The Who – The Who Sell Out

The Who Sell Out (1967)

A-

1. Armenia City In The Sky 2. Heinz Baked Beans 3. Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand 4. Odorono 5. Tattoo 6. Our Love Was 7. I Can See For Miles 8. I Can’t Reach You 9. Medac 10. Relax 11. Silas Stingy 12. Sunrise 13. Rael 1

 

First of all, has there ever been a better album cover than this? Cooler ones, and more iconic ones, sure. But funnier and more perfect for the music contained within? I don’t think so. Pete’s smirk as he hawks his preferred brand of deodorant would surely be enough to make Don Draper pour himself an old fashioned in celebration of such a home run ad. And Roger is submerged in a tub of beans! He got pneumonia from doing that. For real! Now that’s what I call commitment. John wearing Tarzan garb and a shit-eating grin on the back is pretty hysterical as well. It’s almost enough to make me forgive the fact that Pete will seemingly sell his songs to anyone who waves a few bucks in his face and make me wonder if it’s all part of an elaborate attempt to maintain the viability of the highly entertaining concept that binds The Who Sell Out. The Who actually were writing commercial jingles around this time (yup, even then, pre-CSI). And why shouldn’t they have? Remember, they didn’t make any money, and in fact were deep in the red, until Tommy, so they had to find alternative sources of income. Just like bands today, for whom it is impossible to make money off record sales, which explains why car commercials have such great soundtracks nowadays. My qualms with hearing like five Who songs in between every inning of every Yankees game has to do with the fact that Pete sure as hell doesn’t need the money more, and that he’s allowing iconic songs that might have actually meant something forty years ago to signify nothing besides the fact that you might want to buy some new headlights for your car.

In any case, the concept: the album is presented as a pirate radio broadcast. Interspersed in between “normal” songs are actual radio jingles hyping “Radio London,” as well as “commercials” for various real products composed and performed by the Who. Entwistle wrote most of the commercials, so of course they’re funny, particularly “Heinz Baked Beans,” which reprises the circusy trumpet line of “Cobwebs And Strange” and affords the band the opportunity to talk in funny voices (which may indeed be one of their greatest strengths as a band. Especially Entwistle’s “Boris The Spider” haunted house growl). The rest are amusing but more perfunctory, excepting Pete’s “Odorono,” a full three-minute song about a poor young girl whose inability to apply the titular product to her smelly underarms proves to be her downfall.

Now for the songs not about discontinued consumer products your parents used to buy at 7-11. There are two major things that stand out to me about these tunes. First, that Pete almost completely eschewed the whole psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper scene that just about everyone else succumbed to around this time and kept on writing power pop (the exception is the opener “Armenia City In The Sky,” with its blaring waves of backwards guitar, delirious trumpet blasts, and hallucinatory imagery. But Pete didn’t write it – his roommate, John “Speedy” Keene, later of Thunderclap Newman, did. I’d sure like to know how he got that nickname. I’d wager it had less to do with track and field and more to do with pills). I’m not surprised, since, first of all, Pete had already given up on acid by the time Sell Out came out in December ’67. He’d been on one too many bad trips, I guess, and had moved on to enlightenment of a less pharmaceutical nature in the person of his guru of choice, Meher Baba. And besides, the Who were, attitude-wise, among the original punks (before they became the sort of bombastic pontificators that punk rock was created to destroy). They weren’t built for peace and love hippie crap… there was too much anger and aggression in their sound alone, not mention Pete’s lyrics (their famously antagonistic performance at Woodstock is proof of this). Sure, Pete tears off a few more wanky, blues-based, Clapton-wannabe solos (two or three) than he did on Sings My Generation (none), but no biggie.

The second thing is that Roger is barely on this thing at all. He actually got kicked out of the band around this time for throwing one too many punches at his bandmates, and begged his way back in. But I don’t know if he was constantly off at hair straightening appointments or what, because I don’t hear him on over half the album, and a lot of the time, when he does show up, he’s just harmonizing (female masturbation ode “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand,” bluesy riff-based “Relax”). The thing is that this isn’t such a negative development, and frankly Sell Out backs up my opinion that, from ’65-’67, Roger’s most distinguished contribution to the Who was swinging his microphone; the band might not have been any worse off if Pete and John just sang all the songs. I can’t imagine Roger doing nearly as good of a job as Pete does on the delectable, longing power pop of “I Can’t Reach You”; Pete’s vulnerable puppy dog vocal delivery suits the song’s unfulfilled sad sack protagonist perfectly. Likewise, Pete’s solo acoustic turn, the serene, lovestruck “Sunrise” is incredibly lovely and one of his forgotten gems. It sounds as if he was reaching for tender pop gold of a pre-rock ‘n roll era – maybe something his singer mum might’ve liked.

Rog at least makes his presence felt on “I Can See For Miles,” which, in Pete’s absolutely correct assertion, was the definitive Who record to this point in their careers. In fact Pete was so discouraged by its inability to make any kind of major commercial impact that it drove him to reinvent his approach to songwriting, which of course led to his rock opera period. And it’s easy to see why he thought he had a breakthrough on his hands. The Who had finally made themselves widely known in America, first of all, on the back of their performance at Monterey Pop earlier that year. And second, just about everything that’s great about pre-Tommy Who is at some kind of peak here, namely Keith thrashing away behind the kit (those snare hits during the intro are like fucking rock ‘n roll grenades), impeccable vocal harmonies, and Pete cajoling forth some truly raw, sinister riffs. And yes, Roger is the man to sing this song. Still I don’t it’s his first truly great vocal… that distinction belongs to his singing on one of the bonus tracks on the reissue I’ve got, of all things: “Melancholia,” an excellent pissed-off rock song. There’s a few more nice tunes among the bonus tracks, and a bunch more fun jingles and commercials, so you’ll definitely want to opt for the bigger rar file in this case).

So why no A? Well, John’s “Silas Stingy” sucks, and Pete’s second attempt at a mini opera, “Rael,” is none too memorable either. The sci-fi military plot seems contrived, and I’m not sure it has any hooks in it other than a riff that Pete would subsequently recycle in Tommy. So turn the album off after “Sunrise,” and you’ll be able to correctly remember Sell Out as the Who’s last gasp before the rise of Pretentious Pete. Not that I’m complaining about the direction the band took after this. But sometimes all a guy needs to hear are nice pop songs about acne cream.



One Comment

  1. Oi! I agree mostly with the above, but John’s “Silas Stingy” is no stinker. It’s certainly not Entwistle’s best composition, with the chorus and the “money bags” part being slightly weak, but the verses are excellent both melodically and lyrically. All the hysterical black humour is there, as well as a melody distinctly different from anything that Pete ever wrote. I thoroughly enjoy this song, though I have to agree that “Rael” sucks donkey.


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