Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#61 The Who-Sell Out


Artist: The Who
Album: The Who Sell Out
Label: MCA
Year: 1967

They just don't make rock albums like this year anymore. Hell, maybe they didn't even make albums like this then. The Who's 1967 album The Who Sell Out is one of their boldest, and certainly their best album. While this is the moment where The Who really transform from a sixties beat band into a classic rock powerhouse, this is a markedly different band than the one that would play Isle Of Weight and write rock operas. It's the last album where Keith Moon is really the star of the show, and it's the last album where the band has a genuine sense of humor. The Who Sell Out is a titan of a record that is as fresh today as the day it was released.
The idea behind the album was, the story goes, concocted in the pub adjacent to the recording studio. Bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon thought up the concept of mock-commercial jingles here, and combined with Pete Townsend's, uh...more formal songs, we get a real treat of an album. The album opens with the band's first real foray into psychedelia, "Armenia City In The Sky." Much of the band's trademarks are on display here, especially guitar feedback, and we have a new treat: Roger Daltry singing in a high-pitch. Everyone is aware of The Beatles successes with psychedelic music, and The Stones occasional greatness/sometimes lameness, but really, The Who's psychedelic year is easily on peer with the best music of the summer of love. It's also really their only pop album: "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" is just one example, but "I Can't Reach You," "Relax," and "Our Love Was," showcases a new audio mix for the band, with acoustic guitars, keyboards, and much more interesting vocal harmonies than ever before. Now many of these great songs are broken up by faux-commercials, which almost all stand up on their own: "Odorono," and "Heinz Baked Beans" are great songs on their own, and the faux-Radio 1/BBC jingles add to the texture of the album. Even the supposed filler on the album kicks ass, and again, for a band whose next few years and the music produced would almost exclusively be about youth, alienation, and the search for self, it's really refreshing to hear songs about deodorant and how you got beat by your parents for getting tattoos but you were just trying to become a man (which seems a lot more genuine in terms of "coming of age" songs than "Behind Blue Eyes".)
While the jingle-part of the concept album really doesn't stretch throughout the album length, it's not really missing. Partially due, of course, to the inclusion of two of the best Who songs of all time. "Rael" incorporates a melody introduced in the previous year's "A Quick One, While He's Away" and would be re-used throughout Tommy. "Rael" is a gorgeous mini-opera that betters a Quick One, through awesome cymbal crashes, superb harmonies, and the fact that it builds to such an amazing climax. "Rael" could be the best song on the album if not for one of the best Who songs ever, "I Can See For Miles." A deceptively simple look at the song would say it's one about catching an unfaithful lover, but a closer look at the lyrics shows such an incredibly wild imagination: "The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal are nice to see on clearer days/you thought that I would need a crystal ball to see right through the haze." Even the sinister tone that the end of the lyric's "You're going to choke on it too" presents is wonderful. The chorus has soaring guitars and an everlasting drumroll from Keith Moon. Everything about the song is perfect, and it still sounds as fresh, even more fresh, than the rest of the album, today.
The Who would go on to make some of the greatest concert appearances, and release some great works. But even if you think albums like Quadrophenia and Tommy are great cover-to-cover (they aren't), they don't deliver the greatness that The Who Sell Out does, and few albums since then by any band do.

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