For those who’ve let it slip under their radar, ‘The Who Sell Out’ is all these: An unlikely amalgam of belting songs, real radio jingles, fake adverts and a proto-opera… Something that could have been a hideous mess, but instead is a wonderfully strange, strangely wonderful minor master-piece… A last hurrah for, and fond farewell to, the UK Pop Art scene, and to the pirate radio stations closed down in the summer of ’67 by Tony Benn… Unlike anything in British rock before or since… The band’s bridge between parochial power pop and global stadium rock. But most astonishing of all is how the record emerged at all, never mind in its unique form.
In the middle months of ’67 The Who were adrift. In a UK left reeling by Sgt Pepper, they were snootily regarded as a singles band. Despite the hits, they were still not filling megadomes; in the run-up to this LP, The Who played Granada cinemas in Walthamstow, Kettering and Maidstone. In America, they’d performed at Monterey (their set was later described by Eric Burdon as “a monster… brutality… rape”), but their theatrical thunder had been stolen by Track labelmate Jimi Hendrix. And Pete Townshend (still months away from the calming influence of marriage to Karen Astley and the discovery of Meher Baba) was growing increasingly irascible and directionless.
In the prevailing atmosphere, Townshend might have been expected to jump aboard the psychedelic train that was then at full steam. But he’d already slagged off both The Beatles’ groundbreaking “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the evident brilliance of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. When …Sell Out’s own psych opus, “I Can See For Miles”, didn’t top the UK charts, he snarled, “To me it was the ultimate Who record… I spat on the British record buyer.” Equally, the influence of Hendrix had proved a double-edged sword. Pete switched to a Fender Stratocaster and his playing became wilder, more free. But he was also cowed by the sheer genius of the American, and his songwriting took on a quieter, introspective bent.
Thus, when he returned to London in the middle of a US summer tour (with Herman’s Hermits!), Townshend found co-manager Chris Stamp preparing to release a hotchpotch comprised of vaguely psychedelic rockers and archetypical Who character vignettes. “Cheesy” was how the guitarist later described the proposed slop of material, some of it substandard. More songs would need to be recorded for sure, and there also ensued a frantic brainstorm, as guitarist and manager sought to find something that would give the album an angle, a focus, a point of difference.
The offshore radio stations had just been closed down (to be replaced by the white bread bonhomie of Radio 1). They decided to try and make the record sound like a pirate broadcast; the original jingles of Radio London – which broadcast from an ex-US navy minesweeper moored just off Frinton-on-Sea – were sought and used; the original American makers of the jingles would eventually sue the band. The Who had also recently made some commercials for Coca-Cola; now the group would create a bunch of fake promos (John Entwistle and Keith Moon composed most of them in the boozer) to add to the whole thing’s sense of manic ingenuity. Even after four decades of familiarity, the jingles and ads are still amazing, rendering the record both more in touch with the real, commercial, world in which music is made, and simultaneously completely at odds with the arty aloofness of the music biz itself.
Still things didn’t run smoothly; that wasn’t The Who way. John Entwistle broke a finger punching a dressing-room wall; Keith Moon suffered a hernia; Roger Daltrey – required for the now-classic sleeve to sit for hours in a bath of baked beans – got pneumonia. And The Who’s recording sessions (unlike those of, say, The Beatles) were haphazard affairs, done here and there, all over the place. The mini-opera “Rael” (itself the blueprint for several parts of Tommy) had to be recorded twice, on two different continents, after the first lot of tapes were thrown into a dumpster by a studio cleaner. And the Track Records ad that finishes the second side was recorded over the phone, Moon and Entwistle crooning it from a nearby public bar. This definitive two-disc edition – crammed with try-outs, outtakes and discards, some of them brilliant (“Glittering Girl”, “Jaguar”) – perfectly and finally captures that creative chaos.
In the end, though, Townshend’s wonderful songs (“I Can See For Miles”, “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, “Relax” and the rest), and the band’s sheer exuberance, overcame all obstacles. The Who went on to make more important records (Live At Leeds, Tommy) and better records (Who’s Next, Quadrophenia). But, as this package joyously proves, they never made anything more entertaining or endearing.
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