Though they put up with my mild mania for the group, not all of my friends particularly liked the Who way back when, and for those who did, the band was synonymous with "Tommy." For some reason, and although I loved the reverberating single "Pinball Wizard" that preceded the album, it took me a while to warm up to the famed rock opera.
Besides, I'd pulled "The Who Sell Out" from a discount rack at some point - all my earliest Who records were purchased as cutouts - and "Tommy" didn't have nearly the appeal. To me.How could a two-platter screed all about a messianic deaf-dumb-and-blind kid outdo an album with a cover showing Roger Daltrey in a tub of Heinz Baked Beans and Pete Townshend with a giant deodorant container stuck under his left arm? The songs, from the humorous ("Tattoo," "Odorono" - both of which have serious undertones) to the pop classic ("I Can See For Miles," "Our Love Was, Is") were memorable, each and every one. And it was all tied together as if you were listening to Radio London, one of the famed off-shore British radio stations of the era, with jingles and make-believe ads galore.
"For me, `The Who Sell Out' is the greatest rock and roll album of its era and, as the years go by, seems more and more to me the Who's consummate masterpiece, the work that holds together most tightly as concept and realisation," rock writer Dave Marsh says in notes for a new reissue and expansion of the album. "To put it most simply, `Sell Out' is the most fun of any Who album, and the one whose spirit is most tightly linked to the glorious pop insanity that psychedelia and its aftermath destroyed forever."
I couldn't have said it better . . . although I wouldn't put it on a pedestal quite THAT high. "The Who Sell Out" was, to me, an anti-concept album concept album, and Townshend, Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle were the rollicking, mocking embodiment of the late British Invasion.
Staid old Decca, the Who's 1960s label, didn't know what to do with this wild bunch from England - promulgators of guitar feedback and shows in which they smashed their instruments. The liner from my old album mentions nary a Who release, let alone a rock or pop album, but promotes "The Benny Goodman Story," "Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin," Broadway hits and Bert Kaempfert. Maybe that disinterest is why I was able to round up all of the band's albums as cutouts.
Decca's successor, MCA, is making up for that early inattention with a belated vengeance. The label is gradually remastering and reissuing the oldest Who albums, and beefing them up considerably with additional, sometimes never-released tracks and special packaging while they're at it. 1970's "Live at Leeds" came out a few months ago; now we have "A Quick One," the band's second album from 1967, and "The Who Sell Out," their third, released in 1968.
What's perplexing, perhaps, is that MCA has apparently begun this task at the end of the Who's first brush with fame (pre-"Tommy," pre-"Who's Next") and working backward in time. Presumably the debut "The Who Sing `My Generation' " and some variation on "Magic Bus" are next on the burner.
Of the two latest reissues, "The Who Sell Out" is indispensable for fans. On the album the band tried out all sorts of pop and rock styles, from the pseudo-exotica of "Armenia City in the Sky" to the serious pop of "I Can't Reach You" and "Sunrise" to Townshend's second attempt at a mini-rock opera, "Rael." "I Can See For Miles" became their biggest American hit; unbelievably, it was their only single to reach the top 10 - ever. The foreshadowings of the themes and melodies of "Tommy" are also remarkable: Besides venturing into a longer form, "Rael" features a musical phrase later to turn up in the "Underture" and is a precursor to "We're Not Gonna Take It"; "See Me Feel Me" turns up in "Odo-ro-no."
All of the original tracks are included in this new version, in the traditional order - then come another 10 from the same sessions and time frame, including the brief "Rael 2"; the lopped off (and now separate) end of "Odorono"; an organ-heavy second version of "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand"; and OK songs like "Someone's Coming," "Glow Girl" and a crazy '60s-rock version of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" that's more like "Hall of Macbeth's Witches." All of it's tied together as the originals were with made up advertisements (two of them for Coke).
Still, the expansion is more like "The Who Sell Out" meets "Odds & Sods," the band's mid-'70s outtake collection. The extra tracks and ads are not of the quality of those that made the original cut, but their inclusion does make this version a bonus for Who fans.
"A Quick One" is essentially the album Americans know as "Happy Jack" - except that it doesn't include the single "Happy Jack." A strange decision indeed. Instead, an acoustic version is offered among the bonus tracks toward the end of the reissue.
"Happy Jack" was the album that witnessed the emergence of bassist John Entwistle as a songwriter, albeit one with a Stephen King-ish sense of the macabre. His songs included "Boris the Spider" and "Whiskey Man." Other notable tracks include "Run Run Run," "I Need You," "So Sad About Us" and Townshend's awkward, stitched-together first "rock opera," "A Quick One, While He's Away." In place of the hit "Happy Jack" we find a remake of Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave."
And again there's a bounty of single B-sides and extra cuts (four-fifths of the e.p. "Ready Steady Who"), including a version of TV's "Batman" theme and other recordings in which the Who were essentially having a go at sounding like a surf band: "Bucket T," "Barbara Ann," "In the City."
The booklet notes also prove enlightening. Some fans undoubtedly remember that enigmatic chorus near the end of "A Quick One . . ."; it sounded something like "Jell-O" sung repeatedly for effect. "We wanted to put cellos on the track but (producer) Kit Lambert said we couldn't afford it," Entwistle explains. "That's why we sing, `cello, cello, cello, cello,' . . . where we thought they should be."
A few months later, the Who recorded an acoustic "Happy Jack," the sole version on this reissue. "Pete plays cello," the production notes inform us.