#115: The Who, "Sell Out" (1967)

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Pete Townshend’s hawkish nose was flaking off. After a zillion washings, my favorite shirt had dulled from bright cerulean to mottled steel, so the cheeky photos of the Who posing for the cover of 1967’s The Who Sell Out were in various stages of unmaking. One could no longer read the brand name Heinz on the novelty-sized can Roger Daltrey clutched, sitting bug-eyed in a tub overflowing with baked beans. On the back, Keith Moon’s eyes peeled beneath his mop-top, making him look like a pharaonic hypnotist. Beside him, John Entwistle grinned mischievously in leopard print as Tarzan, a bubbly blonde model as Jane by his side. By now, it was hard to tell if the teddy bear he clutched in the crook of his elbow was a plaything or a dead toddler, limp in its father’s arms. If you had asked me then, as I dug it from my hamper to wash and wear it again for the second time in any given tenth grade week, so I could eat one-handed while clutching a lunch tray like a battle shield to block the greasy tater tots upperclassmen lobbed, I couldn’t tell you. Before dawn, I’d tiptoe downstairs to take it wrinkled from a cold dryer and fumble it on. The bus came at 6:17 a.m. All I knew, indifferently watching the passing dawns, was that each one was a lie. Each morning, through the loose-wire crackle of my headphones, Townshend’s thin falsetto sang you can’t switch off the sun.

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Dominated by Townshend’s vision and voice, The Who Sell Out is a landmark album that documents the first cohesive effort by a band that had hitherto struggled to capture the effervescence of their live performances on two previous studio records. In 1967’s cluttered landscape of British Invasion rock, it is also the moment when the Who fully emerge as ironists, as personalities, and as musicians. Coarser than the Beatles, rangier than the Rolling Stones, the Who finally proved their melodies and social commentary had substance, charm, and depth. What did those pill-popping mod teens think when The Band That Smashed Their Gear turned their gain knobs down to debut the solemn minimalism of “Sunrise,” or the Latin-tinged grooves of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” or the naïve psychedelic cheer of “Relax”? With its faux commercials interlaced throughout, which simultaneously mocked the restrictive BBC and celebrated the pirate radio stations that pulsed offshore just beyond British jurisdiction, The Who Sell Out feels, as Tommy would two years later, too studied an effort for a working group of four to adequately replicate onstage. While the bare-chested live shows for Tommy would shake the concert halls of North America to become the stuff of legend, the only tune from The Who Sell Out that has endured the band’s slow passage into a greatest hits machine is “I Can See for Miles,” a jilted lover’s lament that coasts on atmosphere and sneer. Forty years later, the orchestrated fuzz of “Armenia, City in the Sky” and the floating harmonies of “I Can’t Reach You” strike me as far worthier of radio play. What would I have muttered to myself had I been an obsessive clinger then, amphetamined in the shadows of a Shepherd’s Bush club, nursing the last pint I could afford when the melancholy arpeggios of “Tattoo” diffused the night? I would have said my god, these blokes are selling out.

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It is a poor reflection on my intelligence at age fifteen that I celebrated a kitschy pop-art concept album mocking consumerism—indeed, one of the earliest concept albums in rock history—through the totemic worship of a commodity. How many cool shirts were in my cool shirt arsenal? Seven? And what, in my adolescent fog, did I hope they would achieve, as I stood before their shrine at Tower Records, hoping desperately that this month the shipment from a distant corporate warehouse contained one Who shirt, size small, hidden deep in racks of jumbo tees pimping Korn and Nine Inch Nails? Perhaps deep down, in a fantasy I wish I could disown, I hoped that if I wore them long enough, some Annapolis princess would stun me at my locker, nervously swooping her long bangs behind her studded ears, and find me cool enough to flirt with. If the first two Rules of Cool are 1) don’t try too hard and 2) awesomeness can’t happen by osmosis, I failed both daily. Alexander Pope, in his 1727 essay on bathos, called the earnest but comically pathetic poets of his time “dunces.” Deli dishwasher, master of three power chords, your broke mother idles her rusted minivan in the parking lot while you frantically clack the bones of hangers. Can you see yourself in the store’s convex anti-theft mirror? Mark your skinny ghost, pale as eggshell, tearing a Velcro wallet open.

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Last year I belatedly discovered that the mono and stereo mixes of “Our Love Was” (alternatively titled “Our Love Was, Is”) diverge at minute mark 2:09. The mono version contains clean, stately noodling on what is probably a twelve-string Rickenbacker, slightly out of tune. I want to go on the record as saying it sucks. The stereo mix solo blisters through a fuzz box dripping reverb sounding like your inconsolable brother leaping backwards off Mount Washington in a snowstorm. It only lasts fourteen seconds, but for me, these two versions embody anticlimax and climax as artistic weapons. It’s hard for me to even conceive of these as “versions,” really—they are two entirely different songs. Google this and you’ll find no one, anywhere, has written about it. Google this and join me in my distress.

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Once, in my early years of teaching, before I learned to police myself against excessive authenticity in the classroom, I had a lecture on the rhetorical appeals veer painfully off course in a freshman composition class. Sweating through my PowerPoint behind a wobbly lectern, third coffee in hand, I began by saying it’s best to think of everything in life as an argument. In fact, you’re a dupe to think otherwise. Ethos, pathos, and logos are everywhere—these flyer-flecked hallways, your church bulletin, one-third of television is nothing but commercials now, I mean, Jesus, have you opened a magazine lately, there’s six fragrance ads before you even get to the masthead. And can you believe these sheep you see in the mall who pay $50 for a T-shirt with some sweatshop brand emblazoned across the chest so they can be ambulating sandwich boards for conformity? When I stepped out of the projector’s bright beam to take a breath, I scanned my eager, quiet students: American Eagle, Rocawear, Hollister, Nike. After a beat, I composed myself and said: please take out a sheet of paper, it’s time for us to write.

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In 2005, Petra Hayden, the gifted vocalist and violinist known for her prolific studio work with acts as varied as the Decemberists and Weezer and Foo Fighters, recorded, by herself, at her house, on a creaky 8-track machine she borrowed from a friend, a note-for-goddamn-note a cappella version of The Who Sell Out. Fantastic and absurd, it is among my most cherished art objects of the 21st century. As each song passes through my headphones, I recall that line George Oppen wrote when he was startled by the majesty of deer: “that they are there!” Late at night, when I’m unable to sleep and staring at the ceiling, participating in that pathetic American delusion of imaging what I would do if I won the lottery, the prospect of sitting around and recording my own idiosyncratic tribute versions of Who albums isn’t that far down the list after paying off my bills and my family’s bills and quitting my job and building a Prince-style mansion in the woods replete with helipad. Reader, if you’ve made it this far, stop reading and go listen to it on YouTube before the lawyers take it down.

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Two Led Zeppelins. Two other Whos. A Rush. A David Bowie. I puked pizza and vodka all over Bowie at Senior Week, but somehow he washed clean (as he always does), so I can’t recall when any of these shirts met their final disintegration. But my The Who Sell Out shirt endured college, two rounds of graduate school, my wedding day, and the purchase of our house. The last time I wore it, I felt like a squished cartoon. I remember, clearly, its final wash and later letting it dry on the clothesline, a landing rag for dragonflies in June. It sat in my dresser for months smelling of copper sunlight. That winter, in the weeks after we brought our first child home, jaundiced and ill from the neonatal intensive care unit, I channeled my powerlessness and fear at his sick arrival into a purge of all the teenage bullshit I had kept: mix tapes, hemp necklaces, hacky sacks. They say his friends turned away with pity and disgust when noble Pericles, dying, let the witchdoctors of Athens into the palace to lay trinkets on his plague-rasped chest. Doesn’t it sound like a wind-caught sail, the shaking of a trash bag open? I dumped my shirt drawer, found four wilted brothers in the mound, and threw them out.

—Adam Tavel