Fifty Year Friday: The Who Sell Out
“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‘ which I preferred.” Pete Townshend (1967)
Somewhere in the mid sixties, rock and roll was replaced with rock. The rock and roll music of the fifties, primarily based on blues and variations of blues chord sequences, slowly was overshadowed by music that was more message and substance oriented. The Beach Boys classic “Fun, Fun, Fun”, and the 1967 masterwork “Good Vibrations” is clearly Rock and Roll. The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is clearly rock. I don’t recall the year, but sometime in the late sixties, I started correcting my dad when he referred to rock music as “rock ‘n roll” — I disdained Rock and Roll as a relic and lower form of music, and loved Rock for its broad musical diversity and, for the best of it, it’s reach beyond dance music to serious listening music.
The Who, part of the British Invasion, deviated from what was pretty much a rock and roll group in 1965, opening their first album “My Generation” with “Out in the Street” immediately followed with James Brown’s “I Dont’ Mind” and songs like “The Good’s Gone”, “La-L-La Lies”, “Please, Please, Please”, “It’s Not True”, and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man. ” However, like the Beatles, there were significant forays into a newer musical expression as hinted in “A Legal Matter” and in the instrumental “Ox.” By their second album, we get true rock pieces like John Entwistle’s classic “Boris the Spider. By the third album, “The Who Sell Out”, an imaginative concept album that includes commercials interspersed throughout, mocking the format of commercial radio stations, The Who are a seasoned rock group writing and performing rock compositions, making use of such “power pop” chord progressions, modulations, and power chords (chords structures found in earlier Who songs such as”My Generation” and “Boris the Spider” — chords that just have the root and fifth — this not only omits the note that provides the major or minor quality of a traditional triad, but produces a simpler harmonic footprint producing an especially powerful effect when played loudly) that create a sound that is easily identifiable as the sound of The Who. This is not the power pop of rock and roll, but power pop that is part of the new rock music movement.
The album opens strikingly, and aligning with it’s wanton-commercialism concept, with a jingle followed by John “Speedy” Keen’s (a friend of Who main songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend) “Armenia, City in the Sky” — starting out much like a radio ad, lyrically, with “If you’re troubled and you can’t relax” but soon followed with more mind-altering-like lyrics and with a 1967 psychedelic and imaginatively crafted arrangement including backwards french horn bursts and various guitar effects.
“Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand” is both melodically appealing and lyrically bold (“Mary-Anne with the shaky hands — what they’ve done to a man, those shaky hands.”) Musically, “Odorono” is even more notable, forging towards the musical style perfected on their next album and yet done as a deodorant jingle. If one doubts the genius of Pete Townshend to align music and lyrics without compromising either, this is prima facie evidence of his capabilities, as is the track that follows: “Tattoo” a tune that could work very well as jingle for the Tattoo industry.
“Our Love Was” is an ethereal gem, maintaining energy and vibrancy to the end, with Entwistle’s French Horn providing just one of many elements that make this arrangement special.
The Who’s 1967 hit, and arguably the best song of the album, if not of Townshend’s career, is “I Can See for Miles”, punctuated perfectly by Keith Moon’s drums and cymbals.
The second side, is also excellent and includes “I Can’t Reach You”, “Relax”, Entwistle’s chromatically-flavored, organ-accompanied “Silas Stingy”, the beautiful “Sunrise” and the Who’s second miniature rock opera, “”Rael (1 and 2)”, even shorter than their first mini-rock opera, “”A Quick One, While He’s Away” on their previous album.
Released in the UK in December 1967 and the US on Jan 7th, 1968, some of the musical techniques employed in “The Who Sell Out” will be more fully explored in their 1969 full-length rock opera, “Tommy”, which also further develops musical material in the songs “Sunrise” and “Rael.” Though this album was only marginally successful in the US when first released, climbing no higher than the 48th spot on the Billboard album chart, perhaps due to its unusual jingle-based concept, it is one of the best albums of 1967, music that should be explored by those looking to better understand the history of rock (as opposed to rock and roll) or just looking for some well written, enjoyable power pop music.
Track listing and song credits