The Who Sell Out Label: Pye/London
The Who Sell Out was not so much a part of the Summer of Love as it was a product of it, as the Who spent much of ’67 kicking around the States, on their first US tour, appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival, reveling in all their show-closing destructive glory in front of slack-jawed American audiences. In spite of all this (or perhaps because of it), the Who’s third album is a spotty affair, a concept album with too few memorable tunes, too much filler, and one memorable cover. The Who Sell Out was an attempt to recreate the experience of listening to one of the many pirate radio stations available to “Swinging London” listeners in the late ‘60s – offshore radio stations that actually operated on anchored ships or marine platforms. Taking a bunch of unrelated songs and interspersing them with parodies of the types of commercials and public service announcements you’d be likely to hear on the radio, the album today serves as an interesting pseudo-time capsule of the state of UK radio in 1967.
The cover embraces and extends the overall concept, featuring four separate panels, one of each of the band members (two on the front, two on the back). Each shot is a visualization of one of the commercial parodies found within: Pete Townshend applying Odorono brand deodorant, Roger Daltrey sitting in a bathtub full of Heinz baked beans, Keith Moon applying Medac acne cream, and John Entwistle posing as a Charles Atlas-like character. The whole affair is, to use a British term, a bit cheeky.
Musically, the album is notable only for two things: “I Can See for Miles,” a potent blast of sonic energy and the Who’s most intense song to date, and “Rael,” supposedly an excerpt from one of Townshend’s early attempts at writing a rock opera, with a second-half instrumental that re-appears on the Who’s full-blown rock opera Tommy two years later. The song “Glow Girl,” a bonus track on the 1995 remastered version, also includes the chorus "It's a girl, Mrs. Walker, it's a girl” toward song’s end, a line familiar to any fan of Tommy.
A couple of interesting footnotes accompany The Who Sell Out. After Townshend’s disappointment in the chart performance of “I Can See for Miles” (#10 in the UK, #9 in the US, their biggest American single to date) – he’s often quoted as saying, “To me it was the ultimate Who record, yet it didn't sell. I spat on the British record buyer” – he began to doubt his ability to write pop singles, turning instead to more conceptual, thematic writing (which yielded the aforementioned Tommy). Also, Paul McCartney allegedly wrote “Helter Skelter” as a response to a review of “I Can See for Miles” that claimed it was the heaviest song the reviewer had ever heard. Although McCartney hadn’t actually heard it himself, he wanted to make an even heavier song. Good times.
Otherwise, that’s it. The faux commercials are historically interesting, but just sound goofy today. A couple of the other tracks are okay – namely, “Armenia City in the Sky” and “Mary-Anne with the Shaky Hand” (get it?!) – but sound dated in ways tracks from the first two Who albums do not. This one’s for die-hard fans only. And I am.