Strait to the Point: THE WHO – The Who by Numbers (1975)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 2.5/5

This might be the first time I’ve been able to call an album by these dudes “humble”. It ain’t bad, I guess, but it’s not a patch on their best.

On first listen, I hated this. I listen to these things three times, though, and the subsequent two did admittedly reveal a small reservoir of quality I’d not noticed at first. After a string of increasingly grandiose albums culminating in the leaning tower of hubris that was Quadrophenia, it’s nice to hear Townshend finally slowing down, taking a breather and allowing his vulnerabilities to show through a little bit. No characters here, and no social commentary either – just a bunch of fairly mellow acoustic rockers, ballads and musings on the flawed self. Sounds great, right?

Well, not quite. It’s alright, sure, but it’s a fairly unassuming, unremarkable sorta alright. Most of the tracks just kinda breeze by, doing just enough to avoid being outright boring without doing enough to be riveting. Listening to this album is a mildly diverting, marginally enjoyable experience, but it won’t win any awards and it probably won’t change yer life. I can’t say there’s any tracks I hate, either – there are a couple of failures, sure, but they’re the mediocre, boring kind of failure rather than the sort of disastrous collapse you can find in The Who’s worst moments. So, in sum, what we have here is The Who’s first average album – and that’s an epochal moment, that is.

I’m in a positive mood, so let’s start with the good stuff. “In a Hand or a Face”, the closing track, is a great song! The vocal melody is properly awesome the whole way through, especially in the chorus. That rising repetition – “I am going round and round…” is like a callback to that sense of earnest silliness that used to define The Who, sung like it’s being confided mischievously in your ear while the instrumentation steadily builds around it. That instrumentation is pretty great, too – everyone performs pretty well on this song, which is a very nice surprise when ye consider how bloody bland they are on most of this album. Oh, goshdarnit – I’ve hit the negatives already! I mean, what can I do? There’s an elephant in the room, hangin’ from the ceiling like an oversized, critically endangered chandelier: Moon’s drumming on this album has, appallingly, actually gotten worse than it was on Quadrophenia. There, he at least still sounded as if he were connected to the band; here, half the tracks sound like his beat was recorded in another room with no point of reference, ‘cos he can’t stop doing these ridiculous fills, flourishes and attempted solos that sound kinda like what the drummer in a third-rate Who tribute band might come up with. What’s worse is the horrible, lethargic cymbal stuff he does when he’s actually trying to keep time – that stuff actually saps the music of energy, and that’s just heartbreaking to have to hear. I’ve no idea what the timeline was leading up to Moon’s death in 1978, but I have a hunch he was a hefty way down the path by the time they recorded this album. What else explains this precipitous drop? Shiet, maybe he’d secretly quit and this was just Townshend drumming in disguise.

Entwistle’s also barely a presence on most of these tracks. He gets one of his own, though, and it’s the best he’s written in years – “Success Story”, it’s called, and not even a tragic nadir of a performance from Moon can prevent it from being a highlight. Entwistle’s got a badass bass tone on it, for one, and it’s also got that trademark Entwistle sense of humour I’ve always found so endearing. Got a nice set of riffs, too. No real complaints here, though it ain’t one of the band’s greatest achievements. I’ve mostly the same opinion of the opening track, “Slip Kid”; that thing is built around this super swaggy, catchy piano groove, and I can’t say I’ve got any problems with it, but it’s not exactly a work of genius, now, is it? It’d be one of the better tracks on Odds & Sods, but it’s hard for me to work up any enthusiasm about it. I mean, this is the band that made Baba O’Riley – and this was the best they could do?

Really, it’s remarkable just how easy it is to forget this album when it’s done. I can’t say that of any of their others up to this point – I didn’t like Tommy or Quadrophenia, but I’ll be damned if they weren’t at least memorable failures. This thing is a reluctant kind of success, I guess, but it’s the most forgettable success I’ve ever heard, and is that really better? “Dreaming From The Waist” is a perfectly competent acoustic rocker and a pleasant enough listening experience, and so is “How Many Friends”, but man, they really don’t aspire to be anything more. That’s kind of nice after all the pretensions of the previous album, I guess, but it also means I feel absolutely no need to retain them in my memory and I’ll be damned if they do anything to try and win me over. “However Much I Booze” is basically the same, except worse, seeing as Townshend tries to fit too many words into his melody and ends up ruining it; “Imagine A Man” is a decently pretty and, honestly, entirely ordinary acoustic ballad that I can’t really remember anything about; “Squeeze Box” is kind of a countryish tune with a good banjo solo, a decent melody and no particularly great ideas… you get the picture, y’know? The score range for tracks on this album, excepting maybe the finale, is about 4-6/10. It’s so thoroughly mediocre that I’m beginning to feel self-doubt at my inability to find anything to say about it – I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not me, it’s the album that’s a hack writer with delusions of grandeur and no futur- ahem, excuse me…

I guess “Red Blue and Grey” is nice. It’s this endearing little ballad where Townshend just opens up over a ukulele, and there are some pretty horns in the distance that give the whole thing a kind of mournful air. Strictly speaking it’s not any more remarkable than its surroundings, but I find myself fixating on it whenever I listen to the album; I guess it just strikes me as the least pretentious thing Townshend ever wrote, lacking even the conceit of deep emotional resonance (I’ve always believed you need to be at least a little self-important to want to make people cry) and conveying only a feeling of remarkable contentedness. Being as it cohabits with songs about drink addiction, fake friends and sexual frustration, this is remarkable, and maybe that’s why I like it more than the rest. But it’s not like it’s one of Townshend’s best, and it doesn’t save this album from total irrelevance. A friend of mine once pointed out that it’s been 40 years, and there still isn’t anyone willing to try and rehabilitate The Who’s post-Quadrophenia work; “it’s a safe bet”, he said, “that it’s as mediocre as everyone says it is”. I guess he was right. This is, indeed, The Who By Numbers, and that means it’s The Who without any of the things that made them interesting. If the blood still flows, it’s been heftily diluted.