While subsequent masterpieces from The Who- Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia– were and remain representatives of the golden age of guitarist, singer and songwriter Pete Townshend’s conceptual intentions, Sell Out receded, somewhat unfairly, into their long shadow. At the time of its 1967 release, it was hailed by pop critics as the band’s best album, and still, over five decades later, it retains a lofty perch. Though now, that spot on the shelf is as much for being a harbinger of Townshend’s growth as an artist as it is as a stand-alone piece. Without Sell Out, it should be noted, there may have never been a Tommy; the closing “Rael” notably foreshadows Tommy’s “Overture.”
Does this warrant an examination the scope of a super deluxe edition that includes 112 tracks, including both mono and stereo versions of the original (whose 13 tracks had a running time of a mere 40 minutes)? Townshend, himself, begins his liner notes essay with a dash of incredulity regarding the amount of “extra” excavated from the sessions; not all of which he admits he’s heard recently. Still, the optimist’s answer to the question is yes, drawing the proper conclusion that the band’s imaginative and fertile creativity during this era requires such a deep drilling.
And as much as these deluxe dives into every corner can overwhelm, they can also reveal and document. Not only do these multi-disc editions offer the best way to hear the original, remastered meticulously by Jon Astley, they illustrate the period of time in ways that simple dates, notated locations, or Pete’s articulate recollections can’t. Even Townshend’s contextualizing- citing Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd, LSD, and his “stupendously, absurdly pretty girlfriend” as influential markers- cannot do what the colorfully daring and sonically provocative music does in three-minute chunks.
The basic premise of Sell Out was to mimic the experience of tuning into pirate radio stations in and around London in the late ‘60s. The Who surrounded legitimate psychedelic rock with legitimately sounding fake adverts, packaged within outlandish and unforgettable cover art; leaving singer Roger Daltrey with pneumonia after sitting in a tub of cold baked beans. The feast was a baker’s dozen of vignettes; winking at skilled services on “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand” and scoring the immortally trippy classic, “I Can See For Miles,” interspersed with nods to deodorant and acne cream.
If Sell Out was one’s grail, the five-disc super deluxe edition is the one to get. It’s bursting with collateral joys: posters, inserts, and memorabilia, plus a hardback book. Not to mention a trove of demos and unreleased tracks. The mildly curious will be just as content with the two-disc set; the stereo and mono mixes have slightly different running times; invitations to aural Sherlocks to detect the differences. The last word, and maybe the most telling way to summarize the oddity and fun and momentous place in The Who’s catalog that Sell Out occupies is left, again, to Townshend: “We were hoping to get free Jaguars. We got fifty free tins of baked beans.”