The Who Go Big With ‘The Who Sell Out’ Super Deluxe Edition (ALBUM REVIEW)

In recent years, the status of the Who has risen dramatically in the hierarchy of contemporary rock and rightly so. The ascent began with a greater appreciation of Quadrophenia, the masterwork that, since its 1973 release, had remained undeservedly in the shadow of Tommy. Meanwhile, mainstream appreciation of the arguable creative pinnacle of the band’s career, Who’s Next, helped to keep The Who Sell Out little more than a curio in the foursome’s discography, except to those fans long-devoted to the group prior to widespread recognition beyond early singles like “I Can See For Miles.”

That archetypal track is the high-point of the 1967 album, its explosive impact only further heightened by its surroundings. And that’s not just through amusing bits of psychoanalysis like “Tattoo” or the uplifting pop romantics of “Our Love Was, Is,” but through the commercial jingles linking most but not all thirteen tracks on this third Who long-player. Conceived by the group and mentor/manager Kit Lambert as part of an overriding theme of homage/satire of the era’s commercial radio, ads for deodorant (“Odorono”) and acne medication (“Medac”) may have originally undermined the more serious intent, not only of the album as a whole but of the Who as artists in their own right.

As means to delineate the thought processes behind Sell Out, the five CDs in this Super Deluxe Edition might seem like, particularly since a double-disc release in 2009 might seem to have sufficiently covered the subject. But the plethora of one-hundred twelve total tracks (forty-seven unissued to this point) would now seem to fully penetrate the surface of this ingenious effort, particularly in regards to what was bubbling under its deceptively humorous surface, the even more ambitious piece that followed in the form of the now-famous tale of the deaf, dumb and blind boy.
That’s not to say that the fourth disc here, subtitled ‘The Road To Tommy,’ is the only truly worthwhile content of this expanded set. Peter Townshend’s demos on compact disc five offer invaluable insight into the creative workings of the guitarist and chief composer’s mind: in its own way, these forty minutes of previously-unreleased demos on the final CD are hardly less remarkable, in their wealth of detail, than those for the expanded Quadrophenia. In the form of “Little Billy,” to name just one, he offered more than just a mere skeletal framework for his bandmates to inject their own personal instrumental style(s).

But comparisons of stereo and mono mixes of the album proper, plus the reappearance of the aforementioned outtakes etc, really only serve as a set-up for the dramatic likes of  “Early Morning Cold Taxi” and “Sunrise.” And the resulting melodrama arising from that material is palpable outside the context of this wealth of ancillary content in this roughly 12”x 12” slipcase. The pair of seven-inch vinyl singles, printed and graphic matter including nine(!) posters & inserts, are all in addition to an eighty-page hardcover book with Townshend’s notes, commentary from other personnel involved in the project, etc. Part of such perspective is, admittedly, from the luxury of hindsight as colored by the success the so-called rock opera provided for The Who in terms of worldwide recognition. Yet it’s a valid point of view (fortunately) rendered even more substantive by the music itself in this collection

This Super Deluxe Edition gives validity to the idea the seeds were sown for the initial magnum opus from the Who in more than just the climax of “Rael.”  It’s one thing to hear Townshend say so himself, but it’s another to actually hear “Glow Girl,” where the band reiterates a readily-recognizable motif from early in the ‘rock opera’ (sung there as “It’s A Boy”). As such, the final crescendos of the aforementioned closer, familiar as they sound now in retrospect as the “See Me, Feel Me” theme, provide continuity within the evolution of the Who and Townshend himself.

As such, his subsequent concept albums—notably the project Lifehouse, from which came their blockbuster follow-up of 1971 with “Won’t Get Fooled Again”–appear as only logical extensions from this multi-faceted, prolific period.
Apart from this historical context, however, it remains quite possible that the stereo and mono mixes of The Who Sell Out, as included here, will hold fascination only for rabid fans and/or audiophiles. The same may be true for the various bonus tracks, whether in edited, complete, or otherwise modified form; in a few select cases, such as the stereo version of “Glittering Girl,” these inclusions are different from and in addition to those on the 2009 vault piece. But there are also multiple versions, in markedly different running times, of numbers like “Magic Bus” and “Call Me Lightning,” which may be redundant except for completists and the inordinately curious.

How much interest a listener has for that content may well correlate with an appreciation for the overall concept at work. But a full version of “Premier Drums” is only the most obvious indication the Who were taking their somewhat grandiose idea(s) seriously, not just whimsically tossing off them off (this despite the fact the satire ends roughly three-fourths thru the album proper). Carp as some might hear about recycling of generally familiar musical content—or 2018 remixes of “Fortune Teller” for instance–the fact is that The Who Sell Out Deluxe Edition accomplishes even more than the similarly-formatted 2017 release of their debut album My Generation. 

It’s quite possible that, in line with the latter-day ascension of the Who’s profile, the arguable bounty of this compendium could bring more new converts to the quartet. After all, the sequencing of bonus material interweaves familiar songs like “Summertime Blues” with those less so, such as “Melancholia;” all the better to hold the attention of the curious (as opposed to the converted). In keeping with its volatile mix of personalities, the creative progression of this British quartet may have originally proceeded in near-violent fits and starts—let us not forget 1966’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” But the Who’s leaps of artistry, viewed from the broad vantage point of this Super Deluxe Edition, with proverbial twenty-twenty acumen, appear nothing less than spectacular, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the interpretation of the Sell Out title.


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