Saturday , November 20 2021

Music Reviews: ‘The Who Sell Out’ (Super Deluxe Ed.), Plus Maria Shiel and Abigail Dowd

Ask a music fan to name a favorite Who album—or simply any Who album—and the response is likely to be their 1969 rock opera, Tommy, or perhaps that record’s 1971 follow-up, Who’s Next. Both contain some great music, and the former was groundbreaking. But the group’s best album is arguably neither of these; rather, it’s 1967’s inventive The Who Sell Out, which didn’t fare nearly as well on the charts as either of those others but is so good, it’s hard to believe it’s only their third LP.

The band’s first concept album, it brings to mind an old Monty Python line: “And now for something completely different.” While many of the Who’s contemporaries were bending over backwards to be taken seriously as artists, not mere pop stars, Sell Out finds this outfit taking a deep dive into pop via a parody of England’s commercial pirate radio stations. 

Instead of silences between many of the songs, the album features the group’s jingles for “Wonderful Radio London” plus—even before Frank Zappa would proclaim that “we’re only in it for the money”—fake and frequently hilarious commercials for real products, including Odorono underarm deodorant, Heinz baked beans, Medac germicidal cream, and Charles Atlas body building. (The Who had to delay release of the LP while they secured permission to mention these brands.) 

This was pretty far off the beaten path, especially for 1967. While the Doors were singing “Break On Through,” Jimi Hendrix was delivering “Purple Haze,” Procol Harum were offering “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and Simon & Garfunkel were lamenting “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” the Who were singing lines like this one (from “Medac”): “When Henry in the mirror peered / His pimples all had disappeared / Henry laughed and yelled, ’I got ’em!’ / Me face is like a baby’s bottom.”

The songs that the faux commercials bookend are consistently solid—strikingly original, melodic, and characterized by gorgeous vocals as well as lyrics that are as unusual as the album concept. “Armenia City in the Sky,” for example, is pure psychedelia, with backwards guitar parts and surrealistic verse. “Tattoo” is about a boy who gets his arm tattooed and proclaims, “Welcome to my life, tattoo / I’m a man now, thanks to you.” Other gems on the menu include the Latin-flavored “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” the soaring “I Can’t Reach You,” and the lovely, acoustic “Sunrise,” as well as “I Can See for Miles,” a Top 10 hit that ranks with the Who’s best creations ever.

Like all of the group’s albums, incidentally, this one primarily features material by Pete Townshend. The exceptions include “Silas Stingy” and the songs touting Heinz beans and Medac, which bassist John Entwistle wrote; and “Armenia City in the Sky,” which is by John “Speedy” Keen,” who was then Townshend’s chauffeur and would go on to co-found Thunderclap Newman and write its hit, “Something in the Air.”

The new “super deluxe” edition of this album, which weighs in at about six pounds, includes 112 tracks, all of them remastered and many of them previously unreleased. As Townshend says in his typically thoughtful and extensive newly penned liner notes, “When I saw the final track listing, I was very pleasantly surprised at how much extra material there was, recorded and then set aside by the band around the time The Who Sell Out was prepared and released.”

The first two of the package’s five CDs deliver the stereo version and the noticeably different mono version of the original album, plus two dozen bonus tracks, among them the single “Pictures of Lily,” Townshend’s ode to masturbation; covers of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’s “The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb” (recorded as a show of solidarity for the Rolling Stones leaders, who were facing drug charges at the time); the single mix of “I Can See for Miles”; and songs, jingles, and promo spots (some apparently real, some not) for Jaguar cars, Sunn audio equipment, Great Shakes milkshake mix, and Coca Cola. 

Disc three, which draws on 1967 and 1968 studio sessions, features 28 outtakes and alternate versions, including variations on many of the songs that wound up on The Who Sell Out. A 14-track fourth disc covers material created in the nine months between Sell Out’s release and the first recordings for Tommy. It includes a couple of versions of “Magic Bus,” the 1968 single, as well as numbers whose lyrics, vocals, and guitar work presage the rock opera, such as “Glow Girl,” which evolved into Tommy’s “It’s a Boy.” Filling a fifth disc are previously unreleased and surprisingly polished Pete Townshend demos of 14 songs, none of which appear on the original Sell Out.

The list of goodies packaged with the CDs is long. For vinyl fans, the set includes a pair of seven-inch mono singles (“Magic Bus” and “I Can See for Miles”) in picture sleeves. (There’s even a plastic 45-RPM adapter for your turntable.) Among the other offerings are a bumper sticker and replicas of two large four-color posters, a contemporaneous band publicity photo, and a 1968 fan club newsletter.

The most informative extra, though, is the 80-page LP-sized hardcover book that holds the five CDs. In addition to the aforementioned essay by Townshend, this beautifully illustrated volume includes his notes on each of the demo tracks, an article by Radio London DJ Pete Drummond about the pirate radio era, and several other essays about the music and the times. Lyrics and extensive track notes fill the rest of the book.

Who fans will not be disappointed.

Also Noteworthy

Maria ShielFire in the Sea!. Irish singer/songwriter Maria Shiel—who toured in the early 2000s with a hip-hop band she formed called Guava—has a winner in this solo album, whose music she dubs “transatlantic Irish-Americana.” Inspired by her Irish ancestors as well as a 2015 road trip across the U.S., the all-originals set features a more-than-capable band that employs fiddle by the Waterboys’ Steve Wickham, as well as dobro, flute, drums, bass, and guitars. 

The album opens with the sound of the sea on Ireland’s west coast and closes with the sound of a crackling outdoor fire and a Native American chant. In between are a series of well-sung, lilting originals, starting with the album’s debut single, the irresistible “Calling Me Back” (which steals a line from John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”). That’s probably the best track, but exhilarating, upbeat numbers like “Bedrock and Waterline” and “Call Home,” and lush productions like “Ebb of the Wave,” aren’t far behind.

Abigail DowdBeautiful DayColorado-based folk singer and songwriter Abigail Dowd features an excellent backup crew on this album—including keyboards, percussion, dobro, pedal steel, electric guitar, and bass—but her arresting vocals are always the main attraction.

Frequently sad and struggling characters people many of Dowd’s lyrics. The male protagonist of “Don’t Want to Talk About It,” for example, sings, “You don’t know the things I’ve done / If I told you you’d run / They say put the bottle down, I know I’m hard to be around.” The title cut, meanwhile, belies its bright-sounding moniker with lines about feeling lonely and blue despite the fact that “it’s a beautiful day…outside.” 

Ultimately, though, this is an album about maintaining resilience and a sense of hope and is best characterized by its pensive first single: “One Moment at a Time,” in which Dowd sings about waking up each morning and facing each day’s challenges as they come.

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About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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