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 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.

Bromantic Poets

Halfway through The Replacements concert in Queens last weekend, I was marveling at the number of great pop songs Paul Westerberg has written – how deep his catalogue is. “Oh yeah, this one too,” we all kept thinking, one after another. And then what did they play next? “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.”

Now, it’s not exactly out of character for the Replacements to play a comic, throw-away song, but the choice was deeper to the heart of the experience than just that.

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, September 19, 2014

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, September 19, 2014

Tommy Stinson, the bass player and only original member left besides Westerberg, was younger than the rest, the band’s teenage mascot of sorts when it started. He’ll be 48 years old in a few weeks, but he still regaled the audience with a story about an emergency room visit. “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” evokes the world of having a little brother, knowing his intimate secrets, and callously, if lovingly razzing him for it – all the while opening one’s own eyes to the vast hypocrisy of the world of adults.

The youngest of four brothers myself, one of the most precious memories from my childhood (no one said “tween” yet) is the Saturday mornings I spent sitting around the stereo with my brother, listening to The Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. The flaccid-phallic double entendre from then-closet case Pete Townsend was lost on us (on me, anyway, but I was the runt of this litter ), but I was captivated by the cover art, showing The Who checking themselves out as boys – on the back cover they were boys spying on themselves as adults. It inexplicably suited the songs about the sexual awakening of social outliers: “I’m a Boy.” “Happy Jack.” “Pictures of Lily.”

Around this time I watched Help! on TV on a Saturday afternoon: Missing it would have been unthinkable, but there were fewer TV stations back then! The scene that blew me away was when The Beatles say good-bye to each other outside their London row-homes, up and down the same block, only to walk inside their respective front doors and into a gigantic interior in which “the boys” all still live together.

The unleashed teenage sexuality of girls screaming is remembered as the essence of Beatlemania, but I only know a few adult women who have ever told me any trivia about the Beatles, their egotistical feuds and what their songs are about, that I hadn’t already heard more than once from adult men. The guys are just more into it. In the mind of the male fan, the female ecstasy only has to happen once in a while to validate the rock star as Alpha Male. Really, rock group fandom is about the Alpha Male Bromance, the band itself the nucleus of that fraternal magic, the rest of us sitting around our parents’ stereos (“Turn that down!”) or passing a pot pipe around a dorm room.

Once in a while a singular pop genius such as Dylan or Hendricks or Mitchell or Beck can come along and be the lone voice and surrogate friend to the listener, but what the British invasion got right, as a marketing stunt, was packaging the songwriters as bands, and most of rock music has copied it ever since. If Donovan had called himself and his band The Chartists, or The Miners, or anything vaguely Welsh, and released a few colorful stories about the misdeeds of his bass player, he’d have made a few million more devotees, and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” would turn up on the radio as often as “Let It Be.”

The Who's compilation from 1971.

The Who’s compilation from 1971.

John Lennon had only been dead a few months when The Replacements recorded their debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, their noisiest record in which, the conventional wisdom goes, Westerberg was barely peeking his head out as a songwriter. I was happy to hear that three of the first four songs in Forest Hills last Friday were off Sorry Ma, as in, “Let’s get one thing straight: This is a rock show.” Judging by the mass of guys (about 75%), many with gray hair and black tee shirts, slapping each other on the back, I wasn’t the only one who was glad they rocked it. Now that the punks and the “alternative scene” of the 1980s are well into their 50s, or older, a guy like Westerberg can play the City Winery circuit any time he wants – “An Evening With David Johansen” with a pinot noir flight to go with it can only be so far away.

Westerberg brought Tommy along, and The Replacements were still The Replacements.