By the turn of 1968, The Who had been a prominent part of British pop culture for three years. Their reputation as a live force, and Pete Townshend’s growing ambition as a writer, was taking them beyond the bounds of throwaway chart music, and ever closer to the grand concepts of their later work. Now they took a major step in that direction with their third album, The Who Sell Out.
The album was Townshend’s big statement about commercialisation and the demands on himself and the band to be presented as a product — and they certainly had some fun with it. Designed by David King, art director at the Sunday Times, and Roger Law, later the co-creator of the mercilessly satirical Spitting Image series), it had bold front cover images of Pete with his “Odorono” deodorant and Roger Daltrey in his bathtub of Heinz baked beans.
On the back, Keith Moon supposedly hawked Medac spot cream and John Entwistle was the beneficiary of a Charles Atlas bodybuilding course. The mock advertising commercials that separated the tracks continued the theme, on a record presented as a pirate radio broadcast with real jingles from the recently-outlawed “Wonderful” Radio London.
The Who Sell Out was released on December 13, 1967, making its British chart debut on the new year chart of January 13. It contained three Entwistle compositions, for which he performed lead vocals, and an opening track, “Armenia City In The Sky,” written by John “Speedy” Keen of Thunderclap Newman. Keen’s most famous song, that band’s UK No.1 “Something In The Air,” was produced by Townshend.
The album also boasted a major hit single, in the form of the psychedelic marvel “I Can See For Miles,” which previewed it in the fall and reached No.10 in the UK. Townshend, however, was expecting much more, and was deeply disappointed that the song didn’t go to No.1. “To me it was the ultimate Who record, yet it didn’t sell,” he said. “I spat on the British record buyer.” The song did, however, become The Who’s only top ten hit single in the US, where it peaked at No.9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Who Sell Out peaked at No.13 in the UK, well below the Top 5 heights of their first two albums, and stalled at No.48 in America. But as a forerunner of the big ideas that were soon to emerge from the band, it was a significant release indeed. John Dougan’s book on the LP, for the 33 1/3 series, would describe it as “a reflective work, one that struggles with rock and roll as a cultural expression that aspires to aesthetic permanence while marketed as ephemera. From this conflict emerges a pop art masterpiece.”
The deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out can be bought here.
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