Featured Album – The Who Sell Out

I know you’ve deceived me now here’s a surprise
I know that you have ‘cos there’s magic in my eyes

Well here’s a poke at you
You’re gonna choke on it too
You’re gonna lose that smile
Because all the while

I can see for miles and miles
I can see for miles and miles
I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles

In late 1967, a couple of months after The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, The Who put out one of their best albums, The Who Sell Out. Their thinking – and that of their manager Kit Lambert – was to create a sort of concept album that paid tribute to pirate radio. And, I guess, also said something about commercialism but I’m not sure exactly what that message was.

Pirate radio developed due to the fact that the BBC at that time was fairly restrictive in what it played in terms of rock music. A famous pirate station – Radio Caroline – used to broadcast “from international waters using five different ships of three different owners from 1964 to 1990.” (Wikipedia). And apparently they still currently broadcast on the Internet.

The Who were fans of the station which – according to one of their DJ’s, Tom Lodge – had been playing their music since 1965 when they recorded songs for their Mod fans like “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” (Lodge says that that was his informal motto for the station).

The album has short jingles in between songs to link them but I’m hard-pressed to say that it makes any difference other than as a novelty. But what does make a difference is the songs. This is a terrific album.

Most of the songs are written by Pete Townshend, but there are also contributions by John Entwhistle. It was Townshend who coined the term “power pop”: “Power pop is what we play—what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of “Fun, Fun, Fun.””

The first song on the album was not written by a band member at all but by a friend of the band named John “Speedy” Keen. Keen became more well-known for writing a terrific, hippie-ish song called “Something in the Air,” which he recorded with a band called Thunderclap Newman. (The band was somewhat of a side project for Townshend who played bass on the song).

That first song is called “Aremenia City In The Sky,” which kicks off with supposed Radio London jingles. Power pop? Does this even sound like The Who we’ve come to know and love? Well, it’s certainly one side of them:

This album was not a smash success, certainly not as much as the band and especially Townshend wanted. But it did spawn one hit single, in fact the biggest single the band ever had in the US, “I Can See For Miles.” (Less so in the UK however. I was reading an issue of Uncut about the band and Townshend could not seem to get over the fact that “Miles” had not been as big a hit as he wished.)

I read somewhere that this song was about Townshend’s future wife and how he could keep an eye on her even while he was touring. That sounds vaguely stalkerish and it actually sounds more to me like a guy who’s being cheated on while he travels (on tour?) and wants her to know that HE knows.

A reporter around that time told Paul McCartney that he had just heard the heaviest song ever which caused McCartney (always the competitor) to write “Helter Skelter.” Supposedly, the reporter was referring to “I Can See For Miles.” Massive hit or no, it’s still a damn good song:

“Our Love Was” has nice high harmonies but it also showcases Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming. Townshend gets off a nice solo here. (I’m a guitar player and while Pete is not a guitar slinger in the Jimmy Page mode, he is a great player who combines rhythm and lead into a whole that I don’t think too many others can imitate. All of that with a great melodic pop sense. I can play a blues solo but I cannot do what he does):

Even though they’d already done a mini “rock opera” (“A Quick One, While He’s Away,”) most of their major work was still ahead of them at this point. For the next 4 or 5 years, all their output would be long-form concept albums
(Tommy, Quadrophenia), or a failed attempt at one (Who’s Next). (The song “Rael (1 and 2)” has a riff in it that gets quoted again in a couple of places on Tommy. Townshend’s wink to his fans?)

Note: If you’re at all a fan of the band, there’s a fascinating documentary which is not about them per se but about how their management guided and shaped them. It’s called Lambert & Stamp and it provides great insight on how the band came to be.

5 thoughts on “Featured Album – The Who Sell Out

  1. I dig the Who. I love the concept of pirate radio. I got a little history lesson, thanks. Obviously ‘Miles’ is a fantastic song. I have always dug “Mary Anne’ off this record. Went back to these albums after my original exposure with ‘Live at Leeds’. Never stopped liking this band

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  2. Yeah, I used to read about Radio Caroline in the rock press. It was fun back then. Everything was ‘underground,’ and somehow illicit whether music or drugs. Then it all goes mainstream and gets co-opted by the media. Now radio is mostly all owned by some Japanese conglomerates who don’t give a rat’s ass about music. BTW, I Can See for Miles was the answer in category ‘Song’ on Wheel of Fortune the other day .So it goes.

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