Counterbalance: The Who – The Who Sell Out

What's for tea, darling? Darling, I said, What's for tea? It's a 1967 pop-art masterpiece. You're going to choke on it, too. A pioneer in the art of the concept album is this week's Counterbalance.
The Who
The Who Sell Out

Klinger: Over the last four-plus years, we’ve talked about the Who twice, back when we were taking on the Great List in numerical order — two albums that are highly iconic, yet markedly different both from one another and from the Who’s earliest work. And no matter what relationship I’ve had with the Who over the years (and I’m on record as being back and forth with the group to degrees that alarm even me), I will always be a champion of their pre-Tommy work. That’s especially true of The Who Sell Out, which is currently the 312th most acclaimed album of all time and one that I return to fairly regularly. Released in late 1967, The Who Sell Out is an ingenious concept album that came out at a time before concept albums were de rigeur for artistes of a certain temperament.

And what a great concept it is. The Who Sell Out brings the group’s pop-art leanings into full fruition, creating a massive canvas based on pirate radio — complete with commercials. Pete Townshend and company intersperse a range of winning mod confections with ads for Heinz Baked Beans, Odorono deodorant and more. And the result is a Warholian masterpiece that, for my money, the Who never surpassed. Now Mendelsohn, I know you’ve never been much of a Who fan, and we’ve never had occasion to talk about their Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy years, so I have to ask if you’re maybe more amenable to The Who Sell Out than the other LPs we’ve covered?

Mendelsohn: I like this version of the Who. If this was my first run in with the group, I might be more open to some of the decisions they made later in their career. I also notice that The Who Sell Out, while packed with great music, is noticeably devoid of the chart topping hits that crop up on later Who albums. That might be my problem, Klinger. I was burned out on the Who before I ever really had a chance to evaluate their music. Between Tommy, my local classic rock station and the endless iterations of CSI shows, I couldn’t care less about the Who. In fact, the constant barrage, coupled with my lovable cynicism made me dislike nearly everything about the Who. But The Who Sell Out is a fun record, the type of concept record that doesn’t take itself seriously, which seems to be a serious problem when rock bands try to make pronouncements through their music (e.g., Tommy. I think. I’m still not sure what Tommy was all about).

Why couldn’t we have talked about The Who Sell Out first? Why isn’t it higher on the Great List? This record is the perfect combination of pop music and pop art, a well-thought out barrage of guitar licks and parodied commercialism. I’m not saying that No. 312 on the Great List isn’t something to be proud of, but if this record isn’t the complete package, I’m not sure what is. No hits, right? Or is it something else?

Klinger: It’s true that The Who Sell Out wasn’t a hit here in the US, although the single “I Can See for Miles” did reach number 9 stateside. Meanwhile, Tommy was a pop phenomenon unto itself in 1969, and Who’s Next made the group into full-fledged rock stars. And while you’re right that The Who Sell Out deserves points for not taking itself too seriously, it came along at a time when taking yourself seriously was more or less a given for artistes of a certain standing.

I have to confess, Mendelsohn, I was hoping for a little bit more obstinacy from you. I was looking forward to coming back at you with the brilliance of this entire pop radio conceit, the way it transformed the mundane detritus of our culture and transformed it into art, doing for zit creams and bodybuilding courses what Andy Warhol did for Brillo boxes and soup cans. I had hoped you’d find fault with the very ’60s-ishness of the whole thing so that I could point out the electricity of their mod sound, which strikes just the right balance between icy cool (“Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand”) and sentimentality (“Our Love Was”). Plus I was hoping to point out that with its rawer sound, you get an even better chance to hear how Keith Moon, John Entwistle and Pete Townshend manage to form a tight, cohesive unit while still seeming to play more or less whatever the hell they want. So I’m a little disappointed that I’m not going to get to argue those points with you.

Mendelsohn: I’m sorry to disappoint. I thought for sure I would be trotting out the same tired arguments I use ever time you hand me a record from the 1960s, but to my surprise as well, The Who Sell Out has been incredibly enjoyable. And why not? I love rock and roll, especially if it is the smartly written pop variety, and the Who nailed it. I had even planned on half-assing my way through this argument, simply because I had done it so many times I can practically do it in my sleep but then the record grabbed me. I was caught off guard by the crisp, clear vision of “Our Love Was” and that was all it took to open my eyes to this record. Suddenly, I’m in love with “Tattoo”, wowed by the bright “I Can’t Reach You”, and happily singing along with “Odorono”, which, by the way, is probably the best place on the album to take in Townshend, Entwistle and Moon all engaging in completely different activities while still playing the same song.

But then I hit “I Can See For Miles”, and I’m automatically reminded of Tommy, which reminds me that, yes, I am indeed listening to the Who and mostly enjoying the experience. And I find that strange, but you did a great job summing up why. The Who Sell Out has an undeniable, youthful exuberance, and if I had to be perfectly honest, it is the raw, unpolished nature of this record that I enjoy the most. In revisiting Who’s Next and Tommy for this week’s assignment, I finally realized that I don’t like the Who because they were so good at what they did, it almost sounded fake. The Who Sell Out doesn’t sound fake, even if it was made to sound like a fake pirate radio broadcast.

Klinger: The radio conceit is certainly an effective hook — I think it not only forced the band to add different sonic elements (like commercials and reminders to go to the church of your choice), but it also seems to have pushed Townshend to create songs drawing from a broader palette. Maybe Townshend was actively trying to write songs that reflected the state of British pop circa 1967, so you get more lovey tunes like “Can’t Reach You” and “Sunrise”. In fact, one of most Who-ish songs on The Who Sell Out, “Armenia City in the Sky”, was actually written by Townshend protege Speedy Keen. Meanwhile, Entwistle chimes in with the remarkably odd “Silas Stingy”, which almost sounds like a madrigal or possibly something by the Swingle Singers (as a 1968 Harvard Crimson review of the group so astutely noted).

But no discussion of The Who Sell Out would be complete without a mention of “Rael”, which points the way toward what’s to come for the group. The song serves as a fulcrum for the band, serving as a bridge between their earlier work (seeing that, like “A Quick One While He’s Away”, it’s a shorter rock opera) and their later work (seeing that, like Tommy, it doesn’t make a ton of sense).

But making sense is sort of beside the point at that point. Because the more sense Pete Townshend made over the course of the Who’s career, the less fun (and frankly, less good) the records became. Before he decided to spend most of his time writing Songs of Himself, Townshend was remarkably adept at commenting on the scene around him. The Who Sell Out was him — and by extension, the group — expanding their reach beyond Mod and into the culture as a whole. And for my money its the Who at their most effective.