In celebration of the 69th birthday of one of my favorite songwriters, here's a re-run of my original review of The Who Sell Out...
Townshend: "It wasn't just the Who that were made by pirate radio, it was pirate radio that made the music scene in this country. It made the Beatles, it made the Stones, it made lots and lots of people that were around at the time."
Unlike the USA, which boasted countless stations with tunes on tap across the dial, Mother BBC was the only game in town when it came to radio in the UK, pre-1964. Very little airtime was granted to pop music. This situation turned around when Radio Caroline became a floating (and illegal) transmitter of rock and roll.
Pirate radio brought a wealth of fantastic music to Britons in the mid sixties.
The passing of the Marine Broadcasting Act in 1967 would mark the beginning of the end for these pioneers. The few ships that remained to send out their signals would soon cease and desist. Truly disappointed by this turn of events, Pete hit upon an intriguing concept for the next record. He envisioned a fulsome tribute to both the pirate and American top 40 formats, complete with linking jingles and commercials. There was even talk of selling ad space on the disc to large corporations (in the end, Coke was the only taker). There could be no greater contrast to the ideals that were espoused by the burgeoning hippie movement of that era than casting your lot in with the ultra-capitalistic "establishment", offering up a piece of your art to the highest bidder.
What's for tea, darling?
To my ear, Sell Out is to the Who what Their Satanic Majesties Request represented for the Stones in that they haven't done anything even remotely like it, before or since. Climbing aboard that train of thought, let’s look at the elements that make this markedly different from the other entries in the Who discography.
1) With one or two exceptions, Keith Moon’s drumming is subtly muted for many of the tracks. His usual frenetic playing is pared down considerably to simply keeping time.
2) Rich, Beach Boys style, block harmonies pervade most every selection (the beginning of "Rael" would have sat comfortably alongside anything on Pet Sounds).
3) Melodies are to the fore, with the grittier side of the group's raucous stage personality toned way down.
A minor point gets deducted here for some unfinished business. The continuous run of great music interpolated with quirky, mock adverts is quite engrossing until the second song in on side two, where the listener experiences "concept interuptus".
Why wasn't this approach carried through to the end of the project?
The most likely reasons involve a combination of the heavy price of additional studio time and the hectic touring schedule that the band sorely needed to tackle mounting debt. Despite this fact, Sell Out stands one of the three best discs that they ever issued. Pete Townshend's genius as a composer had been glimpsed prior to this. Now it flowered in ways that amazed. There is a bounty of truly exceptional material, from the masterful "I Can See For Miles" to the increasing emphasis on narrative that makes "Tattoo" and "Odorono" so engaging.
Townshend: "When I write today, I feel that it has to tell a little story. Like Odorono, which I dug because it was a little story and although I thought it's a good song, it was about something groovy-underarm perspiration. He rushes backstage to congratulate her and it looks like she's all set, not only for stardom but also for true love. And then, underarm perspiration cuts the whole thing. And you know, without getting too serious about it, because it's supposed to be very light, that's life. That really is life."
Darling, I said what's for tea?
Throwing everyone off the plot, "Armenia City in the Sky" crashes in following the robotic "days of the week" snippet. Pounding along with dissonant swells of feedback guitar, the song was authored by one John "Speedy" Keene who also shared vocal duties with Roger on the track. The Who never really indulged in psychedelia, so the cloud of incense that hovers over the proceedings, while redolent of the sounds of 1967, is also slightly disingenuous. It proves to be a red herring as the selections that follow have little to do with the tie-dye, love me-love my dog philosophy that briefly ensnared some of the biggest acts of that era.
Keene would go on to find his feet with the excellent, albeit short-lived, Thunderclap Newman who wound up scoring a worldwide hit the following year with his tune "Something in the Air", produced by Townshend.
Pop intellectuals found themselves smugly nodding in appreciation at the nostalgic in-joke that was etched deeply into the grooves of this remarkable platter. Ivory tower elitism is never a great reason for liking something, nor should it be attached to your appreciation of Sell Out.
Very well constructed music is what should (and will) reel you in.
Plus, Daltrey in the tub of beans is pretty fucked.
Owing to a predilection for tampering with the running order of great works in a revisionist effort to make them even better, I would have kicked off Entwistle's "Silas Stingy" and replaced it with "Pictures of Lily". This would have landed two tunes with a theme involving the handling of the male member for naughty purposes (or happy endings) on the same album. Speaking of which, "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" has an interesting, Latin-flavored acoustic break.
Heavy for its time (and a few steps ahead as well) was the single, "I Can See For Miles". Largely due to the idiosyncratic structure of this monster, it rarely featured in their live shows.
Very little filler is found on Sell Out. As previously mentioned, aside from the psychedelic poster that came with the original pressings, there is no great attempt to embrace that style. This is important, as most every major rock act of that period was straining to do "Sgt Pepper Part II", binging on acid and more often than not coming up with a load of pretentious garbage. (Dylan and the Kinks musically kept away from the "Summer of Love-In as well). The sensibilities of the individual members really helped to keep the Who from heading down that path. Moon actively hated hippies, while Roger and John took little notice of that movement. John and Keith spent a lot of time in the pubs, where they ultimately came up with most of the commercials, including the run-out groove joke response (Track Records jingle) to what the Beatles had done at the end of Sgt. Pepper. Only Townshend really got into LSD in any major way, though he would shortly back away from drug taking following a harrowing STP trip on the plane back to England after they played Monterey in June of 67. "Relax" has a slight echo (no pun intended) of Syd Barrett's work with Pink Floyd, but the rest do not bear the stamp of "flowers and beads".
Townshend's musical range was expanding. He learned to properly play piano as these songs took shape and he deftly handled most of the keyboard parts during the sessions by himself. The progressions in "Our Love Was" and "Sunrise" are an extension of his continuing education. The overall sound of this record is vastly superior to anything that they had done up to this point. Though there was some legal turbulence surrounding the use of some Radio London jingles, Sell Out was a tremendous success in terms of cohesion and strength in composition. Not yet superstars, a brief period of water treading would follow until Pete found the plot for their next odyssey which would bring far greater glories than anyone had imagined.