The brilliance – musically and conceptually – of The Who’s third album, humorously titled The Who Sell Out, cannot be overstated or underestimated. Only two years on in their contracted recording career and they were breaking huge chunks of new ground by going where no band had thought to do before, and in the process, helping to make the album, as opposed to the single, THE listening medium. While A Quick One introduced the “mini-opera”, the thread that ran through all of side one and into the first three tracks of side two was to intersperse radio jingles/ads (real and ones written by the band) in between the songs to create the illusion of listening to a radio station. It was also a (not so subtle) commentary on the commerciality of the three-minute hit single, which Townshend often felt was not his desired artistic calling.
1967 started in a rapidly-moving-forward fashion for The Who; “Happy Jack” was a surprise hit single in the United States, where they had not yet toured (but were soon to do); through their alignment with Polydor, their managers set up the Track Records label as a home base – not only for The Who but new acts as well (the first being The Jimi Hendrix Experience); the first Track single from the band, “Pictures Of Lily” was another innovative success – it was an explosively creative time (fueled in part, undoubtedly, by mind-expanding chemicals).
Driven by the single that preceded the album’s release, Townshend’s shining moment, “I Can See For Miles” (which became The Who’s calling card in the United States and one of the most perfect songs ever issued), the new album was to be a tougher, more experimentally-oriented and far greater textured band than had been heard to date. So when it was released in December, after the band’s triumphant U.S. tour (which, of course, saw them open the eyes of the “love crowd” at the Monterey Pop Festival), once again, heads were turned. The cover was a ingenious spoof of real-life products – Heinz beans, Odorono deodorant, etc. – and the songs, along with the specifically-written-for-the-album ads were equal to the task. Once the needle drops, you feel like you’re listening to a British pirate radio station – in this case, Radio London (if you don’t know what “pirate radio” is/was, please look it up – it’s a fascinating story) and the band was able to use the station’s own jingles to truly bring the concept to fruition.
Kicking (and I do mean kicking) in with John “Speedy” Keen’s psychedelically staggering “Armenia City In The Sky” (the only original song to ever appear on a Who album not written by the band – this doesn’t count for cover songs and, personally speaking, this may, indeed be my all-time favorite Who track), you immediately know that this isn’t so much of an album as it is an aural AND sensory experience. Backwards guitar loops, thundering bass and sweetly double-tracked vocals of Daltrey and Townshend propel this album forward into the hilariously corny “Heinz Baked Beans” ad and then to the beautiful acoustic rendition of “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hands” (two other “band” versions had been recorded, one of which made it on to the B-side of “I Can See For Miles” in the U.S.). The next ad, “Odonoro” is, for all intents and purposes, a fully-realized Townshend track, which Pete sings; “Tattoo” is a humorous generation gap question and “Our Love Was, Is” is one of the prettiest things The Who ever committed to vinyl; another Townshend showcase. A quick succession of commercials, including the now-legendary “hold your group together with Roto Sound Strings” and “I Can See For Miles” closes side one.
As Townshend once said, “the concept really doesn’t hold up once you have to turn the record over”, so there are only two commercials on the second side. The “Charles Atlas” body building ad is another laugher which segues into “I Can’t Reach You” and then into “Medac” (or “Spotted Henry” as the American Decca label release reads). “Relax”, powered by an organ riff, is one of the heaviest and rocking-est numbers, followed by another of Entwistle’s “character” songs, “Silas Stingy”. The elegant, jazz-infused “Sunrise”, sung by Townshend precedes the closing track, “Rael”, which is a “micro-opera”, with a definitive storyline and later parts (that weren’t heard until the 1995 CD re-issue with the bonus tracks and extra commercials that had been recorded but not used). It should be noted that “Rael” contains the musical progression that makes up the later Tommy “Underture”.).
Had The Who used a few more of the commercials (such as their ad for Jaguar cars) or some of the outtakes (like the stunning “Melancholia”), it may have made this now-legendary album even more incredible. But as it stands, Sell Out, in its original vinyl form, is a work of art. Pop art, but art. And it will hopefully forever remain a cornerstone for any kid who wants to pick a guitar. Because this album shows you how it should be done.
The Who Sell Out (mono vinyl reissue) is available now