“The Who Sell Out” by The Who (1967)
Unfortunately, the title of The Who’s third album proved to be prophetic. Anyone who saw Phil Collins as Uncle Ernie during the 1989 comeback tour can attest to such.
As of 1967, though, The Who was one of the most innovative bands in the business, on the verge of superstardom after gaining popularity in the United States on the strength of an incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and the Top 10 success of the single “I Can See for Miles.”
Unlike most Who singles of the period, that song was included on “The Who Sell Out,” an early example of guitarist-composer Pete Townshend’s penchant for extended concepts that began with “A Quick One While He’s Away” and culminated with “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.”
“The Who Sell Out” pays homage to the so-called pirate radio stations that operated offshore to counter the broadcasting monopoly of Britain’s BBC. As such, the album is peppered with “commercials,” including some that appear as more or less full-fledged songs.
A radiolike recitation of the days of the week leads into the opening “Armenia City in the Sky,” which represents The Who’s most determined foray into psychedelia. Written by Townshend’s former roommate and chauffeur, the late John “Speedy” Keen – he later wrote the U.K. hit “Something in the Air” for his band Thunderclap Newman – “Armenia” is loaded with backward taping of guitars and horns, enhancing the otherworldliness of Keen’s lyrics: “The sky is glass, the sea is brown, and everyone is upside-down.”
“Armenia” segues into John Entwistle’s horn-driven “Heinz Baked Beans,” a minute-long tribute to the popular Pittsburgh product. Somehow the song hasn’t found its way onto the playlist over the PA system at Heinz Field …
The Who recorded several versions of Townshend’s “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,” and one prominently featuring acoustic guitar appears on “Sell Out.” The song’s theme is best summarized by the line, “What she does to a man with those shaky hands.”
“Odorono” fits the album’s concept as a “commercial,” but at more than two minutes becomes a song in its own right. It tells the story of a singer who hopes to make a good impression on a talent agency, but fails because “her deodorant let her down.”
One of Townshend’s most impressive uses of wordplay is “Tattoo,” about two siblings who decide to get their arms inked. The rhyming schemes are brilliant in such commentary as: “My 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 she thought that was extremely rude.” Or the chorus: “Welcome to my life, tattoo/I’m a man now, thanks to you/I expect I’ll regret you, but the skin-graft man won’t get you/You’ll be there when I die.”
The LP’s first side rounds out with the melodic “Our Love Was” and “I Can See for Miles,” which still holds up well as a “classic rock” radio play after – whoa! – it’s been 45 years now.
Townshend sings lead on “Can’t Reach You,” which presages the type of material he’d end up recording on his solo debut, “Who Came First.” Following is another “commercial,” the late John Entwistle’s “Medac,” about an acne treatment that produces this result: “Face is like a baby’s bottom.”
Townshend and usual lead singer Roger Daltrey share vocals on “Relax,” an upbeat song that features a brief but stinging guitar solo. The band used that as a basis on which to build an extended jam in concert, as evidenced by a 1968 performance at New York’s Fillmore East; unfortunately, “Relax” seems to have been dropped from the repertoire shortly afterward.
Entwistle’s minor-key tale of a miser, “Silas Stingy,” is followed by “Sunrise,” which basically is solo Townshend on vocal and acoustic guitar.
The album wraps up with “Rael,” which seems to be about the rescue of the protagonist’s homeland: “Rael, the home of my religion/To me the center of the earth.” The song incorporates musical themes that later turned up in much more familiar fashion on “Tommy.”
Later CD releases tacked on the original ending to “Rael,” which ended up on the cutting floor in 1967. The lyrics make for an apparently positive conclusion: “What I know now is all I’ve known, that has been good while I have grown/Bless the thoughts that made me sail and the God who made Rael.”
The original LP actually ends with a jingle for Track Records, The Who’s own company, repeating endlessly in the lock groove until the needle was lifted from the record. You’ll remember that the Beatles had done something similar with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” earlier in 1967.
The Who may have eventually sold out – many fans contend the decision to stay in business after Keith Moon’s death represented such – but “The Who Sell Out” is an essential part of the catalog of one of the handful of true rock giants.