Right up front, I would concede, in point of fact, that my headline for this post may be debatable given “The Who”‘s activities of the past decade or so. Following the substance-and-alcohol-related deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1978, and more recently, bassist John Entwistle in 2002, the surviving twosome of guitarist and principal songwriter Pete Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey have soldiered on stubbornly as “The Who.” Which, of course, is far more marketable and profitable than going out on the road billed as Daltrey and Townsend. True, the band does feature a couple of longtime sidemen (if you can call drummer Zak Starkey — yes, he’s the son of THAT Starkey– a sideman), and touring veteran keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick. But the Who, like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, were really about the alchemical interdependence of four distinct personalities and four essential musicians.
When we all think of The Who and play their music, we’re celebrating the work of those four distinct members who, during the course of their lives together as an intact unit, took immense pride in making highly original, high-grade rock music at every level, both from ground up and top down. And that’s what this post is about. So, with that in mind, let’s proceed. This December marks the anniversary of the U.S. release of The Who’s “Sell Out,” one of rock’s earliest and greatest “concept” albums. The LP was like nothing that had come before (or has really been heard since): an album that simultaneously satirized and paid tribute to the pirate radio stations that broadcast offshore in the UK to give listeners an alternative to the narrowly defined playlists and choices presented by the stodgy British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC).
The LP also featured one of the coolest album covers ever: the band hawking products, much like the ersatz radio jingles interspersed amid the tracks on the record. In fact, as a point of trivia, Daltrey — I was going to say frontman Daltrey before before I realized that the Who had three of ’em — actually caught pneumonia from sitting in that Heinz Baked Beans-filled bathtub during the photo shoot for the LP cover. Nobody, apparently, had fully thawed out previously frozen, still chilly, beans. (Hmm, old Seinfeld reference alert: talk about shrinkage, like a frightened turtle)!
Below is the complete, uncut clip of The Who on the Smothers Brothers TV show right around the time they released “Sell Out.” They really hadn’t broken in America yet, save for a few scattered singles such as “My Generation” (my pick as being among the top five defining rock & roll singles of all-time), “Can’t Explain” and “I Can See For Miles,” the latter from the “Sell Out” record. Believe it or not, “Miles” was the only Who song to ever crack the Top Ten in the U.S. Even so, singer-guitarist-principal songwriter Pete Townshend has stated he was crushed and heartbroken when “Miles” failed to reach Number One in America. He felt he had failed, having worked tirelessly and obsessively on a tune that he believed was the best he had ever written — or would ever write. Little did he know about the “blind, deaf, and dumb boy” — or, better yet, the bleedin’ Quadrophonic Mod Jimmy — waiting in the wings.
Still, more than a year before their bona fide landmark breakthrough, “Tommy,” and their break-of-dawn appearance at Woodstock changed their fortunes (and, to some degree, rock music itself) forever in 1969, it was the band’s incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that summer of ’67 — where The Who and Jimi Hendrix allegedly debated about which act should follow the other and close the festival — that finally got The Who noticed as something special.
For me, much like the prolific golden periods of Bob Dylan (1964-66), Rolling Stones (1968-72), and the Beatles (um, every year), “Sell Out” began a five-year streak of pretty perfect records from The Who. They would follow with “Tommy,” of course; the magnificent live document, “Live At Leeds” (1970) that captured the staggering power of perhaps rock’s greatest on-stage force; 1971’s “Who’s Next,” which features an album’s worth of FM radio classics and stapes of the last 40 years; and 1973’s “Quadrophenia,” to my mind their greatest and most ambitious artistic achievement; rock album as autobiography and aural film.
But The Who as a band capable of great visual, musical, and conceptual depth begins with “Sell Out” at the end of the Summer Of Love in 1967. To this day, nothing else sounds like it (although Guided By Voices have tried valiantly), just like nothing else sounds like the Who. You can say that about all the truly great rock bands (perhaps the Velvet Underground are an exception, since they spawned so many imitators, and a whole sub-genre of sound unto itself).
Fans of the stupendous 1979 Who documentary “The Kids Are Alright” will recognize the iconic “My Generation” performance that opened that film (if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend doing so immediately!). Here it is presented live, along with “I Can See For Miles” (lip synched with canned music), along with the pre-and-post performance intros and quips from the band and Tommy Smothers, who tells his audience that he saw them at Monterey and was floored. A feat which Keith Moon accomplishes singlehandedly here, I might add. (I’ve never quite figured out what was up between a scowling and petulant Roger Daltrey and a wary or mildly dismissive Tommy…check it out for yourself).