The Who are synonymous with Mod and an associated attitude which has influenced generations of bands ever since; a portal that still connects the movement with each new generation of audience. Forever held in Mod hearts by the ferocity of the band from ‘63 to ‘65, the latter, a year in which My Generation arrived to be British album of the year. Pushing speaker cones to the very limits of capacity, the hallmark of an album that starts with Out In The Street; the sonic equivalent of an incendiary device quartet. There’s your Ooomph.
Interestingly the album only mellows on three cover versions which never quite grasp the zeitgeist like the scowling agitated maximum RnB penned by Townshend. By the time you get to Wallop; My Generation - one of those pop songs impervious to heavy rotation-your head is spinning round like a whirlpool. To follow MG with the equally outstanding The Kids Are Alright is always a moment of turntable induced absolute joy. The Capow moment ends the album in the form of The Ox, which is more like an RnB hand grenade rather than an instrumental.
By ’67, Syd Barrett’s influence can be keenly felt on The Who’s ground-breaking long player ‘Sell Out’. Andy Reilly, author of XTRMNTR and Oasis, Definitely Maybe, and Colour Is Sound aficionado, has penned our new blog, a thought provoking look at 1967 and the release of The Who’s ultimate pop art long-player.
The Who Sell Out Not Freak Out
by Andy Reilly
Looking back with 50 years of hindsight and history being rewritten by the victors (or the loudest talkers), it would be easy to think that 1967 was all about the summer of love and psychedelia. Yes, there were people in San Francisco and in the hip areas of London turning on, tuning in and dropping out, but this wasn’t the case for everyone.
It is perhaps with this in mind that The Who has been overlooked with respect to the musical landscape of 1967. Released in December of this year, The Who Sell Out doesn’t sit alongside Sgt. Peppers or Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix or even Piper At The Gates of Dawn when it comes to records that captured the so-called Zeitgeist of the time but it could be that The Who trumped them all.
There’s been talk of 1967 being the year rock matured; perhaps it was the year where rock became slightly dull and extremely pretentious. Would you rather ‘The Lizard King’ mutter passages from a book report he was forced to hand in about Oedipus or would rather you the joy of Pete Townshend detailing the rise and fall of a performer who was at the top of her game only to be let down by her body odour?
She couldn’t ever sing any better
It’s a fun record. Not in a novelty way that you’d listen to once, twice at most if you’re a bit slow on the uptake, but a genuinely great pop record with a humorous slant. Okay, unpleasant body odour may not be too funny if you are dealing with it at close quarters and as a topic for a song, it could be handled very badly but Odorono is excellent. It doesn’t overstay its welcome but there is a good storyline wrapped around a good song.
“Triumphant” isn’t just a line sung in this track, it’s a perfectly apt description of the delivery being punched in, of how the track feels at this point and how the song comes down to the pay-off in the final line. It’s not quite “but I’ve got a driver and that’s a start” but “she should have used Odorono” is in the mix for best pay-offs in a pop song.
The Who did mature though. Sell Out has a bigger sound, its reaches further and even if the lyrical focus have a slightly childish air at times, the songs are delivered in such a confident manner that you cannot fail to have witnessed the growth of a band that were now on their third long playing record. The second half of the album is where the development of Townshend as a person can be found. Whether the lyrics were based on the standard form of love we expect to hear of in pop tunes or the awakening of the songwriter’s spirituality can be debated long into the night. Even Townshend himself would probably be unable or unwilling to nail it down 100% but regardless, songs like Can’t Reach You and Sunrise are a million miles away from most of the output on the band’s first two records.
As a concept album, this record sees The Who get it right. A Quick One While He’s Away from A Quick One sees the band limbering up with respect to conceptual pieces and Tommy is too much but as was the case with Goldilocks and the Three Bears the middle one was just right. Perhaps the overt commercialism makes people dismiss it as a concept record but in the context of a self-contained record reflecting the day and lives of the listener, The Who Sell Out is near perfect. The clue is in the title, it’s not as if people could complain about the band hoodwinking them and I think anyone claiming that it was a piece of counter-culture or underground cynicism would be wrong in that approach.
And this is all without mentioning the album artwork and how everything tied together. The Velvet Underground may have had the Andy Warhol cover and patronage of 1967 but it was the London act that created the pop-art statement of the year.
There’s magic in my eyes
The fact that the initial plan was to have genuine adverts on the album showed the approach and attitude that the band’s management had to the business. Penny-pinching ways may have seen the band stutter in America in 1967 when they should have ignited (hiring cheaper amps rather than taking their own sound set-up with them), but if it was Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp that drove the concept for Sell Out, then those boys were worth their weight in gold.
Returning to the notion that the album could have been a cynical money grab, it was more likely to be a genuine love letter for the pirate radio sound and style. The emergence of Radio 1 in the autumn of 1967 may have made it slightly easier for kids across the country to hear the biggest sounds, but there was no doubt a little bit of magic lost. With Auntie Beeb’s strange controlling ways, a good few pop songs lost out on repeated plays, with even The Beatles and The Byrds falling victim to the desire to ensure the kids weren’t corrupted.
With pirate radio DJs like Kenney Everett and John Peel coming back on shore, there were familiar voices on Radio 1 but with more restrictive practices and pressure from the Musician’s Union, there wasn’t universal praise for the new radio station. This was definitely the case from listeners who marvelled at the sounds of Radio London and Caroline, which meant that a record like Sell Out was perfect for the times. Perhaps it was this nostalgia for the recent and still memorable past that saw the album slightly stall with respect to sales and being welcomed into people’s hearts. The record should have been seen as a tribute and perhaps a fond farewell to those times but with the other leading acts of the time moving further out there, The Who were slightly left behind.
As someone who has found and loved The Who from this distance, you have to think that the impact of this neglect led to the group becoming bigger, louder and harder (or meatier, beatier, bigger and bouncier if you will). The Who would go on to greater things, regularly being hailed for the volume and ferocity of their live sets and with four outstanding performers in their own right, you get why live shows would have been breath-taking, particularly alongside the developments in amplification capabilities.
And I ask you hey mister, have you ever seen?
Then again, The Who of Tommy and Who’s Next weren’t as clever, as funny or as likable as they had been in 1967. Don’t forget, Pictures Of Lily was also released this year as a non-album single. You could make a joke about the band having a lot of time on their hands, but given the subject matter of Lily (and Mary Anne), perhaps that is best left unsaid. The subject matter may have raised an eyebrow but the music and melody raised the bar and this was a band on a roll.
Which makes the band’s relevant lack of chart success in 1967 a surprise. Pictures of Lily reached number 4 in the UK Singles charts but with I Can See For Miles, and Pete psyching himself up for a huge hit, the group stalled at number 10. At this point, it is best to let Pete speak for himself…
“To me it was the ultimate Who record, yet it didn't sell. I spat on the British record buyer.”
It wasn’t as if this dip in public opinion was solely related to the single, the chart placing of The Who Sell Out must have hurt like hell.
Over the years, The Who has released 11 studio albums and all but two of these records made it into the Top 10 of the UK Album charts. 1982’s It’s Hard reached number 11 in the charts while The Who Sell Out could only reach the giddy heights of number 13. So The Who Sell Out has the lowest chart placing of all the band’s records and it gives you even more proof that Townshend was spot on with respect to his opinion of the British record buyer in 1967.
For further proof, just look at the clowns that bought Release Me rather than Strawberry Fields Forever. Whenever anyone tells you that 1967 was a brilliant year for music and what a great time it was to be alive, remind them that some of the greatest tunes of all time were wasted on many folk. It never hurts to remember that music isn’t for everyone!
If I had the privilege of being involved in the track-listing process I’d have opted for Someone’s Coming in place of Silas Stingy. Both tracks were written by the bassist so it’s not as if I’d have been risking having The Ox come after me, I don’t think that would be a wise move. Maybe the track which was used as a B-side was deemed a bit too similar to some of the poppier moments on the record with Silas adding a bit more edge while still being a humorous track. Not to worry though because in the present day, you can make up playlists to your hearts content.
And of course, in the present day, the ad snippets on the album will make any modern day Spotify listeners (well, the ones that haven’t signed up for the ad free subscription service) feel right at home. Perhaps the band and their management were genuinely ahead of the game all this time on determining what youth culture would tolerate alongside their music.
For me, The Who Sell Out was the band’s best record, the album with the best personality, wit and ultimately, songs. It may not be the record that people immediately turn to in naming an album of 1967 but folk were as wrong back then as they are today.