Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thursday Thunderbird Jams: The Who- How Many Friends (1975)

By the mid-Seventies The Who had already been “talkin' bout My Generation”, written an epic opera about a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy”, and synthesized an escape from the “Teenage Wasteland” that was post-Mod/post-LSD youth culture. Yet with all their revolutionary musical accomplishments, a younger and angrier wave of rockers were emerging. The sun seemed to be setting on an entire generation of influential artists. The Beatles were long gone, The Stones were exiled in the south of France, and now The Who's future was uncertain at best. In an art form driven by youth and rebellion, what's more unbecoming than an aging rock 'n' roller?

While pondering exactly that, Pete Townsend (the band's brains) had succumbed to a bout of deep melancholy and self-doubt. He'd even fallen out with his peers Keith Moon (the band's brawn) and Roger Daltry (the band's bravado). Bassist John Entwistle (the band's balance) was the only one able to keep himself neutral by forming his own side project, “The Ox” and touring England.

Townsend gave a series of controversial and cynical interviews in various music rags alluding to the dissolution of his once unstoppable pop group. In a particularly vitriolic interview conducted by Roy Carr in the Spring of 75, Townsend said “When Roger speaks out about 'we'll all be rockin' in our wheelchairs' he might be but you won't catch me rockin' in no wheelchair... The group as a whole have got to realize that the Who are not the same group as they used to be. They never ever will be and as such ... it's very easy to knock somebody by saying someone used to be a great runner and can still run, but he's Not What He Used To Be."

In this same interview, Townsend also lamented the abandonment of the rebellious spiritual revolution of late 60's rock. “Basically, everyone had this mood that something was happening ... something was changing. In essence it did, but unfortunately a lot of its impetus was carried off by the drug obsession. Then when things turned out to be meaningless and people had missed the bus, they quickly realized that they'd gambled everything on something that had run away. The same thing happened to rock. Rock got very excited and flew off ahead leaving most of its audience behind. The Who went on to do what I feel to be some very brave and courageous things, but in the end the audience was a bit apathetic.”

All in all the once thrashing and snarling guitar god had become a bitter, albeit eloquent, old man. But then something really interesting happened... The Who By Numbers. Released in October of 1975, this record harkened back to a simpler, more honest, and emotionally vulnerable time of rock writing. By leaving the grandiose rock opera ambitions of Tommy behind and focusing instead on self-contained songs with personal lyrics and layered musicianship, Townsend created a more cohesive statement than any concept album could have hoped to be.

Ironically, with all of Townsend's fear of being over the hill, the most amazing quality about By Numbers is it's youthful sound. The fact that it was created so long after the pop hits like “I Can See For Miles” and “Magic Bus” but contained hit singles like “Squeezebox” and “Slip Kid” is truly a testament to Townsend's ability to write from an place where he is perpetually young at heart. While his insecurity and fear of irrelevance was on raw display in songs such as “However Much I Booze” and the somber “Blue Red and Grey” (the latter an obvious influence on Eddie Vedder's recent mid-life ukelele crises), the strongest performance on the record is from Mr. Wheelchair himself, Roger Daltry.

“How Many Friends” is the album's climactic ode to paranoia and social alienation. Daltry delivers a powerful, full throttle vocal that sits atop Keith Moon's bombastic but perfectly controlled percussion like whipped cream on a bitchin' banana split. Townsend's guitar is surprisingly understated for such an epic song. Perhaps, despite all his public digs at his bandmates, Pete realized how much he truly needed this goofy singer, this reckless drummer, and this droll but beloved bass player.

This sentiment seems to emerge from the tense bridge when Daltry softly sings the final verse,

When I first signed a contract
It was more than a handshake then I know it still is
But there's a plain fact
We talk so much shit behind each other's backs I get the willies
People know nothing
'bout their own soft rubber soul how come they can sum us up
Without suffering
all the hurt we've known How come they bum us up

Townsend almost seems to be writing an apology (or as close as he would ever dare get) to his brothers in arms. A battle cry to unite them once more, The Who against the world, if only for one more album.
How many friends have you really got, Pete? At least three, that's for sure.


  1. Way to profile my favorite Who record Cory. The Synthesis is kicking themselves in the face for not picking you up back when we first met :).

  2. I really dig your writing style and subject matter old' spoon! It's interesting to think about the band's social dynamic and weigh that against their waning presence with the mid 70's audiences and all that came out of that!