Friday, December 15, 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Who Sell Out

It was fifty years ago today that The Who's third album, The Who Sell Out, was released in the United Kingdom. It was historic as the band's first concept album. Unlike their later rock operas, Tommy and Quadrophenia, The Who Sold Out did not have a storyline. Instead, it was recorded as if it were a broadcast from the pirate radio station Radio London, complete with faux advertisements of real world products and public service announcements. The cover completed the concept with Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle in adverts for Odorono, Heinz Oven Baked Beans, Medac, and Charles Atlas respectively.

The Who Sell Out emerged from two phenomena in Britain in the Sixties. The first was the rise of pirate radio stations. In the United Kingdom in the Sixties, BBC Radio had a legal monopoly on the airwaves, granted to them by a Royal Charter in 1927. Unfortunately, BBC Radio did not exactly keep up with the times, broadcasting very little in the way of rock 'n' roll even in the early to mid-Sixties. British rock fans had no choice but to listen to Radio Luxembourg if they wanted to hear any rock music at all. The end result of this was the rise of pirate radio stations, the first of which was Radio Caroline in 1964. The pirate radio stations were unlicensed stations that broadcast from ships offshore or even unused sea forts. The BBC would eventually take notice of the popularity of the pirate radio stations, so that in 1967 a pop music service, BBC Radio 1 was launched, along with BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 3, and BBC Radio 4. As to the pirate radio stations, their days were numbered. In 1967 the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act made the offshore pirate radio stations illegal. Despite this, the pirate radio stations had served an important service, bringing rock music to British subjects who wanted to hear it.

The second phenomenon was that of rock groups recording commercial jingles. In 1964 The Rolling Stones recorded a jingle for Rice Crispies. In 1966 The Golden Earrings (later to be known simply as Golden Earring) recorded a jingle for Coca-Cola in their native Netherlands. In 1967 American band The Turtles recorded a jingle for Pepsi. That same year The Who themselves recorded a jingle for Coca-Cola. The Who Sell Out was then simultaneously parodying this phenomenon, as well as paying tribute to it.


Originally The Who's third album was to be titled The Who's Lily, referring to the band's single "Pictures of Lily". The band recorded versions of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" (which would remain unreleased for some time) as well as the instrumental "Sodding About" (which would also remain unreleased for some time). It would be the song "Jaguar", written by Pete Townshend, that would lead to The Who Sell Out. Having written a jingle for Coca-Cola, Mr. Townshend then decided to write an uncommissioned song praising Jaguar, the famous brand of British cars. Ultimately "Jaguar" would not make the final cut of The Who Sell Out, although it would provide much of the inspiration for the album. Precisely who came up with the idea of The Who recording a concept album that would sound like a British pirate radio station or an American AM pop music station is unclear. Some sources credit The Who's managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. Others credit the band themselves.

The album's cover photos were taken by photographer David Montgomery. An American who had moved to the United Kingdom, Mr. Montgomery also took photographs of such subjects as Queen Elizabeth II, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Peter O'Toole, and many others. 

Recording on The Who Sell Out began as early as July 1967, with the band returning to the United Kingdom from a tour of the U.S. on September 16 1967. Recording was completed on November 2 1967. The album had been set to be released in the United Kingdom on November 17 1967, but was delayed when many of the companies whose products were mentioned in the faux adverts on the album threatened legal action. Chris Stamp and the band's legal team had to swiftly settle out of court with these companies. The album was then released on December 15 1967.

The Who Sell Out received widespread critical acclaim upon its initial release, although, given its reputation today, its performance on the charts would seem disappointing. It peaked at no. 13 on the British charts. Released on January 6 1968 in the United States, it would perform even more poorly on the Billboard album chart, where it only reached no. 48. Even the only single on the album, "I Can See for Miles", would have a somewhat disappointing chart performance. Pete Townshend thought "I Can See for Miles" was the ultimate Who song and would be their first no. 1 single. Instead it only peaked at no. 10 on the British singles chart and no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. While these numbers would be respectable for most bands, Pete Townshend was not particularly happy with them.

If The Who Sell Out did not perform as well on the charts as The Who might have have hoped it would, it was perhaps because it was in some respects it was ahead of its time. Self-referential works were not unknown in film, literature, or television in the Sixties. Indeed, both The Beatles' movies and the TV show The Monkees could be very self-referential. That having been said, the phenomena of metafiction and metacinema were not as common as they would come to be in the following decades, so that to a large degree The Who Sell Out was a very atypical album. Indeed, the album is more sophisticated than it might appear at first glance.

Quite simply, The Who Sell Out presents rock music as a blatantly commercial product, a commodity to be bought and sold not unlike baked beans or deodourant. To this end the album presents the listener with rather savage parodies of such products as Odorono and Medac. At the same time, however, The Who Sell Out is a paen to the passing of the pirate radio stations and an era in rock history that was already passing in the United Kingdom. And while the album presents rock 'n' roll as a commodity to be bought and sold, at the same time it recognises that it is an art form. The Who Sell Out features some of The Who's best and sophisticated songs, from "I Can See for Miles" to "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand" to "Tattoo".

Ultimately The Who Sell Out would prove to be have a lasting influence. The song "I Can See for Miles"may have led to The Beatles' song "Helter Skelter". While Paul McCartney had not heard the song at the time, it was allegedly a review in which "I Can See for Miles" was proclaimed the heaviest song ever that led to him composing "Helter Skelter". Of course, "I Can See for Miles" would have an impact on the development of power pop. Echoes of the song can be heard in many of the harder power pop bands, including Cheap Trick and The Smithereens. An argument can even be made that the at times heavier sound The Who utilised on The Who Sell Out would play an important role in the development of heavy metal. Arguably, even progressive rock even owes something to The Who Sell Out, notably in the form of the song "Rael (1 and 2)". Famous critic Dave Marsh called The Who Sell Out "the greatest rock and roll album of its era". Even with such contemporary contenders for that title as The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed, it is hard to argue with Mr. Marsh's assessment. Even if it isn't the greatest rock album of its era, it certainly numbers among them.

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