By now, a nonopera by the Who is its own kind of concept album. While The Who by Numbers pretends to be a series of ten unconnected songs, it's really only a pose; there's not a story line here, but there are more important unities — lyrical themes, musical and production style, a sense of time and place.
Quadrophenia and Tommy helped Peter Townshend sharpen a writing style that was already one of the most personal and interesting in rock. Because the Who is itself so stylized — alone among their early Sixties peers, they sound like no one else, neither Chicago bluesmen nor Memphis rockabillys — Townshend always had to seek themes and characters, as well as musical ideas, that were pure rock & roll. The tension between Keith Moon's wild drumming. Roger Daltrey's barely on-key vocals, Townshend's own limitations as a guitarist and the composer's skill and introspection made him one of the toughest, most compact writers in rock. Like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and very, very few others, Townshend has a very specific idea of what rock & roll is about and what it's for. Everything he does — which is nearly everything the Who does — is informed by it.
The rock operas were Townshend's ultimate means of expressing his idea of rock and its place in the world, but the very notion was anathema to fans of "Substitute" and "My Generation." Even if those works garnered the Who a legion of new fans (many of whom, Townshend once wrote me, "think the name of the group's Tommy and that the opera's the Who"), the hardcore of old admirers fired so many charges of pretension and evisceration at Tommy that Townshend felt the need to retrench. The result was Who's Next, a blistering anticoncept work and a masterpiece. After Quadrophenia, a much more flawed work than Tommy, though in many ways a braver one, he has felt the need again.
But The Who by Numbers isn't what it seems. Without broadcasting it, in fact while denying it, Townshend has written a series of songs which hang together as well as separately. The time is somewhere in the middle of the night, the setting a disheveled room with a TV set that seems to show only rock programs. The protagonist is an aging, still successful rock star, staring drunkenly at the tube with a bottle of gin perched on his head, contemplating his career, his love for the music and his fear that it's all slipping away. Every song here, even the one non-Townshend composition, John Entwistle's "Success Story," fits in. Always a sort of musical practical joker, Townshend has now pulled the fastest one of all, disguising his best concept album as a mere ten-track throwaway.
The disguise in effective partly because it is mostly musical. Along with the story line, Townshend has thrown out the Arp synthesizer — which is supposed to be his instrument — after his success with it on Who's Next and the Tommy soundtrack. It's a great diversion; he keeps us busy noticing its absence so that the story sinks in subtly, rather than batting us over the head with it, as he did with his operas.
To replace the synthesizer, he fleshes out the standard electric guitar riffs with acoustic ones, and on one song each, banjo and ukulele. Townshend plays acoustic guitar more like a rock & roller than anyone else in rock; listen to "The Magic Bus." But here, even the smashing electric guitar chords that are his musical signature have been tamed, played and mixed more like conventional rock guitar than on any previous Who record. By Numbers's mix of acoustic and electric six strings is, in fact, occasionally reminiscent of Neil Young's, particularly on "How Many Friends" and in the concluding segment of "Slip Kid," which is as frustrated and distorted as Time Fades Away.
Much has been made of the Who's internal dissension over the past few months. Daltrey, Moon and Entwistle have devoted themselves to glaringly inferior solo projects, while Townshend, save for whatever additional music he wrote for Ken Russell's Tommy, seems to have been almost completely inactive since Quadrophenia. Not surprisingly, this album seems more Townshend oriented than even the operas, although — since Nicky Hopkins has been brought in for some brilliant keyboard work — Townshend may appear less often than on any of the group's other recent records.
Part of his presence is in the vocals. As a singer, Townshend originally patterned himself after Daltrey, though lately he has developed a guttural range which Daltrey doesn't have. But they are still so close to one another that it is often difficult to tell who's singing what. Clearly, though, Townshend sings more here than he has before and he sings better as well. While Daltrey has always been too frequently flat, emotionally and musically, Townshend brings great fire and passion to songs like "Blue Red and Grey" and "They Are All in Love." He is in the great tradition of rock's classic nonvoices, like Young and Dylan. Daltrey has his moments, certainly, particularly on "How Many Friends," but it is now clear that if Daltrey decided he'd rather make bad movies, the Who could function acceptably as a trio.
There is no song on By Numbers with the impact of "Won't Get Fooled Again" or "Pinball Wizard," although there are moments reminiscent of all the classic songs in almost every track. That's unfortunate, because the Who has always seemed at its best as a singles group. Both "Success Story" and "In a Hand or a Face" come close to the old crashing, barely controlled Who, but this record is much more disciplined, in general, and much more restrained.
The best songs are closer to "Behind Blue Eyes," slower numbers which aren't quite ballads. Almost every track is filled with enormous anguish, bitterness or fear, conveyed most perfectly in "They Are All in Love," "How Many Friends," even the faintly sanctimonious "Imagine a Man."
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