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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Who Sell Out

Last week I wrote a tribute entry to The Who, one of my favorite rock and roll bands of all-time. I read a little bit about them on the Web in preparation, and most of it I knew. But I was curious about an album that I didn't have, The Who Sell Out. Over the weekend I was at Princeton Record Exchange and they had a cheap copy so I picked it up.

I was stunned to realize I knew none of the songs on it, except for the one hit it spawned, "I Can See For Miles." How could this be? How could the rest of this album escape my notice over all these years--three and half decades of listening to "classic rock" radio? It would be like a Beatles' fan never hearing Rubber Soul.

I do remember seeing this record in the Who bins at record stores over the years, and remembering how turned off I was by the cover, which as you can see features Pete Townshend applying deodorant to his armpit and Roger Daltrey in a bath of baked beans. But it doesn't explain why perfectly good, radio-ready songs like "Armenia City in the Sky," "Relax," "Sunrise," or "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" have been off the air for all these years. It might have to do with the gimmick of the record--it's presented as a broadcast of a pirate radio station--Radio London--complete with jingles and commercials. Many of the tracks include these commercials, so perhaps they weren't edited for regular radio play.

The album was released in 1967, a hybrid between British invasion pop and the burgeoning psychedelic explosion. Some of it sounds like the jangly folk of The Byrds. There is a John Entwhistle composed ditty--"Silas Stingy"--that sorts of prefigures some of The Beatles odd-character songs, and Townshend's first experiment with rock opera, the song that closes the original album, "Rael."

The compact disc contains several bonus tracks, which are fascinating for Who historians. One discovers that Townshend plagiarized himself--a portion of "Rael" would later be the main theme of "Underture" from Tommy, and another bit of that album can be heard in "Glow Girl" with a gender switch: "It's a girl, Mrs. Walker, it's a girl." My favorite cut on the entire disc may be a kick-ass rock version of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King."

It was great to experience this, discovering Who music that I had never heard before. The album is an odd one--not as finger-snappingly pleasing as their first singles from their first two records, and not has soaringly powerful as Tommy, Who's Next, or Who Are You, but has pleasures nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. Townshend's first rock opera experiment is probably "A Quick One While He's Away," which is on their second album, "A Quick One."

    You're right about the curious way the album has disappeared. As far as I can tell, the only song from Sell Out that even stayed in the live rotation was "Tattoo." If Wikipedia is to be believed, even "I Can See for Miles" wasn't played live very often until the '80s.