Recording of July 2021: The Who Sell Out

The Who: The Who Sell Out
Universal 7711420 (5 CDs, 2 7" singles). 1967/2021. Kit Lambert, Pete Townshend, prods.; Damon Lyon-Shaw, Jon Astley, Andy MacPherson, other engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

This 5-CD box-set version of The Who Sell Out is the latest iteration of a 54-year-old work-in-progress. It contains an unrivaled wealth of recorded information covering the period between the Who's second album, A Quick One (Happy Jack in the US), and the monumental rock opera Tommy.

At the package's core are remasters of the original album in mono and stereo. It also includes alternate takes and unreleased tracks related to the project, singles and their B-sides, and preparatory Tommy material. Forty-six tracks, including 14 of Townshend's wonderful home demos, have never been released before. Sonically, some of the partial takes, rehearsals, and demos are rough, but they fit the spirit of this package perfectly.

Some key songs can be heard from demo through rehearsals and alternate takes and on to the final versions. We hear and compare several versions of "Glow Girl," the mythical song identified by Townshend as the basis for the Tommy concept. I remember as a teenager reading Townshend's account of this song in a Rolling Stone interview and fantasizing about what it must have sounded like. "Glow Girl" is about a girl and her boyfriend in an airplane about to crash. The song climaxes with The Who simulating the crash and the girl being reincarnated: "It's a girl, Mrs. Walker."

You need to know two things to understand The Who Sell Out. When this album was released in 1967, selling out was one of the nastiest things you could say about a band. Yet, the early Who were champions of the three-minute hit single, a format that fitted seamlessly into the hype that was 1960s AM radio, in which commercials, station IDs, and songs formed a seamless, relentless whole. Radio London, the legendary "pirate radio" station that perfected the format in the UK, went off the air permanently a few months before The Who Sell Out was released. So, the concept for The Who Sell Out was at once iconoclastic and a glorification of the idea that the best pop hits were themselves brilliant commercials. The Who would sell out with slashing, sonic elan while honoring the station that did so much to promote them in the early days. Some of the commercials are great Who performances; there are even alternate takes of the commercials here.

The album's hit, "I Can See for Miles," ended Side 1, one of the greatest pieces of sustained conceptual music in rock history. The station promos, ads, and songs fit together seamlessly, and the songs are more varied in style than on any other Who album, adding to the illusion that you are listening to a radio broadcast. A station tag leads into "Armenia City in the Sky," a psychedelic track replete with backward guitars; that song segues via another tag into bassist John Entwistle's commercial for Heinz baked beans, followed without pause by "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand." The commercial for "Odorono" deodorant is a terrific story song. "Tattoo," a weird, wistful ballad, is followed by an advertisement for Rotosound strings, whose final note seems to detonate the monster guitar-and-bass power chord that opens "I Can See for Miles."

Side two of the original Sell Out sounds incomplete, probably because it was meant to include the powerful medley of the Who's commercial for Jaguar with a cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," which was slated to be released as a single but ultimately dropped from the project. This has already appeared on previous expanded versions of the album, which is why I think of Sell Out as a work-in-progress, building to this latest version. Sell Out summarized the genius of the band's early days of great, self-contained songs as it moved toward the long-format pieces that would characterize it from then on.

The commercials are a story in themselves: the key to understanding the band's spirit and a coded representation of "swinging London" in its brief, Carnaby Street manifestation. The band spent a lot of time on those Soho streets, drinking at bars, hitting the clubs, and hanging out at their Track Records office. The commercials are like hieroglyphs telling that story. Together, the glyphs make up their own pop-art alphabet, and hearing the band members delight in playing with those blocks is revelatory. They were wise guys, alive in the moment, confident in their ability to create something new from bits and pieces without transgressing the one unwritten law more serious than the law against selling out: Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously.

The Who would never sound like this again.—John Swenson

mmole's picture

...the Petra Haden cover of the entire "Sells Out" using only her voice. Amazing!