The never-ending grind of life, as illustrated by The Who By Numbers
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“I feel like I want to break out of the house
My heart is a-pumping, I’ve got sand in my mouth.”
That line was pounding through my head a few days earlier. I was in the middle of something I can’t even remember anymore, one of those confounding moments at work that are inevitable and eventually pass with a little application.
Those moments of dissatisfaction are common enough to be universal, so it’s a lyric that’s resonated enough that it’s become ingrained in my listening brain. It’s from “Dreaming From the Waist,” a track from the Who’s tentpole to mid-career frustration, The Who By Numbers. It’s not the most celebrated album in their catalog, but it’s one that I’ve circled back to more often than not.
I’ve spent a lot of time with the Who in the past week — I was in the presence of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend for two blissfully loud hours and since then it’s been a steady stream of the catalog. Live, in the studio, solo and reunited, Quadrophenia and It’s Hard, loud and quiet, whatever else might fit or not fit within the friendly confines of those definitions.
There are the barn burners. I spent a good chunk of a work day typing along to Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, letting the screeching amps and overdriven guitars provide the soundtrack to whatever problems happen to pop up at my desk.
There are the masterpieces. having Quadrophenia play on a loop for three days straight isn’t unprecedented and might even qualify as a little tame for me.
There are the side trips. It’s no chore to listen to Townshend’s Empty Glass or any of the Scoop demo collections, or even to take that detour into the depths of 1982 and listen to the synth drive his songwriting on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. For every cringe-worthy moment of dated production, there’s a gem like “Slit Skirts” that rises above the din.
There are the compilations: I have the Thirty Years of Maximum R&B box set ready at hand whenever I can’t decide on an album and just want to hear the band.
That last one happens a lot. Call it personal preference but I find that the Who handle having all their songs set to “shuffle” better than most, all the moods and periods clashing together like bad friends at a party, but it is still undeniably a party. The common thread of course is Townshend’s writing and, often, Daltrey’s voice, and even tracks like 1965’s “The Good’s Gone” can sound at home right next to “Cache Cache” from Face Dances.
But these trips and detours always run a path to, through and back again to The Who By Numbers, the band’s recorded version of a midlife crisis. Landing in 1975 on the heels of Quadrophenia and the B-sides collection Odds & Sods, it finds Townshend at a writer’s crossroads and the band wondering whether their relevance will continue past the age of 30. Within its 10 songs are more than enough moments of anger and annoyance, paired with just the right amount of humor to make it all palpable. And it works because Townshend had more than enough help in putting that vision over.
Running in step with the history of the band, there’s humor undercutting the grave overtones of the album. John Entwistle’s “Success Story” tells a bouncing story of a band working up from nothing to reach stardom and ultimately be faced with a new kind of tedium. Instead of a factory job, the singer is trapped in a recording studio: “take 276, you know this used to be fun.” Later, Daltrey is singing about squeeze box and Townshend is toning things down with a ukulele and a contemplate plea to enjoy every minute of the day on “Blue, Red and Grey.” The balance works to keep the record from tipping on its side.
There’s more serious ground to cover, however. Townshend’s “However Much I Booze” sounds like a jaunty rock tune that is soon grounded by the serious confessions of an alcoholic with no where left to turn. He draws a corollary between being sent off to war and trudging through the endless avenues of music in “Slip Kid,” horrified at the thought of being sent back out to the trenches at age 63 after he happily marched in at 16. In line with the trappings of success, on “They’re All in Love,” he writes, “Hand me my checkbook while I crawl out to die.” And in detailing the endless grind of his life’s pursuit, the most biting line comes on “In a Hand or a Face,” which closed the original album on a less-than-uplifting note:
“Ain’t it funny how they all fire the pistol
At the wrong end of the race?”
From there, the chorus bleeds on and out, going round and round. There’s no end in sight and all that’s left to do is bash these guitars and fill these albums in hopes of finding some kind of meaning in the entire affair.
The lynchpin of this record and this particular exercise in therapy via music is “Dreaming From the Waist,” Townshend’s ode to the boredom that seems to invariably follow prolonged periods of excess. Where he’s feeling the effects of cabin fever, he’s also bemoaning his own over-powered libido and the poor choices that seem to present themselves from there. The song follows dynamic shifts, with hard-charging verses slinking down into quieter choruses only to fire all eight cylinders back up into the next verse.
It’s one of several laments that are packed into The Who By Numbers’ running order, but it’s made all the more powerful by the band itself. The 1975-76 period likely goes down as the greatest for the band as a live act, and that brute force is on display here, with a furious bass solo by Entwistle somehow taking center stage without needing to step out in front of Keith Moon’s rolling drums or Townshend’s jagged, repetitive chords. And the message itself is delivered by Daltrey with a vocal might that translates Townshend’s agony and apprehension.
Whether or not Townshend and the band realized it or could even appreciate it, it was this dynamic that made the message last, even if it was initially overlooked. Without the Who and all the frustrations that came from the band’s standing, these sentiments would have been lost to journals and therapy sessions, dying in the air without any kind of artistic release. Townshend has often spoken about how the artistic commission of the Who is what kept him creating for so many years, and in this period, his creations benefitted from the tensions and contradictions within his own band.
He was about to blow his top or drill himself into the ground, and he was surrounded by three bandmates who often felt the same. They all expressed it differently, and they all captured it on The Who By Numbers. Whether it’s of any comfort or not, it’s still here today, searing holes through headphone speakers and keeping listeners grounded and looking for inspiration to tackle that next, seemingly impossible challenge.
March 16, 2016
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org