainly has the feel of a Townshend confessional; its origins involved an incident where Townshend was tempted by a groupie and he dealt with that temptation by writing a prayer that contained the now-famous line “When my fist clenches, crack it open.” In its original manifestation as part of the Lifehouse project, however, the song was assigned to the villain in the story; when it appeared on Who’s Next, Daltrey took the lead role. Daltrey flat out refused to provide Townshend with an escape hatch on “However Much I Booze,” ostensibly because the song was too personal but possibly because he felt singing a song about excessive boozing would damage his public image. Fortunately for posterity, Townshend mustered up the courage to own the song and take the lead vocal himself—and wound up delivering a heartfelt vocal that certainly ranks among his best.
Townshend claimed to have written the song on the night he decided to quit the bottle, but that claim is not supported by the lyrics and flat-out contradicted by the chorus, “There ain’t no way out.” It could explain the tempo shifts from half-time in the verses and bridge to rock-the-fuck-out in the chorus, which celebrates the realization that booze isn’t the answer to his difficulties—a one-step-at-a-time approach to recovery.
His difficulties primarily involve another contradiction that all of us face in our image-conscious society: the contradiction between the public image and “the real me” (connection intended):
I see myself on T.V., I’m a faker, a paper clown
It’s clear to all my friends that I habitually lie; I just bring them down
I claim proneness to exaggeration
But the truth lies in my frustration
And like most of us, Townshend loses “so many nights of sleep worrying about my responsibilities,” which in his case refers to all the non-musical bullshit that anyone in the music business has to deal with. In the end, he tries to take the age-old advice to share his feelings with another human being, but instead of reaching out to one of his mates, he reaches out to the listening audience, a classic example of trying to imbue an abstraction with reality:
Now the walls are all clawed and scratched
Like by some soul insane
In the morning I humbly detach myself
I take no blame
I just can’t face my failure
I’m nothing but a well fucked sailor
You at home can easily decide what’s right
By glancing very briefly at the songs I write
But it don’t help me that you know
By the end of the song, you might conclude that this extended confessional is nothing more than a pointless exercise as Townshend reminds us “There ain’t no way out,” but I think the point of the song is just that—to dramatize the feeling of being trapped in a no-win situation. And we can all identify with that terrible feeling.
Now that we’re more than ready for something on the lighter side, The Who gives us “Squeeze Box,” a song with a backstory that makes no sense whatsoever. According to Jon Kutner . . .
In 1974, there were plans for a Who television special and “Squeeze Box” was originally intended for that programme. To give the song even more kudos there was also a plan to have the band surrounded by 100 topless women all playing accordions. Shame that never happened.
I think it’s a shame that anyone came up with that stupid idea. A brief glance at an illustration of proper accordion posture will easily expose the sheer lameness of that bit of brainstorming:
How on earth would anyone watching the programme know that the women were topless if their tits are hidden behind an accordion? Even Dolly Parton’s knockers couldn’t bust through that barrier.
There may be a very naïve person somewhere who listened to “Squeeze Box” and thought it was a delightful tribute to a female accordion player who practices her craft diligently day and night despite complaints from family and neighbors. Inspired by the song, I imagine that unnamed soul forming a feminist offshoot movement to ensure that women accordionists receive the attention they so richly deserve. I see that person picketing the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame with a sign that reads, “Myron Floren Wasn’t Half as Good as Kikki Danielsson!”
That burst of whimsy was a pathetic attempt to avoid having to fess up about how I feel about “Squeeze Box.” Fuck! WordPress doesn’t allow me to change the font size to teeny-tiny, so I’ll have to go the whole hog on this one and express my feelings in bold italics!
I like it!
Yes, I know I’ve raved and ranted about the use of double entendres in rock ‘n’ roll and yes, I know the song is silly and perhaps on the juvenile side. All I know is this—it’s the song on the album that sticks in my head the longest and I think its stickiness has to do with Roger Daltrey’s ability to sell just about anything when he’s on top of his game. Daltrey doesn’t give the slightest hint that he believes the song is silly—he plays his role as the young ‘un in the family to perfection and when he changes character in the bridge and becomes the woman with the fabulous rack, he sounds like a woman in sweet heat aching for a good, solid fondling. The crowning touch comes in the form of Pete Townshend’s banjo solo—I usually loathe the sound of that instrument but when I hear it on “Squeeze Box,” I laugh with delight. I should probably go back and add “Squeeze Box” to my Guilty Pleasures list, but mixing The Who with David Cassidy just doesn’t feel right.
I noticed that Apple Music tagged “Dreaming from the Waist Down” with the supposed-to-be-dreaded-but-is-actually-a-turn-on “E” label while “Squeeze Box” and “However Much I Booze” managed to escape explicit status. I guess squeezing tits and sailors fucking with abandon are considered perfectly normal male behavior, but admitting to reading porn mags is somehow gauche.
Whatever. While I think Townshend’s desire (expressed through Daltrey) to control his sexual urges is silly and pointless as long as the urge is restrained by mutual consent, I love the song for its marvelous vocal back-and-forth between Townshend and Daltrey on the chorus and the guitar/bass interplay between Townshend and Entwistle that drive the song. Townshend’s tonality choices are sheer perfection, moving back and forth from sweet luxuriousness to rough-and-ready as the song demands. And Entwistle—has there ever been a more nimble bass guitarist than John Entwistle? He just flies through this song in complete defiance of the challenges inherent in fat bass strings, making it all sound as easy as a walk in the park.
“Imagine a Man” is one of the most obscure tracks in The Who’s catalog, a status reinforced by the band’s refusal to add the song to their concert setlist until forty-four years had passed (Daltrey revived it in a solo gig in 1994). The only commentary I could find on the song came from Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone who labeled it “faintly sanctimonious” without explanation.
I think Dave Marsh is “more than faintly full of shit” and threw in a high-falutin’ phrase because he had a deadline to meet and needed something appropriately haughty to validate his sense of self-importance. My take is that “Imagine a Man” is one of the loveliest songs The Who ever recorded. I don’t smell a whiff of the moral superiority Marsh refers to in any of the lyrics; what I hear is an empathetic and insightful song about the human tendency to live our lives in a semi-conscious, reactive state without much thought to consequence, making less-than-optimal choices along the way that leave us with the feeling that our lives lack meaning.
The lyrical structure is interesting in that the verses are constructed from three-line mini-verses—four in the first two verses and two in the last. Each verse is followed by the chorus, which also varies in terms of length. The chorus consists of some variation of the phrase, “And you will see the end,” which I read as a warning of the consequences wrought by the choices made in each verse. The first verse asks us to “Imagine a man/Not a child of any revolt/But a plain man tied up in life.” We learn what “tied up” means in the three mini-verses that follow (interpretive comments in italics)
Imagine the sand
Running out as he struts
Parading and fading, ignoring his wife
Our plain man is ego-driven, putting on a show, playing the game, running out of gas on life’s treadmill, avoiding intimacy.
Imagine a road
So long looking backwards
You can’t see where it really began
An all-too common occurence: we often wind up wondering how the hell we wound up where we are today, whether it’s in an unsatisfying occupation or a loveless relationship.
Imagine a load
So large and so smooth
That against it a man is an ant
Ah! The classic 20th Century metaphor of human insignificance: the ant. Unlike ants with their genetically-coded life purpose, human beings are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to choose, but we often make choices reactively, creating a load of meaningless activity that makes us feel small and unimportant.
“You will see the end” in this context translates to a life devoid of meaning or accomplishment.
The second verse describes the state of the world today and our ineffective responses to it. The first mini-verse is both shocking and all-too-true: “Imagine events/That occur every day/Like a shooting or raping or a simple act of deceit.” That line calls to mind the mass murders that occur with appalling frequency in the United States, the endless abuse of women around the world and the layers of deceit in our political systems and workplaces. Our response is both pure Eddy Arnold (the wish to make the world go away) and pure Don McLean (escape to the past):
Imagine a fence
Around you as high as prevention
Casting shadows, you can’t see your feet . . .
Imagine a past
Where you wish you had lived
Full of heroes and villains and fools
In between those two-mini verses is the curious insertion “Imagine a girl/You long for and have/And the body of chalky perfection and truth.” I’m not sure whether that’s a comment on sex-as-escapism (see “Dreaming from the Waist Down”) or woman-as-object, but it doesn’t seem to fit here. “You will see the end” in this context means “dead end,” for both the individual and society at large.
The closing verse seems to me to represent a rejection of “Hope I die before I get old” as Townshend reached thirty. The belief that our youth represents life’s peak is both untrue (except for athletes) and ultimately self-defeating. The good news is found in the realization that the fear of advancing years is an invention of our own and we always have the ability to change our perceptions and point ourselves in the direction of a more fulfilling finish:
Imagine a man
Not a child of any revolt
But a man of today feeling new
Imagine a soul
So old it is broken
And you know your invention is you
The music accompanying the poetry is absolutely luscious, with a gorgeous arpeggio duet on acoustic guitar and piano during the verses (which turns into a trio when Entwistle enters in the second verse). Daltrey is in exceptionally fine voice here, coloring the lovely melody with appropriate emotional expression. The arpeggios disappear in the chorus when Townshend shifts to an emphatic strum and Keith Moon supplies additional power on the toms while Daltrey and Townshend join together in harmony in a moving vocal crescendo. “Imagine a Man” is a rare gem of a song, and like the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” deserves a lot more attention than it has received.
Flipping over to side two, we find a John Entwistle composition that appears to be about a guy who took The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” seriously and found that rock stardom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Actually, the song is a brief history of The Who (the reference to smashing guitars is a clear giveaway) and the title “Success Story” is deeply ironic. Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle all get a turn at the mic, and as befits an Entwistle composition, the song has echoes of “Boris the Spider” and a whole lot of dark humor. Though Townshend was admittedly suffering from a bad case of music industry disillusionment, Entwistle has the last word on the band’s less-than-cheery feelings about the business at that time:
Back in the studio to make our latest number one
You know, this used to be fun
Entwistle underscores his disillusionment with rock stardom even more effectively in the video snippet of “Success Story” in The Kids Are Alright where he takes down The Who’s gold records from the trophy wall, drags them outdoors, smashes the frames to smithereens, then uses the disks as objects for skeet shooting. When his attempts with a shotgun fall flat, he resorts to an Uzi to make his point.
Now it’s Pete’s turn to employ Roger to voice his frustration with music, life and the horrifying sight of young lovers when you’re on the other end of the happiness spectrum in “They Are All in Love.” I find it interesting that the pretty music and sweet harmonies reflect the more lovely sights described in the song’s opening verse than the oh-god-I’m-going-downhill-fast messages in verses two and three; perhaps it’s a sign that Townshend still saw a glimmer of hope in his transitory doldrums. His most dramatic expression of self-disgust appears in the final verse:
But like a woman in childbirth
Grown ugly in a flash
I’m seen magic and fame
Now I’m recycling trash
I really don’t think the songs on The Who By Numbers qualify as trash, and it’s common knowledge that Townshend still had some pretty good stuff left over from the Lifehouse project. I interpret that line as Pete being way too hard on himself. If you’ve ever experienced a bout of depression, you know that you tend to lose all perspective and believe that everything you’ve ever done is shit.
On the plus side, I would characterize his controversial choice of a woman in labor as the epitome of ugliness as an inspired piece of writing, based on my personal experience with childbirth. Part of the reason I’ve never wanted to have kids (other than the unthinkable interference with my sex life) is that I witnessed a girlfriend giving birth to a nine-and-a-half-pound bundle of joy. When she was trying to push the invader down the chute, her skin constantly changed colors, her eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets and her face was twisted and distorted in ways I’d never imagined in my worst nightmares. Once she gave that last push and the kid emerged along with that smelly mass of placenta there was a total, magical transformation from the ugliest woman on earth to a face beaming with angelic beauty.
I did the math. Nine months of morning sickness, weird cravings, swollen ankles and unimaginable suffering in exchange for ten minutes of fleeting beauty. Nah. Not for me.
Daltrey listed “Blue Red and Grey” as one of his favorite tracks on the album, and if it hadn’t been for Glyn Johns overcoming Townshend’s energetic resistance, the song may have gathered dust in the archives, awaiting the advent of bonus tracks. The liner notes featured on the Wayback Machine captured Pete’s dismay:
Glyn Johns wanted it on the album. I cringed when he picked it. He heard it on a cassette and said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘No. Play it.’ I said, ‘Really, it’s nothing. Just me playing a ukulele.’ But he insisted on doing it. I said, ‘What? That fucking thing? Here’s me wanting to commit suicide and you’re going to put that thing on the record?’
The song that Townshend desired to quash is a song about his love of life. Perhaps he felt that “Blue Red and Grey” would elicit accusations of blind optimism; perhaps he felt that the song was inconsistent with the über-theme of the album. I think the song tells us that Pete Townshend is perfectly human, capable of holding contradictory thoughts and feelings at the same time. If you were to drop by my place and ask me how things are going, I’d probably start out with a rant about the war next door, the reality of global warming as manifested in a way-too-early heat wave in Europe, Joe Biden fucking up at every turn and making it more likely that Trump will rise again and how raging inflation has raised the cost of my favorite things: travel, booze and cigarettes. After an hour or so of unadulterated bitching, you might ask me how I feel about life in general, and I would respond, “Oh, I love life. I love every minute of the day except the first hour in the morning when I haven’t had enough coffee.” I’m angry about those other things because they’re interfering with my love affair with life.
Despite all his protests against the song’s inclusion, Townshend’s vocal communicates utter sincerity about his own love of life. The ukulele gives the song a certain intimacy that is further enhanced by Entwistle’s restrained horn arrangement that appears in the second verse. The lines that move me the most deal directly with the pleasure inherent in unpleasantness:
I dig every second
I can laugh in the snow and rain
I get a buzz from being cold and wet
The pleasure seems to balance out the pain
Rather than feigning shame about having written “Blue Red and Grey,” I think Townshend should have owned up to the fact that despite his artistic angst, he is a certifiable life lover.
“How Many Friends” was Keith Moon’s favorite track, most likely because it gave him the opportunity to bash away with a vengeance. I have mixed feelings about the song—love the energy, love the timeless chorus and its universal message (“How many friends have I really got?/That love me, that want me, that’ll take me as I am?”) but feel a bit of disappointment that the verses aren’t in sync with that universal message. This is particularly true for the last verse, which describes The Who’s experience with the music business, an experience that few listeners can relate to. I think Townshend missed a great opportunity to write a song about the fragile nature of friendship in a world that emphasizes appearances and the need to fit in—something all of us have had to deal with.
I have similar feelings about the closing track, “In a Hand or a Face,” a piece that’s not much more than a fragment and feels like something The Who might have done earlier in the decade. That said, I can’t deny the power of the second verse and wish Townshend had built the song around this seemingly endless display of human indifference to suffering:
There’s a man going through your dust bin
Only this time he’s looking for food
There’s a tear in his eye, you don’t know him
Oh but you know what he’s going through
Ain’t it funny that you can’t seem to help him
Feelin’ sick as he staggers away
Is it weird that you hate a stranger
Can a detail correct your dismay?
My gut tells me that they should have ended the album with “Blue Red and Grey,” a healing experience reminding us that despite all the bullshit around us, life is indeed worth living. On the other hand, the last two tracks allow the band to rock the fuck out, so in that sense, I’m glad they made the cut.
One aspect of the album that I cherish is the simplicity of the instrumentation. While they employed the synthesizer effectively on both Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, it was time to give it a rest and get back to natural instruments. And though The Who By Numbers may not be their finest contribution to music, it’s a delight to listen to Pete on guitar and uke, John killing it on the bass, Daltrey in fine form and yes, even Keith Moon had some glorious moments.
Fuck the critical consensus.
Who By Numbers is a magnificent work. You do it a great justice here. Listened to it many, many times from start to finish. “Dreaming From the Waist” might be the single best Who song. As for myself, I have seen my boys live 11 times (1982-2022), 3 with my daughter. 1996 Tacoma Dome and the 2016 on 5/15 Seattle show legendary , and the Seattle show on Oct. 22, 2022 worth every penny. Rock music would be feeble indeed with John, Pete, Roger and Keith and the mighty Zak Starkey. “As always, the Who are on top of everything.”
This album stayed relevant over the years.
I’ve had this album since it came out, and still don’t know if I’ve listened to it from start to end. Now I will. Thanks for another thoughtful review.
Great review! I’ll finally check out this album –for some reason, I could never really get into The Who, they always seemed kinda “goofy”.