The Who – Sell Out

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Concept albums make me nervous, mostly because I think they tend to overlook – if not outright reject – the bedrock principle of rock that the simple is not the enemy of the good. The concept album at its worst represents the belief that rock needs an additive to qualify as art. Even the term “rock opera” betrays the fundamental misgivings of the artist, who is willing a transference of cultural legitimacy from the other art form by sheer proximity. Sell Out is not quite at that point yet – but it was coming – and the album takes a lighthearted approach and arguably seeks to send the opposite, pop art message:  that the commonplace and commercial is no less art than the highbrow and sublime. Or it could have been a statement about the commodification of art, or music as (disposable) product. I don’t know. It helps that there is no central story as in Tommy, and that the concept here is unrelated to the subject matter or arrangement of (almost all) the songs.

What I Think of This Album

The best Who album, even though it is highly confusing, as it is packed with fake jingles and fake songs. The idea was to emulate a pirate radio station, commercials and all. The work involved in figuring out this album is . . . annoying. First, there are the legitimate songs:  “Armenia, City In the Sky;” “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand;” “Tattoo;” “Our Love Was;” “I Can See for Miles;” “I Can’t Reach You;” “Relax;” “Silas Stingy;” “Sunrise;” and “Rael (1 and 2).” Much of this is excellent.

Then there are what I call the fake songs, which are actual Who songs intended to function as commercials, but still listed as album tracks:  “Heinz Baked Beans;” “Odorono;” and “Medac.” These are stupid, even if “Odorono” could almost be an actual song but for the shilling of an actual deodorant, and “Medac” is legit catchy with a good Keith Moon drum part.

Finally, there are the fake jingles – some for the fictional “Radio London” and others for actual products, like Rotosound strings and the Charles Atlas bodybuilding course – that are tacked on to the beginning and end of most of the songs, and are not listed on the album. These are also dumb. But focus on the songs, and you can’t go wrong.

“Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand” is the prettiest song about handjobs ever written, with some great acoustic guitar from Pete Townshend and Latin percussion. The lyrics about the other girls who can’t quite compete with Mary Anne – “Linda can cook / Jean reads books/ Cindy can sew” – are horribly retrograde but excusable as part of the joke: ”But I’d rather know / Mary Anne with the shaky hands / What they’ve done to a man / Those shaky hands.” Note the cheeky tremolo effect on the vocals for the last “shaky hands” line. The punishing “I Can See for Miles” has a phenomenal drum performance from Moon and some really impressive harmonies, to say nothing of Townshend’s guitars; the outro is fantastic. Oddly, this is one of only two songs on the album where Roger Daltrey sings lead all by himself. “Armenia, City In the Sky” was written by Who friend John David Percy Keen (“Speedy Keen”), and is a marvel of production:  a psychedelic pop song with backwards horns, drones, and an unrelenting rhythm. Sugar covered this song in much less interesting, almost pointless, fashion.

“Our Love Was” is a great love song (duh), with some fine drumming and a nice subtle horn part. The same is true of “I Can’t Reach You,” but swap in a piano for the horn. Both are sung by Townshend. “Tattoo” is a remarkably mature take on male vulnerability and insecurity; I have to say I don’t love the melody on the verses, even though the songwriting and the arrangement (including the vocal harmonies) are excellent. “Relax” and “Sunrise” owe a lot to Brian Wilson, with “Relax” breaking out into some heavy rocking and featuring a very ‘60’s organ sound, and “Sunrise” offering some complex fingerpicking. “Rael (1 and 2)” is undeniably pretty and not overlong at not quite six minutes, but it hints at the excesses Townshend would indulge in later and it’s difficult to listen to with that in mind.

My 1995 reissue includes bonus tracks, with the yearning “Glittering Girl;” driving and intricate “Melancholia;” bassist John Entwistle’s surprisingly good “Someone’s Coming;” disturbing circle-of-life “Glow Girl;” Daltrey’s excellent walk-of-shame song “Early Morning Cold Taxi;” and the way inferior electric guitar version of “Mary Anne.”

Tangent: Petra Haden of that dog. recorded an a capella version of this album.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand” is a gem.

Release Date

December, 1967

The Cover Art

Pretty funny. Daltry says he caught pneumonia from sitting in a tub of cold beans. I love Townshend’s smirk. 

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