The Who, “The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Edition”

The Who
The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Edition
UME/POLYDOR
8/10

As the immediate precursor to 1969’s epic Tommy, you could paint a portrait of a songwriter—The Who‘s Peter Townshend—testing the waters of serial conceptualizing (please refrain from the dreaded “rock opera” term) with The Who Sell Out and its interlacing, intertwining not-so-tall tales. Dedicated as it is to the joys and allure of Britain’s ferocious pirate radio station scene, complete with faux jingles and anti-commercials linking the songs together, Townshend’s sense of connectivity (and human connection) is more about the spirit of the thing, the vibe, its intimacy, rather than, say, focusing on one final destination. 

Here, the end is a wonky way through to its means—and, now, in all of its  original storied glory with 46 previously unreleased tunes (112 songs in total, flush with Townshend’s demos, studio outtakes, and early takes) across five CDs, with two very cool, Op-to-Pop looking 7-inch singles for keen design points. Per the band’s dictate, Sell Out is the sodding Mod quartet’s most genuinely humorous album—not much of a stretch, really, considering the black humor of bassist John Entwhistle, manic panicked drummer Keith Moon, and the rough-hewn Roger Daltrey. How do you write a forlorn love ballad that doubles as an advert for deodorant? Try “Odorono” and a demo version of “Kids? Do You Want Kids?”

That giddy half-a-storyline wasn’t quite apparent from the original version of the 1967 album as—well, on vinyl, at least—it was broken into two halves, with much of Townshend’s intended sequiturs and non-sequiturs missing. Now, overstuffed and unified, The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Edition has all the freneticism of its initial ideal whole allowing the mini-operatic “Rael” and its pre-Tommy-like tunes to bubble up to the top.

Beyond that, however, The Who Sell Out is just a collection of Townshend’s most gleefully pop-psychedelic songs. Name another nearly spiritual anthem that elevates quite like “I Can’t Reach You,” or “Faith in Something Bigger,” or the little-heard B-side “Someone’s Coming” (at least until Townshend wrote music dedicated to his own gods and the Meher Baba on Who’s Next) or lifts as deliriously and contagiously as “I Can See for Miles” does with Daltrey at his absolute breathiest and most breathtaking. Alternate versions of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” an acoustic “Sunrise,” and the rumbling “Tattoo” show off Townshend enveloping his vulnerability and developing his lyrical craft with an eye toward introspection. “Armenia City in the Sky” and “Relax” allow Moon and Entwhistle to muscle into the mix with their stormiest, most propulsive efforts.

And just for good measure, the reissue’s vision includes more of the funny jingles and mock commercials for baked beans left on the cutting room floor, as well as an early version of Townshend’s dreamily high-pitched  “Pictures of Lily,” the legendary unreleased “Facts of Life” (actually the backing track for “Birds and Bees”), and an entire disc of 1968 cuts, titled The Road to Tommy, featuring everything from a  just-found version of the jangly communal “Magic Bus” and the aptly titled likes of “Call Me Lightning” and “Melancholia.” Iconic in its 1967 release, this completest take on The Who Sell Out is as tall and towering as the tales it tells, and worth its wait/weight.

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