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The Who - The Who Sell Out CD (album) cover


The Who



3.55 | 276 ratings

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5 stars With "Sell Out" The Who entered the upper echelon of rockdom. Everything about it is miles and miles better than their previous two energetic but inconsistent albums and even their harshest critics had to take notice. Is it a concept album? Not really. My thought is that Pete Townsend was so frustrated with their inability to achieve a number one single in the corrupt, payola- infested radio business of that era that he decided they would just create their own station complete with authentic-sounding commercials and incidental promotional spots placed between songs. In essence, satirically "sell out." Even the hilarious cover photos are a tongue-in-cheek slap in the face of crass consumerism. In the midst of all this witty sarcasm, though, they made one of the most creative, influential and yes, "progressive" albums of the 60s. Progressive rock is much, much more than just out-of-the-ordinary music. It is a state of mind. It's a matter of thinking outside the established box of normality and this record is all that and more. It is, in a word, incredible. And one hell of an entertaining ride.

Because radio never stops or even pauses you are greeted by a voice box reciting the days of the week ad infinitum before the band launches into the delectable psychedelia of Speedy Keene's "Armenia City in the Sky" featuring backwards guitar loops, a dense organ sound and a very trippy vocal from Roger Daltrey. It's acid rock at its finest. After a quick word from Radio London you are presented with John Entwistle's lively mock-commercial for "Heinz Baked Beans" that is quite reminiscent of the zany fun the group had on the previous LP's "Cobwebs and Strange." While the single "Pictures of Lily" is unashamedly about self- stimulation, the highly melodic "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand(s)" is the logical next step as it points out that the most popular girl in town isn't necessarily the prettiest or smartest but the one who knows how to please a man. The flamenco-styled guitar solo also reveals that Pete was not just a power chord maniac but a true guitar virtuoso, as well. The Who's playful humor is one of their most endearing traits and it's never as apparent than on the funny "Odorono" where the lady protagonist loses out after an important singing audition because, in the tragic end, her inferior deodorant lets her down. Keith Moon adds some dynamic, booming floor toms to spice up the otherwise smooth-flowing number.

Skin art is rather prevalent in the 21st century but back then it was still a taboo reserved for very tough sailors and such. Keep that in mind while listening to the wonderful "Tattoo" where two adolescent brothers decide to make the jump into manhood by acquiring one to the chagrin of their parents. "Dad beat me 'cause mine said 'mother'/but my mother naturally liked it and beat my brother/'cause his tattoo was of a lady in the nude/and my mom thought that was extremely rude." That's a great lyric and the over-the-top, aria-style backup vocal at the end is a hoot. After the nostalgic radio chorale reminds you to "go to the church of your choice" you are treated to the pure power-pop of "Our Love Was (Is)" which demonstrates Townsend's continuing advancements in understanding song structure and arranging with its cascading vocals and dramatic key changes. Love the fat guitar tones, too.

Preceded by a blatant pitch for Rotosound strings (wink, wink), the inimitable and huge E-chord onset of one of the greatest progressive rock songs of the 60s detonates as "I Can See for Miles" knocks the door down and ransacks your home. It doesn't follow the orthodox pattern of any rock & roll song of its day, it has Moon's rolling drums that spit out accents right and left, Pete and John's guitar sounds are monstrous, the complicated close harmonies of its chorus are unique and no other band has done anything that sounds even remotely like it before or since. It stands alone. You've also gotta love the "you've cheated on the wrong outlaw this time, missy" attitude that Daltrey delivers with a steely vengeance. It's an amazing piece of work. Pete's pensive "I Can't Reach You" follows and it's a much calmer cut that shows the bounding leaps they had made in their studio recording know-how and techniques. It's a pristine track about an old geezer who has a heartbreaking crush on a much younger babe but can't do a damn thing about it.

The scourge of acne is addressed in John's "Medac," a sure cure for that ailment (that will leave your mug as smooth as a baby's bottom) before you enter the psychedelic realm of "Relax," an organ-heavy tune that was probably inspired by Townsend's admiration for Syd Barret's Pink Floyd. Entwistle's "Silas Stingy" is next and its ironic twist is that miserly Silas is so worried about someone stealing his money that he spends it all trying to protect it. A swirling trumpet lead and very deep organ tones distinguish this memorable tune. If you need further proof of Pete's versatility and skill on guitar look no further than on "Sunrise," a flawless solo performance that is stunning. This poignant torch song is just flat-out gorgeous in its simplicity.

If you find their first mini-rock opera "A Quick One" a little too whimsical then "Rael" might be more palatable to your taste. However, if you are looking for a plot here you might save yourself some time because even Townsend himself has gone on record as saying that even he doesn't know what it's about exactly. (Rumor is that it has something to do with the Red Chinese eradicating all religion and, therefore, Israel) No matter, it is the obvious precursor to the full-scale behemoth that is "Tommy" and it is exhilarating in its combination of feels and textures. Face it, Pete was a visionary and an extraordinary trailblazer. This extended cut inspired countless musicians to break the three-minute barrier on a more consistent basis, thus paving the way for progressive music to blossom in general.

The 1995 reissue includes the psalm-like coda of "Rael 2," (which adds little to deciphering the mysterious story line) as well as some B-sides, outtakes and unfinished demos. Mixed in are more faux commercials that didn't make it through the final mix for products like Coke, Top Gear, John Mason's car dealership and the clever CD-ender for Track Records (only LP enthusiasts will get the joke, though). "Glittering Girl" is pedestrian British pop but "Melancholia" is an interesting track that seems to reflect Townsend's respect for operatic melodies and overwrought drama. Mexican trumpets are predominant in John's enjoyable "Someone's Coming," a cool ditty about a couple sneaking around to avoid the girl's suspicious father. Heavy drums and intense, screaming guitars characterize the odd "Jaguar" and a song written by Roger with one of the roadies called "Early Morning Cold Taxi" is dull and repetitive. Their rave up instrumental version of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" is suitably noisy and rowdy for four young men having a party in the studio, Moon's "Girl's Eyes" is predictably weak but charming, the alternate ending to "Odorono" adds nothing new to the song and the different recording of "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand" (with Al Kooper on organ) is not as good as the earlier version. But it's "Glow Girl" with its macabre tale of a passenger on a plane that's about to crash that may be the most haunting. It contains yet another musical theme that will soon be part of "Tommy" except here Townsend sings "It's a girl, Mrs. Walker, it's a girl."

I just about wore through the grooves of my vinyl copy of this album and I must say that the remastering job that Macpherson & Astley did is remarkable in that they preserved the spirit of the recording while bringing up the little nuances that were hard to hear before. If there's an album that I would pick to justify The Who as being proto prog this one is it. There's not a Chuck Berry cover, a blues jam or a riff-based rock anthem to be found here, just inventive rock and roll with a very progressive attitude behind it. It will always be a masterpiece in my mind, regardless of how later generations may label it. Essential.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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