Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Who Sell Out

This is the first record I ever went totally apeshit over to the point where I had to hear it four times a day for months, until Live At Leeds arrived and supplanted it, to the great annoyance of my Sound of Music-loving sister. I bought it for a couple of bucks out of the bargain bin at the camera store where my first crush used to occasionally work on the weekends, where I bought lots of records on the off chance of having a convo with her. Last week I was in Half Price Books and stumbled on a double LP version, on the Russian label Vinyl Lovers, that I'd passed on when I saw it on Forced Exposure's list for 40 bucks, but figured it'd be worthwhile for half that. (I'm the shittiest/cheapest fanboy ever.) It combines one disc of the 1995 remix, sequenced the way the remastered CD was with some stuff that wasn't on the original LP, with a second disc containing all the CD bonus tracks, many of which I used to own on bootlegs back when you could still buy any record with the Who name on it and not be disappointed.

I'm not a fan of the '95 remix, because when Townshend's then-brother-in-law Jon Astley remixed it, he dispensed with the rinky-dink transistor radio sound that Kit Lambert got on the original LP, which was an integral part of the album's concept: a tribute, complete with fake advertisements, to the pirate radio stations that helped make the Who a success in England and provided a needed alternative to the stodgy BBC back in those halcyon, pop-mad days. Sure, Lambert had taken the Who's thunderous rhythm section and reduced them to a wash of cymbals with a puny-sounding hint of bass underneath, but that was part of the record's charm, and at least he recorded Entwistle and Moon better than, say, the cat that recorded the Asheton brothers for Raw Power without even bothering to get levels.

While I knew fuck-all about pirate radio when I was 13, the sound of The Who Sell Out reminded me of the sound I'd hear when I'd go to the beach in the summertime and hear WABC-AM blaring out of a thousand transistor radios. I don't want to hear Live At Leeds bass and drums in its place now, which is why I'm glad I own a clean original vinyl copy and have to restrain myself from "rescuing" every one I see while I'm out crate-digging. Still, the Vinyl Lovers version now sits near the top of the pile under my turntable, so I've been listening to it quite a lot lately.

Sell Out opens with a fanfare of cascading daily IDs that were probably meant to be played separately rather than in sequence -- a subversive gesture. Then into "Armenia City In the Sky," a silly piece of cod psychedelia written by Speedy Keen, Townshend's protege whose 15 minutes of fame came with Thunderclap Newman's hit "Something In the Air." Entwistle's one-note bassline and trumpet carry the tune, with a head-swirling orgy of tape manipulation and guitar torture in the middle to represent the Who's auto-destructive stage act. (I was fascinated early on, reading about Townshend, Beck, and Hendrix's use of distortion and feedback, but I probably owned Are You Experienced? for a year before I realized that all those sounds were guitar. B'deah, I'm an idiot.)

The most striking thing about Sell Out on first hearing was how light and melodic its sound was, in contrast with the loud and violent explosion I'd been primed for by reading their press. It was only much later that I'd realize that melody and extreme volume are not mutually exclusive. All the same, the record had a magical, shimmering quality, much more seductive to the ear than Tommy, which I'd found kind of flat and dull, sonically speaking. I first heard Sell Out in the spring, and it will forever conjure in my mind the vision of a mythic English summer that probably only ever existed in my imagination, represented by the lyrics of "Our Love Was" and even more by the chiming guitar and dancing cymbals on that song.

"Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" was all acoustic guitar -- recorded so it sounded _huge_, like Buddy Holly on steroids -- and castanets. They'd tried recording it twice, in New York with Al Kooper on organ and an unnecessary key change, before they finally got it right. (One of those takes appears on the "bonus tracks" disc.) "Odorono" and "Tattoo" are the kind of slice-of-life story-songs that Townshend excelled at once he stopped writing brag songs for pilled-up Mods and before Lambert started egging him on past the three-minute barrier. (Others: "Subsitute," "I'm A Boy," "Pictures of Lily.") The first shows how much you can accomplish melodically using what are basically blues chords (the extra tracks include an unused and unneeded final chorus), while the second has a arpeggiated guitar figure (run through a Leslie?) that gives its narrative the dreamlike quality of a recalled childhood memory. I used to sing "Tattoo" to my children when they were small, as a result of which my middle daughter has always thought of the Who as "children's music."

"I Can See For Miles" was the record Townshend was keeping in his ass pocket for when the Who stopped having hits, and the last great example of his writing a song around the way Keith Moon played the drums. I've read someone's comment to the effect that it was Pete's attempt to emulate Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, and while I don't think it's accurate, I can hear how someone might reach that conclusion. It's also a great revenge song, especially for a 13-year-old with zero experience with gurls, and a rare example of a song that's been played to death by "classic rock" radio that I still love to hear. You can tell the MC5 dug this song by the structure of their song "Come Together," and by Wayne Kramer's fondness for one-note double-stopped solos.

"I Can't Reach You" was written on an airplane and it has that sound, in the same way as the Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow" does, although it makes no lyrical reference to flying. Here, the dominant sounds are Townshend's rudimentary piano and Moon's cymbals and tambourine. Structurally, it's similar to "The Kids Are Alright," adding a key change at start of the instrumental break. "Medac" and "Silas Stingy" aren't the strongest songs that John Entwistle ever wrote, but the first one at least serves the album's concept (pretending to sell pimple cream the way "Odorono" pretended to sell deodorant) and the second one includes a round (you know, like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Frere Jacques") in its chorus.

In the fullness of time, "Sunrise" has become my favorite song on the album, and I only just learned how to play it, finally mastering that 11th-to-flat-7th/flat-5th change, a cliche to jazz players but something new to me, having lost interest in my Mickey Baker jazz book before I got that far when I was 19. It shows the influence of both jazz guitarists like Barney Kessel, whose smooth chord work Townshend grew up listening to, and the Beach Boys, a big influence on the Who as they moved away from "maximum R&B," at least partially as a result of Moon's advocacy. Pete's falsetto here even recalls Brian Wilson's. I also remember reading someplace that Townshend called "Sunrise" a love song to his mother, but I'm not going to speculate on what that might mean. I do know that it and the much-later "Blue Red and Grey" are the loveliest things he ever wrote for the Who.

"Rael" is my favorite "long-form" Who song, and the source of the musical theme that, transposed from D to E, became "Sparks" and "Underture" on Tommy. The four bars of music that were excised from the song as originally released were added back into the '95 version, which only serves to jar the memory of anyone who's been familiar with the song for years. A snippet of something called "Rael 2" opens the "bonus tracks" disc and doesn't realy go anywhere, but fades into an unused fake ad for "Top Gear" -- a real London music store from which the Who must have been hoping to elicit free equipment -- that sounds like shades of "The Ox," the instrumental from the My Generation album. "Glittering Girl" comes across more like a Townshend-sung sketch than a bona fide Who song, although the riddim boys are their distinctive selves. The deal-breaker is the thinness of Townshend's guitar sound; he sounds distracted.

There are two ads for Coca-Cola here, which I believe were actually broadcast Stateside, as was an extremely ill-advised recruiting ad Townshend did for the U.S. Air Force that's not included here. (What was he thinking, urging American kids to enlist at the height of Vietnam?) "Melancholia" is definitely a second-tier Townshend song, featuring an atypically Eastern European-sounding minor key melody and a descending chord passage in the middle, influenced, like the ones in "I'm A Boy" and the intro to "Pinball Wizard," by the classical music that composer's son Lambert was spoon-feeding him in the '66-'68 run-up to Tommy. The breakdown at the end is a pretty good representation of the kind of instrumental improv they were doing onstage at the time, from bootlegs I've heard. "Someone's Coming" is a much better Entwistle song, sung by Daltrey, that originally appeared as a B-side and which I first encountered on the criminally slipshod holding action that was the Magic Bus album.

"Jaguar" is the best of the "bonus track" songs, and actually fits in with the album concept (fake car ad). It was the title track of a double LP bootleg I owned in early '73, when I was waiting for Quadrophenia to arrive, and it included some songs that wound up on the expanded '98 remaster of Odds and Sods as well as the ones that appear here. It gallops along through as many musical themes as "Rael," if not "A Quick One While He's Away." Still, it didn't make the final cut for the original album. Nor did a couple of blatant attempts by Entwistle and Moon to suck up to London car dealer John Mason.

"Early Morning, Cold Taxi" is another song that was on the Jaguar boot. It was co-written by Daltrey and Cy Langston, the Who roadie who wound up playing guitar on Entwistle's first solo album, Smash Your Head Against the Wall. For what it's worth, it's better than either of Daltrey's other two Who-recorded songs, "See My Way" (which was on the Happy Jack/A Quick One album) and "Here For More" (the B-side of "The Seeker"). The piss-take version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is pretty lousy compared to the one that SRC (the band that Lambert traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to audition and wanted to sign to Track) recorded for their Milestones album. "Girl's Eyes" was ostensibly written by Moon, but I'd bet a pint that his buddy Entwistle had a hand in it. After a couple of verses, it meanders instrumentally for a Very. Long. Time.

Things wind up with "Glow Girl," a Tommy precursor recorded in early 1968, after Sell Out was in the shops, and later released on Odds and Sods. It's puzzling that the compilers included it in this reissue, rather than, say, the two Eddie Cochran songs the Who recorded in '67, or the two Jagger-Richards songs they cut and rush-released in the wake of the Stones' Summer of Love drug bust. But that's just a trainspotter's quibbling.

I'm ambivalent about the Who's whole reissue program, which improved Live At Leeds (the original LP of which was just a sampling of what Nik Cohn promised in his New York Times preview of the album, which the '95 remaster finally delivered and none of the subsequent beefed-up versions have surpassed) and Odds and Sods (which was a jumble sale to begin with, so "more of the same" was definitely better) but faltered with the "deluxe" My Generation that was drawn from Shel Talmy's master tapes but was missing overdubs familiar to anyone who knows the record, and this Sell Out, which made the mistake of trying to "improve on" perfection. (That said, it's just nice to have all those "bonus" songs on sweet, sweet vinyl.)

A few weeks ago, my sweetie was talking about how the way you first hear music affects how you respond to it. Hearing music on a car radio, say, or at the beach is a very different experience than hearing it in the privacy of your own room, or in the company of close friends. The Who Sell Out was my first "private music," and the Who are an archetype that has affected my musical taste for over 40 years now. Later on, Live At Leeds would form the foundation for one of my closest friendships (based on our shared ability to sing all of the instrumental parts from the album, as well as the lyrics), and Quadrophenia has resonated more over time in terms of its thematic content. But Sell Out was the gateway, and any opportunity to experience it again is always welcome.


Blogger Fast Film said...

'Thoroughly enjoyed your ruminations on another favorite of mine. I can return the favor by suggesting you check out Petra Haden's all-vocals cover of the entire work, "Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out."

Damn, "Rael" is good, triumph's downfall by betrayal. Heady stuff to a young adult then.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous mike haskins said...

Thanks for your thoughts on Sell Out. This LP ia one of my faves and has just gotten better with age. I have to differ with you on one point, though. For me, the '90's remix of Sell Out is a major improvement. I was always kinda disappointed by the original mix/sound of the stereo vinyl. I read an interview where Townshend mentioned that the mono Sell Out was the real thing, so I bought a mono copy, but still not thrilled. I wore out my See For Miles 45 when it was new, but the LP stereo mix/sound paled in comparison. The 90's remixes of Sell Out, Quick One, Odds & Sods, Leeds, and especially Tommy are big upgrades for me. I am looking forward to the deluxe Quadrophenia this fall, also I want to hear the 2010 Leeds package.
Also, Blue, Red, & Grey has coincidentally been playing in my mind the last two days.
Thanks again!

7:46 AM  
Blogger The Stash Dauber said...

Heather: I love Petra's version, and the album she made with Bill Frisell. Wish she'd do more!

Mike: Yeah, I'm looking forward to that deluxe "Quadrophenia," too.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Barrett said...

Really enjoyed your love letter to "The Who Sell Out." I just discovered it recently, after being a very casual Who fan my whole life. My favorite part is the way the ads for Big L and Rotosound Strings lead into the powerful intro to "I Can See For Miles." Anyway, thanks again for giving this newly Who-obsessed old guy something well written to read about an album I can't stop listening to and thinking about.

7:50 AM  

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