Revisiting ‘The Who Sell Out’

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 23, 2021
Photo by: UMC/Polydor The front cover of "The Who Sell Out" features Pete Townshend with Odorono and Roger Daltrey with Heinz Baked Beans.

Owls Head — The Who: The Who Sell Out, Super Deluxe Edition (UMC/Polydor, 5 CDs, 2 7-inch singles). The Who’s third studio album, originally released in December 1967 in Great Britain and January 1978 in the U.S., was somewhat of a mixed bag musically, but a classic in terms of the band’s self-deprecating humor, from the brilliant album title to the cover ads for Odorono, Heinz Baked Beans, Medac and the Charles Atlas bodybuilding course to the numerous ad jingles performed within. The jingles were added to the album to recreate the sound of pirate radio – the way most music from the United States was heard in Great Britain at the time and which had just been banned by the British government.

The Super Deluxe Edition box set comes with 112 tracks across five discs, 47 of which are previously unreleased, including 13 of Pete Townshend’s demos. There also is an 80-page hardcover book, filled with rare period photos, memorabilia, track-by-track annotation and Townshend’s own notes about the 14 demo tracks on disc five. The book also contains commentary by Pete Drummond, a Radio London DJ; designer Richard Evans; and Roy Flynn, manager of the Speakeasy Club. There also is a cardboard sleeve containing two 7-inch vinyl singles, nine replica posters and inserts.

In the accompanying book, Townshend, the band’s main songwriter, guitarist and second singer after Roger Daltrey, writes, “Despite all the fun we had, I was convinced it was still a ragbag of an album and was surprised by how warmly it was received by critics.”

The album does include one classic Who song, the magnificent “I Can See for Miles,” a tale of karmic revenge with a big drum start by Keith Moon, triple-tracked vocals and three overdubbed guitar parts. Other standouts include the softer “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand’ (inspired by a woman who waved her hands while dancing in a club) with its acoustic guitar; the lighter, melodic “I Can’t Reach You,” with its chorus that begs one to sing along; and “Tattoo,” whose instrumental sound points towards The Who’s next album, Townshend’s rock opera, “Tommy.” The end of the closing “Rael (1 and 2)” contains a late guitar strum that shows up later in the “Underture” of “Tommy.”

By the way, as some credit Townshend with coining the term “rock opera,” he also created the term “power pop,” a prime example of which is the outstanding single “Pictures of Lily,” which is the first of 13 bonus tracks on disc one, which contains the mono version of “The Who Sell Out.”

The album has psychedelic touches, such as in the lovely “Armenia City in the Sky,” which has the thick fuzz feel found on some of the “Tommy” tracks,” as well as “Our Love Was,” with Townshend’s yearning vocal, and “Relax,” which features Al Kooper (early Blood, Sweat & Tears) playing swirling B3 organ. “Sunrise” features a delicate Townshend solo on a Harmony 12-string acoustic guitar. Bassist John Entwistle contributes “Silas Stingy,” a Dickensian tale of a miser that musically recalls his “Boris the Spider” from the previous album, “A Quick One.”

There are nine jingles, both from Radio London and band-penned ones, plus three “commercial” songs and an ad for Charles Atlas’ bodybuilding program, as seen in the back of comic books, each illustrated on the cover by a different band member (a division that will be later used in Townshend’s “Quadrophenia,” another rock opera). The songs are Townshend’s “Odorono,” about a deodorant (see below), and Entwistle’s “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac,” an acne spot remover. Photo-wise, Townshend is with Odorono, Daltrey with Heinz Baked Beans, Moon with Medac and Entwistle with Charles Atlas.

Some of the music was recorded In the United States, while The Who were touring with Herman’s Hermits. This includes parts of “Relax” in Nashville and “Rael” in New York City. Townshend writes in his book introduction that Chris Stamp of Track Records wanted to release a Who album by Christmas and was cobbling together diverse tracks The Who had recorded. Townshend had written two anti-smoking songs for the American Cancer Society – “Little Billy” and “Kids! Do You Want Kids?,” both of which are included in this set – and that inspired him to write “Odorono” about the deodorant and love and ambition thwarted by body odor. The band also had recorded commercials for Coca-Cola and Great Shakes milkshake powder. All these things, along with the banning of pirate radio, including Radio London, gave Townshend the idea for the album’s structure as a pirate radio show.

Band manager Kit Lambert, co-owner of Track Records, came up with the Radio London jingles that are heard on what was the album’s first side for the vinyl release.

The 13 bonus tracks on the mono disc include the aforementioned “Pictures of Lily” (which is great), covers of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb,” an electric version of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand” that has an extra verse, Entwistle’s “Someone’s Coming” about his girlfriend/ future wife and Daltrey’s co-written “Early Morning Cold Taxi.” Townshend offers “Jaguar,” with pounding tympani, but the car maker never used it. As Townshend writes, “We were hoping to get free Jaguars. We got fifty free tins of baked beans.” The disc ends with three radio ads for Sunn Equipment (musical instruments the band used and destroyed during performances) and one for Great Shakes.

Disc two is the stereo version of the album, plus 13 bonus tracks that include an unreleased coda to “Rael,” the fine song “Glittering Girl” and an unreleased cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” a song that is so memorable when performed on the “Live at Leeds” album. There also is an unusual cover of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and the Jimi Hendrix-influenced “Sodding About,” with both instrumentals planned for a tentative all-instrumental release that never came to pass. There also are two Coca-Cola commercial jingles and Moon’s “Girl’s Eyes.” Four of the extras are stereo versions of tracks on the monoi disc.

Disc three consists of studio sessions from 1967-68. There are 28 tracks, some with studio chatter. One can hear the studio fun especially in various tries at “Top Gear” and “Premier Drums” jingles. Most interesting are the Hendrix-influenced, mostly instrumental take of “Our Love Was”; Entwistle’s “Mr. Hyde,” a song based on Moon’s drinking and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde” (its eventual name as the B-side of the single of “Call Me Lightning”); and attempts at a cover of “Shakin’ All Over” and their own “Magic Bus.” They also work on the two Stones’ covers and an early instrumental try of “It’s a Girl,” which will surface on “Tommy” with the sex changed. Daltrey’s vocals are showcased on “Call Me Lightning” and “Dogs,” a song about a racetrack that Townshend used to visit as a child with his father.

Nicky Hopkins (The Beatles) plays piano on “Little Billy,” harpsichord and piano on “Mrs. Walker” (another track headed for “Tommy”), piano on “Dogs” and keyboards on “Shakin’ All Over.” The version of “Melancholia” here has a distorted Townshend guide vocal.

Disc four has 10 songs the band recorded between “The Who Sell Out” and “Tommy,” plus four alternate versions. Highlights are the somewhat creepy “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” the upbeat “Call Me Lightning” with Daltrey’s brag vocal, “Glow Girl,” which is about a couple’s last moments as their plane crashes (it ends with the birth announcement used in “Tommy,” with “girl” changed to “boy”), and “Melancholia” with its stormy guitar bit. There also is the anti-smoking song, “Little Billy’s Doing Fine.”

Disc five has 14 of Townshend’s demos – 13 previously unreleased – with his notes about each recording. Included are both anti-smoking songs and two versions of “Glow Girl.” There also are demos of “Pictures of Lily” and “I Can See for Miles.” With his notes, Townshend proves a genial host. In fact, the hardcover book, which includes the lyrics for the original album songs, makes the box set well worth the purchase. The old, mostly black-and-white photos of the band are a lot of fun.

The nine posters and inserts include replicas of 20 by 30-inch 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. The 7-inch singles are “I Can See for Miles,” backed with “Someone’s Coming,” and “Magic Bus,” backed with “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” All four songs are mono and “I Can See for Miles” is an early mix.

Further good news is that Townshend has said he is working on material for a box set of the band’s classic “Who’s Next” album.

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