The Who Really Sell Out – Super Deluxe Edition

In many ways the original December 1967 release was a transitional album. “Transitional” is often used in a simplistic way when you can’t slide an album easily into the band’s overall work. Here however, transitional really does apply.

The Who had proven themselves adept at the three minute single, as would be proven in the first of myriad best of collections, the eponymous Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. Coming out of art school, with a keen appreciation of the power of advertising, Pete Townsend was able to bring the seemingly disparate threads of pop music and advertising together into one large conceit, a concept album. Originally intended to be a forum for licensing songs to real companies (which would actually only occur 22 years later when Moby licensed all tracks on his album Play at least once), Townsend corralled the band into setting up for the listener what would have been a chance listening to the soon to end era of pirate radio.

For the first two thirds of the album, the songs are joined by clever radio jingles, and at least one song (“Odorono”) is directly product driven. By the end of the album, we hear Townshend steering the band to his first opus Tommy. Musical themes that explode in the forthcoming rock opera are explored.

Townshend was understandably sore that the brilliant “I Can See For Miles” was not a bigger hit. I have often wondered whether he contemplated the song as a reprise for his story of the cured deaf dumb and blind boy, but as a closer to side one of The Who Sell Out, the track is a stunner.

Townsend over the years, in his exceptionally erudite way, has written pages and pages of incredible insight into the creative process. When he was putting together The Who Sell Out, Townshend undoubtedly had no aspirations to become an editor at a major publishing house, and it’s an itch he was able to scratch in the early 80s. The literary nature of his work is pretty much unsurpassed among his contemporaries, or followers for that matter. In the super deluxe edition, his insights are presented in the 80-page hard back book. The package covers 112 tracks across five CDs and two 7” singles, featuring 47 unreleased tracks (including 14 unheard Townshend demos). The gorgeous posters and inserts include: 20″ x 30″ original Adrian George album poster, a gig poster from The City Hall, Newcastle, a Saville Theatre show 8-page program, a business card for the Bag o’ Nails club, Kingly Street, a Who fan club photo of group, a flyer for Bath Pavilion concerts including The Who, a crack-back bumper sticker for Wonderful Radio London, Keith Moon’s Speakeasy Club membership card and a Who Fan Club newsletter.

For the super deluxe package Townshend went deep into his vaults and provided a trove of early demos. We first heard demos like these on a succession of his Scoop collections, but here we are reminded of the guy’s genius. We can picture him in his studio, working through melodies, harmonies, lyrics, tempi and all the instruments. Is that a banjo on “Little Billy”? “Glow Girl” provides an early glimpse of the thicket into which Townshend would head as the concept of Tommy took flight. The improbable tale of a plane crash, with random items flying about the descending cabin seem as likely a place as any for the genesis of the deaf, dumb and blind boy. The fact that he sure could play pinball would come later, when a rock critic upon hearing an early take of the rock opera suggested Townshend needed a hit single. Hearing Townshend’s upper register voice makes these songs the same only different. But his demo of “I Can See For Miles,” the standout single from the original album, is far thinner without Daltrey’s vocal punch.

Through an arrangement with and YouTube available here for a limited time is a brilliant documentary about the making of the album.

It is only appropriate for us to give Townshend the last word:

We were hoping to get free Jaguars. We got fifty free tins of baked beans.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.