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. (p. 63)
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." (p. 64)
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….
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...
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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. (pp. 64, 66)
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. (p. 66)
Dave Marsh, "Who's Ongoing Saga of Stardom & Failure," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 200, November 20, 1975, pp. 63-4, 66.