The meat of this box set is on Discs 2 and 3. Disc 2 is largely given over to The Who Sell Out, Tommy and Live At Leeds, and we decided to play around with the Sell Out running order because there was no way that we could sustain the pirate radio/commercial jingle concept of the original LP. So after the spoof ad for John’s bass strings – ‘Hold your group together... with Rotosound Strings!’ – we opened the disc with my favourite track from that album, ‘I Can See For Miles’, which many fans regard as the best Who single ever. It’s easy to understand why. More so than any other Who song from any era ‘… Miles’ crackles with electricity from the opening chord slash to the faultless drum-led fade four minutes later. It’s as fine a performance as The Who ever gave and sees them not so much embracing psychedelia but adopting it and twisting it around for their own ends. Keith’s lightweight ‘Girl’s Eyes’, the obscure outtake we put on Disc 1 for its curiosity value, might have sounded like a compromise brought about by the urge to espouse flower-power, but there’s not a hint of compromise in ‘I Can See For Miles’. Psychedelic without being trippy, it strains at the leash, held together by Pete’s taut, sustained guitar phrases, Keith’s immaculate drumming, particularly under the melody, and that crackling electric buzz, like sparks from a broken power cable blowing in the storm. The solo is a revelation: buzzing feedback, choppy shreds of chords and Keith at his very best. No wonder Pete was pissed when it wasn’t the hit it deserved to be.
‘Armenia City In The Sky’ might just be the second grunge record ever made (after ‘Disguises’), but the swirling organ and phased backwards guitar solo places it in London 1967, not Seattle 1992. ‘Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand’ is another of those juicy little oddities in The Who’s catalogue and Pete’s second great song about masturbation. Lovely acoustic chords ring out behind Roger’s carefully sung verses about the girls who fail to match Mary Anne’s skills in this department. Much the same thing applies to the lyrics of ‘Tattoo’ which I’ve always loved, mainly for those subtle little alliterations and internal rhymes that flow throughout its verses. Count ‘em... ‘Me... my.. mother’, ‘brother’ rhymes with ‘other’ (and ‘mother’), ‘brain... brawn... brother’, ‘brawn’ rhymes with ‘born’, ‘man’ with ‘understand’, ‘money... mother’ (again), ‘to do’ (and ‘you’) rhymes with ‘tattoo’, ‘nude’ with ‘rude’, ‘regret you’ with ‘get you’, ‘older’ with ‘all over’ and, in the despairing climax, ‘tattooed too’ with a string of ‘rooty too toos’. Roger sings all of these complex lines against haunting descending arpeggio chords, the final one of which, so the sheet music tells me, is BF sus2 (add#4), but you know that this is Pete playing around intuitively on his guitar, making up chords as he goes along and sticking with them if they sound striking. On stage in the late Sixties The Who more often that not segued from their chunky R&B cover of ‘Fortune Teller’ into the relative delicacy of ‘Tattoo’ – not the easiest of musical juxtapositions – as can be heard on the upgraded edition of Live At Leeds.
It was suggested by some reviewers that we overdid things by including seven Sell Out tracks but I found it hard to omit ‘Our Love Was’, with its refined power pop mood and freaky solo, or ‘Sunrise’, Pete’s romantic solo piece, while the closing track, ‘Rael’, was far and away the most sophisticated extended piece of music that Townshend had written thus far, as well as a blue print for Tommy. Sell Out never made the US charts and it struck me that the wonderful music on this record (described by Dave Marsh in his liner notes on the re-issued, upgraded CD as The Who’s consummate masterpiece) might therefore have been overlooked by some of The Who’s American fans, so in this respect I felt it was more important to include this great (relatively) early music on the box than to concentrate on better known material from Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, all of which sold very well in the US and was therefore much better known. ‘Rael’, Pete’s second extended piece, surely bears this out, soaring where ‘A Quick One’ lurched, its luscious vocal harmonies and sudden octave drops anticipating the spiritual charm that made Tommy so attractive 18 months later. Whatever you choose to call it – ‘Rael’, ‘Sparks’ or ‘Underture’ – the instrumental theme that closes ‘Rael’ is one of The Who’s greatest set-pieces. On a good night its layered dynamics and multiple rising crescendos always brought audiences to their feet, though of all the versions now available I’m bound to recommend the one that follows ‘Amazing Journey’ on the re-issued Leeds. Crank that one up on cans for sheer Who magic!
I’m getting ahead again. Before we reach Tommy, there’s a few more oddities: ‘Jaguar’, a seriously heavy-duty instrumental, son of ‘The Ox’; the moody, uncharacteristic ‘Melancholia’; and a studio bash at ‘Fortune Teller’. Then there’s ‘Magic Bus’, the stage favourite on which Pete’s flair for rhythm is given full reign; the anti-smoking ad ‘Little Billy’, about as hypocritical as The Who ever got because at that time all four of them smoked like chimneys; and their rather strange but oh-so-London ode to greyhound racing, ‘Dogs’. In truth, at this stage in their career The Who seemed to be floundering in the studio, disheartened by their inability to continue making hit singles and, as ever, almost bankrupt through equipment destruction and living well beyond their means. Fortunately word of mouth about their live act was drawing in more and more US fans which just about kept them afloat, and Pete had an ace up his sleeve which would turn this situation around in dramatic style. Indeed, within 12 months The Who, much to their surprise and delight, had sprinted past the pack and become one of the biggest bands in the world.