When I saw that there would be a new documentary about The Who, I knew I had to review it for the blog. As you know, I am a huge fan of The Who and have been ever since I was a teenager. My prized possession is a signed copy of Pete Townshend’s autobiography. My pen name is an homage to Keith Moon. The Who are a band that have gotten me through so much in life and I wouldn’t be me if I lived in a world without The Who. The world wouldn’t be the same without them. So I’m going to write my thoughts about it and give you my honest opinion and reaction. If you want to learn more about this documentary, keep on reading.
Spoiler warning obviously, this is a review.
This documentary, which was aired on Sky in the UK and Ireland and streamed on YouTube, focuses on The Who’s first concept album, The Who Sell Out. Yeah, the uninitiated think that Tommy was the band’s first concept album, but Pete Townshend had been exploring concept albums and rock opera type stuff a few years before that. In 1966, The Who had “A Quick One While He’s Away” – a rock opera in 10 minutes and a fan favourite. Reception of that song was so good that Pete had to do a concept album, and in comes The Who Sell Out.
1967 was a great year for music, and a pivotal year in the 60s with fashions moving from raving mod to dandy psychedelia and music moving from singles to album oriented. While people associate that year with Sgt Pepper, The Who Sell Out is really something special and did something I’ve never seen on any other record. You might guess with the album title and the cover that it’s something to do with adverts. You’re getting warmer. What has adverts? TV? Close, but in this case it’s radio. But what kind of radio? It’s certainly not the BBC, because they don’t air ads, and they are very much against product placement and even name dropping brands in songs. The BBC are publicly funded thanks to the much hated TV licence fee, and it would be a conflict of interest if they ran advertisements. But that certainly doesn’t stop other public broadcasters like the CBC in Canada or RTÉ in Ireland from airing ads on TV.
The BBC weren’t cool in the 60s because they hardly played any pop/rock music. If you’ve seen The Boat That Rocked, you’ll know that the cool place to listen to music was pirate radio stations: 24/7 chart hits and young, hip DJs. BBC: for old people, boring and uptight – granny stuff. Would you really want to listen to what your grandparents listen to? Radio Caroline: boomers, “talkin’ bout my generation”, as The Who sang. Young people finally had something of their own, pirate radio. For young people, by young people. Of course, if you’re older and feeling young at heart, you can enjoy pirate radio too! Pirate radio stations needed to make money and pay the bills so they were funded by advertisements. Now we’re getting to the point.
The Who Sell Out‘s concept was a mock pirate radio format. As if you’re listening to the radio and you’re hearing Who songs and in between the songs a mock advertisement plays and you hear some station jingles/IDs.
Now that you understand the background, now it’s time for the review!
Opening the documentary with the hit single from the album, “I Can See For Miles”, you know that you’re going to be in for a treat! Remember that there’s more to the album than this and you’ll be finding out. The documentary has interviews with Pete, Roger, music critics, celebrity Who fans, and people who worked with The Who so you’ll have lots of insights on the album and the creative process and what went on in 1967. Visuals and archive footage is great as always and I always get a kick out of seeing old 60s footage of my favourite bands. You’ll even hear some of Pete’s demos and they’re great. There’s really nothing like Townshend singing Townshend. It’s a track by track overview and commentary of the album that provides insight and context. A must watch for any Who fan. Never a dull moment, as with anything about The Who and you might learn something new and get a new appreciation for an album whose title means a lot of things: selling out concerts, selling out to advertisers, but never selling out on their principles.
10 Takeaways and Tidbits
1. It’s a time capsule
If you want the real 60s experience but didn’t live through the 60s, don’t worry, The Who have got you covered with this album that simulates the experience of listening to Pirate Radio in Swinging London. You’ll be fully immersed the moment the needle drops and the radio jingle plays and goes straight into the music. While Tommy and Quadrophenia get a lot of the spotlight, this album also deserves just as much appreciation and it’s just as innovative.
2. Girls wouldn’t scream at The Who
I know, I found this one weird considering I’m a big Who simp and fangirl. I think all the band members were cute and I love the music too, but it is true that Who fans weren’t Beatles fans or Rolling Stones fans. They were a bit different. While they had their pick of groupies, Pete Townshend was more concerned with making good music that stood the test of time, not trendy stuff that got the girls screaming. One quote from an interview with Pete Townshend that made me laugh was “Stop worrying about the screaming girls, let’s play for the boys!”
3. The Who’s first three albums were done in a scattered way
The Who’s discography can be divided into different eras and The Who Sell Out was a bridge between the scattered approach of the early days and the polished, refined concept albums from 1969-1973. The Who Sell Out married the scattered approach with a concept. The Who really have an interesting story arc and it’s part of why I love them so much.
One way that this album was scattered is that some of the album was recorded while The Who were on tour and had days off from playing concerts. Lambert and Stamp would book them into unfamiliar studios across America and they’d record tracks and bring them to other studios to work on them further. All work and no play!
Pete said that when Lambert and Stamp came back with the track listing (basically all the tracks The Who recorded on tour), he felt it was disjointed, lacklustre, and he wasn’t impressed with the track list as a cohesive package and he brainstormed with them on how to make it work and so the pirate radio concept was born! Ideas on the fly!
4. Armenia City in the Sky is actually misheard
The track is an unconventional choice for The Who. It’s psychedelic and The Who were previously an R&B band with no hints of psychedelia in their sound before. Imagine it’s 1967 and you put on the album for the first time and hear “Armenia City in the Sky” with its experimental backwards guitars and psychedelic effects, you’re wondering if there’s a mistake. Is this really a Who album? You sure the record store didn’t swap albums on me? Not only is the sound different, the song was written by an outside person and not a cover. Speedy Keen, a friend of Pete Townshend’s who went on to be in Thunderclap Newman, wrote the song, but years later he told Pete that the song title is a misprint and heard wrong, it’s really “I’m an Ear Sitting in the Sky”. English accents, am I right? Makes sense though, that’s more psychedelic and also I’m wondering why a rock band would be singing about Armenia. Cher was popular at the time, haha!
5. As much as The Who are a proud British band, making it in America was an important goal for them.
Roger Daltrey described America as “the land of steak” and Britain as “the land of suet and taxation” (an ancap take, but we still love you, Roger!). Every rock band’s goal was to make it big in America. It’s the biggest music market and land of opportunity for bands. Interestingly enough, The Who took a couple years to get to America. It wasn’t until 1967 when they went on their first US tour. What brought them there in the first place was the Murray The K show in New York City, hosted by none other than Murray Kaufman – called the “Fifth Beatle”. They only had 8 minutes to play and that’s only time for 2 songs and some guitar smashing auto-destructive art. Not a lot of time to make a good first impression.
In contrast their contemporaries were jetting off to America and across the globe soon after their first single became a hit. Contrary to popular belief, The Who didn’t come back filthy stinking rich and in a better position than before. No, they shot themselves in foot and left themselves in thousands of pounds of debt with their hard partying, destructive, rock and roll lifestyle. Meanwhile Roger was just sitting and watching money be squandered on paying hotels for damage caused and watching the rest of the band trip on acid.
6. It was The Who’s “Summer of Love” album
There are things for the hippies here: “Relax”, “Our Love”, and the raunchy “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand”. Remember that it was the summer of love in 1967 and that meant a lot of acid. The Who would perform at Monterey Pop Festival that year and that made them household names. It was the most important gig of their lives so far. 25,000 people were in the audience and word of mouth spread about their legendary set. Two years later… Woodstock! The rest is history!
Pete Townshend wasn’t into acid for much longer. He had a near death experience with acid when the Grateful Dead’s drug connection gave him and his girlfriend some acid and he was like never again, and became more spiritual. That might explain Tommy!
The Who listened to Sgt Pepper while on tour in the US and loved it. Pete Townshend was amazed with The Beatles’ use of the studio and got a lot of inspiration from it. Pete was an early adopter of having a home studio and encouraged Paul McCartney to build a home studio for himself. By this time, The Beatles were a studio band, not a touring band.
7. Herman’s Hermits + The Who???
An odd pairing for a tour, about as odd as when Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees. The audience demographics for each act were totally different. Teens and tweens listened to the softer, more sunshine poppy sounds of Herman’s Hermits and The Monkees. Older teens and university students were more into The Who and Jimi Hendrix. I’m sure the kids who saw The Who on tour with Herman’s Hermits were either scarred or found their new favourites. Not sure.
8. Pete called “I Can See For Miles” his best song he’s ever written
Roger Daltrey called out people who said Keith Moon’s drumming is sloppy and said that they’re wrong, Keith Moon wasn’t a sloppy drummer, he was one of a kind and felt the beat differently from everyone else. The Who aren’t like other rock bands!
Pete said this about the album’s big hit: “Best song I’ve ever written, I think”. He called it aspirational because it’s about not worrying about society and establishment and whether one needs to follow the trends. Seeing for miles is seeing into the future.
The Who famously played the song on The Smothers Brothers and the song was bigger in the US than back home. When Pete Townshend saw that the song “only” reached #9, he was livid and insulted the record buying public in the UK.
9. The Who tried to sell “air time” on the album to companies and even succeeded at times!
When a band name drops a brand, it’s usually free advertising and in The Who’s case it was in the end, but they did try to “sell out” and make sponsored adverts. You lose every shot you don’t take, right? They contacted Coca Cola, but they said no, but they made a Coke jingle anyway because they found the idea fun and recorded that mock advert and a bunch more. Keith got lucky and Premier Drums agreed to sponsor him and The Who and they recorded an advert for them on the album. John got an endorsement deal with Rotosound Strings, which was lifelong – he didn’t use any other strings, and recorded a little advert for them too. These adverts were clever and catchy!
You might say The Who were OG influencers! Move over Kim K!
10. The photoshoot took the advertising one step forward
Why stop at audio? Why not make the advertising and ‘sell out’ theme visual and lampoon advertising and consumerism? And so The Who did a print advertisement themed album cover. Roger got the short end of the stick though and poor planning meant that he was sitting in a bathtub full of cold baked beans. They warmed up the bathtub, but it was very uncomfortable with one end being hot and the other being cold. Too little too late for Roger, he ended up falling ill after that photoshoot. But I guess it’s something you can laugh at now that it happened 50+ years ago.
Now it’s your turn, what did you think of The Who Sell Out and this documentary, if you’ve seen it? Come to a different conclusion? Have any thoughts you want to share? Have your say in the comments section below!
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