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The Who Sell Out

A word about concept albums. The idea of "Concept" is usually applied too strongly – it’s a very general idea of song theme and continuity in albums and not some over-arching, megalithic artistic statement. Any medium, be it a novel, album or a series of works tend not only to a bigger picture or canvas, but almost inevitably to some kind of narrative cohesion or continuity. When conceived, these threads start out as a big picture idea (Floyd, Smile, Sgt Pepper) but they usually stop before halfway: the writers either lose interest or do whatever else they (or the drugs) feel like doing. Musically speaking, it’s a bit like Prog: so much music tends towards a bigger scale and reach; depending on the available musical talent, everything becomes a series of noodling solos and lyrics about fairies. Music becomes complex. Only rarely does a concept attain that magical, unified whole. I’m thinking Dark Side of the Moon. Sell Out is loosely conceptual but by no means superior to non-concept albums (as an aside, think of how great jazz albums aren’t concept-works, but often strongly thematic and unified).That said, the useless liner notes by Dave Marsh are soaked with gushing hyperbole and reckless drops of ‘classic’ and ‘concept’ and ‘masterpiece’ that really labour the case.

So then, the famous concept of Sell Out is a pirate London radio station with commercial segue-jingles and product placements, often played as gags ("Radio London reminds you: go to the church of your choice", "Drink Easy, Drink Easy, Pull Easy"). Burying great pop within a materialistic joke and thereby playing on the whole commercialism of pop; both critising and inoculating against what just a year or so later in the 60s became the concept of Selling Out. As well as bagging the benefits of these product placements (Rotosound strings, Premier drums). But there’s real smartness in using Odorono, for instance, as a song of pathetic broken-heartedness and disapointment: a peculiarly British kind of intrusive irony slipped in and slipped out before you know it. I think much has been written about Townsend’s songs of guilt and awareness (as opposed to self-consciousness) and here the songs are almost all fantastic. Sly wit and comic suggestion, songs about handjobs, the pangs and fragile dawns of love or tenderness emergent on a field acoustic, ("You take away the breath I was saving for sunrise"). Plenty of songs about suspicion, posed characters and the fine-conscience-detail of casual sex and affairs (the great Early Morning Cold Taxi, by Daltrey).

This being my first Who album, I gotta admit that I never really gelled well with the Who sound: the particular voices, the clattering drums, the aggressive rock bass and wheeling guitars. I liked Pete’s Rickenbacker stylings, but that might be because I like a good rhythm player. I love the idea of "Maximum R&B" but I don’t like the record-setting, ear-splitting volume they played at in the 70s. I laugh at Keith Moon’s dedicated drinks floor-tom (or was that Bonzo). And since the chaps at TalkBass regularly drop Entwistle’s name in their popular bassist polls, I thought it high time to pay a closer listen. (Though, it should also be mentioned that TalkBass draws a peculiar brand of bass player who likes exotic wood construction in 5, 6 or even 7-stringed basses over €2000 in value to no doubt play their meaningless bass solos to other nerds. And Entwistle always trails a poor fourth or fifth after Jaco, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten etc). But there’s much great musicianship on Sell Out. There’s the odd tendency to resort to powerchord phrases here and there but on the whole the emphasis is on song and song content. That said, the Who sound like a bunch of disparates held together only by song: Moon endlessly clattering without rhyme or reason, Townsend in charge but definitely out of the spotlight (see his annoyed, hesitant lead outings), and Entwistle playing the lead role with up-front and clear punchiness (though without groove or syncopation: the worst criticism I can lay at his feet. I must admit to a bias of playing slighly behind the beat and in the pocket as opposed to merely 'on top'). But they're still a very strong band. Daltrey comes out well on this album too: I’m guessing he’s doing most of his own harmonies, because all the songs are quite full in that typically 60s sound-sense of deep reverb and lo-fi deepness. But Entwistle is definitely the lead player of the band.

Track by track then: Armenia City in the Sky is a very powerful opener with a swelling, blistering horn line and some backward guitars, with the bass and drums neatly isolated in the left channel for rhythm effect. Overtly aimed at the psychedlic crowd. Chords later stolen for The Boys Are Back in Town. Mary Anne With the Shaky hand is a sly little boy’s fantasy driven by acoustics and an interesting showcase of how well Moon functions as a percussionist rather than a traditional drummer. Odorono is said brokenhearted pathetic desire and shame piece. Tattoo is a fine come-of-age story with punishment overtones and Leslie’d guitar. I guess this is the most typical Who track: (imminent lost) youth and some fine backing choruses. Our Love Was is pure bitter guitar pop with nice bass counterpoint. I Can See for Miles sounds more like 70s Who with maximum chorus effect. Moon really rips on this one; full of tension. I Can’t Reach You starts like an average B-side vocal but turns into something better: it almost lags on occasion but for a neat descending little bridge. Townsend’s voice is almost too light here. Relax is more pure 60s UK pop. Silas Stingy is the miser’s anthem played for obviousness, but the 'moneybags' line is very clever. Funny to hear an original first in a WhoBoys mash (Brian could’ve done amazing things with the backing vocals). Sunrise is pure tenderness:
You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise
You appear and the morning looks drab in my eyes
And then again I'll turn down love
Having seen you again
Once more you'll disappear
My morning put to shame

Sometimes I fear that this will go on my life through
Each day I spend in an echoed vision of you
And then again I'll turn down love
Remembering your smile
My every day is spent
Thinking of you all the while
— that peculiar blend of opening to love and spurned opportunity. Rael 1 is a strange kind of battle anthem about Red Chin (?) invasions and yellow flags and naval support. Five minute complex pop with some jabbed and reverbed powerchords at the end. Rael 2 some kind of lullaby. Glittering Girl is snappy Britpop with a big idea about mummy’s rules. Melancholia is straight-ahead despondent rock. Someone’s Coming features horns arranged by Entiwstle, very nicely done; with lyrics about sneaking out under parent’s noses for a bit of nookie. At this point of the disc I wanted to know what was original tracklisting and what bonus tracks — a blatant failure in the liner notes and packaging. Jaguar has heavy chord attack and thundering timps and almost American-sounding lyrics about cars and girls. Early Morning Cold Taxi I really like. Noel Gallagher would give his right eyebrow to be able to write something as Beatle-y and clever as this. That is, it ain’t all that clever, but it’s a natty rock lifestyle song. With a pumping bass-led ad for Coke at the end. Hall of the Mountain King is a great instrumental lark. More fun live, maybe. Girl’s Eyes by Moon ('hello') is pure Beatlism wrapped up in 1964 pop. The second Mary-Anne has more organ in the mix. Glow Girl is about rebirth and crashing planes and supposedly leads right into Tommy: 'It’s a girl, Mrs Walker.'

And that's it. A really full album, I gotta say. Lots of great pop moments. The ads grate after a while, but it might help to know that Daltrey ran up a case of pneumonia sitting in that Heinz bath.

posted by rino breebaart  # 1:08 pm
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Alternatively, read about it at: The Slow Review or the long blog. Or even Nurture Health

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