The Who Sell Out

The Who Sell Out was released 48 years ago today, December 15, 1967. As a kid, it was the first or second great record from my brother’s collection to hook me into multiple listenings  – the other was Magical Mystery Tour, released the same month.

Something about the psychedelic era appeals to kids, I guess, but The Who Sell Out was distinct for its gag songs and fake ads, which were like nothing else before or since. Entire pop songs that are ads for imaginary deodorant or acne cream? It made sense to my 10-year-old mind, which was just as taken by the Python-esque radio jingles and creepy madrigal satires like “Silas Stingy”: “Money money money bags, there goes mingy Stingy,” we’d sing, sitting by the speakers on a Saturday morning.

The_who_sell_out_album_front

The greatest record of the psychedelic era?

It’s one of those records that gets an excessive amount of critical love in retrospect, urging us to compare it favorably to the other psychedelic landmarks like Sergeant Pepper (June of ’67), Piper at the Gates of Dawn (August), or Pet Sounds (May – wait! May of ’66!). And it does rock. The backbone of “Armenia City in the Sky,” “Our Love Was, Is” and “I Can See For Miles” stands up to any rock record of its era.

There is something sad about The Who, though. Who fans in my suburban neighborhood were always distinguished from average Beatles and Stones fans for the chips on their shoulders about how under-appreciated they felt Pete Townsend was. They had a defiance about them. The revolution of sex, drugs, and rock and roll left lots of people lonely and bewildered, and The Who spoke for them too.

You could tell, just a few episodes into Mad Men, that the series’ major through line was going to be reconciling the counter culture with commercialism. It’s still the great contradiction of the ‘60s, and The Who Sell Out is a testament to the ability of some people, who were enthusiastic participants at the time, to grasp those contradictions in real time.

Deeper than that, the melancholy in the record is the sadness of a closeted gay man with some kind of sexual revolution happening all around him. You can’t hear “I Can’t Reach You,” without thinking of Townsend’s lyrics in this light:

“Once I caught a glimpse/ Of your unguarded, untouched heart/ Our fingertips touched and then/ My mind tore us apart…”

Even more so, in the album’s most enduring masterpiece – the song I can’t wait to get to when I spin the record now, “Sunrise.”

 

“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./ You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise.”

It’s poetry, and it’s sad as hell. It’s gay angst daring to speak for all teen angst, and it predates The Smiths by 15 years.

It’s wise to consumerism, and yet respectful of the musicianship of radio writers and jingle singers. I’m guessing it still sounds great in a hallucinogenic frenzy. It got my December 15th off to a great start, once again.

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