Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Who Sell Out

I grew up with the 45, and they too were a luxury. My father left when I was five (you know this already if you read Jay and the Americans, which is, of course FREE this weekend on Kindle). His departure at first left my mother with little money, me with paper bag lunches with little in them, and the landlord banging on the door for the rent. It's a long story. 

But my mother knew my penchant for music, though 45s were all she could afford. My grandmother gave me 50 a week for an allowance, and nearly all it went toward 45s. I have many of those singles today, and a few with price stickers. "Somebody to Love" and "She's Come Undone" ("Undun") by the Guess Who were both 35. "McArthur Park" was 55. LPs were out of the question, though I saved my allowance for seven weeks to buy Sgt. Pepper and I got Blood, Sweat and Tears as a birthday present. My mother had Bobby Vinton’s Greatest Hits. And so it was economics that initially jilted my repertoire. When my mother's career took off (that moment was brief), there was a period that I was afforded the lavishness of the LP. I'd bought over the years two 45s by The Who, "The Kids Are Alright" and "Magic Bus," but on a blustery day in 1968, my grandmother walked me up to the Licorice Pizza on Van Nuys Blvd. to buy Boogie With Canned Heat, but they were out of it. Instead, and only because it was on sale, I bought The Who Sell Out for $1.89.

The Who Sell Out is a loose concept album about Pirate Radio, a phenom that Americans wouldn't understand; commercial jingles are interspersed amongst the songs as if it were an actual broadcast. At times the commercial link is direct, such as in "Heinz Baked Beans", "Medac", or "Odorono;" the theme subtler in tracks like "I Can See For Miles," which was Townshend at his best, crafting the perfect pop song. When it didn't go top ten, Pete decided to spurn the singles format to focus on an entire album, Tommy.

It's hard to imagine how "I Can See For Miles" didn't go top ten. Maybe it was too much - too much power, too much tension; it's a dramatic and thrilling composition. Keith Moon's drumming is surprisingly  controlled in the verses, acting as counterpoint rather than rhythm, ah, but in the chorus, Moon's drums roll like thunder. 

The album does not rest on this one song. Gentler tracks like "Sunrise" and "I Can't Reach You" proved that The Who didn't have to play at volume 11 to be effective, "Armenia City in the Sky" is an effective turn at the psychedelia of the era and "Tattoo" allows Daltrey to show a vulnerability and emotional depth that he hadn't exhibited before. 

The Who Sell Out is packed with brilliant pop pieces that keep the band's humor intact.  That's refreshing, as a lot of other artists at the time were focusing on far more serious themes.  It's a turning point that marked the line between The Who's mod and rock years. Apart from including "I Can See For Miles," which was all it really had to do, the LP forecast the conception of Tommy on the epic "Rael."  "Rael" is one of those monumental Who tracks that get overshadowed by the gargantuan legend of the rock opera.  However, one can't help but hear its orgins on "Rael;" indeed, one of its main guitar riffs was later used for Tommy on the instrumental "Sparks." Not bad for an LP on sale in 1968 for $1.89.