On 15 March 2001, I bought my 10th and 11th Who albums, The Who by Numbers (1975) and Who Are You (1978) at the Amherst branch of Newbury Comics, the store I went to for the majority of my CDs. I didn’t yet have a record player, so at the moment, most of the music I was buying was on CD. After I finally got a record player that December, I began loading up on the vinyl in earnest.
By this point, I felt I had really arrived as a Who freak, as a serious, committed, hardcore fan, no longer just the type who likes them from their limited radio repertoire and who hasn’t done much reading up on their history. (Anytime now, deejays of America, you can quit playing “Pinball Wizard”! And while you’re at it, you can quit overplaying “Mrs. Robinson” too, among many other songs that are beyond overplayed on oldies and classic rock radio.)
I only had a few studio albums left to get, and then I could get some official non-studio albums and even think about some bootlegs. After that, I could start thinking about solo work. It was kind of sad, how I was so far along in my amazing Who journey after only six months of officially moving from lawn seat fan to serious Who freak, and yet still a time full of wonder and newness. You can never get back that precious early time when you’re just seriously getting into a band, learning all this information for the very first time, hearing all these songs and albums with virgin ears, not yet to the point where you know all the words and the orders of the songs by heart.
I truly feel sorry for people who’ve never really had a favorite band but just like the flavor of the month, think it’s normal to just “move on” instead of liking the same bands passionately for years and years and years. I’m extremely loyal to my favorite bands, and wouldn’t dream of periodically abandoning them in favor of newer groups. After so many years of loving them, you just feel a special bond, having grown up loving them, or starting your love affair as you were becoming an adult. I’ll be honest, I think The Who should’ve retired some years ago, and I don’t like how Pete has sold out by letting so many companies use his songs in commercials, but that doesn’t change how I feel about the band at the most basic, primal, emotional level. I’m still a proud Who Rottweiler (a term sometimes applied to female fans).
The Who by Numbers is like a musical suicide note, which thank God was averted. Pete had really meant it when he said he wanted to die before he got old, and yet in 1975 he turned 30 years old. One of the album’s key tracks is “However Much I Booze,” which really gives a painful insight into how he was feeling at this time. The album also contains many other rather downbeat, depressing songs, like “Dreaming from the Waist,” “Slip Kid,” “How Many Friends?,” and “In a Hand or a Face.” As overplayed and annoying as “Squeeze Box” is, at least it serves as somewhat of a respite from all the blackness on this album. And John’s contribution, “Success Story,” is also a welcome relief, full of his trademark touches of black humor and unique personality.
Now that I’m over 30 myself, I know how true it is when I read, all those many years ago, that the album will seem even more personally meaningful when you’re that old yourself and have been through the life experiences of your twenties, even if they’re not the exact same type as Pete’s.
Who Are You shows they were moving in the direction of New Wave at the time of Keith’s untimely death anyway, and probably would’ve still done their Eighties albums in that musical style even if he’d still been with them. They had to change, adapt, and move with the times. If they’d kept trying to remake Who’s Next and Quadrophenia for the rest of their career, that would’ve been really boring, and gotten them a reputation as one trick ponies. I just can’t understand the hypocritical criticisms of some of these so-called fans who want everything their way, every single way, and screw what was best for the band and what fit with the musical climate and reality.
Side one is all about the changing nature of music, and how, while it’s distressing to realize your style is perceived as out of step, it’s important for music to evolve and change with the times if you want to stay relevant and keep being creative. Some fans don’t like this album that much, but I’ve always adored it. It’s just pulsing with musical excitement and energy, and I love synthesizers, being an Eighties kid. However, the CD remastering kind of really sucks. Now that I have the vinyl, I far prefer the original format. For example, they took out part of the chorus on “Trick of the Light,” and also fiddled with “905.”
It’s also kind of an unusual album, in that Roger sings one of John’s songs. He almost never sang a song John wrote. The album overall has three of John’s songs, again a rarity. Many people have rightly compared him to George Harrison, not only because they were each The Quiet Ones of their respective bands, but also because they had to fight to be thrown a bone, get even one song on each album in spite of a wealth of great material.
The album is also notable for “Love Is Coming Down,” one of three songs Pete wrote during this period with lyrics about standing on or jumping off of a ledge. Thank God he got over this dark mood. (The other two are “Street in the City,” from Rough Mix, his 1977 album with Ronnie Lane of The Small Faces, and “Empty Glass,” the title track of his first official solo album from 1980. The original 1978 lyric of the latter was “Killing each other, then we jump off the ledge,” but in 1980, it was changed to “Killing each other by driving a wedge.”)
And even though Keith’s drumming was suffering during this period, he was still the best drummer he could be, and the album is one final memory, his beautiful swan song. Even if he never again was as perfect as he was on the ending of “Love, Reign O’er Me,” he was still better than all the other drummers out there. It’s so eerie how, on the front cover, Keith is sitting in a chair that says “Not to be taken away.” Right now, I’m the same age he was when he went to his eternal home.
Some of my favorite tracks: