I am often asked to name my favourite Who album and the obvious choice would be Who’s Next followed by Live At Leeds, the double whammy that ensured for all time The Who’s place at rock’s high table after Tommy put them there in the first place. But a less obvious yet more interesting choice would be Sell Out – and here’s why.
Sometime between 1967 and 1968 The Who ceased to be a pop group and became, arguably, Britain’s first ever rock band. It was a transition that few of their contemporaries were able to make, and the two likeliest contenders – The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – had problems making the leap that The Who did not share. The Beatles’ enormous popularity and increasing reliance on studio technology to create their music meant that it was impractical for them to perform live any longer – and muscular live performance was a prerequisite of being a rock band – while the Stones were grounded through lethargy, drug busts and Brian Jones’ apparent inability to cut it on stage. The Who, erstwhile bronze medallists behind these two in the Sixties Pop Olympiad, were self-sufficient in every way and thus shot through the gap. For a brief shining moment – three years actually – they became the greatest of Britain’s rock bands, and certainly the most exciting live act in the world.
They and Cream (who unlike The Who were formed for the purpose and, like so many that followed, were blues based) thus pioneered the modern concept of rock performance and touring, ushering in an era that continues in far more sophisticated forms to the present day. After The Who’s tours of this period, no longer would groups perform a handful of hits in 20-minute sets and then relinquish the stage to other groups who would do the same thing. Accompanied by truck loads of equipment and an army of road crew, from now on they would perform in increasingly large venues for at least an hour and generally longer, and to do so in a manner that enhanced the original recordings, either through musical virtuosity or sheer volume or both. They would also be expected to present some form of liberating stage show that was enhanced by lighting effects.
All of this occurred following the release of The Who Sell Out, The Who’s pop-art masterpiece. Largely overlooked at the time but now regarded by many as an album on a par with Sgt Pepper, The Who, and Pete in particular, embrace outside influences like acid rock, pop art and surrealism with an assurance that made them unique for the era. The Who sound like nobody else, partly because Keith had by now confirmed his position as the most expressive drummer around, and John the most fluid bass player, but mainly because of Pete’s songwriting style and the way in which he, Roger and John merged their harmony singing with the power of the rhythm section and thus invented ‘power pop’. The Who had a definite style of their own and one that no one else has ever been able to better, though some, notably The Move, certainly tried.
Accurately predicting the modern-day mire of commercial sponsorship into which rock has descended, the songs on the first side of The Who Sell Out are linked together by spoof commercials; both loving tributes and brilliantly accurate parodies. They are similar to those heard on contemporaneous offshore pirate radio stations, and in many respects the album stands as a lasting tribute to the pirate DJs who by plugging The Who’s early singles did so much to boost their career. The eye-catching sleeve design also enforced the ‘sell out’ concept, with the members of the group ‘promoting’ some of the ‘products’ referred to on the record: Roger sits in a tub of baked beans (he caught mild pneumonia sitting in the cold tub during the shoot), Pete uses an underarm deodorant, Keith applies spot cream, and John extols the virtues of a body building course.
That cover caught my eye in 1967 (in the record department at WH Smith’s in Bradford) and led me to buy it.