Townshend apparently oversteps only once, on "Blue Red and Grey," which is ostensibly simplistic enough to have been written by John Denver. It is kicked along by his ukulele and the repeated declaration, "I like every minute of the day." Like a lot of Townshend songs, though, there's a catch at the end: "And so you see that I'm completely crazy/I even shun the South of France."
Not that the record is witless; no Who album has ever been. "Squeeze Box," for instance, is the Who's ultimate sex joke, even better than "Pictures of Lily" in its way. Its sound, complete with a banjo break that sounds as if the Who is ready to refight the Civil War with the Band, is a real departure, close to jolly rockabilly. Entwistle's "Success Story" is full of his usual sardonic epigrams: "He deserted rock & roll to save his soul"; "I'm your fairy manager/You shall play Carnegie Hall"; "Six for the taxman, four for the band"; "Take 276 . . . You know, this used to be fun." "In a Hand or a Face," prototypical Townshend, begins with a verse pillorying nop mysticism, the sort Stevie Wonder sells: "Ain't it funny how they're all Cleopatra/When you gaze into their past/When you find out about their birth sign/You realize there was no need to have asked."
But there is an ominous quality even in the midst of the jokes. Townshend has always been the rock & roller most concerned with how he fits into the world. In a way, The Who by Numbers is only an interim report in the continuing saga of stardom and failure, of the weird characters who strive for fame and wind up with disaster even when they make it. Sell Out remains the definitive statement on the rock artist, placing him in context next to the baked bean commercials and half-hideous, half-beautiful station identification jingles. But Tommy is as much star as prophet — and he fails at both — while Quadrophenia's Jimmy was clearly shooting for center stage when he wound up on that rock. Even Who's Next, which seems so anticonceptual, is obsessed with these things, fore and aft; it begins with "Baba O'Riley" 's "teenage wasteland," ends with "Won't Get Fooled Again" 's half threat, half promise to do something about it.
"The real truth as I see it is that rock music as it was is not really contemporary to these times," Townshend recently told an interviewer. "It's really the music of yesteryear. The only things that continue to keep abreast of the times are those songs that stand out due to their simplicity." There is no better summary of what The Who by Numbers is about: Townshend has always been his own best critic.
As angry as it is desperate, the album moves from song to song on pure bitterness, disillusionment and hopelessness. Not only the aging rock star of "Success Story," "They Are All in Love," "Dreaming from the Waist" and "However Much I Booze" is frustrated. Even "Slip Kid," the latest in the line of Townshend's quintessential teenagers, finds that the only answer is: "There's no easy way to be free." Which wasn't even the question.
For the rock & roll star protagonist, "The truth lies in my frustration." In song after song, he's confused, "dreaming of the day I can control myself," unable to figure out what it's all worth, much less what it means.
In "How Many Friends," he despairs of anyone telling him the truth — maybe he really is over the hill — but, in "However Much I Booze," he realizes that even those who try don't have a chance. "Dish me out another tailor-made compliment/Tell me about some detriment I can't forget." The shreds of utopian optimism in Tommy, the exhilarating moments of discovery in Quadrophenia are gone now: "Take 276. You know, this used to be fun." Always before, the Who have been able to ride out of these situations on power and bravado — now, they wonder if they still have enough of either.
"Where do you fit in a magazine/Where the past is a hero and the present a queen?/Just tell me right now, where do you fit in/With mud in your eye and a passion for gin?" I don't know what magazine Townshend might have had in mind when he wrote those words — he makes a cute little raspberry where the title ought to go — but they might give pause to every reader and writer in the rock & roll part of this one, not to mention to every subject of it. As ex-Beatles solo albums rush forward in feeble proliferation, as the Rolling Stones stagger into their second decade with songs drawn almost exclusively from their first, as the Who stumble onward, another of Townshend's thoughts in that interview quoted above sounds truer than ever: "It's like that line in 'The Punk Meets the Godfather'. . . 'you paid me to do the dancing.' The kids pay us for a good time, yet nowadays people don't really want to get involved. Audiences are very much like the kids in Tommy's Holiday Camp, they want something without working for it."
What they want is what the Who, as the ultimate manifestation of a certain part of the heart of rock, has always promised: a way out of their obligation to the ultimate piper, Time. From "My Generation" to The Who by Numbers, time and aging have been Townshend's obsession, as if he were trying to live down the statement that made him famous: "Hope I die before I get old." If this is his most mature work, that's because he has finally admitted that there is no way out, which is a darker and deeper part of the same thing. Typically, the Who face the fact without flinching. Indeed, they may have made their greatest album in the face of it. But only time will tell.
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