Originally released in 1967, The Who Sell Out is an exercise in irony. That irony is further underscored over 40 years later with the Who’s ubiquitous presence in the media as the go-to soundtrack providers for television detective drama C.S.I., its various spin-offs, and as movie trailer fodder for comedies and family fare.
Over 40 years later, the Who’s revolutionary release is celebrated for its foray into then-uncharted territory, as well as the band’s intentionally ironic acknowledgment of their dabbles in commercialism and product endorsement. The Who merely embarked upon becoming kings of the shill in the ‘60s before blossoming into princes of product placement in song and on screen.
Musically and thematically speaking, The Who Sell Out impacted the music (and marketing) industry as a concept album without bludgeoning the concept of a concept album to death. It may not have the wall-to-wall splendour of Tommy, yet The Who Sell Out links seemingly random slices of life together under the banner of Radio London station identification jingles and commercials dabbed in between the sonic scenery of storytelling songs. While The Who Sell Out is more of a variety show with related themes than a fully-fledged concept album, it showed an even more ambitious direction for the band—particularly with “Rael 1 and 2”, a boiled-down, four-minute piece carved from a much larger Townshend stab at a rock opera.
Controversy, attention, and lawsuits were generated by the band’s (at this point) pretend jingles and the album’s cover comprised of crafty, Madison Avenue mock-up print advertisements with each band member stumping for household names like Heinz Baked Beans (featuring the iconic image of a Victorian-era swimsuit clad Roger Daltrey seated in a tub full of refrigerated baked beans—a stunt that resulted in the lead singer catching low-grade pneumonia) and Charles Atlas bodybuilding courses, among others. During the anti-capitalistic heyday of flower power, this sort of crossover appeal from a full-fledged rock band was unheard of. Nevertheless, once the corporate suits realized that the Who were giving them free publicity, the lawsuits were dropped.
The Deluxe Edition reissuing of The Who Sells Out lays out the importance of the album with a thick booklet comprised of lengthy essays, including former Creem magazine editor/music journalist/historian and Who enthusiast Dave Marsh’s contribution to the new edition’s copious liner notes.
Even without the retrospective accompaniment, The Who Sells Out speaks for itself as a historical timepiece and what it meant for both the Who and the musical landscape of the late 1960s.
Songs that feel more like short stories set to music stand alongside experimental pieces, as well as the quirky, commercial vignettes that comprise the meat-and-potatoes behind The Who Sells Out. The bonus tracks, in addition to those found on the original, further beef up the amount of faux sponsorship on the album. Of course, there’s the ode to “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Odorono”, which exhibits a sense of British wit as dry as the song’s unfortunate female protagonist’s armpits might have been had she used the titular deodorant. “Medac” gives props to a pre-Proactive miracle zit cream, and (thanks to the staggering amount of bonus material) several Who-penned Coca Cola ads. The Who even step into roles of car pitchmen with a funny, behind-the-scenes outtake of the “John Mason Cars” jingle and in a more fleshed out way on the excellent “Jaguar”, replete with thunderous drumming and Daltrey’s hissing, feline vocals.
On the more experimental end of things, John “The Ox” Entwistle’s horn arrangements and grumbling bassline explode on “Armenia City in the Sky”. The brazen use of brass flies in the face of then-prevalent psychedelia, although a less lounge-y version of the song exists on Disc Two of the set in mono.
The band then spins a complete 180 with the pure psychedelic pop pastiche of “Our Love Was”. The song nicks innocent, sweetly harmonic elements of the Beach Boys and showcases Townshend’s take on vintage surf guitar against trippier late-‘60s sounds emblematic of the era that The Who Sell Out was released.
This feel carries over with the wattage turned up on the iconic “I Can See For Miles”, with each member bringing their A-game to the table: Townshend’s guitar twangs and wails out its British blues-influenced squeals. Daltrey’s vocals take on an ethereal quality while still remaining unquestionably masculine (Take that, Robert Plant!). Entwistle’s bass buzzes and lays the concrete foundation the track rests upon while Keith Moon goes completely apeshit, leaking cymbals and toms all over the whole damn track, elevating it from laid-back blues to threatening rock.
On the other side of the spectrum, the group displays a different side (albeit the flipside of “Pictures of Lily”) on “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand”, with its masturbatory overtones cleverly shrouded in dubious entendre. A warmer, mono version can be heard on Disc 2 along with a fuller-sounding US Mirasound version, yet on all three recordings of the song present on the Deluxe Edition, Townshend channels CSN&Y, gently strumming his guitar rather than wailing away on it. Moon’s clicking, castanet-like percussion compliments Townshend’s jangly chords before giving way to the full-on bash-fest the manic Moon was prone to.
Another story in song is the utterly beautiful “Tattoo” with its minor arpeggio minor intro. Following two brothers who decided to undergo a rite of passage together, Daltrey sings: “Welcome to my life, tattoo / We’ve a long time together, me and you”. The years and reaction of parents and society to the brothers’ body art and where life takes them is chronicled in under three minutes.
Bits of the Who’s influence on later bands and the influence Townshend and company felt from their contemporaries also pops up on The Who Sell Out. “Someone’s Coming” sounds like early Yardbirds with prominent horns riffing their way throughout, while the instrumental “Sodding About” could easily become a Bond-esque spy theme with its slinking bassline and ticking timebomb percussion flavored by Townshend’s interpretation of electric Hendrix-style riffs, himself having felt Jimi’s influence across the pond. Meanwhile, “I Can’t Reach You” stands as bold evidence that U2 should be ashamed of themselves for recycling the piece into “The Sweetest Thing”.
That said, the Deluxe Edition of The Who Sell Out is a must-have for diehard fans, particularly for its deluge of extras. For music fans in general, it’s a sound intro for young whippersnappers to be introduced to the Who in an unmitigated state, without the modern trappings of media accompaniment to taint the listening experience.
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